Photo: Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer / Public domain
Born: January 15, 1929
Born Place: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Famous speech: I Have a Dream
Assassinated: April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Cause of Death: Assassination (gunshot wound)
Spouse: Coretta Scott (m. 1953)
- Morehouse College (BA)
- Crozer Theological Seminary (BDiv)
- Boston University (PhD)
Known for: Civil rights movement, Peace movement
Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr.; January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an African American minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the SCLC, he then led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered him a radical and made him an object of the FBI’s COINTELPRO from 1963 on. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital liaisons and reported on them to government officials, and, in 1964, mailed King a threatening anonymous letter, which he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide.
King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Allegations that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, had been framed or acted in concert with government agents persisted for decades after the shooting.
King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971; the holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington was rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
King was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, the second of three children to the Reverend Michael King Sr. and Alberta King (née Williams). King’s mother named him Michael, which was entered onto the birth certificate by the attending physician. King Sr. stated that “Michael” was a mistake by the physician. King’s older sister is Christine King Farris and his younger brother was A.D. King. King’s maternal grandfather Adam Daniel Williams, who was a minister in rural Georgia, moved to Atlanta in 1893, and became pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the following year. Williams was of African-Irish descent. Williams married Jennie Celeste Parks, who gave birth to King’s mother, Alberta. King’s father was born to sharecroppers, James Albert and Delia King of Stockbridge, Georgia. In his adolescent years, King Sr. left his parents’ farm and walked to Atlanta where he attained a high school education. King Sr. then enrolled in Morehouse College and studied to enter the ministry. King Sr. and Alberta began dating in 1920, and married on November 25, 1926. Until Jennie’s death in 1941, they lived together on the second floor of her parent’s two story Victorian house, where King was born.
Shortly after marrying Alberta, King Sr. became assistant pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Adam Daniel Williams died of a stroke in the spring of 1931. That fall, King’s father took over the role of pastor at the church, where he would in time raise the attendance from six hundred to several thousand. In 1934, the church sent King Sr. on a multinational trip to Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, then Berlin for the meeting of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). The trip ended with visits to sites in Berlin associated with the Protestant reformation leader, Martin Luther. While there, Michael King Sr. witnessed the rise of Nazism. In reaction, the BWA conference issued a resolution which stated, “This Congress deplores and condemns as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.” He returned home in August 1934, and in that same year began referring to himself as Martin Luther King Sr., and his son as Martin Luther King Jr. King’s birth certificate was altered to read “Martin Luther King Jr.” on July 23, 1957, when he was 28 years old.
At his childhood home, King and his two siblings would read aloud Biblical scripture as instructed by their father. After dinners there, King’s grandmother Jennie, who he affectionately referred to as “Mama”, would tell lively stories from the Bible to her grandchildren. King’s father would regularly use whippings to discipline his children. At times, King Sr. would also have his children whip each other. King’s father later remarked, “[King] was the most peculiar child whenever you whipped him. He’d stand there, and the tears would run down, and he’d never cry.” Once when King witnessed his brother A.D. emotionally upset his sister Christine, he took a telephone and knocked out A.D. with it. When he and his brother were playing at their home, A.D. slid from a banister and hit into their grandmother, Jennie, causing her to fall down unresponsive. King, believing her dead, blamed himself and attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window. Upon hearing that his grandmother was alive, King rose and left the ground where he had fallen.
King became friends with a white boy whose father owned a business across the street from his family’s home. In September 1935, when the boys were about six years old, they started school. King had to attend a school for black children, Younge Street Elementary School, while his close playmate went to a separate school for white children only. Soon afterwards, the parents of the white boy stopped allowing King to play with their son, stating to him “we are white, and you are colored”. When King relayed the happenings to his parents, they had a long discussion with him about the history of slavery and racism in America. Upon learning of the hatred, violence and oppression that black people had faced in the U.S., King would later state that he was “determined to hate every white person”. His parents instructed him that it was his Christian duty to love everyone.
King witnessed his father stand up against segregation and various forms of discrimination. Once, when stopped by a police officer who referred to King Sr. as “boy”, King’s father responded sharply that King was a boy but he was a man. When King’s father took him into a shoe store in downtown Atlanta, the clerk told them they needed to sit in the back. King’s father refused, stating “we’ll either buy shoes sitting here or we won’t buy any shoes at all”, before taking King and leaving the store. He told King afterwards, “I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.” In 1936, King’s father led hundreds of African-Americans in a civil rights march to the city hall in Atlanta, to protest voting rights discrimination. King later remarked that King Sr. was “a real father” to him.
King memorized and sang hymns, and stated verses from the Bible, by the time he was five years old. Over the next year, he began to go to church events with his mother and sing hymns while she played piano. His favorite hymn to sing was “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus”; he moved attendees with his singing. King later became a member of the junior choir in his church. King enjoyed opera, and played the piano. As he grew up, King garnered a large vocabulary from reading dictionaries and consistently used his expanding lexicon. He got into physical altercations with boys in his neighborhood, but oftentimes used his knowledge of words to stymie fights. King showed a lack of interest in grammar and spelling, a trait which he carried throughout his life. In 1939, King sang as a member of his church choir in slave costume, for the all-white audience at the Atlanta premiere of the film Gone with the Wind.
On May 18, 1941, when King had snuck away from studying at home to watch a parade, King was informed that something had happened to his maternal grandmother. Upon returning home, he found out that she had suffered a heart attack and died while being transported to a hospital. He took the death very hard, and believed that his deception of going to see the parade may have been responsible for God taking her. King jumped out of a second-story window at his home, but again survived an attempt to kill himself. His father instructed him in his bedroom that King shouldn’t blame himself for her death, and that she had been called home to God as part of God’s plan which could not be changed. King struggled with this, and could not fully believe that his parents knew where his grandmother had gone. Shortly thereafter, King’s father decided to move the family to a two-story brick home on a hill that overlooked downtown Atlanta.
AWARDS AND RECOGNITIONS
King was awarded at least fifty honorary degrees from colleges and universities. On October 14, 1964, King became the (at the time) youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in the U.S. In 1965, he was awarded the American Liberties Medallion by the American Jewish Committee for his “exceptional advancement of the principles of human liberty.” In his acceptance remarks, King said, “Freedom is one thing. You have it all or you are not free.”
In 1957, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. Two years later, he won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. In 1966, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America awarded King the Margaret Sanger Award for “his courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity.” Also in 1966, King was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In November 1967 he made a 24-hour trip to the United Kingdom to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University, being the first African-American to be so honoured by Newcastle. In a moving impromptu acceptance speech, he said
There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war.
In addition to being nominated for three Grammy Awards, the civil rights leader posthumously won for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1971 for “Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam”.
In 1977, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was posthumously awarded to King by President Jimmy Carter. The citation read:
Martin Luther King Jr. was the conscience of his generation. He gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to fulfill the promises of our founding fathers for our humblest citizens, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream for America. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet.
King and his wife were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
King was second in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In 1963, he was named Time Person of the Year, and in 2000, he was voted sixth in an online “Person of the Century” poll by the same magazine. King placed third in the Greatest American contest conducted by the Discovery Channel and AOL.
On April 20, 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that the $5, $10, and $20 bills would all undergo redesign prior to 2020. Lew said that while Lincoln would remain on the front of the $5 bill, the reverse would be redesigned to depict various historical events that had occurred at the Lincoln Memorial. Among the planned designs are images from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1939 concert by opera singer Marian Anderson.
- Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) ISBN 978-0-06-250490-6
- The Measure of a Man (1959) ISBN 978-0-8006-0877-4
- Strength to Love (1963) ISBN 978-0-8006-9740-2
- Why We Can’t Wait (1964) ISBN 978-0-8070-0112-7
- Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) ISBN 978-0-8070-0571-2
- The Trumpet of Conscience (1968) ISBN 978-0-8070-0170-7
- A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (1986) ISBN 978-0-06-250931-4
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (1998), ed. Clayborne Carson ISBN 978-0-446-67650-2
- “All Labor Has Dignity” (2011) ed. Michael Honey ISBN 978-0-8070-8600-1
- “Thou, Dear God”: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits Collection of King’s prayers. (2011), ed. Lewis Baldwin ISBN 978-0-8070-8603-2
- MLK: A Celebration in Word and Image Photographed by Bob Adelman, introduced by Charles Johnson ISBN 978-0-8070-0316-9