Martin Luther King, Jr.
The famed civil rights leader was born Michael King in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. After a trip to Europe and the Holy Land in 1934, Michael King, Sr. changed his own and his son’s names to Martin Luther. Young Martin Luther was born into a family of ministers and to a deeply religious mother. When a friendship was broken with a white playmate, Martin Luther King, Jr. began to realize the strict oppression he was subjected to in Atlanta.
At the age of 15, King entered Morehouse College. He had skipped twelfth grade and an earlier grade, which made him one of the youngest at the school. By 1944, when he entered college, King was frustrated at the racial and economic inequality surrounding him. After reading Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience, King “became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good” (Carson 14). At the age of 19, King graduated with a degree in sociology and was headed to the seminary. "My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something. On the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity" (Ibid., 13).
In 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA, searching for a way to make religion “intellectually respectable” (Carson 15). During this schooling, King was introduced to pacifism and the philosophy of Gandhi through a lecture by the president of Howard University. Afterwards, he devoured the Mahatma’s works, concluding that the Indian man brought Christian love to bear as a social force on a large scale. King graduated from the seminary in 1951.
Immediately after graduation, King enrolled in the Boston University School of Theology. During his stay, he clarified his own social philosophy into complete dedication to the doctrine of nonviolence. King also met singer Coretta Scott in Boston, a fellow seeker of peace, racial equality and economic justice. On June 18, 1953, the two were married and started a life in Boston until King’s graduation. In 1955, King received a doctorate in systematic theology.
King began searching for a job as a pastor, and settled on a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. The couple received a shock when they returned to the heavily segregated South after years of scholastic freedom. In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested, and the local ministries of Montgomery planned a citywide bus boycott. The boycott came to include almost total participation of the black community – a resounding success. The boycott was not to be called off until courteous and fair treatment was assured.
King and his compatriots were indicted in 1956 for leading an illegal boycott. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, bus segregation was declared unconstitutional and on December 21, 1956, King became one of the first passengers to ride desegregated busses. King’s home was bombed in January of 1957, as well as homes of other black citizens, although none of the members of King’s family were harmed. In the same year, he was appointed as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He continued to support desegregation, especially the integration of black high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In September 1958, in Harlem, King was stabbed by an insane black woman at a book signing. The wound was very serious, near his heart, but was mended with time. By February of 1959, King had recovered and he traveled to India with his family. He was welcomed in that country, and met with Prime Minister Nehru. He was touched by the horrible conditions caused by poverty and the low crime rate. “They were poor, jammed together, and half starved, but they did not take it out on one another” (Carson 125).
With his return to the United States, King chose to move his family to Atlanta, a better location to direct the SCLC. In 1960, school students began a lunch counter sit-in, demanding equal service. These sit-ins established integration in hundreds of communities. In October, 1960, King was arrested at a sit-in. Robert Kennedy petitioned Georgia’s governor to release King on bail, while John F. Kennedy offered his assistance to Coretta Scott King. King was released in late October, and praised Bobby Kennedy. JFK won a close election less than two weeks later, with strong black support.
In 1963, the Birmingham campaign began. The SCLC became involved when a police commissioner refused to give up his seat when a moderate on segregation was elected. King was arrested for protests in April and released the same month, only to have his motel and his brother’s home bombed in May. In June, Kennedy proposed new civil rights legislation, and the next day the leader of the NAACP was murdered. On August 28, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington D.C. Mall.
In 1964, civil rights protesters in Florida were arrested, and King pleaded for outside support, resulting in a bi-racial committee. The next month, King saw the Civil Rights Act signed. At the end of 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his exhaustive work toward the civil rights movement. King continued to travel the nation to those areas where his assistance was warranted, including Chicago and Los Angeles. By 1967, King was protesting the Vietnam War, encouraging negotiated settlements, not violence.
On April 3, 1968, King gave his last speech in Memphis, in which he seemed to anticipate his own death. In that speech, he said, "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. ...I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." The next day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel.
King’s philosophy of nonviolence moved America into a new era of race relations. Our nation is still working on equality, but we would never have made progress without the inspiration of this great man.
Carson, Clayborne, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Quotes from the Faculty:
"Martin Luther King Jr. The great historical issue that never goes away in America is race and Dr. King did more to change race relations in this nation (and the cause of human emancipation in general) than anyone else in the modern era. He is the most important American of the 20th century, and number two isn't close."
-- Dr. John Hunter
"I'd like someone to mention that
day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others
. . . I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the
hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe
the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to
visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to
love and serve humanity."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, final sermon (April 3, 1968)