King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968), American clergyman and Nobel Prize winner, one of the principal leaders of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest. King’s challenges to segregation and racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s helped convince many white Americans to support the cause of civil rights in the United States. After his assassination in 1968, King became a symbol of protest in the struggle for racial justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., a Baptist minister, and Alberta Williams King. His father served as pastor of a large Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, which had been founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s maternal grandfather. King, Jr. was ordained as a Baptist minister at age 18.
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King attended local segregated public schools, where he excelled. He entered nearby Morehouse College at age 15 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1948. After graduating with honours from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1951, he went to Boston University where he earned a doctoral degree in systematic theology in 1955.
King’s public-speaking abilities—which would become renowned as his stature grew in the civil rights movement—developed slowly during his collegiate years. He won a second-place prize in a speech contest while an undergraduate at Morehouse, but received Cs in two public-speaking courses in his first year at Crozer. By the end of his third year at Crozer, however, professors were praising King for the powerful impression he made in public speeches and discussions.
Throughout his education, King was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the struggles of oppressed peoples. At Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University, he studied the teachings on the nonviolent protest of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. King also read and heard the sermons of white Protestant ministers who preached against American racism. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse and a leader in the national community of racially liberal clergymen, was especially important in shaping King’s theological development.
While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a music student and native of Alabama. They were married in 1953 and would have four children. In 1954 King accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church with a well-educated congregation that had recently been led by a minister who had protested against segregation.
Montgomery’s black community had long-standing grievances about the mistreatment of blacks on city buses. Many white bus drivers treated blacks rudely, often cursing them and humiliating them by enforcing the city’s segregation laws, which forced black riders to sit in the back of buses and give up their seats to white passengers on crowded buses. By the early 1950s Montgomery’s blacks had discussed boycotting the buses in an effort to gain better treatment—but not necessarily to end segregation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a leading member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was ordered by a bus driver to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she refused, she was arrested and taken to jail. Local leaders of the NAACP, especially Edgar D. Nixon, recognized that the arrest of the popular and highly respected Parks was the event that could rally local blacks to a bus protest.
Nixon also believed that a citywide protest should be led by someone who could unify the community. Unlike Nixon and other leaders in Montgomery’s black community, the recently arrived King had no enemies. Furthermore, Nixon saw King’s public-speaking gifts as great assets in the battle for black civil rights in Montgomery. King was soon chosen as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization that directed the bus boycott.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for more than a year, demonstrating a new spirit of protest among Southern blacks. King’s serious demeanour and consistent appeal to Christian brotherhood and American idealism made a positive impression on whites outside the South. Incidents of violence against black protesters, including the bombing of King’s home, focused media attention on Montgomery. In February 1956 an attorney for the MIA filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against Montgomery’s segregated seating practices.
The federal court ruled in favour of the MIA, ordering the city’s buses to be desegregated, but the city government appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court. By the time the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision in November 1956, King was a national figure. His memoir of the bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), provided a thoughtful account of that experience and further extended King’s national influence.
In 1957 King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial segregation. As SCLC’s president, King became the organization’s dominant personality and its primary intellectual influence. He was responsible for much of the organization’s fund-raising, which he frequently conducted in conjunction with preaching engagements in Northern churches.
SCLC sought to complement the NAACP’s legal efforts to dismantle segregation through the courts, with King and other SCLC leaders encouraging the use of nonviolent direct action to protest discrimination. These activities included marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The violent responses that direct action provoked from some whites eventually forced the federal government to confront the issues of injustice and racism in the South.
King made strategic alliances with Northern whites that would bolster his success at influencing public opinion in the United States. Through Bayard Rustin, a black civil rights and peace activist, King forged connections to older radical activists, many of them Jewish, who provided money and advice about strategy. King’s closest adviser at times was Stanley Levison, a Jewish activist and former member of the American Communist Party. King also developed strong ties to leading white Protestant ministers in the North, with whom he shared theological and moral views.
In 1959 King visited India and worked out more clearly his understanding of Satyagraha, Gandhi’s principle of nonviolent persuasion, which King had determined to use as his main instrument of social protest. The next year he gave up his pastorate in Montgomery to become co-pastor (with his father) of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In the early 1960s King led SCLC in a series of protest campaigns that gained national attention. The first was in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, where SCLC joined local demonstrations against segregated restaurants, hotels, transit, and housing. SCLC increased the size of the demonstrations in an effort to create so much dissent and disorder that local white officials would be forced to end segregation to restore normal business relations. The strategy did not work in Albany. During months of protests, Albany’s police chief jailed hundreds of demonstrators without visible police violence. Eventually, the protesters’ energy, and the money to bail out protesters, ran out.
The strategy did work, however, in Birmingham, Alabama, when SCLC joined a local protest during the spring of 1963. The protest was led by SCLC member Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the ministers who had worked with King in 1957 in organizing SCLC. Shuttlesworth believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would meet protesters with violence. In May 1963 King and his SCLC staff escalated antisegregation marches in Birmingham by encouraging teenagers and school children to join. Hundreds of singing children filled the streets of downtown Birmingham, angering Connor, who sent police officers with attack dogs and firefighters with high-pressure water hoses against the marchers. Scenes of young protesters being attacked by dogs and pinned against buildings by torrents of water from fire hoses were shown in newspapers and on televisions around the world.
During the demonstrations, King was arrested and sent to jail. He wrote a letter from his jail cell to local clergymen who had criticized him for creating disorder in the city. His “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which argued that individuals had the moral right and responsibility to disobey unjust laws, was widely read at the time and added to King’s standing as a moral leader.
National reaction to the Birmingham violence built support for the struggle for black civil rights. The demonstrations forced white leaders to negotiate an end to some forms of segregation in Birmingham. Even more important, the protests encouraged many Americans to support national legislation against segregation.
King and other black leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington, a massive protest in Washington, D.C., for jobs and civil rights. On August 28, 1963, King delivered a stirring address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech expressed the hopes of the civil rights movement in oratory as moving as any in American history: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The speech and the march built on the Birmingham demonstrations to create the political momentum that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in public accommodations, as well as discrimination in education and employment. As a result of King’s effectiveness as a leader of the American civil rights movement and his highly visible moral stance, he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for peace.
In 1965 SCLC joined a voting-rights protest march that was planned to go from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, more than 80 km (50 mi) away. The goal of the march was to draw national attention to the struggle for black voting rights in the state. Police beat and tear-gassed the marchers just outside of Selma, and televised scenes of the violence, on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, resulted in an outpouring of support to continue the march. SCLC petitioned for and received a federal court order barring police from interfering with a renewed march to Montgomery. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, more than 3000 people, including a core of 300 marchers who would make the entire trip, set out toward Montgomery. They arrived in Montgomery five days later, where King addressed a rally of more than 20,000 people in front of the capitol building.
The march created support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law in August. The act suspended (and amendments to the act later banned) the use of literacy tests and other voter qualification tests that often had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote.
After the Selma protests, King had fewer dramatic successes in his struggle for black civil rights. Many white Americans who had supported his work believed that the job was done. In many ways, the nation’s appetite for civil rights progress had been filled. King also lost support among white Americans when he joined the growing number of antiwar activists in 1965 and began to criticize publicly American foreign policy in Vietnam. King’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War (1959-1975) also angered President Johnson. On the other hand, some of King’s white supporters agreed with his criticisms of United States involvement in Vietnam so strongly that they shifted their activism from civil rights to the antiwar movement.
By the mid-1960s King’s role as the unchallenged leader of the civil rights movement was questioned by many younger blacks. Activists such as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) argued that King’s nonviolent protest strategies and appeals to moral idealism were useless in the face of sustained violence by whites. Some also rejected the leadership of ministers. In addition, many SNCC organizers resented King, feeling that often they had put in the hard work of planning and organizing protests, only to have the charismatic King arrive later and receive much of the credit.
In 1966 the Black Power movement, advocated most forcefully by Carmichael, captured the nation’s attention and suggested that King’s influence among blacks was waning. Black Power advocates looked more to the beliefs of the recently assassinated black Muslim leader, Malcolm X, whose insistence on black self-reliance and the right of blacks to defend themselves against violent attacks had been embraced by many African Americans.
With internal divisions beginning to divide the civil rights movement, King shifted his focus to racial injustice in the North. Realizing that the economic difficulties of blacks in Northern cities had largely been ignored, SCLC broadened its civil rights agenda by focusing on issues related to black poverty. King established a headquarters in a Chicago apartment in 1966, using that as a base to organize protests against housing and employment discrimination in the city.
Black Baptist ministers who disagreed with many of SCLC’s tactics, especially the confrontational act of sending black protesters into all-white neighbourhoods, publicly opposed King’s efforts. The protests did not lead to significant gains and were often met with violent counter-demonstrations by whites, including neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret terrorist organization that was opposed to integration.
Throughout 1966 and 1967 King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism throughout the country to economic issues. He began to argue for redistribution of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome entrenched black poverty. In 1967 he began planning a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure national lawmakers to address the issue of economic justice.
This emphasis on economic rights took King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black garbage workers in the spring of 1968. He was assassinated in Memphis by a sniper on April 4. News of the assassination resulted in an outpouring of shock and anger throughout the nation and the world, prompting riots in more than 100 United States cities in the days following King’s death. In 1969 James Earl Ray, an escaped white convict, pleaded guilty to the murder of King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Although over the years many investigators have suspected that Ray did not act alone, no accomplices have ever been identified.
After King’s death, historians researching his life and career discovered that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) often tapped King’s phone line and reported on his private life to the president and other government officials. The FBI’s reason for invading his privacy was that King associated with Communists and other “radicals.” After his death, King came to represent black courage and achievement, high moral leadership, and the ability of Americans to address and overcome racial divisions. Recollections of his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and poverty faded, and his soaring rhetoric calling for racial justice and an integrated society became almost as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the Declaration of Independence.
King’s historical importance was memorialized at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Justice, a research institute in Atlanta. Also in Atlanta is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes his birthplace, the Ebenezer Church, and the King Center, where his tomb is located. Perhaps the most important memorial is the national holiday in King’s honour, designated by the Congress of the United States in 1983 and observed on the third Monday in January, a day that falls on or near King’s birthday of January 15.
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