Born January 15, 1929, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.—died April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee) Baptist minister and social activist who led the civil rights movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. His leadership was fundamental to that movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the United States. King rose to national prominence through the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, promoting nonviolent tactics such as the massive March on Washington (1963) to achieve civil rights. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964.
King came from a comfortable middle-class family steeped in the tradition of the Southern black ministry: both his father and maternal grandfather were Baptist preachers. His parents were college-educated, and King’s father had succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The family lived on Auburn Avenue, otherwise known as “Sweet Auburn,” the bustling “black Wall Street,” home to some of the country’s largest and most prosperous black businesses and black churches in the years before the civil rights movement. Young Martin received a solid education and grew up in a loving extended family.
This secure upbringing, however, did not prevent King from experiencing the prejudices then common in the South. He never forgot the time, at about age six, when one of his white playmates announced that his parents would no longer allow him to play with King, because the children were now attending segregated schools. Dearest to King in these early years was his maternal grandmother, whose death in 1941 left him shaken and unstable. Upset because he had learned of her fatal heart attack while attending a parade without his parents’ permission, the 12-year-old Martin attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window.
In 1944, at age 15, King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta under a special wartime program intended to boost enrollment by admitting promising high-school students like King. Before beginning college, however, King spent the summer on a tobacco farm in Connecticut; it was his first extended stay away from home and his first substantial experience of race relations outside the segregated South. He was shocked by how peacefully the races mixed in the North. “Negroes and whites go [to] the same church,” he noted in a letter to his parents. “I never [thought] that a person of my race could eat anywhere.” This summer experience in the North only deepened young Martin’s growing hatred of racial segregation.
At Morehouse, King favoured studies in medicine and law, but these were eclipsed in his senior year by a decision to enter the ministry, as his father had urged. King’s mentor at Morehouse was the college president, Benjamin Mays, a social gospel activist whose rich oratory and progressive ideas had left an indelible imprint on King, Sr. Committed to fighting racial inequality, Mays accused the black community of complacency in the face of oppression, and he prodded the black church into social action by criticizing its emphasis on the hereafter instead of the here and now; it was a call to service that was not lost on the teenage Martin. King graduated from Morehouse in 1948.
King spent the next three years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he became acquainted with Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence as well as with the thought of contemporary Protestant theologians and earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1951. Renowned for his oratorical skills, King was elected president of Crozer’s student body, which was composed almost exclusively of white students. As a professor at Crozer wrote in a letter of recommendation for King, “The fact that with our student body largely Southern in constitution a colored man should be elected to and be popular [in] such a position is in itself no mean recommendation.” From Crozer, King went to Boston University, where, in seeking a firm foundation for his own theological and ethical inclinations, he studied man’s relationship to God and received a doctorate (1955) for a dissertation titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
The Montgomery bus boycott
While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a native Alabamian who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in 1953 and had four children. King had been pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, slightly more than a year when the city’s small group of civil rights advocates decided to contest racial segregation on that city’s public bus system. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, and as a consequence was arrested for violating the city’s segregation law. Activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the transit system and chose King as their leader. He had the advantage of being a young, well-trained man who was too new in town to have made enemies; he was generally respected, and his family connections and professional standing would enable him to find another pastorate should the boycott fail.br
In his first speech to the group as its president, King declared
We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
These words introduced to the nation a fresh voice, a skillful rhetoric, an inspiring personality, and in time a dynamic new doctrine of civil struggle. Although King’s home was dynamited and his family’s safety threatened, he continued to lead the boycott until, one year and a few weeks later, the city’s buses were desegregated.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Recognizing the need for a mass movement to capitalize on the successful Montgomery action, King set about organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform from which to speak. King lectured in all parts of the country and discussed race-related issues with civil-rights and religious leaders at home and abroad. In February 1959 he and his party were warmly received by India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; as the result of a brief discussion with followers of Gandhi about the Gandhian concepts of peaceful noncompliance (satyagraha), King became increasingly convinced that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. King also looked to Africa for inspiration. “The liberation struggle in Africa has been the greatest single international influence on American Negro students,” he wrote. “Frequently I hear them say that if their African brothers can break the bonds of colonialism, surely the American Negro can break Jim Crow.”
In 1960 King moved to his native city of Atlanta, where he became co-pastor with his father of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. At this post he devoted most of his time to the SCLC and the civil rights movement, declaring that the “psychological moment has come when a concentrated drive against injustice can bring great, tangible gains.” His thesis was soon tested as he agreed to support the sit-in demonstrations undertaken by local black college students. In late October he was arrested with 33 young people protesting segregation at the lunch counter in an Atlanta department store. Charges were dropped, but King was sentenced to Reidsville State Prison Farm on the pretext that he had violated his probation on a minor traffic offense committed several months earlier. The case assumed national proportions, with widespread concern over his safety, outrage at Georgia’s flouting of legal forms, and the failure of President Dwight Eisenhower to intervene. King was released only upon the intercession of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy—an action so widely publicized that it was felt to have contributed substantially to Kennedy’s slender election victory eight days later.
In the years from 1960 to 1965 King’s influence reached its zenith. Handsome, eloquent, and doggedly determined, King quickly caught the attention of the news media, particularly of the producers of that budding medium of social change—television. He understood the power of television to nationalize and internationalize the struggle for civil rights, and his well-publicized tactics of active nonviolence (sit-ins, protest marches) aroused the devoted allegiance of many blacks and liberal whites in all parts of the country, as well as support from the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. But there were also notable failures, as at Albany, Georgia (1961–62), when King and his colleagues failed to achieve their desegregation goals for public parks and other facilities.
The letter from the Birmingham jailbr
In Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, King’s campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and in hiring practices drew nationwide attention when police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. His supporters did not, however, include all the black clergy of Birmingham, and he was strongly opposed by some of the white clergy who had issued a statement urging African Americans not to support the demonstrations. From the Birmingham jail King wrote a letter of great eloquence in which he spelled out his philosophy of nonviolence:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
Near the end of the Birmingham campaign, in an effort to draw together the multiple forces for peaceful change and to dramatize to the nation and to the world the importance of solving the U.S. racial problem, King joined other civil rights leaders in organizing the historic March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, an interracial assembly of more than 200,000 gathered peaceably in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. Here the crowds were uplifted by the emotional strength and prophetic quality of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he emphasized his faith that all men, someday, would be brothers.
he rising tide of civil rights agitation produced, as King had hoped, a strong effect on national opinion and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment. That eventful year was climaxed by the award to King of the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo, Norway, in December. “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind,” said King in his acceptance speech. “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
Challenges of the final years
The first signs of opposition to King’s tactics from within the civil rights movement surfaced during the March 1965 demonstrations at Selma, Alabama, which were aimed at dramatizing the need for a federal voting-rights law that would provide legal support for the enfranchisement of African Americans in the South. King organized an initial march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery but did not lead it himself; the marchers were turned back by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas. He was determined to lead a second march, despite an injunction by a federal court and efforts from Washington to persuade him to cancel it. Heading a procession of 1,500 marchers, black and white, he set out across Pettus Bridge outside Selma until the group came to a barricade of state troopers. But, instead of going on and forcing a confrontation, he led his followers in kneeling in prayer and then unexpectedly turned back. This decision cost King the support of many young radicals who were already faulting him for being too cautious. The suspicion of an “arrangement” with federal and local authorities—vigorously but not entirely convincingly denied—clung to the Selma affair. The country was nevertheless aroused, resulting in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Throughout the nation, impatience with the lack of greater substantive progress encouraged the growth of black militancy. Especially in the slums of the large Northern cities, King’s religious philosophy of nonviolence was increasingly questioned. The rioting in the Watts district of Los Angeles (August 1965) demonstrated the depth of unrest among urban African Americans. In an effort to meet the challenge of the ghetto, King and his forces initiated a drive against racial discrimination in Chicago at the beginning of the following year. The chief target was to be segregation in housing. After a spring and summer of rallies, marches, and demonstrations, an agreement was signed between the city and a coalition of African Americans, liberals, and labour organizations, calling for various measures to enforce the existing laws and regulations with respect to housing. But this agreement was to have little effect; the impression remained that King’s Chicago campaign was nullified partly because of the opposition of that city’s powerful mayor, Richard J. Daley, and partly because of the unexpected complexities of Northern racism.
In Illinois and Mississippi alike, King was now being challenged and even publicly derided by young black-power enthusiasts. Whereas King stood for patience, middle-class respectability, and a measured approach to social change, the sharp-tongued, blue jean–clad young urban radicals stood for confrontation and immediate change. In the latter’s eyes, the suit-wearing, calm-spoken civil rights leader was irresponsibly passive and old beyond his years (though King was only in his 30s): more a member of the other side of the generation gap than their revolutionary leader. Malcolm X went so far as to call King’s tactics “criminal”: “Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.”
In the face of mounting criticism, King broadened his approach to include concerns other than racism. On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City and again on the 15th at a mammoth peace rally in that city, he committed himself irrevocably to opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Once before, in early January 1966, he had condemned the war, but official outrage from Washington and strenuous opposition within the black community itself had caused him to relent. He next sought to widen his base by forming a coalition of the poor of all races that would address itself to such economic problems as poverty and unemployment. It was a version of populism, seeking to enroll janitors, hospital workers, seasonal labourers, and the destitute of Appalachia, along with the student militants and pacifist intellectuals. His endeavours along these lines, however, did not engender much support in any segment of the population.
Meanwhile, the strain and changing dynamics of the civil rights movement had taken a toll on King, especially in the final months of his life. “I’m frankly tired of marching. I’m tired of going to jail,” he admitted in 1968. “Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged every now and then and feel my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”
King’s plans for a Poor People’s March to Washington were interrupted in the spring of 1968 by a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a strike by that city’s sanitation workers. In the opinion of many of his followers and biographers, King seemed to sense his end was near. As King prophetically told a crowd at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis on April 3, on the night before he died, “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.” The next day, while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he and his associates were staying, King was killed by a sniper’s bullet; the killing sparked riots and disturbances in over 100 cities across the country. On March 10, 1969, the accused white assassin, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Ray later recanted his confession, claiming lawyers had coerced him into confessing and that he was the victim of a conspiracy. In a surprising turn of events, members of the King family eventually came to Ray’s defense. King’s son Dexter met with the reputed assassin in March 1997 and then publicly joined Ray’s plea for a reopening of his case. When Ray died on April 23, 1998, Coretta King declared, “America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination…as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray’s innocence.” Although the U.S. government conducted several investigations into the murder of King and each time concluded that Ray was the sole assassin, the killing remains a matter of controversy.
Posthumous reputation and legacy
King ranks among the most analyzed men in American history. As with the study of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, there is an exhaustive range of perspectives on the man and his legacy, many of them still evolving as new information about his life becomes available. What is clear today, decades after his death, is that King’s extraordinary influence has hardly waned and that his life, thought, and character were more complex than biographers initially realized or portrayed. His chapter in history is further proof of the maxim that martyred heroes never really die—they live on in memories, collectively and individually, and their legacies take on a life of their own.
King became an object of international homage after his death. Schools, roads, and buildings throughout the United States were named after him in the 1970s and ’80s, and the U.S. Congress voted to observe a national holiday in his honour, beginning in 1986, on the third Monday of January. In 1991 the Lorraine Motel where King was shot became the National Civil Rights Museum. In July 1998 a sculpture of King was unveiled over the door to the west front of Westminster Abbey in London, an area of honour reserved for 20th-century “victims of the struggle for human rights.” And in December 1999 the U.S. National Capital Planning Commission approved a site in the Tidal Basin of Washington, D.C., for a Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial, the first time in American history that a private individual has been accorded such distinction.
With many of these tributes, however, came controversy and sometimes heated debate. Many critics, during King’s lifetime and after, accused him of harboring communist sympathies, associating with known communists, and undermining the American war effort in Vietnam. These charges, along with allegations of King’s marital infidelities, attracted the attention and surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation during King’s lifetime, and they resurfaced in the 1970s and ’80s during debate in the U.S. Congress over the King holiday. King’s personal life and character were scrutinized further when the public learned in 1989–90 that King had plagiarized much of his academic work, including his doctoral dissertation.
The posthumous reverence of King, and whether it has helped or ironically harmed King’s reputation and the cause of civil rights, has been widely discussed. King’s longtime confidant Ralph Abernathy, for example, claimed in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1986) that his controversial discussion of King’s private life was necessary to stem the deification of his friend, “to let everyone know that …[King's] humanity did not detract from the legend but only made it more believable for other human beings.” Similarly, scholars and social activists who contributed to We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle (1993) argued that the lionization of King had actually caused the civil rights movement to lose sight of the grassroots efforts critical to social change; the perception of King as a superman, a saviour, a Christ-like Messiah, they argued, discouraged initiative and self-reliance and left African Americans dependent on the appearance of yet another Great Man to save them. According to religious studies professor Michael Eric Dyson, the canonization of King has also diluted King’s message, smoothed out its sharp edge, and transformed King into “a Safe Negro.” “Today right-wing conservatives can quote King’s speeches in order to criticize affirmative action,” he wrote in I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (2000), “while schoolchildren grow up learning only about the great pacifist, not the hard-nosed critic of economic injustice.” As these posthumous debates and tributes make plain, King’s legacy has not waned in social and political relevance.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was the seminal voice during one of the most turbulent periods in American history. His contribution to the civil rights movement was that of a leader who was able to turn protests into a crusade and to translate local conflicts into moral issues of nationwide, ultimately worldwide, concern. By force of will and a charismatic personality, he successfully awakened African Americans and galvanized them into action. He won his greatest victories by appealing to the consciences of white Americans and thus bringing political leverage to bear on the federal government in Washington. The strategy that broke the segregation laws of the South, however, proved inadequate to solve more complex racial problems elsewhere.
King was only 39 at the time of his death—a leader in midpassage who never wavered in his insistence that nonviolence must remain the essential tactic of the movement nor in his faith that all Americans would some day attain racial and economic justice. Though he likely will remain a subject of controversy, his eloquence, self-sacrifice, and courageous role as a social leader have secured his ranking among the most influential men of recent history.