Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist pastor in Alabama, who when faced with the racial injustices of his time used non-violent means to improve the civil rights of African Americans. In 1964, Dr. King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means.

Michael King was born in Atlanta Georgia on Jan. 15, 1929, one of the three children of Michael  King Sr., the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta King, a former schoolteacher. Originally both he and his father were named Michael, but his father soon changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther when the younger King was about six years old. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. Following his father and grandfather's tradition King received a B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished black college in Atlanta. Martin Luther King Jr. continued his education with three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. King used a work study grant and completed graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955.

It was in Boston that Dr. King met his wife Coretta Scott. Dr. King was drawn to her beauty, her lovely voice and her dedication to the civil rights movement. Coretta and Martin married on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents' house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama in a ceremony performed by Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. In September of 1954, after Coretta completed her degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory, the newlyweds moved to Montgomery Alabama, where they had four children together. Coretta Scott King played an extremely important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin wrote of her that, "I am indebted to my wife Coretta, without whose love, sacrifices, and loyalty neither life nor work would bring fulfillment. She has given me words of consolation when I needed them and a well-ordered home where Christian love is a reality." However, Martin and Coretta did conflict over her public role in the movement. Martin wanted Coretta to focus on raising their four children, while Coretta wanted to take a more public leadership role. Married and settled in Montgomery, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Both Dr. King and his wife were already strong advocates in the civil rights movement, and Dr. King was a member of the executive committee of the NAACP.

The first defining moments for Martin Luther King as a national civil right leader came quickly with the Montgomery bus boycott. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, the first row that blacks could occupy. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites, and one white man was left standing. According to law, blacks and whites could not occupy the same row, so the bus driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three complied, but Parks refused and was arrested. A meeting was held at Dr. King's church to come up with a peaceful plan to protest the southern segregation laws relegating blacks to second class citizens. A plan was developed where African Americans in Montgomery would unite, refusing to use the buses until laws were changed. On December 5th the boycott began and almost all the area's black population boycotted the buses, successfully hurting the bus system financially, while making their point all the way to the White House. Angry whites fought back, arresting car poolers for picking up hitchhikers and harassing African Americans on the street. On January 30, 1956 Dr. King's home was bombed but fortunately his wife and their baby daughter escaped without injury. Continuing for 381 days, Martin Luther King guided the protestors to remain non-violent, stating "We must learn to hate with love". Finally on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court stepped in and declared the Alabama bus laws illegal. On December 20th federal injunctions were served on the city and bus company officials forcing them to follow the Supreme Court's ruling. The following morning, December 21, 1956, Dr. King and Rev. Glen Smiley, a white minister, shared the front seat of a public bus.

In 1957, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform. Martin Luther King led the SCLC until his death. Combining his training as a pastor and his studies of peaceful protest by Gandhi, Dr. King was known for his impassioned speeches and letters. King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that the Civil Rights Movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.

Another pivotal moment in Dr. Martin Luther King's fight for civil rights was the famous march on Washington and his "I Have A Dream Speech" which followed. The march was organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations, under the theme "jobs, and freedom."  Many of the marchers used the slogan, "Free, We'll be Free by 1963." The March on Washington was not universally supported among African-Americans. Some civil rights activists were concerned that it might turn violent, which could undermine pending legislation and damage the international image of the movement. The march was condemned by Malcolm X, spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who termed it the "farce on Washington", but it is widely credited with helping to pass both the Civil Rights Act and the National Voting Rights Act.

On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King gave his famous "I've got a Dream" speech. The 17 minute speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. According to U.S. Representative John Lewis, who also spoke that day, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations." In the wake of the speech and march, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Marches, rallies, and non-violent protests became the standard for Dr. King and the civil rights leaders. Dr. King also worked to end the Viet Nam War and to aid the impoverished blacks, and unfair labor laws. One of the most famous marches was the march from Selma to Montgomery. The first attempt for the march to Montgomery was scheduled for march 7, 1965. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights was three weeks, and three events, that represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. After only  six blocks  state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back to Selma. Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a "symbolic" march to the bridge. Then civil rights leaders sought and were granted court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. On Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on March 25, they were 25,000-strong. Just a few months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black sanitary public works employees. On April 3, King addressed a rally and delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple. Dr. King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where he and his entourage stayed so often it was known as the "King-Abernathy suite." At 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King stood on the motel's second floor balcony. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital at 7:05 p.m.

The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy gave a short speech to a gathering of supporters informing them of the tragedy and urging them to continue King's ideal of non-violence. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended King's funeral on behalf of the President, as there were fears that Johnson's presence might incite protests and perhaps violence.

Despite the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's. non-violent approach was often met with violence, terrorism, and even murder, he was always an advocate of peaceful resistance. Without the wise words from Dr. King the civil rights movement may have taken an even more violent turn, thus taking much longer for the Jim Crow laws and voter disenfranchisement to be changed. Because Martin Luther King had a dream, we as a nation can still look forward in time to the day when true equality exists.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the Civil Rights leaders in Black history in the United States

The begining - Early Activists

After the Civil War blacks suffered greatly in the South. African Americans became targets for enraged white southerners. Lynchings killed hundreds of blacks every year.

Alabama Leaders

In the spring of 1963 civil rights leaders turned to Birmingham Alabama, calling it the most segregated city in America.

Journalists & Authors

"The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn't been for the news media," said Rep. John Lewis.

Islam Leaders

The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in July 1930.

Mississippi Leaders

Only 37 years old, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson on June 12, 1963.

Lawyers & Polticians

Living in large inner cities allowed African Americans to be part of a large extended culture. It also gave them a large voting block when they were finally able to vote without harassment.


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