“He is the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence. He is the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all men, to all nations and races. Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.” ~ Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee on 10 December 1964
A Baptist minister and social activist, Martin Luther King Jr. played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Inspired by advocates of nonviolence such as Mahatma Gandhi, King sought equality for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind history making events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Early Years
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, then home to some of the most prominent and prosperous African Americans in the country. King was a gifted student, at the age of 15 he was admitted to Morehouse College, where he studied medicine and law. Although he had not intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the ministry, he changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse’s president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, and after graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree, as well as winning a prestigious fellowship and being elected president of his predominantly white senior class. King then entered a graduate program at Boston University – While in Boston, he met Coretta Scott and in 1953 upon earning his doctorate in systematic theology he married Coretta, settled in Montgomery, Alabama where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Less than a year after the Kings settled in Montgomery, the highly segregated city became the epicenter of the burgeoning struggle for civil rights in America, energized by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Activists coordinated a bus boycott that would continue for 381 days, placing a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. They chose Martin Luther King Jr. as the protest’s leader and official spokesman.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional in 1956, King, had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational proponent of organized, and nonviolent resistance. Invigorated by the boycott’s success, in 1957 King and other civil rights activists (most of them fellow ministers) founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to achieving full equality for African Americans through nonviolence, with its motto being, “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.” He would remain at the helm of this influential organization until his death in 1968.
Martin Luther King Jr. – Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956
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Southern Christian Leadership Conference
As SCLC president, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on nonviolent protest and civil rights as well as meeting with religious figures, activists and political leaders. In 1960 King and his family moved to Atlanta, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s new position did not stop him and his SCLC colleagues from becoming key players in many of the most significant civil rights battles of the 1960s. During the Birmingham campaign of 1963 their philosophy of nonviolence was put to a particularly severe test. It was during this campaign activists used a boycott, sit-ins and marches to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices, and other injustices in one of America’s most racially divided cities. On April 12, 1963 King was arrested for his involvement – While in jail King penned the civil rights manifesto known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an eloquent defense of civil disobedience addressed to a group of white clergymen who had criticized his tactics.
Marching for Freedom
Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. began working with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – A peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices African Americans continued to face across the country. Held on August 28 and attended by some 200,000 to 300,000 participants, the event is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement and a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march culminated in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for peace and equality. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King shared his vision of a future in which “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.’” The speech and march cemented King’s reputation at home and abroad – Later that year he was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine and in 1964 became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that erupted between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama in the Spring of 1965, where the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized a voter registration campaign. The brutal scene was captured on television and outraged many Americans and inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson, who sent in federal troops to keep the peace. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote (first awarded by the 15th Amendment) to all African Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr. – March on Washington 1963
Image credit: Bettman/Corbes
The Final Years
The growing rift between Martin Luther King Jr. and young radicals who repudiated his nonviolent methods and commitment to working within the established political framework was deepened in the wake of the events in Selma. As more militant black leaders rose to prominence, King broadened the scope of his activism to address issues such as the Vietnam War and poverty among Americans of all races. In 1967, King and his SCLC colleagues embarked on an ambitious program known as the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a massive march on the capital.
Tragically, on the evening of April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where he had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
After years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, in 1983 President Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of King – Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986.