King, Martin Luther Jr.

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Martin Luther King Jr.

During the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the major leader of the modern civil rights movement . He organized massive numbers of African Americans and their supporters in the 1960s to practice nonviolent civil disobedience in pursuit of racial justice and economic equality.

Joins family line of clergymen

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia , on January 15, 1929, into a family with deep ties to the African American church and the civil rights struggle. His father was a Baptist minister in Atlanta. King's maternal grandfather, Reverend Adam Williams, had served as the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 1894. Both his father and his grandfather were prominent civil rights leaders.

In his childhood, King was keenly aware of social injustices and poverty. He watched his father campaign against racial discrimination in voting and in salary differences between white and African American teachers. His father's activism provided a model for King's own politically engaged ministry.

King attended Morehouse College from 1944 to 1948. Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays (1894–1984) encouraged King to view Christianity as a potential force for social change in the secular (nonreligious) world. King struggled with mixed feelings about religion during

his college years, but he decided to enter the ministry after graduation, responding to an inner feeling that he should serve God and his community. He was ordained (made a minister of the church) during his final semester at Morehouse. King later continued his religious education at Boston University's School of Theology, where he completed a doctorate in theology in 1955.

Establishes nonviolent protests

Accepting a 1954 offer to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama , King quickly came into contact with the many problems of the modern South. In December 1955, Montgomery African American leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. They chose King to head the new group.

During a year-long boycott (an organized refusal to do business with someone in order to express disapproval), African Americans in Montgomery avoided using the bus system. (See Montgomery Bus Boycott .) King forged a distinctive protest strategy involving the African American churches and also appealing to broad-based public support. In his organizing, King began to use the ideas of East Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), combining Gandhi's nonviolence with Christian principles. In an effort to expand his nonviolent civil rights movement, in 1957 King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the South.

By the time he moved to Atlanta in 1960, King was known nationwide for his book on civil rights advocacy, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), and for his work to increase African American voting registration in the South. He also worked with a student-oriented group of civil rights workers known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in an effort to desegregate restaurants in the South with a series of nonviolent sit-ins (a form of civil disobedience in which demonstrators sit down and refuse to move). (See Sit-in Movement of the 1960s .)

Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

In 1963, King participated in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, where demonstrations called for a variety of changes in the treatment of African Americans and resulted in King's arrest and brief imprisonment. (See Birmingham Protests .) The arrest brought international attention to him and to the civil rights movement. King spoke bravely and intelligently in speeches that invoked biblical and constitutional principles. His activities caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), who introduced significant civil rights legislation.

“I Have a Dream”

In 1963, in front of two hundred thousand people gathered in Washington, D.C. , King delivered a speech known today as the “I Have a Dream” speech. It marked a high point in King's crusade and served as an inspiration for civil rights supporters. Televised throughout the world, his speech electrified his audiences. The sight of the hundreds of thousands of people who had participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in support of the civil rights movement greatly enhanced the public perception of the movement.

For his use of nonviolent social activism in pursuit of justice for racial minorities and the poor, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. During the late 1960s, he remained a voice of moderation in an increasingly diverse and militant African American movement, leaving his mark on various social protest movements, particularly labor disputes, the modern feminism movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM), the migrant workers movement, and the American Hispanic movement.

On April 4, 1968, while King was working with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee , he was assassinated by a white segregationist, James Earl Ray (1928–1998). America deeply mourned the loss of King. Among many other honors awarded King since his death, a federal holiday was established on his birthday, January 15, and a monument to him was erected in Washington, D.C.