Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, at 501 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second child of Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, and Mrs. Alberta Williams King, a school teacher. The King children grew up in the sweet Auburn neighborhood, which at the time was a very prominent and prosperous area to live in and home to many African Americans. Dr. King Jr. attended segregated public schools growing up and at the age of 15 was admitted to Morehouse College, where he studied medicine and law. While attending Morehouse, Dr. King Jr. was mentored by then President, Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was a very outspoken advocate for racial equality and whose influence led to Dr. King Jr.’s decision to join the ministry.
He attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951, where he earned his Bachelor in Divinity Degree, won a prestigious fellowship, and was elected president of his predominantly white senior class. He then enrolled in Boston University in 1951, completing his doctoral studies in 1955. While living in Boston he met Coretta Scott, a singer from Alabama studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were soon married in 1953 and decided to start their family life in Montgomery, Alabama, where Dr. King Jr. became a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. His plans were to be a pastor while working on his Ph.D. thesis and helping to raise his young family; not to be a world-renowned national civil rights leader.
Montgomery was a highly segregated city during this time and it became home to the very well-known case of Brown vs Board of Education. The young couple’s life in Alabama was quickly shaken up as Dr. King Jr.’s journey into becoming one of the most well-known activists and advocates for racial equality for African Americans would begin, not even a year into making Montgomery, Alabama their home. This collaborative effort he embarked on, along with other community activists, would be the beginning of a long battle for racial equality and equal rights, a battle Dr. King Jr. would see and lead for many years to come. His leadership was fundamental to this movement’s success in trying to end the legal segregation of African Americans in the United States.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, who was a secretary at the local NAACP chapter, would jump start this movement by deciding not to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger, which at the time was something unheard of. Her heroic actions led to the bus boycott that lasted 381 days, this boycott created a severe economic strain on the local public transportation system and on the local downtown business owners. The many activists who gathered and collaborated to start this bus boycott chose Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as their protest leader and official spokesman. By the time the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating was unconstitutional, Dr. King Jr. was already nationally known as a prominent leader who organized and led with a message of nonviolent resistance. This did not come without a high price for Dr. King Jr. and his family, many white supremacists targeted him and his family for fighting for racial equality. He became the target of many attempts against his life, and on one account he was physically injured while at a book signing event in September of 1958, where a woman stabbed him in the chest. This life-threatening event further reinforced his dedication and message of nonviolent protests. Dr. King Jr. believed that if social change was to take place, it had to be in the way of nonviolence.
In 1957, Dr. King Jr. along with other activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; their mission was to create a pathway to full equality for African Americans through nonviolent protests. Their motto was “not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed”. Dr. King Jr. served as the President of this organization which gave him the opportunity to travel the country giving speeches and sharing his passion for nonviolent protest in his pursuit of justice for his people.
In 1959, Dr. King Jr. had the opportunity to travel to India where he met family and followers of Gandhi, the man he described in his autobiography as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change”.
In 1960, Dr. King Jr. and Mrs.Coretta King moved their four children back to Atlanta where he joined his father as co-pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Even though he was no longer in Montgomery, he continued to be an integral part, along with his fellow SCLC colleagues, of the many historical civil rights battles that took place in the 1960s.
1963, marked the beginning of the Birmingham Campaign, where Dr. King Jr. and other activists used boycotts, sit-ins, and marches to protest the very unjust segregation laws and unjust hiring practices that the black community faced during these times. In April of this year, Dr. King Jr. was arrested for his involvement in these protests which led to the famously known “letter from Birmingham Jail” which he wrote to a group of white clergymen who criticized his actions.
Later that year, Dr. King Jr. along with other civil rights activists and religious groups gathered to start the March of Washington which was a peaceful rally to fight for jobs and freedom and to shed light on the many injustices African Americans were facing during this time. August 28, 1963, he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech which became one of the most well-known speeches of his time.
In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was named “Man of the Year” by TIME Magazine, and this same year he became, at the time, the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1965 Dr. King Jr., being the very well-known man that he was, helped bring international attention to the violence that erupted between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. These peaceful demonstrators, the SCLC, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized a voter registration campaign. The violence captured on tv outraged many Americans and inspired them to join the “Selma to Montgomery March” led by Dr. King Jr. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Law, which gave the right to vote to all African Americans.
The events and success achieved in Selma created a much deeper hatred for Dr. King Jr. by those who were against his fight for freedom and civil rights. Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. King Jr. was assassinated by Earl Ray while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King Jr. had traveled to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike. His assassination led to many protests across major cities in the country. His assassin, an escaped convict, pleaded guilty to his murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Then in 1983, after many years of campaigning by Coretta King, activists, and members of Congress, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a US Federal National Holiday in honor of his legacy. The 3rd Monday in January of 1986 was the first ever celebrated Martin Luther King Jr day. Today, 37 years later we still celebrate, remember and honor Dr. King Jr. as the hero that he was.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”