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The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.



One of the most influential people of the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a voice to millions of Americans still struggling under the oppressive weight of societal inequality. Achieving prominence through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it can be argued that no person did more to advance the rights of African American people throughout all of American history.


Through non-violent means, Martin Luther King Jr. transformed the societal landscape of America, ushering in an era of progressive thought and action that radically altered a country still struggling to emerge from a violent past of slavery and racial abuse.


His legacy is widespread and powerful, echoing through the generations and garnering an immense level of respect.


Early Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

501 auburn avenue
501 Auburn Avenue, where Michael (later Martin Luther) King Jr. was born. Source: Library of Congress


Born on January 15, 1929, Michael King Jr. was the second of three children to Alberta Williams King and Michael King Sr. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia in an era where segregation was still a common feature of everyday life. His family was relatively well off compared to most Black people in the South and also well respected by the local community.


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Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, where he grew up, was known as the “Black Wall Street” on account of it being the center of successful African-American businesses before the Civil Rights Movement.


His father and maternal grandfather were both Baptist preachers, and as a result, King was born into a religious context in which speaking to crowds of people was familiar. Despite the comparatively wealthy upbringing and decent education he received, King was still deeply affected by the segregation that existed. At the age of six, he was told he could no longer see his white friend on account of his skin color.


King was close to his emotions, and when his grandmother died in 1941 when King was 12, he attempted suicide by jumping out of a second-story window.


A few years later, he spent a summer working on a tobacco plantation in Connecticut. He was surprised by how different race relations were in the north of the country, and he noted that segregation was far less of an issue. He saw white and Black people attending the same church, which to him was a scene he had never encountered, despite his religious background.


patrick parr the seminarian
Patrick Parr’s The Seminarian tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. in his younger days. Source: Amazon


In 1944, at the age of 15, King enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta. He took a particular interest in the field of law and medicine, but in his senior year, he decided to enter the ministry. This decision was influenced by his father, Michael, as well as his mentor, Benjamin Mays, who was the college president and a social gospel activist. Through the ministry, he saw a way to address what he described as “an inner urge to serve humanity.”


After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King studied further at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. There, he excelled and was elected president of the student body.


The social mores of racism would have a significant impact on him at Crozer when he fell in love with Betty Moitz, a white woman who worked in the cafeteria. His feelings for her were reciprocated, and they planned to get married, but friends and family would intervene. They agreed that marrying a white woman would destroy his chances of becoming a pastor in the South, while it would also gain the ire of large portions of both the African-American and white communities. With great reluctance, he ended the relationship.


The breakup was hard for King, and his friends noted later that he never fully recovered. Harry Belafonte, the singer, activist, and good friend of King, stated that Betty had been the love of his life.


coretta scott king loc
Portrait of Coretta Scott. Source: Library of Congress


King continued his studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in Divinity in 1951. Thereafter, he spent the next few years of his life studying at Boston University. While there, he was introduced to Coretta Scott, a native Alabamian. A relationship blossomed between the two, and in 1953, they were married.


The couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, where King took up the position of pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Shortly afterward, King earned his doctorate through Boston University in 1955.


In December of that year, the nation would be spurred into action over race laws when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger while traveling on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was in violation of the city’s segregation laws and was arrested.


Martin Luther King Jr. Takes Center Stage

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference poster. Source: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC


Activists protesting the race laws in the wake of the Rosa Parks incident formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and boycotted public transport. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected head of the association.


He was a fresh face, well-respected, and had a powerful, eloquent voice. The Montgomery Improvement Association could not have chosen a better person to represent them, and the boycott eventually found success just over a year later when the segregation law on the buses was repealed.


Realizing the need to capitalize on the momentum of the victory, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which functioned as a platform from which King could address the issues of race across the entire Southern United States. He traveled to India and met with the country’s president, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been a close friend of Gandhi. Following conversations with Indian leadership, King was convinced that non-violent protest was the most powerful and effective way to gain complete freedom for African Americans. He was greatly inspired by Indian resistance against colonialism, as well as the independence movements that were sweeping across Africa.


In 1960, his message of non-violent resistance reached a wider audience when he moved to Atlanta and took up the position as a co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.


His words became action, and he joined other African Americans with his physical as well as vocal presence. In October 1960, he, along with 33 others, was arrested during a sit-in protest at a department store in Atlanta. Despite the charges being dropped against King, he was sentenced to Reidsville State Prison Farm over the fact that he had committed a minor traffic offense a few months earlier and had violated his probation.


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Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in 1964. Source: Library of Congress


The incident sparked huge debate across the nation, and John F. Kennedy got personally involved. He was the Democratic presidential candidate at the time and had the power to influence King’s fate. The charges were dropped, and King was released.


King continued his rise to prominence, and his name was on the lips of millions of Americans across the entire nation. Not only did he accrue the following of African Americans, but he gained the support of millions of white liberals who wanted to see a more fair and equal society. Of major significance in helping to spread the words of Martin Luther King Jr. was the fast-growing television industry and the fact that it became the norm for every household in the US to own a television.


In a dramatic twist, his fame reached even greater heights in 1963 during a mass sit-in protest to end segregation in department stores. The police of Birmingham, Alabama responded to the non-violent protest with an iron fist, using attack dogs and water cannons to disperse the protestors. King, along with many of his supporters, were arrested and thrown in jail.


From jail, he wrote a famous letter refuting his critics. This became known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it, he explained how non-violent protest was a way to force a community that has refused to negotiate to confront the issues revolving around race relations.


i have a dream
Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Source: Library of Congress


Martin Luther King’s most famous moment would come in August 1963, as the Birmingham protests gathered momentum and led to a march on Washington DC. Once there, he stood by the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In front of him lay the Washington Mall, packed with 200,000 people standing in solidarity with him.


The stunning event and his dedicated work in bringing racial inequality to the attention of the American public netted him Time’s Man of the Year award for 1963. The following year, the US government passed the Civil Rights Act in a bid to end all legal forms of discrimination, and in the same year, King won the Nobel Prize for Peace.


After receiving his award in Norway, King returned to the United States and immediately took up the fight again. He marched in Selma, Alabama in an event that saw the eventual adoption of the Voting Rights Acts by the government, an act meant to eradicate the last vestiges of racism in voter registration. In some areas, African Americans had been completely disenfranchised.


Later Years & Assassination

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A button commemorating the life and death of Martin Luther King. Source: New York Public Library


King then marched in Chicago, Illinois to end segregated housing. This campaign had mixed results and introduced King to the very different dynamic of race relations in the north of the country, where laws were far more complex and more difficult to address. In addition, a new wave of resistance had taken hold, led by people like Malcolm X, who derided King’s peaceful methods and took a more physical approach.


In the years that followed, he widened his scope in fighting for justice. Not just concerned with racial equality, King led protests against the Vietnam War and fought to uplift the lives of impoverished people from all walks of life.


In the Spring of 1968, he led a march in support of the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. While standing on a balcony on April 4, he was killed by a sniper. James Earl Ray was accused and convicted of the killing. He later rescinded his confession, claiming that he was coerced. Whether he was guilty is still an issue of debate, especially since the King family, decades later, supported a reopening of the case. Ray, however, died long before any re-trial could commence.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

don miller king mural
A mural by Don Miller commemorating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Source: Library of Congress


Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is powerful and far-reaching, not just in the United States but abroad, where disenfranchised groups revere him and are inspired by his successful methods. Of note was his influence on the leadership of the African National Congress, which led the fight against segregation in apartheid South Africa.


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Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Source: New York Public Library


His style of protest and leadership galvanized millions to demonstrate their disapproval of society, and through him, protests became historical events that continue to echo through time.


The world continues to reflect on the remarkable achievements and tragic fate of one of the world’s greatest icons in the fight for equality and justice.


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