Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, and he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39.
Much has been written about those 39 years. King’s father, a Baptist minister, was a strict disciplinarian often beating his son in the belief that it would make King a strong man. As a very young child, King’s best friend was a white boy whose father owned a business in the King family’s neighborhood. When the boys started elementary school, they were forced to attend racially segregated schools and their friendship ended.
King watched as his father fought the indignities of racial prejudice and segregation. His frustration and anger gave way to depression which would plague him for most of his life.
King was a bright student skipping both 9th and 12th grade in high school. At age 15, he started Morehouse College. During high school and college, King often questioned his faith, but during his senior year at Morehouse, he decided to become a minister. After graduation, he enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951.
While at Crozer, King fell in love with a white woman and considered marriage. He ultimately broke off their relationship because of societal and family pressure.
In 1953, King married Coretta Scott. He began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Ph.D. degree on June 5, 1955. He worked as an assistant minister at Boston's historic Twelfth Baptist Church with Rev. William Hunter Hester while pursuing his doctoral studies.
Dr. King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier in the year, Claudette Colvin a black, pregnant high school student had also refused to give up her seat to a white men. She had also been arrested. Dr. King was a young pastor trying to get established and start a family. He did not seek to become the voice of the Civil Rights movement, but he found that he could not sit idly by.
Colvin’s and Parks’ experiences brought up a memory from his high school days. King and his teacher were returning from a debate competition when they were ordered to give up their seats to a white man. King and his teacher were both forced to stand so one white man could sit – Whites would not sit next to Blacks, so both seats had to be vacated. Dr. King remembered his feelings of anger and humiliation – feelings shared by other Blacks who had also been forced to endure the indignities of Jim Crow laws since Reconstruction.
Dr. King was chosen because of his charismatic presence and speaking abilities. He helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott which lasted 385 days. During the boycott, Dr. King's house was bombed and he was arrested. The United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. Because of his efforts, Dr. King became a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.
In 1957, Dr.King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The purpose of the SCLC was to inspire and help organize black churches to conduct nonviolent protests to promote civil rights reform.
In 1961, the SCLC became involved in the Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia. The SCLC mobilized thousands of citizens for a nonviolent protest of every aspect of segregation within the city. The movement failed, but attracted nationwide attention. For his efforts, Dr. King was arrested and released, but when he returned to Albany in 1962, he was given the choice of jail time or a fine. He chose jail to call attention to the injustices in Albany, but was bailed out by an anonymous benefactor. The SCLC’s failure to achieve their goals in Albany widened the gap between it and more radical groups seeking equality for Blacks.
In April 1963, the SCLC began a campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King assumed the campaign would trigger mass arrests of Black protestors, but it did not draw the national attention the SCLC was seeking. Ignoring concerns raised by Dr. King, SCLC strategist James Bevel recruited children and young adults to join in the demonstrations.
The Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene "Bull" Connor, used high-pressure water hoses and police dogs against the young protesters. Violence erupted and the footage on national television news shocked many white Americans and rallied black Americans behind the movement. Connor lost his job, Jim Crow laws were challenged and public places became more accessible to blacks.
King had been arrested early in the campaign. It was his 13th arrest out of the 29 times he would be jailed in the fight for civil rights. From his cell, he composed the now-famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. Though he was criticized after the protests became violent, the success of the movement increased his popularity and national presence.
The August 1963 March on Washington demanded an end to racial segregation in public schools; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers (equivalent to $16 in 2018); and self-government for Washington, D.C., which was still governed by congressional committee. More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities participated in the march and the protest. The line of marchers stretched from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool.
King delivered his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech - 17 minutes that helped change the hearts and minds of Americans.
In March 1964, Dr. King and the SCLC joined a protest in St. Augustine, Florida. He and the SCLC recruited a delegation of Northern activists which included rabbis and the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts. During nightly marches through the city, the movement faced opposition by the KKK members which sparked violence and garnered national attention. Hundreds of the activists were arrested and jailed. During this movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was met with opposition in many communities. In Selma, Alabama, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been working on voter registration for several months. They faced heavy opposition and called on Dr. King and the SCLC for help. A local judge issued an injunction barring any gathering of three or more civil rights leaders or people affiliated with civil rights groups. This halted civil rights activity until Dr. King spoke at Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965 in direct defiance of the injunction. During the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, violence by state police and others against the peaceful marchers brought national attention to racism in Alabama. This day has become known as Bloody Sunday and was a major turning point in the effort to gain public support for the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King and the SCLC took the Civil Rights Movement north to Chicago in August 1966 to fight housing discrimination. On August 5, 1966, the peaceful march turned violent when crowds began to throw glass bottles and rocks at the marchers. Dr. King negotiated changes to public housing policies with then mayor, Richard Dailey in exchange for halting the march.
Dr. King was opposed to the Vietnam War on general principle. He also opposed unfair policies which he felt drafted a disproportionate number of Blacks and denied deferments to Blacks seeking to complete their college educations. In addition he believed the money spent on the war would be better spent implementing social reforms and anti-poverty programs.
In 1968, Dr. King and the SCLC organized the "Poor People's Campaign" to address issues of economic justice. He traveled the country recruiting "a multiracial army of the poor" to march on Washington in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. He wanted the group to establish a shanty town to occupy space in the Capitol and force Congress to adopt an "economic bill of rights" for poor Americans.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in Memphis in support of the black sanitary public works employees. The workers had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment.
The day before his death, Dr. King addressed a rally and delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ.
His assassination by James Earl Ray triggered mass rioting across the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning on April 7, 1968.
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed a proclamation to move the date of the holiday to the third Monday of January each year. On January 17, 2000, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all fifty U.S. states for the first time.
Dr. King left a legacy of selfless service to his country and its citizens. His books and speeches have inspired countless activists and his actions have created a movement that must not stop until all people are treated equally.