Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who had a seismic effect on race relations in the United States in the mid-1950s.
Among his many efforts, King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Through his activism and motivational speeches, he was instrumental in ending the legal segregation of African American citizens in the United States, as well as in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, along with several other honors. He is remembered as one of the most influential and inspirational African American leaders in history.
Born as Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the child between Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King.
The King and Williams families had their roots in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.’s grandfather, Eddie Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893.
He took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church with about 13 members and turned it into a strong congregation. He married Jenny Celeste Parks and was survived by one child, Alberta.
Martin Sr. comes from a family of sharecroppers in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after a courtship of eight years. The newlyweds moved to Eddie’s house in Atlanta.
Martin Sr. stepped down as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He also became a successful minister and adopted the name Martin Luther King Sr., in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due course, Michael Jr. will follow his father’s lead and adopt the name himself.
King had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. Raja’s children grew up in a safe and loving environment. Martin Sr. was more disciplinarian, while his wife’s gentleness easily balanced the father’s stern hand.
Although they undoubtedly tried, King’s parents could not completely shield him from racism. Martin Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not only because his race suffered, but because he saw racism and segregation as an insult to God’s will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, King attended public school at the age of five. He was baptized in May 1936, but the event had little effect on him.
In May 1941, King was 12 years old when his grandmother, Jenny, died of a heart attack. The incident was traumatic for the king, and also because he was watching the parade against his parents’ wishes when he died. Distraught by the news, the young Raja allegedly attempted suicide by jumping from the second floor window of the family home.
King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was called a precocious student. He skipped both ninth and eleventh grades, and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944 at the age of 15. He was a popular student, especially with his female classmates, but an unmotivated student who swam during his first two years.
Although his family was deeply involved in church and worship, King questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship. This restlessness continued through most of his teen years, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, which was very disappointing to his father.
But in his junior year, King took a Bible class, renewed his faith, and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision.
Education and Spiritual Development
In 1948, King earned a sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Kroeger Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He thrived in all his studies, and was valedictorian of his class in 1951, and was elected president of the student body. He also earned a fellowship for graduate studies.
But King rebelled against his father’s more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool while in college. He got involved with a white woman and went through a rough time before he could break up.
During his final year at the seminary, King Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mace, who influenced King’s spiritual development. Mays was a vocal supporter of racial equality and encouraged King to see Christianity as a potential force for social change. After being accepted into several colleges for his doctoral studies, King enrolled at Boston University.
While working on his doctorate, King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory School in Boston. They were married in June 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott and Bernice.
In 1954, while working on his dissertation, King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He did his Ph.D. and earned his degree in 1955. King was only 25 years old.
Montgomery bus boycott
On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus, in violation of local law. Teenager Claudette Colvin is then arrested and taken to prison.
First, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case for challenging Montgomery’s segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that Colvin was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared it would discredit the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group’s efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic white people.
On 1 December 1955, he got another chance to present his side. That evening, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home after a long day of exhaustion. She was sitting in the first row of the “colour” section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats in the white section were filled, then several more white passengers boarded the bus.
The bus driver noted that there were several white people standing there and demanded that Park and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly left their places, but the park remained seated.
The driver again asked him to leave his seat and he again refused. Parks was arrested and charged with violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed a $4 court fee.
The night that Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, the head of the local NAACP chapter, met with King and other local civil rights leaders to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was chosen to lead the boycott because he was young, well trained with solid family ties and in professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt that he would have strong credibility with the black community.
In his first speech as group president, King declared, “We have no choice but to protest. Over the years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes made our white brothers feel that way. That we liked the way we were being treated. But we’re here tonight to escape the patience that makes us tolerate anything less than freedom and justice.”
King’s skilful rhetoric fueled the civil rights struggle in Alabama. The bus boycott included 382 days of harassment, violence, and bullying at work for Montgomery’s African American community. The homes of both the Kings and Nixon were attacked.
But the African American community also took legal action against the city’s ordinance, arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s “separately not equal” decision in Brown v. After losing several lower court decisions and suffering major financial losses, the city of Montgomery pulled out a law mandating separate public transportation.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
With the victory, African American civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts. In January 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to harness the moral authority and organized power of black churches. They will help organize nonviolent protests to promote civil rights reform.
King’s involvement in the organization gave him a base of operations throughout the South, as well as a national platform. The organization felt that the best place to start in giving African Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February 1958, the SCLC sponsored more than 20 mass gatherings in major Southern cities to register black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and gave lectures on race-related issues across the country.
In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success with nonviolent activism, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India. The visit affected him deeply, increasing his commitment to America’s civil rights struggle.
African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi’s teachings, became one of King’s associates and advised him to devote himself to the principles of nonviolence. Rustin served as King’s mentor and advisor during his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
But Rustin was also a controversial figure at the time, a homosexual with alleged ties to the Communist Party. Although his advice was invaluable to the king, many of his other supporters urged him to distance himself from Rustin.
In February 1960, a group of African American students in North Carolina started a campaign known as the Greensboro sit-in movement.
Students will sit at a racially segregated lunch counter in a city store. When they are asked to leave or sit in the colored section, they simply remain seated, subjecting themselves to verbal and sometimes physical abuse.
The movement quickly gained traction in many other cities. In April 1960, the SCLC held a conference with local sit-in leaders at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. King encouraged students to continue using nonviolent methods during their protests.
From this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed and worked closely with the SCLC for some time. By August of 1960, sit-ins at lunch counters in 27 southern cities had been successful in ending segregation.
By 1960, King was gaining national recognition. He returned to Atlanta to become a co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, but also continued his civil rights efforts.
On October 19, 1960, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service, but were refused. When they refused to leave the counter area, Raja and 36 others were arrested.
Realizing that the incident would hurt the city’s reputation, the mayor of Atlanta reached a settlement and the charges were eventually dropped. But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction.
News of his imprisonment entered the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King. Kennedy expressed his concern for King’s harsh treatment for traffic tickets, and political pressure quickly came into motion. The king was soon released.
letter from birmingham jail
In the spring of 1963, King organized a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. With the entire family in attendance, the city police fired dogs and fireballs at the protesters.
King was imprisoned along with a large number of his supporters, but the incident attracted nationwide attention. However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who took part in the demonstration.
In his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, King explicitly stated his principle of nonviolence: “Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and fosters such tension that a community, which has consistently refused to negotiate.” Has done, is forced to face the issue.”
‘I have a dream’ speech
By the end of the Birmingham campaign, King and his supporters were planning a mass demonstration in the nation’s capital consisting of several organizations, all calling for peaceful change.
On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people into the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. / “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963
The rising tide of the civil rights movement exerted a strong influence on public opinion. Many people in cities that did not experience racial tension began to question the country’s Jim Crow laws and centenary of second-class treatment of African American citizens.
Nobel Peace Prize
This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which authorized the federal government to enforce the segregation of public housing and outlaw discrimination in publicly owned facilities. Due to this, King also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King’s struggle continued into the 1960s. It often seemed that the pattern of progress was two steps forward and one step back.
On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march was planned from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, which turned violent as police met protesters with nightsticks and tear gas as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Were were
King was not in the march, however, the attack was televised, showing horrific images of marchers covered in blood and seriously wounded. Seventeen protesters were hospitalized in a day that would be called “Bloody Sunday”.
The second march was canceled due to a restraining order preventing the march from taking place. A third march was planned and this time the king made sure he was part of it. Not wanting to alienate Southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different approach was taken.
On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out to once again cross the Pettus Bridge and encounter barricades and state troops. Instead of forcing a confrontation, the king exhorted his followers to kneel in prayer and they returned.
Alabama Governor George Wallace continued to try to block another march until President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged his support and ordered US Army troops and the Alabama National Guard to protect the protesters.
On March 21, about 2,000 people began a march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. On March 25, the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the State Capitol, where King gave a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
From late 1965 to 1967, King expanded his civil rights efforts to other large US cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. But he faced increasing criticism and public challenges from young Black Power leaders.
King’s patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants, who saw his methods as too weak, too late and ineffective.
To address this criticism, King began to draw a link between discrimination and poverty, and he began speaking out against the Vietnam War. He felt that US involvement in Vietnam was politically unstable and that the government’s conduct in the war was discriminatory against the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-racial alliance to address the economic and unemployment problems of all the underprivileged.
Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.?
By 1968, the effects of years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to show on King. He was tired of marching, going to prison and being in constant danger of death. He was becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of civil rights in America and increasing criticism from other African American leaders.
Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and draw attention to a wider range of issues. In the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis sweepers drew King to one final crusade.
On April 3, he gave his final and what proved to be a terrifying prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I can be yours. Don’t get there together. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will achieve the Promised Land.”
The next day, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a sniper while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. The shooter, a malicious drifter and former criminal named James Earl Ray, was eventually caught after a two-month international search.
The killing sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison on 23 April 1998.
King’s life had a seismic effect on race relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is the most widely known African American leader of his era.
His life and work have been named on national holidays, schools and public buildings named after him, and Washington, D.C. I have been honored with a memorial at the Independence Mall.
But his life also remains controversial. In the 1970s, FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that he was under government surveillance, and suggested his involvement in adulterous relationships and communist influences.
Over the years, extensive archival studies have produced a more balanced and comprehensive assessment of his life, portraying him as a complex figure: flawed, decadent and limited in his control over the mass movements with which he was associated, yet a Visionary leader who was committed to achieve social justice through non-violent means.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first celebrated in 1986, and was celebrated in all 50 states in 2000.