Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr
Born: Jan 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA
Died: April 4, 1968 (at age 39) in Memphis, TN
Nationality: African-American
Famous For: Civil Rights Movement and the “I Have a Dream” speech
Awards: Nobel Peace Prize 1964, Presidential Medal of Freedom 1977

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American civil rights leader and activist. He was also a churchman as well as being a prominent member in the African-American community in the United States. King was an advocate of the use of civil disobedience to advance the cause of people of color, although he emphasized the importance of sticking to non-violent means.

He is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech, made in Washington, D.C., in 1963. King made a number of enemies because of his civil rights activism, and he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

King’s Early Life

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. His birth name was Michael, but he was renamed Martin after his Baptist minister father. After a conventional education as a child, he enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944. Here, he formed a close bond with a teacher, Benjamin Mays, and this helped to lead him to a career in the church.

King was ordained just before graduating in 1948. He then studied in Pennsylvania before undertaking postgraduate work at the School of Theology at Boston University. He qualified for his doctorate in 1955, having met his wife Coretta two years earlier.

Leadership in Ministry

In 1954, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here that Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to allow a white man to take her bus seat. This incident brought King to national attention, as he played a leading role in setting up an African-American boycott of the city’s buses.

He was seen as suitable for the leadership role both because of his advocacy of non-violent resistance and because he was not a native of the city, and so was not seen as a threat to any particular faction. King was taught by the renowned civil rights campaigner Bayard Rustin, and also took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.

Rising to National Prominence

King helped to set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and was elected its president. His job was to co-ordinate regional civil rights activities, but for several years he struggled to do this. For a time, it was wondered whether he had what it took to become a truly national leader.

It was only in 1963, with large-scale demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, that this feeling truly changed. King wrote a letter from jail, where he was being held for refusing to obey an anti-protest injunction. After his release, he encouraged young people to march for civil rights in the city. The authorities used dogs and batons, bringing global public opinion firmly on to King’s side.

King’s Leadership is Manifested

On August 28, the March on Washington saw a crowd of over 200,000 standing at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, he was named as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the same year, the Civil Rights Act was passed into law.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally safeguarded the franchise for African Americans. In 1966, King moved to Chicago to bring attention to northern urban poverty. However, discontent with his staunchly non-militant tactics was growing within the civil rights movement and his popularity suffered somewhat.

On April 3, 1968, as he was visiting Memphis to show support for striking workers, he was shot dead on the balcony of his hotel.