King, Martin Luther Jr. 1929-1968

views updated May 18 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929-1968

Civil rights leader

At a Glance

Montgomery Bus Boycott

SCLC Formed

Birmingham Protest March

I Have a Dream

Voting and Economic Barriers

Poor Peoples Campaign

The Man vs. the Myth


In the years since his assassination on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., has evolved from a prominent civil rights leader into the symbol for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He is studied by schoolchildren of all backgrounds; his words are quoted by the powerless and the powerful, by anyone who has a dream to make her or his life better, to better the nation, or the world. Monuments have been dedicated in his honor and institutions such as the Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, which bears his name, have been established to carry on his work. In 1986, the U.S. Congress made King unique among twentieth-century Americans by designating his birthday a federal holiday.

King was born into a family of Baptist ministers. Martin Luther King, Sr., his father and namesake, was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a position the elder King had inherited from his wifes father, Adam Daniel Williams. As the son of a pastor growing up among the black middle class, the young King was afforded some opportunities for education and experience not available to children in poorer urban and rural areas. Yet despite his social standing, he was still subjected to the lessons of segregation because of his color. Although his family tradition was intertwined with the church and expectations were high that M. L. would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, King first resisted the ministry as a vocation, finding it ill-suited to allow him to address the social problems he had experienced in the South. So, after completing high school early, he entered nearby Morehouse College in 1944 with thoughts of becoming a lawyer or doctor. Later, influenced by the teachings of George D. Kelsey, a religion professor, and Dr. Benjamin Mays, the colleges president, King came to understand the social and intellectual tradition of the ministry. By graduation in 1948, he had decided to accept it as his vocation.

In 1948 King entered the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where for the next three years he studied theology, philosophy, ethics, the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, and the religious and social views of Reinhold Niebuhr. It was also during this time that King first learned of the nonviolent activism of Mohandas Gandhi. While at Crozer, King earned the

At a Glance

Original given name, Michael, changed to Martin; born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, GA; assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, TN; originally buried in South View Cemetery, Atlanta, reinterred at Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta; son of Martin Luther (a minister) and Alberta Christine (a teacher; maiden name, Williams) King; married Coretta Scott (a concert singer), June 18, 1953; children: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, Bernice Albertine. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1948; Crozer Theological Seminary, S.D., 1951; Boston University, Ph.D., 1955, D.D., 1959; Chicago Theological Seminary, D.D., 1957; attended classes at University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Religion: Baptist.

Licensed to preach by Ebenezer Baptist Church deacons, 1947; ordained Baptist minister, 1948; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, pastor, 1954-60; president, Montgomery Improvement Association, 1965-66; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, founder, 1957, president and leader of civil rights campaigns, 1957-68; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, co-pastor with father, 1960-68. Vice-president, National Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of National Baptist Convention.

Awards: Recipient of numerous awards, including Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1957; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1958, for Stride Toward Freedom; named Man of the Year, 1963; Nobel Peace Prize, 1964; Judaism and World Peace Award from Synagogue Council of America, 1965; Brotherhood Award, 1967, for Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?; Nehru Award for International Understanding, 1968; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977.

respect of his professors as well as his classmates. He was elected student-body president, was valedictorian of his class, won a prize as outstanding student, and earned a fellowship for graduate study. He was accepted for doctoral study at Yale, Boston University, and Edinburgh in Scotland. He chose to attend Boston University, where he studied systematic theology with Edgar Sheffield Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. Again he impressed his professors with his passion for learning and his intellect. After completing his coursework, King began a dissertation in which he would compare the religious views of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.

Emerging from Boston University, King had a number of avenues available to himpursuing a career as a professor, returning to Atlanta to join his father at Ebenezer, or becoming the pastor of his own church, in the North or in the South. He decided to accept the pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the Deep South of Montgomery, Alabama. He installed himself as full-time pastor in September of 1954. During his first year at Dexter, King finished his dissertation and worked to organize his new church, to activate the social and political awareness of his congregation, and to blend his academic learning with the emotional oratory of the Southern preacher. He had begun to settle into his role as preacher and new father when the events of December, 1955, thrust upon him the mantle of local civil rights leader.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

On December 1, 1955, Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to abide by one of Montgomerys laws requiring segregated seating on city buses. In response to this incident, several groups within the citys black community, long dissatisfied with the treatment of blacks on public transportation, came together to take action. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Womens Political Council, the Baptist Ministers Conference, the citys African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zionist ministers, and the community at large united to organize a boycott of the buses. After a successful first day of boycotting, the groups formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee the community action and to work with the city and busline officials to bring about fairer treatment of blacks within the existing laws. King was elected the MIAs first president.

For 382 days, King and the black community maintained the boycott while white officials from the city and the busline resisted their modest demands: courtesy toward black riders, a first-come-first-serve approach to seating, and black drivers for some routes. During this period, the MIA convinced black-owned taxis to reduce their fares to enable boycotters to afford a means of transportation. Then, when the city blocked that measure, the group organized carpools. King was arrested, slandered, received hate mail and phone threats, and his house was bombed; but from the outset he preached nonviolence to the black boycotters. After Montgomery city officials refused to be moved to change by a number of related federal court decisions, the black community finally won more than it had asked for when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court decision that ruled against segregation in Montgomery. On December 21, 1956, the integration of Montgomery city buses became mandatory.

SCLC Formed

To continue the momentum gained from the victory in Montgomery and to spread the movement across the South, King and other black leaders gathered in early 1957 to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the SCLC, King spent the next few years consolidating the organizations position as a social force in the region and establishing himself as its leader. King toured the country giving speeches, appearing at rallies, meeting with elected officials and candidates, and writing a book about the Montgomery experience. In 1958 he traveled to Ghana to join in its independence celebration; in 1959 he traveled to India to meet with Nehru and other associates of Gandhi. With demands on his time growing, King decided to resign from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and to accept his fathers offer to become co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. This arrangement afforded the younger King the flexibility to devote more time to SCLC activities.

From 1960 to 1962 King and the SCLC renewed their direct action against segregation at the voting booth, at schools, at lunch counters, and at bus stations. King also threw his organizations support behind other groups fighting the same battles. There were black college students, who would later organize as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Montgomery, and Atlanta. There were Freedom Rides initiated by the Council on Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge segregation in interstate bus transportation. These efforts contributed to the eventual desegregation of stores, buses and bus stations.

Yet, along with these successes, King and the Civil Rights Movement also encountered failures. In December of 1961 the SCLC joined members of the black community of Albany, Georgia, in their effort to end segregation in that city. In the end, the city government and law enforcement officials refused to make any substantial concessions and avoided resorting to violence. The black organizations involved, on the other hand, were unable to cooperate among themselves and unable to keep Albanys blacks from turning to violence. With the failure in Albany, Kings leadership and philosophy of nonviolence as well as the SCLCs planning came under criticism.

Birmingham Protest March

King was able to redeem himself in the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, a city considered by many to be the most segregated in the country. King and the SCLC were invited by local black leaders to help organize a protest to end segregation in downtown stores, to achieve equal opportunity in employment, and to establish a biracial commission to promote further desegregation. In order to attract attention to their demands and to put pressure on local businesses, the protesters employed a march. Birmingham police moved against the first march with clubs and attack dogs and the state court issued an injunction barring further protests. When King and close associate Ralph Abernathy defied the court order, they were arrested and placed in solitary confinement. During his incarceration, criticism by local white clergymen of the movement and Kings actions prompted him to write his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

After being tried for contempt and found guilty, King was released on appeal. He rejoined the protesters. When the adult marchers began to lose their enthusiasm, high school students and younger children joined the march. Around 3,000 marchers were arrested, filling up the jails. Later marches were broken up by police using clubs and dogs and firemen with high-pressure hoses. The police brutality directed toward unarmed black men, women, and children outraged the nation and the John F. Kennedy administration. The growing tide of negative publicity soon convinced Birminghams white businessmen to seek an agreement with the protesters.

In the aftermath of the agreement, white extremists bombed Kings hotel and his brothers home, igniting riots by blacks. However, black leaders, white businessmen, and federal troops sent in by the Kennedy administration were successful in their efforts to halt the violence; the agreement was given time to take hold.

I Have a Dream

With the success of Birmingham still fresh in the minds of blacks and whites in the South and North, King was poised to assert himself as a national and international leader. On August 28, 1963, approximately 250,000 blacks and whites marched on Washington, D.C., to raise the nations consciousness of civil rights and to encourage the passage of the Civil Rights Bill before Congress at that time. The march was a cooperative effort of several civil rights organization including the Negro American Labor Council, the Urban League, the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, and CORE and the movements largest demonstration. King was the last speaker scheduled to address the crowd gathered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. He began a speech that referred to the lack of progress in securing black rights in the hundred years since Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation; by the time he finished, he had deviated from his prepared speech to offer one drawn from past sermons and the inspiration of the moment, his famous I Have a Dream address.

Kings stature as a leader of national and international prominence was confirmed in 1964. In January of that year he became the first black American to be named Time magazines Man of the Year. And, in December of that year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to win the award. The recognition that followed from these and other honors prompted journalists and politicians from around the world to seek Kings views on a wide range of world issues. Even so, King remained focused on the twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice, as he stated in his Nobel acceptance speech. Earlier in 1964 he had attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that put the federal government firmly behind ending segregation and discrimination in public institutions. But blacks still faced barriers to voting throughout the South, and more subtle economic barriers in other regions.

Voting and Economic Barriers

In 1965 and 1966 King and the SCLC decided to take on these barriers. Civil rights groups stepped up their voter registration drives in the South and King took his strategy of nonviolent confrontation to Selma, Alabama. Marches in Selma and from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery brought publicity to the movements voting rights demands and gave momentum to congressional efforts to enact legislation to remedy the situation. In August, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed into law. It gave federal authorities the power to end literacy tests and poll taxes and to monitor all elections.

In 1966 King and the SCLC launched a campaign in Chicago, both to expand their influence into the North and to raise awareness of the issues of urban discrimination and poverty as manifested in housing, schooling, and unemployment. The SCLC influenced some changes and put some long-term operations in place such as Operation Breadbasket. However, the campaign was unable to score the kind of success that it had in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Discrimination was more subtle in this northern metropolis than in the segregated South; city officials, including Mayor Richard Daley, were less extreme and more politically astute than their southern counterparts in their response to confrontation; furthermore, Chicagos black population was more divided, with some elements very much prone to violence.

Poor Peoples Campaign

In the last year of his life, King actively expanded the scope of his efforts to include not only civil rights issues but also human rights issues important to people the world over. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the second half of the 1960s, King grew dissatisfied with the situation. In 1967 he began to speak out consistently against the war. In speeches and rallies around the country, he called for a negotiated settlement. King was recruited by anti-war activists to head an independent ticket for the presidential election of 1968, a position he declined in order to keep his social and moral concerns free from political obligations.

Late in 1967 King directed his organization to begin laying the groundwork for what would be known as the Poor Peoples Campaign. He wanted to recruit the poor from urban and rural areasmen and women of all races and backgrounds and lead them in a campaign for economic rights. The recruited poor, trained in nonviolent direct action, would descend on Washington, D.C., and begin a three-month campaign of marches, rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts to pressure the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and leading businessmen to put a more human face on American capitalism.

In March of 1968, while touring the U.S. to raise support for this new march on Washington, King accepted an invitation to speak on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were striking in an attempt to improve their poor working conditions. After a march organized by local leaders was postponed because of a heavy snowstorm, King joined the rescheduled event on March 28. Shortly after the march began, young gang members initiated violence, igniting a riot that ended with one dead, numerous injuries, and widespread property damage. King vowed to return to personally direct another demonstration in order to reestablish nonviolence in this local dispute.

Again in Memphis to plan this march, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The night before, addressing an audience of 500 at the Mason Temple in downtown Memphis, King had given his last speech, which included these words: Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But Im not concerned about that now. I just want want to do Gods will. And hes allowed me to go up to the mountain, and Ive looked over, and Ive seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

The Man vs. the Myth

Although widely regarded as one of the great social leaders of the twentieth century, ing has been without critics. He was closely scrutinized during his life by his colleagues in the SCLC, by other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, by those he sought to change, and by state and federal officials affected by state and officials affected by those trying to get behind the symbol to the man and his place in American history.

In SCLC meetings, King often faced disagreements with his lieutenants and advisers over organization, tactics, and campaigns. He received little initial support for his idea to launch the Poor Peoples Campaign. Within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, King was not universally accepted as its leader and spokesman. Roy Wilkins, the NAACP, and its strategy of seeking change through legislation and court action were in constant competition with King, the SCLC, and its nonviolent direct confrontation for the support of blacks and white integrationists.

The SNCC criticized King for becoming a symbol and his SCLC adults for interfering with student-initiated grassroots movements. Later in the movement, the two groups grew farther apart when the SNCC and its leader, Stokely Carmichael, espoused the black power ideology of violence and black separatism as the only means to bring about change. Local civil rights organizations were often put off by Kings outsiders invading their cities, making headlines, then leaving, never to follow through. Furthermore, numerous civil rights leaders and social commentators severely faulted King for his stand against the war in Vietnam. Some felt he was abusing his prominence to step beyond his expertise; others feared that his linking of the civil rights and anti-war movements would weaken their cause.

King has also received criticism for more personal aspects of his life. During his career as a civil rights leader, his actions and character were repeatedly placed under a microscope through spying and wiretapping ordered by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover. Information about Kings advisers outside SCLC and their links to communism and homosexuality as well as Kings own extramarital relationships was gathered for use to discredit the leader and his organization. Most recently, scholars working on a collection of Kings papers confirmed November, 1990, press reports that significant parts of Kings Ph.D. dissertation had been lifted from the work of Jack Boozer, a fellow student, and the theologian Paul Tillich.

At a time when new generations of Americans more easily see the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement than the man, the gifted yet human activist, many who were close to King fear that his dream for America runs the risk of fading along with the memories of his life. In his biography of King, Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow quoted one of Kings college classmates, educator Charles V. Willie: By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanityhis personal and public struggles that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.


Abernathy, Ralph David, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Harper, 1989.

Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Morrow, 1986.

King, Coretta Scott, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., Holt, 1969.

King, Martin Luther, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, Harper, 1986.

Oates, Stephen B., Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper, 1982.

Playboy Interviews, Playboy Press, 1967.

Bryan Ryan

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated May 14 2018

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1929–1968












Of political leaders, statesmen, and great figures with national and international influence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is in a class by himself. Before the twentieth century faded into history and time, King, because of his commitment to humanitarian principles and values, had elevated himself into a universal political icon admired and beloved by millions. Before his death, he was a living legend. The international community, in awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, recognized the global significance of his work and life. Twenty years later, in 1983, the U.S. government honored him for this same commitment with a national holiday. Beyond these international and national awards, many states, counties, and cities have named streets, highways, parks, buildings, bridges, centers, fellowships, prizes, and endowed academic chairs in his honor. Cultural institutions and individuals have created plays, songs, poems, pageants, bronze busts, and statues as tributes to him. There have been theater movies, television movies and programs, radio programs and presentations, public school presentations, and countless readings of his speeches, as well as grand orations and speeches about him and his influence. Since his death, every U.S. president has issued presidential proclamations on his birthday to honor him on behalf of the nation. Words of honor and praise have been continuous. In point of fact, they have never stopped.

Beyond the words and visual images, there have been the printed thoughts. Doctoral dissertations, senior and master’s theses, books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, newspaper and magazine articles, and children’s works are in constant flow to the public and to the political elites of the nation and the international community. No year passes without some new discussion, debate, and revelation about Reverend King. But this steady stream of accounts is not necessarily singing his praises. Critics and criticism abound in this ever-growing voluminous literature. Yet most of it is positive and commemorative. His legendary status in life has not only grown with his death but has in retrospect also pushed his critics to the margins and sidelines. His own papers, letters, and writings are now headed for their own special archives for future generations of scholars and laypersons to study. He is becoming a man for the ages.


Martin Luther King Jr.’s parents, Michael King and Alberta Williams, were married on Thanksgiving Day 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his wife’s father, the Reverend A. D. Williams, was the pastor. The newly married couple moved in with the wife’s parents. It was in this household that Michael Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. He was the second child in the family, preceded by his sister, Christine, and later followed by a brother, Alfred Daniel (A. D.) in 1930. Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck when Reverend Williams died of a heart attack in March 1931. The son-in-law, King’s father, who was already associate pastor, with the help of his outspoken mother-in-law became pastor of Ebenezer after about seven months. In a short time span, Reverend King rescued the bankrupt church, reformed its internal structure, put it on a sound financial footing, and launched an outreach program for the sick and shut-ins. His ministry proved so successful that at the end of his first year, he was the highest paid minister in Atlanta. By the end of his second year, he asked his church to send him on a summer tour of the Holy Land, Europe, and Africa. They did, and part of the tour carried him into Germany and the village where Martin Luther had defied the Catholic Church in 1517. Upon his return home, the Reverend Mike King changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King, senior and junior.

As his father moved up in the social, religious, and political circles in Atlanta, “M. L.” or “Little Mike,” began elementary school first at Yonge Street, then David T. Howard School, and by the seventh and eighth grades he attended the Atlanta University Laboratory High School. However, it closed at the end of King’s eighth-grade year, and he returned to public education at Booker T. Washington High School, where he skipped the ninth and twelfth grades. Morehouse College, the all-male college that his father had graduated from in 1930, found its student enrollment declining as a result of World War II and instituted an early-admission program—taking bright young tenth and eleventh graders as freshmen. King was admitted to his father’s college after the eleventh grade and, with a major in sociology, graduated in 1948. During his junior year at Morehouse College, King gave his trial sermon at Ebenezer and was shortly thereafter ordained and made an associate minister in his father’s church. Prior to graduating in 1948, King applied to and was accepted at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. After three years of study of the dominant theologians of his time, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mohandas Gandhi, King decided to attend graduate school and attain a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion. During his last year at Crozier, he applied to Yale University, Boston University, and Edinburgh University in Scotland. Yale turned him down, and Edinburgh became less interesting. Thus, in September 1951 he began his doctoral studies at Boston.

Besides his study of more theologians, political philosophers, political activists, and the giving of guest sermons at churches where his father had connections, King kept an active social life, meeting once a week with his discussion group known as the Dialectical Society. During that first year, he met Coretta Scott, from Alabama, who was in Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music for training as a classical singer. The relationship grew to the point that he had her visit Atlanta and meet his mother and father. Things did not go well. When “Daddy King” and his wife visited their son in Boston to urge him to end the relationship, they discovered that King planned to marry Coretta. They were married on June 18, 1953, at the home of Coretta’s parents near Selma, Alabama. King’s brother served as best man and the affair went smoothly with the lone exception of Daddy King trying at the last minute to talk them out of it. He failed, and the couple spent their honeymoon at a local funeral parlor. Later they drove to Atlanta and moved in with King’s parents.

King, with his wife, returned to Boston to finish up his coursework and find an agreeable dissertation topic as well as search for a job. His father wanted him to return to Atlanta and persuaded the president of Morehouse, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, to offer him a teaching job at his alma mater, Morehouse College. The elder King wanted his son as a successor at Ebenezer. Before leaving school, King explored job possibilities at the First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In driving down to Montgomery, the previous pastor, Reverend Vernon Johns, hitched a ride with King to Montgomery from Atlanta. Once in the city, he dropped off Reverend Johns at the home of Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who pastored the First Baptist Church. Johns was supposed to preach there while King was giving his trial sermon at Dexter. Instead of simply dropping off Johns, King stayed for dinner and struck up a friendship with the Abernathys that would last until his death.

Although one of King’s best college friends was also up for the Dexter Avenue Church job, King accepted the church pastoral offer on April 14, 1954, agreeing to start that fall in September. On the fifth of that month King delivered his initial sermon. During that year he finished his dissertation and was awarded the Ph.D. in June 1955. Next came the birth of his first daughter, Yolanda Denise, on November 17, 1955. This was followed by the historic arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white rider. The results of this arrest would change the history of the South forever.


After Parks was arrested, three major overlapping organizations, the NAACP, the Women’s Political Council, and the Montgomery Improvement Association, mobilized to launch a bus boycott to protest the blatant racism and segregation inflicted upon black passengers.

For several years the NAACP had been looking for an appropriate case arising from an arrest of an African American for violating the city bus segregation ordinance. Several had come up during the early years after King’s arrival at Dexter, but E. D. Nixon, the leading civil rights activist in the city, rejected them as inadequate test cases. However, it was a different story with the universally respected Rosa Parks, and when approached she agreed to permit herself to become the test case the NAACP wanted. Concerning tactics, the Women’s Political Council, headed by Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State University, wanted to plan a simple one-day bus boycott in the aftermath of Parks’s arrest to protest the unfairness of the city’s segregation bus law. In order to activate the protest, Robinson worked all night at her office at the university, mimeographing a leaflet to be circulated through the churches and other council contacts. In addition to her conceiving the boycott, Robinson was a member of King’s church. After speaking to Robinson, Nixon called King and asked for his support as well as requesting that the city’s fifty top African American leaders meet in the basement of his church to organize and plan an extended boycott. Those attending the meeting agreed to the legal challenge and the bus boycott and condensed the leaflet prepared by Robinson, which called for a mass meeting to spread the details about it. On that Sunday both King and Abernathy announced to their congregations that the boycott was on. The leading white newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, got copies of both leaflets from white women who had received them from their maids and printed a story to warn the white community about what was coming, but the article also informed other African Americans who had not heard about the forthcoming boycott. The boycott meant that some 20,000 of the 40,000 African Americans in the city would not use public transportation, making it necessary for the leaders of the action to establish private transportation arrangements for participants.

Once the white police chief heard about the Monday morning boycott, he declared that it would be effective only if “Negro goon squads” forcibly kept people off the buses. Hence, he ordered policemen to arm themselves and ride behind the buses to keep the “goon squads” from being effective. But this heavy show of police force scared away the few African Americans who wanted to

ride the buses but saw only trouble from such armed policemen. Parks was convicted in court; her lawyer, Fred Gray, filed an appeal; and Nixon posted her bond.

Just as they left the courtroom, a massive crowd of African Americans met them in the hallway and urged further action. Such an unexpected show of support led Nixon, Abernathy, and others to immediately assemble and call for a new mass meeting that evening. At that meeting, King was elected president of the organization and a name was voted on for the boycott organization. It was named the Montgomery Improvement Association. But before they decided on whether to make the one-day boycott a longer one, they decided to wait and see the actual turnout at the mass meeting that evening.

The first indication that the moment of decision had arrived was when King and his college friend, who was giving him a ride to the Holt Street Baptist Church, could not get within ten blocks of the church. Eventually, King had to exit the car and walk for nearly fifteen minutes to reach the church and push his way inside. He was called to the pulpit and gave a stirring address. Afterward, it was clear that the long boycott was on and only the details needed to be worked out. However, the extension of the boycott forced it to move from a taxi-based system providing transportation to the participants to a volunteer car-pool arrangement. Such changes brought a host of problems and white pressures to cripple the MIA leadership and its system of helpful transportation. Scores of internal and external problems led Parks’s attorney, Fred Gray, to file a suit in federal court on February 1, 1956, against the entire system of bus segregation in the city. This was two days after King’s house was bombed with his wife and child in it.

On June 4, 1956, a panel of three federal judges voted 2 to 1 to declare bus segregation in Montgomery unconstitutional. Next came the Supreme Court decision on November 13, 1956, that upheld and affirmed the lower court decision. But the city had the right to ask the Court for reconsideration, which it did. On December 17 the Court rejected the city appeal, and the final court order to the city arrived on December 20. The successful boycott had lasted 382 days and in the process had made King a national figure.


Out of the Montgomery protest came not only the ascendancy of King but also the creation of a new civil rights organization for African Americans in the South. During the wait for the final court order to the city, the MIA hosted a weeklong conference called Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. A few notable outsiders and several ministers around the South who were leading bus boycotts in other cities or planning to set them in motion met on December 3–9. The meeting permitted the sharing of ideas and strategies and the creation of lifelong friendships.

Shortly after Christmas, King traveled to Baltimore to make a speech and met master march organizer Bayard Rustin and several of his friends. Rustin and a New York lawyer, Stanley Levison, told King that the now successful boycott showed that a regionwide movement against segregation was now possible. After discussing this with King, who was interested in a regional organization, Rustin and Levison drafted a memo of ideas and proposed a title: Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation. King moved to sell the idea and issued a call for the conference. On January 10 and 11, 1957, the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration held its initial meeting at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and reacted to an agenda developed by Rustin. King and Abernathy left on January 10 after hearing that Abernathy’s house in Montgomery had been bombed. They returned the next day when the conference approved a “Statement to the South and Nation” and made King the organization’s temporary chairman.

On February 14 a second meeting of the conference was held in New Orleans, and King informed the group that President Dwight Eisenhower and his attorney general had failed to respond to their request for federal help and intervention. He told the conference that they should hold a prayer pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial to put pressure on the Eisenhower administration to act. Before adjourning, the participants changed the organization’s name to the Southern Leadership Conference.

Following the second conference meeting, King and his wife went to the independence celebration of the new African nation Ghana, where he met Vice President Richard Nixon and discussed a possible formal meeting with him. Back in the United States, he met with A. Philip Randolph, nationally known president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, and began making plans for a prayer pilgrimage in Washington. After a second meeting, May 17 was chosen because it was the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Later, a third meeting of the conference was held on August 8 and 9 in Montgomery, and at that meeting the organization was renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC would coordinate civil rights protests around the South, and when needed, King would arrive to help local leaders and local movements. The creation of this new organization angered the secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, for he knew it would attract monies that would otherwise have come to his organization. King was made the first president of this organization.


The successful Montgomery bus boycott created its own dynamism both inside the African American community and in white communities across the South. The civil rights gains in the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, were perceived by some in the white community as a loss. Nevertheless, there had been success in only one southern city, and numerous other southern cities were unaffected. Segregation in these cities stood firm. Such locales became targets for civil rights activists as well as rallying points for opponents of change. Albany, Georgia, was just such a place.

The Montgomery bus boycott not only illuminated these hamlets of white supremacy but also energized other groups in various African American communities. One of the first energized groups undertook the successful student soda fountain sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. Their success led to another new African American student civil rights organization at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, known as the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). This group was looking to mobilize in other locales, hoping to remove the shackles of the past. They got help from a new presidential administration. Democrat John F. Kennedy was elected in November 1960, and upon taking office he appointed his brother Robert Kennedy as his attorney general. Before they took office the Freedom Rides were under way.

The Supreme Court decision pertaining to Montgomery was supposed to lead the attorney general to forcing the Interstate Commerce Commission to set up new rules and regulations to integrate bus facilities across the South. Many southern locales ignored rules banning segregation, as they had ignored the Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia in 1946 that had banned racial discrimination in bus transportation. Local leaders and SNCC volunteers decided to test local compliance with the ICC ruling in the Albany bus terminal. Thus began a local protest movement that eventuated in a call to King for help because local white political resistance and intransigence and a creative and inventive sheriff had outmaneuvered the youthful and inexperienced leaders. Although King went to jail with the local leaders, many in the community, black and white, opposed inviting King from the outset and continued to do so even after he arrived. Shrewd white leaders who had stalled a settlement proffered one if he would leave. King exited the jail, and no settlement came. After more delays, Attorney General Kennedy, whose policy of “quiet persuasion” led to nonintervention, left the beleaguered protesters at the mercies of the local authorities. Eventually, they prevailed. The Albany Movement got little more than verbal promises and no implementation. From this event, King and his staff learned that it would be better if he selected his own sites to conduct battles rather than trying to rescue one that had already faltered and was in deep trouble. In addition, they learned that it was essential to have the federal government intervene rather than standing on the sidelines acting as a neutral observer. Thus, the stage was set for a new site and new struggle.


The Birmingham protest began on April 3, 1963, just before the Easter shopping season. There, as elsewhere, marches and demonstrations led to the jailing of King, and from his cell he wrote the now famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” This letter garnered much national publicity for his efforts and attracted significant support from white churches and ministries, north and south. But the greatest generator of national and international publicity for the Birmingham protest was the police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Conner. To protect segregation and white supremacy in the city, he unleashed dogs, fire hoses, billy clubs, cattle prods, police on horseback, police brutality, police beatings of women and children, and endless racial epithets and slurs.

This use of brute force shocked the nation, its political elites, and the international community. Internationally, colonialism was being displaced by the rise of new nations in African and Asia. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the loyalty and alignment of these new nations and their allegiance in the cold war. King’s aide, Wyatt T. Walker, who chose Birmingham for the next confrontation, did so precisely because of the presence of Connor and his reputation for vigorously defending segregation at all costs. In his plans, Walker had dubbed the city “C,” for “confrontation.” Connor’s response to the marches and demonstrations was even more violent than anticipated. It turned out to be a major media attention getter and created a national crisis for the federal government. Conner’s reaction moved the Birmingham protests from a local struggle for civil rights and human dignity into a national effort to attain new civil rights legislation. While King struggled in Birmingham, efforts by labor leader A. Philip Randolph to create and set into motion a march on Washington were coming to fruition.


Eventually, Randolph persuaded all the major civil rights leaders to back the march on Washington plan, and on July 17, 1963, President Kennedy endorsed the march during a press conference. On August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and after the festivities were over, all the major leaders went to the White House for a meeting with the president to talk about how best to ensure the passage of his civil rights bill. Suggestions were made, and some were accepted by the president in the seventy-two-minute meeting. King had been in Washington before with his prayer pilgrimage in 1957, but this was even greater and much more was at stake. Unlike the 1957 march, this time King was not only a national figure but an international one.

Despite such lofty moments, there were numerous protests and endless acts of violence and resistance to attend to while the new civil rights bill worked its way through Congress. Throughout the South, local bastions of segregation still fiercely defended that institution. Albany still had not relinquished its stiff prosecutions of the protesters, hoping that their diehard resistance would reverse the favorable course of events for the protesters. The worst example of this violence came on September 15 when a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young girls attending Sunday

school, and a resultant riot killed another black youth. By October 15, King was called into Selma, Alabama, to help local activists against Sheriff Jim Clark. By the next month, President Kennedy was assassinated. To King and other civil rights leaders, the pressure placed on the White House by Birmingham and the March on Washington eventuated into nothing. Little did he know what Vice President Lyndon Johnson would do when he assumed the presidency. With Johnson in the White House, national civil rights legislation would advance further and faster than ever before.


In the aftermath of Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency and his subsequent speech to support Kennedy’s civil rights bill, King and the SCLC selected St. Augustine, Florida, as a new site to attack segregation. On May 18, 1964, King made his first visit and prepared to lead demonstrations and marches against the city, which had decided to hold out against any kind of concessions. Despite King’s intermittent visits, violence not only broke out but also escalated, with no resolution in sight.

Elsewhere, the SNCC and several other civil rights groups in Mississippi had instituted the Freedom Summer in 1963 to register as many African Americans as possible to vote. This effort resulted in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and in a major seating challenge to the regular Democratic Party in Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. King was asked to intervene and help the challenge. He agreed, but before the challenge took place, the 1964 civil rights bill became law on July 2. There was a White House ceremony for the signing of this historic bill. Yet in other parts of the nation, race riots broke out and continued during what was called the long hot summer. At the Democratic National Convention, the MFDP challenge was heard by the Credential Committee, which was empowered to decide which delegation to seat, the MFDP or the regular party. King, despite a broken foot, stayed for the entire convention and was persuaded to talk with MFDP leaders to accept a compromise of two honorary seats. The compromise had been brokered by Senator Hubert Humphrey, whom President Johnson had sent to work out a settlement. Party member and cofounder Fannie Lou Hamer made an electrifying speech to the convention indicating that the party could not accept such a compromise given the terrible struggle in Mississippi simply to register her people to vote. This compromise of two seats was, as she saw it, only “token rights.” In the midst of her speech, the national television coverage was abruptly cut off. Later, she would lead a demonstration on the convention floor and engage in singing several freedom songs.

For many in the civil rights struggle, this repulse of the MFDP was a clear-cut window on the weakness and shortcomings of liberalism in America. Some of the participants in this challenge, particularly the youthful SNCC activists, afterward struck out on another path, which led them to embrace the “Black Power” slogan and drop the “non-violent” part of their name. King, in contrast, went on to win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and numerous other awards. Yet another fight lay ahead in Selma.

On December 31, 1964, the SCLC staff moved into Selma as its next protest site, and King followed on January 2, 1965, announcing to the people at Brown Chapel Church that the marches and demonstrations were about to commence. January 18 would become “Freedom Day.” White officials in Selma decided to take a page out of Police Chief Laurie Pritchard’s playbook in Albany, where quiet police action had stalled the movement. But Dallas County head Sheriff Jim Clark thought that Bull Conner had failed in Birmingham simply because he had not used enough force and violence to stop the marches and demonstrations. After more than a few arrests and jailings, King announced that he would lead a march from Selma to Montgomery to arouse public opinion and get more help and support. On March 7, in defiance of the courts, and against the wishes of the president and numerous civil rights leaders and activists, King began what is now called in the history books “Bloody Sunday,” because the marchers were met on the Edmund Pettus Bridge just outside town on the highway to Montgomery. Although it had been prearranged with King that the marchers would go to the middle of the bridge, then kneel and pray, the sheriff and Alabama state troopers waded into the crowd with tear gas, billy clubs, and horses and proceeded to beat the nonviolent marchers for nearly two blocks back to Brown Chapel Church. This violent spectacle, viewed on television by millions of Americans, created a furor throughout the nation and in the international community. Sympathizers around the nation soon mobilized thousands of marchers who took buses to Alabama and completed the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25, 1965, when 25,000 peaceable, orderly marchers gathered at the state capitol to hear a speech by King. President Johnson called a special session of Congress and submitted a Voting Rights Bill. On August 6 the Voting Rights Act became law.


On June 28, 1965, when local protests in Chicago over the school system and its insensitive superintendent Benjamin Willis failed to budge Mayor Richard Daley, local leader Al Raby asked King to come to the city and assist with marches and demonstrations to deal with the city’s nonresponsive mayor. King agreed and arrived first on July 6, then came back for neighborhood rallies on July 24 and 25. With this action, many saw the civil rights movement moving north. Although King also considered other cities such as Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia problems, he focused on Chicago. But because of numerous commitments elsewhere and his increasing attention to the Vietnam War, the Chicago effort of the SCLC did not get under way until January 5, 1966, with King calling his program the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Elsewhere, James Meredith started to lead a march against fear through Mississippi but was shot on the second day of the march, June 6. The SCLC, SNCC, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) completed the march, where the slogan Black Power was introduced on June 17. During the next weeks, the NAACP and President Johnson denounced the slogan, but King refused to sign a statement condemning it. CORE, led by James Farmer, embraced the slogan. Many saw the slogan as being strongly opposed to an interracial society, and King was heavily criticized for not attacking and condemning “Black Power,” which became quite popular and was clearly opposed to the idea of nonviolence.

From July 12 to 15, riots broke out on the west side of Chicago, and King led mass marches from July 30 until August 25. Some of these marches engendered great violence and angry responses and outrage. They also met with serious resistance from Mayor Daley and some of his African American aldermen. Things went less well than in some southern cities, but on August 26 a “Summit Agreement” ended the demonstrations in the city and King eventually moved back south. Once again many criticized him for achieving only a set of paper concessions and little else. King himself noted that after living in his apartment in the Chicago ghetto, the problems he encountered were greater than what he had prepared for and more than his southern experiences had taught him to expect. The northern movement was over hardly before it had started.


After the withdrawal from Chicago in the fall of 1966, King in January and February 1967 wrote his fourth book, Where Do We Go from Here? and on February 25 delivered his first speech attacking U.S. policy in Vietnam. In July, President Johnson increased the number of troops in Vietnam, while the ghettoes in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, witnessed large-scale riots. In Detroit federal troops had to be called in to restore order. Responding to these urban rebellions, Johnson created a presidential commission, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to explore the causes and consequences and make recommendations to prevent them.

From September 12 to 17 King and his SCLC staffers held the first of their retreats to begin planning their Poor People’s Campaign. A second retreat occurred in Frog-more, South Carolina, from November 27 to December 2. Although SCLC staffers James Bevel and Jesse Jackson spoke out against the campaign, a third retreat occurred in Atlanta on January 15–16, 1968. Before the end of the month, Bayard Rustin came out in opposition to the campaign. This new high-profile proposed action by King for the organization was running into significant opposition inside SCLC and among his trusted advisors.

At about the same time in Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers went on strike for recognition as a union and better wages. This occurred on February 12, 1968, and when they marched on February 23, the city police broke up the march. Within a month, on March 12, Senator Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, and four days later Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Two days after Kennedy announced, King went to Memphis to meet with the striking sanitation workers and promised to lead marches in support of them. On March 28, King’s first march turned into a riot, police had to disperse the crowd, and the governor of Tennessee sent in the National Guard. Two days later, the SCLC executive staff urged King to return to mapping out his Poor People’s Campaign. One day later King, along with the rest of the nation, heard President Johnson announce that he would not run for reelection. King returned to Memphis on April 3 to lead a second march to prove to critics, skeptics, and cautious observers that nonviolence was still realistic and that he could keep his mass movement obedient and committed to this principal value.

However on April 4 King was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel, where he had stayed during his first visit. His death forced the city to enter into an agreement with the union and approve it. His death also triggered the passage of the stalled 1966 civil rights bill, which now became the 1968 bill and contained a fair housing provision. Four days after King’s assassination, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the first bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday. Shortly after Conyers’s legislative initiative, numerous other bills were introduced to honor and commemorate the slain leader, with stamps, bronze busts, portraits, buildings, and national medals.

Ralph Abernathy succeeded King and led the Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, DC, on June 19, but he proved ineffectual in managing the media spectacle surrounding the camp known as “Resurrection City.” District police closed the city on June 24, and the campaign ended as a failure on July 16, 1968.


King’s leadership, along with that of other civil rights groups and activists, led to the passage of three major civil rights bills and the evolution of African Americans to full citizenship. Not only was this unprecedented, but it restored America’s democracy to a new level in world affairs. Thus, Conyers’s efforts to honor this distinguished citizen led him to try to mobilize grass-roots support to pressure Congress and the president to pass his national holiday bill. Previous efforts to make holidays for Booker T. Washington, Black Mammies, National Freedom Day (Emancipation Day), and George Washington Carver all ended in failure or were reduced to special observations.

Conyers enlisted Stevie Wonder, who wrote a popular song. Conyers also held rallies in Washington in front of the Capitol and inserted numerous items in the Congressional Record as well as reintroduced his bill every year from 1968 until 1983, but failed to get passage and support from Democratic presidents Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

However, in 1982, a congressman from Indiana died, and it fell to Gary’s mayor, Richard Hatcher, to handpick and support State Senator Katie Hall to be a candidate to assume the office. In a special election, Hall won the right to serve the remainder of the congress-man’s term and win her own term. Upon coming to the House of Representatives, she learned that the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Population and Census had not been filled because no one wanted such a low-prestige committee post. Yet she discovered that this subcommittee was in charge of considering bills for national holidays. She accepted the chair’s position and introduced her own King holiday bill, which eventually came to her own subcommittee for consideration. She held a public hearing on the bill, voted the bill out of her subcommittee, and sent it back to the full committee. She lobbied the full committee, and they voted it out and sent it to the floor of the House of Representatives. After Hall lobbied all 434 members of the House, her bill passed.

Next, Hall lobbied all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, and Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R-KS) introduced the House bill in the Senate and put it on the Senate calendar. President Ronald Reagan not only declared that he would veto such a bill but asked Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) to stop the bill with a filibuster. Once Helms started his stalling tactics, Dole asked the White House to call Helms off. When it did not, Dole and his majority whip, Howard Baker (R-TN), successfully invoked cloture to stop the Helms filibuster. Thus, the bill passed, and when it reached the White House, Reagan held a Rose Garden ceremony to sign it into law.

In 1983, King’s birthday became a national holiday, and a Federal Holiday Commission was created to implement it. As of 2007, but not at first, all the states recognize this holiday. As a consequence, the King legacy still lives.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Movement; Hamer, Fannie Lou; NAACP; Rustin, Bayard.



King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride Toward Freedom The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row.

_____. 1959. The Measure of a Man. Philadelphia: Christian Education Press.

_____. 1964. Strength to Love. New York: Pocket Books.

_____. 1967. Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community. New York: Harper & Row.


Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon & Schuster.

_____. 1998. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965. New York: Simon & Schuster.

_____. 2006. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Carson, Clayborne, ed. 1992. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____, ed. 1998. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.

Carson, Clayborne, and Peter Holloran, eds. 1998. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.

Carson, Clayborne, and Kris Shephard, eds. 2001. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.

Walton, Hanes, Jr. 1968. “The Political Leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Quarterly Review of Higher Education Among Negroes 36: 163–171.

_____. 1971. The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hanes Walton Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated Jun 27 2018

KING, Martin Luther, Jr.

(b. 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee), religious and civil rights leader who, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spearheaded the struggle for racial equality throughout the 1960s.

King was the second of three children of Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and one of the principal leaders of the black community, and Alberta Christine (Williams) King, a teacher. King enrolled at Morehouse College at age fifteen. He continued his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor of divinity degree in 1951, and at Boston University, from which he earned his doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. By that time he had married Coretta Scott (18 June 1953), with whom he would have four children, and become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In a political career that spanned little more than twelve years, King helped revolutionize American race relations. He first came to international attention during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956. On 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. Her arrest led to the organization of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which launched a boycott of the city's bus system. As president of the MIA, King communicated the aspirations of the protesters not only to the nation but to the world as well. Inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi, he placed a resolute emphasis upon nonviolence, which sustained African Americans in the face of constant intimidation and violence. When terrorists bombed his home on 30 January 1956, King restored calm to a potentially riotous black community. His determined appeal to meet "violence with nonviolence" also enhanced his stature as a moral leader.

King was not the first African-American leader to espouse the philosophy of nonviolence. In 1941 the black union leader A. Philip Randolph proposed leading a mass march on Washington in protest against racial discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries. The threat of civil disorder forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission. It was nonetheless under the leadership of King that African Americans implemented nonviolent direct action on a mass scale, with revolutionary consequences. King adhered to the concept of nonviolence throughout his political career, even when surrounded by the chaos and urban disorder that characterized the late 1960s. He was particularly influenced by Gandhi's concept of Satyagraha, or "soul force," which taught him that love was the instrument to overthrow the violent hatred of white racists.

Following the success of the 381-day boycott, in February 1957, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization initially floundered. Much of its efforts were concentrated on the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration drive that, as King conceded in the late 1950s, had "not really scratched the surface." These years were nonetheless of great significance in terms of King's intellectual growth. In particular, the civil rights leader deepened his philosophical understanding of nonviolent direct action. His visit to India in 1959 as a special guest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru allowed him an opportunity to discuss Gandhian principles with some of the late Indian leader's disciples. (Gandhi himself had been assassinated in 1948.)

On 1 February 1960 four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College entered a Woolworth store in Greensboro, sat at the lunch counter reserved for whites, and demanded service. This incident stirred a wave of similar protests across the South. The student sit-ins were fuelled by a sense of increasing frustration at the retarded pace of civil rights reform. Although he was reluctant, King was persuaded to participate in the Atlanta sit-in movement. On 19 October 1960 he and fiftyone other activists were arrested at a downtown demonstration. King was sentenced to four months' hard labor at Reidsville State Prison. Within only two days, however, he was a free man. His release had been negotiated by Robert Kennedy in a calculated attempt to increase black votes for his brother John F. Kennedy, who was running a closely contested presidential race against Richard Nixon. The plan proved decisive: African-American voters helped secure Kennedy's narrow electoral victory in November.

The newly elected president nonetheless did little to promote civil rights, instead prioritizing an aggressive foreign policy against the Soviet Union. Black activists understood that more direct action was needed to force the hand of the federal government. In May 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality launched the Freedom Rides in an attempt to desegregate interstate transportation facilities. Although King served as chairman of the Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee, he refused to take a seat aboard one of the buses. While King was immediately identifiable as the intellectual and spiritual leader of the civil rights movement, it was others who implemented the tactics of non-violent direct action. The pioneering protests of the early 1960s therefore raised expectations that King would lead his own campaign of mass civil disobedience.

In December 1961 King received a telegram inviting him to lend his support to the black protest movement in Albany, Georgia. Inspired by the enthusiasm of local blacks, King swiftly assumed leadership of the movement. Albany was the first significant civil rights campaign in which King had participated since Montgomery, and it was to end in ignominious failure. Numerous forces conspired to frustrate the Albany Movement. King's arrival complicated the already fractious relations between local activists. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee particularly resented King's assumption of authority. King also had to contend with Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett. Pritchett had read King's memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, which enabled him to anticipate his opponent's tactics. King attempted to dramatize the plight of local blacks by precipitating a conflict between the protesters and the police. By ordering his men to use the utmost restraint in arresting black activists, Pritchett succeeded in preserving community order and removing the threat of federal intervention. King abandoned Albany in August 1962.

The SCLC leader was to learn from the lesson of defeat. In April 1963 he launched an audacious campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Among local blacks the violently repressive political climate had earned the city the bleak sobriquet "Bombingham." Under the control of Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene ("Bull") Connor, the police used intimidation and violence to suppress incipient black protests. Connor, for instance, had failed to protect the Freedom Riders from a brutal assault by the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, it was precisely because of the appalling reputation of Birmingham that it was chosen as the target of an SCLC campaign. As the SCLC's executive director Wyatt T. Walker asserted, "We knew that as Birmingham went, so went the South. And we felt that if we could crack that city, then we could crack any city."

Unlike in Albany, King started the Birmingham campaign with several advantages. King was not properly prepared for the Albany campaign and, as a result, could not impose complete control over a divided local movement. The SCLC leader established a clearer line of authority in Birmingham. He benefited in particular from close strategic planning with the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, head of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a local SCLC affiliate. In Albany, King had fought against the unified front of the white power structure. By contrast, with an imminent mayoral election, the white community in Birmingham was split between those who supported the extremist Bull Connor and others who backed the moderate Albert Boutwell. The Albany Movement also had suffered from a failure to define its objectives clearly. King now understood that a broad-based assault on segregation could result in a lack of strategic focus. In Birmingham he therefore directed his efforts toward a more clearly defined goal: the desegregation of downtown stores.

Despite its elaborate planning, the SCLC campaign experienced a less than auspicious start. The SCLC was forced to postpone the campaign to allow for the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor. When the protests eventually commenced on 3 April, King was taken aback by the strength of local black opposition. Many African Americans believed that the new administration should be given an opportunity to introduce reforms. The SCLC campaign could prove counterproductive, as it would arouse renewed racial hostilities. Although Connor continued to hold his position as Commissioner of Public Safety, he, too, confounded King. The SCLC anticipated that Connor would play into their hands by ordering a violent crackdown on civil rights protests. By exposing the brutal realities of white racism, the activists would create public pressure for federal government intervention. However, Connor exercised un-characteristic self-control.

In an effort to improve the faltering momentum of the campaign, King was arrested during a march on Good Friday (12 April). The timing of the arrest imbued King's actions with the symbolism of Christian martyrdom. In his prison cell King read a letter published in the local newspaper, written by eight white clergymen. The letter castigated the SCLC leader for creating renewed racial tensions at a time when real change had seemed imminent. An angry and embittered King responded by penning his passionately worded "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." A scathing indictment of white liberals who urged greater caution, this document stands as the most thorough articulation of King's philosophy of nonviolent direct action. Throughout his career King was accused of cynically inciting violence as a way to advance his political objectives. King adamantly asserted that he did not create the violent disorder that accompanied SCLC campaigns: "We merely bring to the surface the tension that is already alive." It also should be emphasized that King did not expose black protesters to the serious risk of murderous retribution by white racists. SCLC campaigns were carefully stage-managed morality plays. The presence of the media constrained the actions of the police, enabling the SCLC to control the levels of violence. In comparison with civil rights protests in such countries as South Africa, police brutality created a dramatic effect but without a deadly impact.

Upon his release from prison, King was confronted by the problem of how to crack the resolve of Connor. The SCLC activist James Bevel offered the solution. On 2 May hundreds of black schoolchildren marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church into the arms of arresting officers. Within a week more than two thousand children were in police custody. Connor could not control his anger any longer. Under his command, the police turned German Shepherd dogs on the protesters. Those activists who failed to disperse then were assaulted with high-pressure water hoses. The scenes of racial brutality on the streets of Birmingham drew international condemnation. In particular, the violence provided enormous political capital to the Soviet Union, which ridiculed the failure of the federal government to fulfill the ideals of American democracy. King therefore proved astute in his ability to manipulate cold war tensions toward advancement of the black cause. An embarrassed Kennedy administration immediately ordered Justice Department officials to negotiate a settlement. With the desegregation of the downtown department stores accomplished, King turned his sights upon the nation's capital.

On 11 June, President Kennedy announced his intention to present Congress with a comprehensive civil rights bill. The bill was intended to ban segregation in all public facilities, to promote black employment, and to abolish black disfranchisement. In a dramatic expression of public support for the bill, King led the March on Washington. On 28 August the SCLC leader addressed an audience of 250,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His "I Have a Dream" speech was the most powerful and important address delivered by an American in the twentieth century. King cloaked his language in the traditional symbols of American identity: patriotism, religious conviction, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. The speech resonated all the more powerfully because of the way King portrayed the black freedom struggle as part of the broader moral redemption of the entire American people: "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.'"

The Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington sealed King's reputation as the outstanding moral and political leader of his generation. In January 1964 Time magazine named him "Man of the Year," the first African American to receive this accolade. The civil rights bill, however, continued to face entrenched opposition from politicians in the South. King sustained the political pressure on Congress through a series of demonstrations in Saint Augustine, Florida, in May and June 1964. A series of violent assaults on black protesters maintained the political focus on civil rights. The defeat of a southern filibuster in the Senate finally led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act into law on 2 July 1964. One of several such laws enacted during the late 1950s and 1960s, this one outlawed segregation in public places. The persistent public protests of King and the SCLC had proved instrumental, stirring the conscience of the nation and creating a relentless political pressure in support of racial reform. In October 1964 King became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965 King launched a new campaign of nonviolent direct action in Selma, Alabama. His purpose was to press for the enactment of a federal voting rights law. Selma provided an ideal stage upon which to dramatize the plight of black disfranchisement. Although African Americans made up more than half the population, fewer than 2 percent of them were registered to vote. The SCLC also anticipated that it could provoke the local sheriff, Jim Clark, into a confrontation as violent as the one it had instigated with Bull Connor in Birmingham. A series of almost daily marches to the county courthouse culminated with the arrest of King on 1 February. The SCLC used the occasion to publicize the black community's lack of political rights. In his "Letter from a Selma Jail," King proclaimed, "THIS IS SELMA, ALABAMA. THERE ARE MORE NEGROES IN JAIL THAN THERE ARE ON THE VOTING ROLLS." Even so, the Selma movement was slow to gather momentum. On 18 February, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot dead as he sought to protect his mother from state troopers during a protest in the nearby community of Marion. Despite this incident, the movement still had not stirred national awareness.

On 5 March, King announced his intention to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to petition Alabama's governor, George Wallace, for the enforcement of black voting rights. Two days later six hundred demonstrators marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were met by state troopers and members of the sheriff's posse. The troopers charged the marchers with tear gas, billy clubs, and bullwhips. According to one newspaper report, "The Negroes cried out as they crowded together for protection, and the whites on the sideline whooped and cheered." An estimated one hundred protesters were injured on what became known as "Bloody Sunday."

King was not actually among the marchers, having returned to Atlanta. His absence aroused intense criticism from younger radicals, who accused him of cowardice. King responded by issuing a call to clergymen across the country to join him in a second march. Still, the SCLC leader stirred further controversy when he ordered the marchers to turn around once they had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Confronted by a federal court injunction against the march, King feared that the protesters would be unprotected against a further outbreak of violence. His decision nonetheless intensified criticisms of his leadership.

Despite criticisms, the campaign had succeeded in arousing national indignation. On 15 March, Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. As he concluded his emotional appeal for passage of a voting rights law, the president invoked the anthem of the civil rights movement: "And We Shall Overcome." Never before had the U.S. government so completely embraced the cause of black civil rights. On 19 March a federal court lifted the injunction against marching. Two days later King set out for the state capital. On 25 March, twenty-five thousand demonstrators gathered outside the Alabama statehouse. "We are on the move now," declared King, "and no wave of racism can stop us." On 6 August 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Only months earlier Vice President Hubert Humphrey had informed King that he doubted that Congress would enact such a law so soon after the Civil Rights Act. The speed with which the Voting Rights Act passed into law is therefore a tribute to the remarkable ability of King to provoke public awareness of the race issue, creating the broad popular consensus that compelled federal government action.

"There is no more civil rights movement," James Bevel proudly proclaimed to news reporters. "President Johnson signed it out of existence when he signed the Voting Rights Bill." The complacency of black activists was starkly exposed by the riot that erupted in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles on 11 July 1965. The Watts riot was the worst outbreak of urban unrest since World War II. In its wake, thirty-four people lay dead, nearly four hundred were injured, and a further four thousand were under arrest. Damage to property was estimated at $45 million. King traveled to Los Angeles to help restore calm and order in the African-American community. When he arrived, he was shocked to discover that many younger blacks claimed never to have heard of him. "We won," exclaimed one of the rioters to the SCLC leader. "How can you say you won," replied King, "when thirty four people are dead, your community is destroyed … ?" "We won," retorted the rioter, "because we made them pay attention to us."

The Watts riot exposed the limitations of the black protest movement led by King. Civil rights activists had invested their energies in the struggle to secure the constitutional rights of African Americans in the southern states. The plight of northern blacks had been largely overlooked. During the Great Migration of the 1920s, African Americans fled in ever increasing numbers from the twin evils of racism and economic depression in the South to start a new life in the North. The influx of thousands of African Americans into northern cities accelerated during World War II as unprecedented job opportunities opened up owing to chronic labor shortages in the defense industries. By the 1960s approximately 50 percent of the black population lived in the North. In the northern states, no laws reduced African Americans to a status of second-class citizenship, but persistent prejudice resulted in widespread unemployment, police brutality, and political neglect. In 1964 some 15 percent of white families in the United States lived below the federal poverty line; the figure for African-American families was 37 percent. The Watts riot awakened King to the harsh economic realities of the northern inner cities. It was time, he understood, to lead the movement out of the South.

King launched his northern offensive in early 1966. His target was the country's second-largest city, Chicago. The civil rights leader was optimistic that his plans to eradicate slum conditions and promote open housing would be welcomed by the liberal establishment, since they accorded with the aims of Johnson's War on Poverty. "Chicago represents all the problems that you can find in the major urban areas of our country," asserted King. "If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken anywhere in the country." The system, however, could not be broken.

From the outset, the SCLC campaign failed to establish political momentum. In the South, King had inspired an army of nonviolent soldiers to take battle against the forces of white racism. In Chicago he was met by the cynicism and apathy of the ghetto masses. The SCLC had relied in all its previous campaigns upon the organizational resources and ideological influence of the church. Outside the Bible Belt, the church did not command the same authority and respect and could not be used so effectively as a movement center. King also was outmaneuvered by Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley. In Birmingham and Selma, King had relied upon a violently racist opposition to expose the injustices of the Jim Crow caste system. By contrast, Daley publicly appeared to sympathize with the political objectives of the SCLC campaign. Although the mayor failed to fulfill his promises, his actions succeeded in de-fusing any dramatic political confrontation between black protesters and city authorities. Moreover, when a riot erupted in the West Side ghetto on 12 July, Daley seized the opportunity to accuse King of stirring up dissent.

Later that month the SCLC launched a series of confrontational marches into white neighborhoods. The marches exposed the realities of northern racism as protesters were met by thousands of violently angry white residents. At the same time, white liberals accused the SCLC of unnecessarily provocative tactics, especially after it announced a march into Cicero, a notoriously racist white suburb. King was compelled to accept a negotiated settlement that committed the city to end housing discrimination. With no timetable for implementation, however, the "Summit Agreement" proved a hollow victory. In November 1967, long after King had abandoned Chicago, Daley won a fourth term of office with 80 percent of the black vote.

The SCLC leader never recovered from the political setback in Chicago. During the last two years of his life King espoused an increasingly radical critique of American society. King realized in the wake of the Chicago campaign that he had underestimated the strength of northern racism. The reality of white prejudice posed not a regional but a national problem. In the past, King had individualized the problem of racism, perceiving it as an irrational hatred toward African Americans on the part of a minority of whites. Racial equality therefore could be accomplished within the existing economic and political structures of American society. The failure of the Chicago campaign convinced King that it was the capitalist system itself that confined African Americans to the poverty and despair of the ghetto. This newfound radicalism, however, stood at odds with the white conservative backlash that swept the country in the late 1960s. King's opposition to the Vietnam War was met with a particularly hostile public reaction.

King made a personal appeal for negotiations to end the war as early as August 1965, but he soon withdrew into a tactical silence when his closest advisers warned him not to alienate the Johnson administration. The civil rights leader suffered an acute crisis of conscience for another eighteen months. As an exponent of nonviolence, how could he refuse to condemn a war in which not only soldiers but also innocent civilians were slaughtered? His political caution also had failed to protect the civil rights movement from the increasing indifference of the federal government. Johnson promised the American people that they could have both "guns and butter," but the massive escalation of military expenditure seriously curtailed funding for Great Society programs, crushing the expectations of impoverished inner-city blacks. "In a real sense," declared King, "the Great Society has been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam." The war also witnessed a disproportionate number of African Americans being drafted into the army. Although blacks made up only 11 percent of the population, they represented 20 percent of conscripts.

King broke his silence in early 1967 with a series of blistering assaults on American foreign policy. As predicted, the speeches were politically disastrous. The press and political establishment turned on King, accusing him of interfering in affairs about which he had little or no expert knowledge. Life magazine denounced his criticisms of the war effort as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The speeches also widened the fault lines within the civil rights coalition, as more conservative black leaders, such as Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, accused King of disloyalty.

The civil rights movement was already on the point of collapse as a result of the emergence of Black Power. This radical strain of protest first had an impact on the public consciousness during James Meredith's March Against Fear in June 1966. It represented an explicit challenge to the nonviolent tactics and integrationist objectives of the mainstream civil rights leadership. While King embraced Black Power's emphasis on racial pride, he otherwise dismissed it as a "nihilistic philosophy." His animus was directed in particular toward the glamourization of violence. During the "long, hot summer" of 1967, urban race riots resulted in eighty-three deaths. King believed that by promoting the riots as legitimate acts of protest, Black Power created political ammunition for white conservatives and a self-destructive mentality among African Americans. With the emergence of Black Power, the simmering tensions between radical and conservative elements within the civil rights coalition boiled over into mutual public animosity. King, who had acted as a mediator between these conflicting interests, found that the "vital center" he occupied had been irreparably eroded.

In December 1967 King announced plans for a "Poor People's Campaign." Under the auspices of the SCLC, thousands of impoverished citizens, black and white, would converge on Washington to demand a "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged." SCLC insiders again questioned the wisdom of the campaign. In the current incendiary racial climate, they were concerned that such a provocative demonstration could spill over into violence. King would not live to assess the legitimacy of these criticisms.

On 18 March 1968 the SCLC leader addressed a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, to express support for sanitation workers, who were striking for union recognition. Ten days later he led a sympathy march to city hall. The march descended into chaos, as young militants known as "the Invaders" stirred unrest, which led to the smashing and looting of storefronts. Police responded by firing tear gas and beating the blinded protesters. It was the first time that a march led by King had collapsed into violent disorder. Although he was profoundly depressed by the experience, King was in part to blame. The precipitous nature of his intervention in the strike meant that the SCLC was poorly prepared. King nonetheless was persuaded to return to Memphis for another rally. "Like anybody I would like to live a long life," King proclaimed. "I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." His words proved tragically prophetic. The following night, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was shot dead by James Earl Ray. King originally was buried in South View Cemetery in Atlanta. He later was reinterred at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Non-violent Social Change in Atlanta.

Black anger erupted on the streets. As many as 169 cities suffered race riots in the aftermath of the assassination. The Poor People's Campaign also collapsed into disarray. Some commentators have argued that the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act owed to the outpouring of public grief, but this has not been established conclusively. This Civil Rights Act was, in any case, a less than fitting tribute to the slain civil rights leader. Although in principle it outlawed housing discrimination, without adequate enforcement mechanisms the new law accomplished little.

It is impossible to determine what King would have achieved had he survived the assassin's bullet. Haunted by political setbacks and hounded by a systematic campaign of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) harassment, he faced an uncertain future. The FBI campaign against King certainly exacted a considerable psychological toll. The FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover pursued the civil rights leader relentlessly once he secured authorization in late 1962 for the wiretapping of King's telephones. Although the FBI failed to establish credible evidence that King was an instrument of the Communist Party, the wiretaps did reveal a series of extramarital liaisons. Public disclosure of this evidence would have seriously undermined King's credibility as a moral leader, a fact that the agency used in a deliberate attempt at blackmail.

Despite the setbacks he faced in his later years, King's greatness as a civil rights leader is incontestable. In later years the literature on the civil rights movement has moved beyond its initially narrow focus on King to emphasize the important contributions of other individuals and organizations. This should not conceal, however, his inestimable contribution to the black liberation struggle. King imbued the civil rights movement with a sense of historical urgency, leading by example in public acts of confrontation against the forces of white racism and forcing an often reluctant federal government to accelerate the process of civil rights reform.

Autobiographical works include James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986), and Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King (1998). Biographies of King include David L. Lewis, King: A Critical Biography (1970); David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986); Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1987); and Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988) and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (1998).

Clive Webb

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated May 29 2018

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1929-1968





Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and iconic leader of the U.S. civil rights movement. Famous for advocating nonviolent resistance to racial oppression, he led numerous demonstrations, boycotts, and voter registration drives from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. King was fueled by a strong religious faith, believing that Christian love could function as a powerful agent for social change.

Both his maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams, and his father, Martin Luther King, were Baptist ministers and leaders of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King carried on the family tradition, becoming an ordained Baptist minister at the age of eighteen. After completing a sociology degree from Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, King attended racially integrated Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1951. He then continued his training at Boston University, earning a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955.

It was while immersed in his graduate studies that King first encountered Mohandas Gandhis philosophy of nonviolent resistance. King combined Gandhis belief that nonviolence was not only the most ethical but also the most effective form of social protest with his own rigorous training in Christian theology, claiming, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method (King 1958, p. 85). Nonviolent protest as King described it was nonagressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually, seeking the friendship and understanding of ones opponent (King 1957, p. 166).

On June 18, 1953, King married Coretta Scott, then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. The marriage produced four children. In 1954 the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where King became pastor of the Dexter Street Baptist Church.


Shortly after moving to Montgomery, King was catapulted into the growing civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, local civil rights activist Rosa Parks (19132005) was arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated city bus. The local black community organized a bus boycott to protest Parkss arrest and elected King as leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization created to support the boycott. Under Kings leadership, the black community responded nonviolently to white intimidation and violence and sustained the boycott for over a year. In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on buses unconstitutional. King chronicled his involvement in the boycott in his powerful 1958 memoir Stride toward Freedom.

After the success in Montgomery, King and a group of black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. King was elected leader of this new organization, which was designed to support various civil rights activities.

The SCLC was not the only civil rights organization operating in the United States at this time, but King and his followers were key players in many of the most memorable showdowns between civil rights activists and the forces of white supremacy. In 1963 the SCLC joined Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in a campaign to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Defying a court injunction forbidding protest activities, King was arrested on April 12, 1963. While in prison he penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, eloquently defending civil disobedience and urging religious leaders to enlist in the struggle for civil rights.

Local Birmingham officials, shamed by national media coverage of police attacking unarmed protestors with fire hoses and police dogs, reluctantly agreed to many of the activists demands. However, white resistance did not immediately abate. On September 15, 1963, in a particularly gruesome display of violence, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African American girls.

The SCLC and other civil rights advocates met similarly mixed results elsewhere, winning concessions but drawing violent reprisals from white supremacists. The SCLC was involved in many demonstrations including campaigns in Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama. The federal government eventually responded to the problem of racial inequality by passing important civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public facilities and in employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively put an end to disenfranchisement on the basis of race.


King quickly became the most visible face of the civil rights struggle, capturing media attention wherever he went. On several occasions he met with President John F. Kennedy and later with President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1963 he was named Time magazines man of the year, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he delivered his sonorous I Have a Dream speech, one of the most memorable examples of American oratory in the twentieth century.

Due in part to growing resentment over Kings fame, tensions developed between the SCLC and other civil rights organizations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focused on fighting white supremacy through litigation rather than through the direct-action campaigns favored by the SCLC, causing tactical disagreements between members of the respective groups. Leaders of all the major civil rights organizations vied with one another and with King for media coverage and for opportunities to shape the direction of the movement. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, was no exception. After NAACP field secretary Medgar Everss death by assassination on June 11, 1963, Wilkins became resentful of Kings efforts to raise funds in honor of the slain man, demanding instead that memorial contributions be sent exclusively to the NAACP. Despite these pressures, King remained an ardent supporter of Wilkins and of the venerable civil rights organization he represented.

Similarly, many members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) offered powerful critiques of King. Some resented the medias depiction of King as the predominant leader of the movement, referring to King in jest as De Lawd. Weary of being jailed and beaten, many young activists grew increasingly skeptical of Kings dedication to nonviolent resistance. Others began to embrace black nationalism rather than Kings integrationist vision for the United States. King remained receptive to criticism, and these profound disagreements did not stand in the way of warm, personal relationships between King and many SNCC members, including Stokely Carmichael (19411998), the radical black nationalist who was elected to the chairmanship of SNCC in 1966.

Malcolm X (19251965), the charismatic minister of the Nation of Islam and later, founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, was critical of nonviolent resistance, a tactic he regarded as cowardly. Malcolm was particularly outspoken in his criticisms of King, labeling him a traitor to the Negro people. King was stung by Malcolms condemnation, but the pair shared a well-publicized handshake on Capitol Hill on March 26, 1964. Although he continued to repudiate nonviolent resistance, Malcolm later sought ways to cooperate with King and other civil rights leaders. However, King rebuffed Malcolms efforts, certain that his fiery rhetoric and failure to embrace nonviolence would reap nothing but grief.

King was also a prominent target of the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (18951972). Hoover used wiretaps, spread false rumors, and planted infiltrators in an attempt to disrupt the movement and to tarnish the reputation of King and other leaders.


Throughout his life, King remained committed to the principal of nonviolent resistance, but his thinking did not become static. He listened thoughtfully to criticism and responded to the changing times. In 1965 he expanded the scope of his activism by speaking out against the Vietnam War. Increasingly, King began to focus on class issues, seeking ways to improve the lives of the underprivileged, regardless of race. In 1967 the SCLC began planning a Poor Peoples Campaign designed to protest economic inequality through nonviolent direct action.

In 1968 Kings struggle for economic justice brought him to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers. While there he gave what was to be his final address, Ive Been to the Mountaintop. The recipient of frequent death threats, King long knew that his civil rights activism might cost him his life. That night he prophetically told his audience, I might not get there with you [but] we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. The next day, April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony outside his hotel room, King was shot and killed by a sniper.

White supremacist James Earl Ray (19281998) was arrested for Kings murder. In order to avoid the death penalty, Ray made a plea bargain and confessed to the killing. However, Ray almost immediately recanted his confession, claiming that he was framed. In 1997 Ray convinced Kings son Dexter Scott King of his innocence, but Tennessee authorities refused to grant Ray, who died in prison in 1998, a new trial. Kings death has been the subject of many conspiracy theories, some involving the federal government in the plot to kill King.

Today Kings vision of interracial harmony has gained widespread acceptance among many Americans. However, his radical critique of economic inequality in the United States is less widely remembered. In 1983 Congress voted to establish a national holiday in his honor, enshrining King among the nations pantheon of heroes.

SEE ALSO Black Power; Civil Disobedience; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Malcolm X; Passive Resistance


Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 195463. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Branch, Taylor. 1998. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 196365. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Branch, Taylor. 2006. At Canaans Edge: America in the King Years, 196568. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Burns, Stewart. 2004. To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King, Jr.s Sacred Mission to Save America, 19551968. New York: HarperCollins.

Carson, Clayborne. 1998. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books.

Garrow, David. 1986. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Marrow.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1957. Nonviolence and Racial Justice. Christian Century, February 6: 165167.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Row.

Jennifer Jensen Wallach

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated May 29 2018

13: Martin Luther King Jr.

Excerpt from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

    Published in 1967.

In 1967 the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was not yet forty years old, yet he had long been prominent in the civil rights movement. Civil rights for African Americans had become a prominent social and political issue in the decades following World War II (1939–45). King, as its most well-known leader, encouraged nonviolent forms of social protest. In 1955 he had helped organize the long and successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed the arrest of Rosa Parks (1913–2005) for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. He had helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, which became a significant group in the civil rights struggle, and he was elected the organization's president. In the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest demonstration ever held in the nation's capital at the time and one of the first to have extensive television coverage, he gave his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech.

"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age."

King's stature in the civil rights movement is reflected in honors he received in 1964. When President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, King was among those invited to stand by the president at the ceremony. Later that year, King became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Nobel Foundation, the prestigious international award is given "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity [brotherhood] between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses [organizations]."

Having helped win legal battles against segregation (the forced separation of the races) and discrimination and for the protection of voting rights, King was ready to focus more closely on another cause—a new direction for the civil rights movement. That focus was poverty. In 1965 King and his family lived in a ghetto in Chicago, Illinois, in order to witness poverty firsthand. A ghetto is an impoverished and neglected area of a city. He made hundreds of speeches around the country to expose the depth of poverty in America and to show how it stifles opportunity and negatively affects the lives of millions of people.

In 1967 he published the book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? in which he focused on poverty, its effects, and how to overcome it through social and government programs. Emphasizing those views in a speech to the SCLC that year, he also began organizing the "Poor People's Campaign." Large-scale plans for rallies, demonstrations, and calls to political leaders for action to eliminate poverty were to begin taking place in 1968.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

  • King quotes a passage from Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940) by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) that compares the lives of African Americans to people living in a cave, isolated from the world. Du Bois was perhaps the most prominent civil rights activist of the first half of the twentieth century. King applies Du Bois's cave description as a metaphor, or a comparison between two unlike things, for the modern ghetto. The cave walls of the ghetto, according to King, contain elevated highways and train tracks that thousands of people use each day, passing by the ghetto between their places of work and their homes.
  • King suggests a "guaranteed income," an annual wage for all people of working age, as a way to end poverty. He points out, for example, that the billions of dollars being used in 1967 to fight the costly war in Vietnam (1954–75) could be better spent at home, distributed to people who would use it to buy necessities. The United States had begun sending military advisers to Vietnam during the 1950s, and American troops began fighting in 1965.
  • Toward the end of the excerpt, King mentions John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–). Galbraith, a noted economist, edited Fortune magazine for several years, was a popular television and newspaper commentator, and served as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63).
  • The excerpt reflects King's subtle shifting from civil rights to human rights, as he promotes the end of poverty, noting that there are twice as many poor whites as blacks in America. He also preaches peace, including his criticism of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He connects poverty and violence in other parts of the book by addressing racial unrest and riots that occurred in several American cities in 1965 and 1966.

Excerpt from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

[I]n America there is no escape from the awareness of color and the fact that our society places a qualitative difference on a person of dark skin.

Every Negro comes face to face with this color shock, and it constitutes a major emotional crisis. It is accompanied by a sort of fatiguing [tiring], wearisome hopelessness. If one is rejected because he is uneducated, he can at least be consoled by the fact that it may be possible for him to get an education. If one is rejected because he is low on the economic ladder, he can at least dream of the day that he will rise from his dungeon of economic deprivation. If one is rejected because he speaks with an accent, he can at least, if he desires, work to bring his speech in line with the dominant group. If, however, one is rejected because of his color, he must face the anguishing fact that he is being rejected because of something in himself that cannot be changed. All prejudice is evil, but the prejudice that rejects a man because of the color of his skin is the most despicable expression of man's inhumanity to man.

Being a Negro in America means being herded in ghettos, or reservations, being constantly ignored and made to feel invisible. You long to be seen, to be heard, to be respected. But it is like blowing in the wind. As I think about the anatomy of the ghetto, I am often reminded of a passage from W. E. B. Du Bois's autobiography, Dusk of Dawn….

Most people are totally unaware of the darkness of the cave in which the Negro is forced to live. A few individuals can break out, but the vast majority remain its prisoners. Our cities have constructed elaborate expressways and elevated skyways, and white Americans speed from suburb to inner city through vast pockets of black deprivation without ever getting a glimpse of the suffering and misery in their midst.

But while so many white Americans are unaware of conditions inside the ghetto, there are very few ghetto dwellers who are unaware of the life outside. Their television sets bombard them day by day with the opulence [wealth] of the larger society. From behind the ghetto walls they see glistening towers of glass and steel springing up almost overnight. They hear jet liners speeding over their heads at six hundred miles an hour. They hear of satellites streaking through outer space and revealing details of the moon.

Then they begin to think of their own conditions. They know that they are always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial [lowly] work to do. They look at these impressive buildings under construction and realize that almost certainly they cannot get those well-paying construction jobs, because building trade unions reserve them for whites only. They know that people who built the bridges, the mansions and docks of the South could build modern buildings if they were only given a chance for apprenticeship training. They realize that it is hard, raw discrimination that shuts them out. It is not only poverty that torments the Negro; it is the fact of poverty amid plenty. It is a misery generated by the gulf between the affluence [wealth] he sees in the mass media and the deprivation he experiences in his everyday life.

W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. After graduating from high school, he attended Fisk College (now University) in Nashville, Tennessee. In his three years at Fisk, Du Bois witnessed racial discrimination and resolved to fight against it. He became a writer, editor, and an impassioned speaker. He wrote The Souls of Black Folks (1903), helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and is generally considered one of the most important civil rights leaders of the twentieth century.

Du Bois's book Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940) was one of Martin Luther King's favorite books. King quoted a passage from it in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? to emphasize how "Being a Negro in America means being herded in ghettos, or reservations, being constantly ignored and made to feel invisible."

"It is difficult to let others see the full psychological meaning of caste segregation [separation by race, group, and economic class]," wrote Du Bois. "It is as though one, looking out from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively, showing them how these entombed souls are hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development; and how their loosening from prison would be a matter not simply of courtesy, sympathy, and help to them, but aid to all the world."

Du Bois observed that those on the outside might glance at the people within the cave, yet continue to pass them by. Many do not even look. The people inside feel trapped, as if a barrier stands between them and the outside. As a result, "the people within may become hysterical. They may scream and hurl themselves against the barriers, hardly realizing in their bewilderment that they are screaming in a vacuum unheard and that their antics may actually seem funny to those outside looking in." Du Bois contends that those few who manage to break through the barrier "in blood and disfigurement … find themselves faced by a horrified … and quite overwhelming mob of people frightened for their own very existence."

Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.

Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating riots. A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored….

In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise [assumption] that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified [makes useless] home life and suppressed [stopped] initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at similar rates of development. Housing measures have fluctuated [changed] at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated [stood still] in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation [strong disapproval] as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations [disruptions] in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power, they have lagged behind increases in production. Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available….

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure. First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate [bring about] welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions. Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static [unchanged] under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline. If periodic reviews disclose that the whole national income has risen, then the guaranteed income would have to be adjusted upward by the same Retrogression: Heading in percentage. Without these safeguards a creeping retrogression would occur, nullifying [invalidating] the gains of security and stability.

This proposal is not a "civil rights" program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition [partnership] to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate.

Our nation's adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly forty years two groups in our society have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has been guaranteed an income, however miniscule [tiny], through welfare benefits.

John Kenneth Galbraith has estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which he describes as "not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by 'experts' in Vietnam."

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity [overabundance]. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic [outdated] thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

What happened next …

Late in 1967, King began planning the Poor People's Campaign. He wanted to recruit poor men and women from urban and rural areas to campaign for economic rights. The planning involved training in nonviolent action as well as a three-month series of marches, rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts. The protests were intended to pressure political and business officials into showing more concern toward the poor and more action to lessen poverty. King continued to call for a guaranteed family income, threatened national boycotts, and spoke of disrupting entire cities by nonviolent "camp-ins," including a march of the poor on Washington, D.C., that would be larger than the massive and successful March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963.

The year 1967 was marked by violence in America. Summer riots left 43 dead and 324 injured in Detroit, Michigan, and 23 dead and 725 injured in Newark, New Jersey. Violence erupted again in March of 1968 during a march by sanitation workers striking to improve work conditions in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike began as a response to a January 31 incident in which 22 black sanitation workers were sent home without pay during bad weather while all white workers remained on the job. The march was disrupted by members who started a riot that ended with one dead, several injured, and widespread property damage. King vowed to return to reestablish nonviolence in this dispute and to direct another march.

The second march was scheduled for April 8, 1968. King arrived on April 3 to give a speech and stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The next day, King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the motel. A national day of mourning was proclaimed, and funeral services were held in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Ebenezer Church and on the campus of Morehouse College. In 1980 King's boyhood home in Atlanta and several other nearby buildings were declared as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. In 1983 a federal holiday was established to honor King. Observed for the first time on January 20, 1986, Martin Luther King Day occurs on the third Monday of January each year. On January 17, 2000, Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all fifty states for the first time.

Did you know …

  • King's outspokenness against the Vietnam War was controversial, but he was recruited by antiwar activists to head an independent ticket for the presidential election of 1968. He declined the offer in order to keep his activism free from political obligations.
  • King donated the money he was awarded for the Nobel Peace Prize to groups associated with the civil rights movement.
  • In 1965 King made a "people-to-people" tour of northern cities. In these areas as well as in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California, the Harlem section of New York City, and in Mississippi and Alabama, he noticed growing militancy among African Americans. Several long passages in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? reaffirm his commitment to nonviolence. He also notes that the majority of African Americans living in ghettos never have conflicts with the law. "Despite overwhelming odds," he wrote, "the majority of Negroes in the ghetto go on living, go on striving, go on hoping. This is the miracle."

Consider the following …

  • What does King's message say to people in the twenty-first century? Have conditions changed and improved since King published these words in 1967? Write an essay based on these questions, keeping in mind the title of King's book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
  • A large portion of annual media coverage on Martin Luther King Day and during Black History Month focuses on King's civil rights activism from the early 1950s to the March on Washington and his famous "I Have a Dream" speech (August 1963). Consider why his speeches, writings, and activism after 1963 receive less attention. Research commentary on his stance against the Vietnam War, his focus on ending poverty, and his continued call for nonviolent activism during a period of increasing violence. Write about his activism after 1965 and how the causes he fought for fared in the years following his death.

For More Information


Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New York: Harcourt, 1940.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago, IL: McClurg, 1903.

Karson, Jill, ed. The Civil Rights Movement. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2005.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

McKnight, Gerald D. The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People's Campaign. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Schuman, Michael. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Leader for Civil Rights. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.


Alter, Jonathan. "King's Final Years: As the Shadows Fell, King Looked North. It Was the Beginning of the End." Newsweek (January 9, 2006).

Davis, Ossie. "Jobs, Peace, Justice: Challenge for the Year 2000." Nation (July 24, 1999).

Smith, Vern E., Jon Meacham, and Veronica Chambers. "The War over King's Legacy." Newsweek (April 6, 1998).


King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Where Do We Go from Here? Annual Report Delivered at the Eleventh Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (August 16, 1967). The Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"King Encyclopedia: Poor People's Campaign." The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Statutes of the Nobel Foundation." The Nobel Foundation. (accessed on June 4, 2006).

Qualitative: Emphasis.

Deprivation: Lacking something; being denied something.

Prejudice: A preconceived and often negative opinion.

Despicable: Deserving of contempt.

Anatomy: Physical reality.

Educational castration: To be cut off from the power of education.

Economic exploitation: Making an unjust profit from the labor of another, who is often poorly paid or made to work in unhealthy or unsafe conditions.

Initiative: The ability to act upon one's own ideas without being prompted.

Piecemeal and pygmy: Done occasionally and in small portions.

Spasmodic: Short and not sustained.

Retrogression: Heading in reverse.

Facilitated: Made to work.

Securities: Stocks and bonds.

Breadth of meaning: To be relevant and applicable to all.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated May 23 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.

BORN: January 15, 1929 • Atlanta, Georgia

DIED: April 4, 1968 • Memphis, Tennessee

American Civil rights leader; minister

Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered to be the single most important figure in the African American community's struggle for equality during the twentieth century. A Baptist minister and gifted public speaker, King led a series of nonviolent protests to end the "Jim Crow" laws in the American South, which were designed to keep blacks and whites living in separate social and economic spheres. King's influence spread from one Southern city—Montgomery, Alabama, and its 1955 bus boycott—to the rest of the South. Just before he was murdered by a sniper in April 1968, King was planning a national protest against poverty in urban America. Considered by some to be a martyr, or someone who dies for his or her religious beliefs or causes, King became the first African American ever honored with a national holiday in the United States.

"We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote… [W]e will not be satisfied untice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Surrounded by racism

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was named after his father, who was the son of a sharecropper, a farmer who pays rent in exchange for being allowed to work a plot of land. Both were originally named Michael, but later changed their first names to Martin. King recalled that his parents, Martin and Alberta, had a happy, harmonious marriage and that he grew up in a household that rarely experienced conflict or disharmony. Only out in the wider world, beginning within his own neighborhood, did he begin to sense trouble. Once, a white playmate told King that his father forbade him to be friends with King any longer. "I will never forget what a great shock this was to me," King wrote in what would become The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was published after his death.

King recalled asking his parents about the matter. They explained to him some of the hardships and even insults they had experienced themselves due to racism. "From that moment on I was determined to hate every white person," he recalled in his autobiography, admitting that this feeling only intensified as he grew older. His deeply religious parents, however, repeatedly pointed out that he should instead be guided by the Christian belief in the notion of brotherly love. "The question arose in my mind," he wrote, which was: "How could I love a race of people who hated me?"

As King grew up, he recognized that racism was deeply rooted in the American South. Segregation, or the separation of the races, existed throughout the South. Blacks and whites went to separate schools; rode in different sections of buses and trains; used separate bathroom facilities and drank from different water fountains; sat in different areas in restaurants, theaters, or concert halls; used separate beaches and parks, etc. White facilities were better than those set aside for blacks. In transportation, even if the seats designated for whites went unused and the section restricted to blacks was completely filled, he still had to stand, as did all African Americans, including the elderly. Nearly everything in the public realm was segregated. Such practices, part of local government regulations that ruled life in the South, were entirely legal at the time. The rules were designed to remind former slaves and their descendants that many white southerners considered them to be second-class citizens. King recalled that he often felt a deep sense of shame, especially when he noticed how inferior, shabby, or just plain filthy the blacks-only facilities were.

At his segregated Atlanta high school, King emerged as a skilled debater and even won a public speaking contest. He graduated early from Booker T. Washington High School and in 1944 entered Morehouse College, which his father and mother's father had attended. This was a historic black school in Atlanta that had educated a long list of achievers before King and continued to instruct countless numbers of students into the twenty-first century. At Morehouse, he majored in sociology—the study of human society and its institutions, like religion and politics. He particularly enjoyed the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of college. For the first time in his life, he later noted, the topic of race in America could be freely discussed and debated.

The idea of civil disobedience

During these years, King grew particularly interested in the concept of nonviolent protest. This came out of his reading of the famous essay "Civil Disobedience," an 1849 writing by American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). The piece explained Thoreau's opposition to the Mexican-American War (1846–48) and the practice of slavery in the South. Thoreau refused to pay tax for a number of years and argued in his essay that "[i]f a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood."

King was also intrigued by another display of civil disobedience that occurred during his college years. In India, then controlled by Great Britain, a Hindu lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) led a mass movement to end British colonial rule by using the tactic of nonviolent protests and strikes. This had gone on for a generation. Finally in 1947, India was granted its independence. King began to read extensively on the concept of nonviolence, and he gradually began to think about entering the ministry. He had initially been resistant to the idea, but during his Morehouse years came to know men who were trained as preachers. These men were highly educated and progressive, favoring changes toward new policies and reforms, as he hoped to be, too.

King entered Pennsylvania's Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948 and finished three years later. He became an ordained minister of the National Baptist Church and went on to attend Boston University in Massachusetts. He received his doctorate in theology in 1955. While in Boston, he met a fellow southerner, Coretta Scott (1927–2006), who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. She came from a modestly wealthy family in Marion, Alabama. On their first date, the two discussed their views on race in America and economic injustice. They were married in June 1953 and soon began a family that would include four children.

In 1954 King became the new minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He also joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the decade following the end of World War II (1939–45), some advances had been made in race relations in the United States. The U.S. military had been desegregated by presidential order, and in 1954 a historic case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education. In the case, the court ruled that separate schools for blacks were unconstitutional. There seemed to be a renewed interest in fighting for civil rights, and King was eager to become involved.

Leads bus boycott

King's chance came on December 1, 1955, when the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider. The secretary, a seamstress named Rosa Parks (1913–2005), was arrested. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990), a fellow minister who would be King's longtime colleague in the civil rights struggle, worked with the state NAACP chair to call a public meeting. Out of that event came plans for an organized bus boycott for the following Monday, December 5, which was also the day Parks was to appear in court. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was also formed to lead the protest, and King was elected its president.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was more successful than King or his allies had dreamed it would be, and plans were made to continue it indefinitely. The majority of Montgomery's African American population boycotted the bus system. Some used carpools or taxis, while others walked long distances to work and school as a form of protest. Many blacks had long resented the bus company and its rude treatment of African American riders. The boycott lasted more than a year and ended only when the bus company yielded to a legal judgment that ordered it to treat all passengers equally. The case had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and its success opened the door for new challenges to end legalized discrimination in the South.

Within a year, King had emerged as a figure of national prominence, but with that came death threats and firebomb attacks on his home. He and other MIA leaders were regularly harassed by local law-enforcement authorities. For example, King was charged with loitering when he went to see Abernathy in jail one time. On another occasion, King was arrested on charges that he falsified his Alabama state income tax returns. An all-white jury in Montgomery declared that King was not guilty of the tax charge three months later. Such official persecution increased when King took his civil rights mission back to his hometown, Atlanta. In January 1957, he and sixty other black ministers from southern cities met there to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and King was elected as its first president. This group became the leading force in

Rosa Parks

Before December 1, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. had never met the Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress named Rosa Parks. Her act of defiance that day would make both of them heroes in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Parks was born Rosa McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, and was raised by her mother and grandparents. She married a barber, Raymond Parks, at age twenty. The couple settled in the African American section of Montgomery, Alabama. They became active in their community's efforts to end discriminatory practices against blacks in the South. In 1943 Parks became one of the first women to join the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the time, Montgomery was deeply segregated, meaning that blacks and whites lived in separate areas and attended different schools. Blacks were only allowed to sit in certain sections of restaurants, theaters, and even buses. Many African Americans traveled to work by bus, but were required to sit in the back of the vehicle. The front was reserved for white passengers.

On December 1, 1955, Parks left her job as an assistant tailor at a department store. She boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus and took a seat in one of the middle rows. This was considered a neutral zone, where black passengers were allowed to sit if their section was full and if all white riders had a seat. As the bus filled up, a white passenger came aboard and had to stand. The driver told Parks and three other blacks to give up their seats and move to the back. Parks refused and the driver called the police, who arrested her. She was later released on bail. However, word spread throughout the African American community that night that the quiet, hard-working seamstress who had served as the NAACP secretary for the past twelve years had been arrested.

Parks agreed when local civil rights leaders asked if she would allow her case to become part of a court challenge that, if successful, would force the Montgomery bus company to change their discriminatory practices. A one-day boycott of the bus company was planned for the following Monday. The leaders of the boycott asked Montgomery's black citizens to protest their treatment by walking to work that day, or by taking a taxi. On December 2, a meeting was held, which was headed by a dynamic young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. He urged the African American community to boycott the bus system that treated them so shamefully. The Monday boycott turned out to be a great success. When word came that Parks had been found guilty and fined, the decision was made to continue the boycott indefinitely. For more than a year, blacks in Montgomery walked as far as twenty miles between home and work daily. On December 21, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Parks's favor, forcing Montgomery to desegregate its buses.

During the boycott, both Parks and her husband lost their jobs. In 1957 they moved to Detroit, Michigan, but she still continued to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded by King and a group of black ministers. Parks died in 2005, and is one of the most honored women in America of any race. Often described as the mother of the U.S. civil rights movement, Parks had a quiet dignity and calmness under pressure that made her a hero and role model for generations to come.

the push to give African Americans full equal rights and protections guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

The SCLC's first mission was its "Crusade for Citizenship," launched in early 1958. Its goal was to register and record new numbers of black voters in southern states. African American males had been granted the right to vote in 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. During the ensuing years and up to the middle of the twentieth century, however, they faced unfair discrimination from white election officials when they tried to vote. In some cases they were given a literacy test, or required to pay an expensive poll tax. As a result, very few African Americans in southern states were able to vote in local or national elections. To prohibit someone from exercising his or her legal right to vote is called "disfranchisement." Such practices prevented southern blacks from participating in the democratic process. It also made it impossible for any black candidate to legitimately win office.

Jailed in Birmingham

King and his wife traveled to India in 1959 at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). There King learned more about how nonviolent protest could help the powerless gain a political voice. A year later, he moved his family to Atlanta, where he joined his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church as a minister. Abernathy soon followed, and the SCLC began to prepare its next major campaign, the organized sit-in. These sit-ins took place at lunch counters in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, where local rules prohibited serving food to customers of both races at the same counter. Activists sat at the lunch counters refusing to move until they were served. At times, angry onlookers dumped food on the protesters or shouted insults at them.

In early 1963, King and other SCLC leaders decided to put Birmingham, Alabama, at the forefront of their campaign. Birmingham was one of the most solidly segregated cities in the South, and its police force was overseen by a staunch segregationist, commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. King and Connor soon clashed. King was arrested in Birmingham on April 12, which was also Good Friday, the Christian holy day preceding Easter, for violating a court order against protests.

King was placed in solitary confinement in the Birmingham jail, and later wrote that he was scared for his life for the first time in his crusade. It was an era when it was not unusual for black suspects to die while in custody, especially in solitary confinement, away from potential witnesses. Such deaths were almost always ruled suicides by the white coroner, whose job it was to determine official cause of death. Out of King's days in jail came his well-known "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), in which he urged other leaders of Christian denominations to join him in the civil rights struggle.

King's wife, Coretta, contacted President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) for help in getting her husband released from jail. Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, had come to King's aid before when he was jailed in 1960 while Kennedy was the Democratic presidential candidate. The president and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), put pressure on authorities to release King, and the civil rights leader was freed on April 19.

"I Have a Dream"

King delivered his most famous words, however, later in 1963 during the massive "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" in August. It had been organized by King and prominent African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979). The march brought more than 200,000 to the National Mall in the nation's capital. Some estimates record the total number of participants as high as half a million. The event, and King's stirring address, would later be viewed as a turning point in the civil rights struggle. The participants included young and old, black and white, and rich and poor. The march showed politicians in the South and in the U.S. Congress that many white Americans supported the African American community in its bid to gain full citizenship rights and equality under the law.

King's address, officially titled "Let Freedom Ring," is often referred to as the "I Have a Dream" speech. Many historians call it one of the greatest public addresses in U.S. history. In it, King reminded his audience of the Christian principle of brotherhood and the American ideal of fair play. He told the crowd, as noted in the Seattle Times: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Less than three months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, which became the first in a wave of political slayings that would also claim King and Robert F. Kennedy later that decade. But the movement's efforts were beginning to yield real change. In 1964 Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69), signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in all forms, across all fifty states, and finally ended the Jim Crow era in the South.

The Civil Rights Act was a landmark event in U.S. history. It did much to change the lives of African Americans forever, from the neighborhoods where they lived and the schools they attended to the wages they earned. It was followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests. The act also ordered the federal supervision of voter registration in districts that had less than 50 percent of their eligible voters on the rolls. Within a few years, African Americans who had participated in King's civil disobedience protests began running for, and often winning, local and state elections.

The struggle continues

In December 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a prestigious honor that placed him in the category of world leaders and agents of major social change. His civil rights work was far from over, however. He began speaking out against the Vietnam War (1954–75), a topic of major debate at the time. This was a U.S.-led effort to oust the Communist North Vietnamese army from the Southeast Asian nation. Young American men were drafted into the military to fight the war, and the forced enlistment affected an unusually high number of poor and minority families. Many Americans came to believe that the United States should not be involved in the war. Massive protests and marches were held throughout the country, calling for an end to American involvement.

The civil rights struggle, meanwhile, had taken on a more violent tone, especially in U.S. cities outside of the South that had large African American populations. The post-World War II baby boom, a sudden and substantial increase in the number of births, had swelled population figures across the United States beginning in 1946. The population increase contributed to constant housing shortages, and longstanding unofficial forms of job and education discrimination were beginning to lead to widespread unrest. Spurred by the success of the civil rights struggle in the South, blacks in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit began rioting in the streets, leaving many dead or injured and causing widespread property damage.

Such rioting conflicted with King's goals of nonviolent civil disobedience. He visited these cities in the aftermath of violence and looting, meeting with local activists to work toward more peaceful solutions. In the early months of 1968, King and his colleagues began planning a "Poor People's March" that they hoped would serve, like the March on Washington, to draw national support for his message. Urban unrest was increasing for a number of reasons, he believed, although civil rights were now guaranteed by federal law. However, poverty and a sense of hopelessness in the future still remained and these problems were much more difficult to erase. King began preparing for the planned April 22 event by touring several cities. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, to meet with striking black sanitation workers when he was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

An inept petty thief and escaped convict named James Earl Ray (1928–1998) was charged with King's murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. Yet both Ray's actual involvement as well as the reliability of the investigation conducted by law-enforcement officials have never laid to rest the rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate King. Such conspiracy theories allege that government agents may have been involved in the assassination, but have never been proven. King's widow, Coretta, carried on his civil rights work, as did his four children. The youngest, Bernice, had just turned five years old a few days before her father was killed.

King's final speech, delivered in Memphis the night before his murder, seemed eerily predictive of events to come. He explained to the audience that his flight from Atlanta to Memphis had been delayed to make certain its passengers and baggage were both secure. He noted that the number of death threats against him had increased since the announcement of the Poor People's March. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he noted, according to his autobiography. "But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop…. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

For More Information


Burns, Stewart. To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, 1955–1968. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2004.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Meltzer, Milton. There Comes a Time: The Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Landmark Books, 2001.

Parks, Rosa. Rosa Parks: My Story. New York: Dial Books, 1992.

Powledge, Fred. Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Schuman, Michael. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Leader for Civil Rights. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. "I Have a Dream." Seattle Times. (accessed on July 4, 2006).

"The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project." Stanford University. (accessed on July 4, 2006).

Thoreau, Henry David. "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." Project Gutenberg. (accessed on July 4, 2006).

King, Martin Luther, Jr.

views updated May 29 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born January 15, 1929
Atlanta, Georgia
Died April 4, 1968
Memphis, Tennessee

American civil rights leader

Martin Luther King, Jr., was America's most influential leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His campaign of nonviolent protest helped usher in a new era of equality and opportunity for blacks and other minorities across America. But King's deep desire to bring about peace and social justice in the United States and around the world also led him to turn his attention to the Vietnam War. In fact, by 1967 he had become an outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam. He charged that U.S. military policies in the war-torn country were immoral, and claimed that the war had terrible economic and social consequences for America's black communities. King's stand was bitterly criticized by Americans who supported the war and even by some members of the civil rights movement. But the civil rights leader maintained his public opposition to the Vietnam War until his death in April 1968.

Religious upbringing leads to the ministry

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the oldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., a minister at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta Williams King. As a youngster, King attended local schools in which students were legally segregated (separated) by race. This system of segregation, which extended into all areas of American society, discriminated against blacks and placed them in an inferior position.

King was an excellent student who took a great interest in the world around him. He enrolled at Georgia's More-house College when he was fifteen years old and graduated four years later with a bachelor's degree in sociology. During this same time, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. After leaving Morehouse, he continued his education at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a master's degree in theology in 1951. From there he went to Boston University, where he met Coretta Scott. They married in 1954 and eventually had four children. King, meanwhile, secured his doctoral degree in theology from Boston University in 1955.

During King's years in school, he developed a great belief in the power of nonviolent protest as a tool to bring about change in American society. By 1954, when he became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he had become convinced that nonviolent protests could be used to combat segregation and other forms of racism in America.

Becomes a prominent civil rights activist

King's involvement in the American civil rights movement began in 1955, when a black woman from Montgomery named Rosa Parks was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) quickly organized a boycott (a refusal to use as a means of protest) of the city bus service among the city's black community. NAACP leaders then selected King, who was already known as an inspiring public speaker, to lead the boycott effort.

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until November 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that called for the city's bus service to be desegregated. This triumph delighted blacks across the South and vaulted King into national prominence. In fact, his eloquent speeches against racial injustice energized Southern blacks and brought many new faces into the still-developing civil rights movement. Moreover, King's bravery in the face of threats and violence (his home was bombed during the boycott) and his ability to link racial justice with Christian ideals helped the movement gain support among whites outside the South.

In 1957 King and other civil rights leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of black churches and ministers dedicated to gaining equal rights for blacks in American society. As the SCLC's most prominent member, King helped shape the group's philosophy of nonviolent protest, which took the form of demonstrations, marches, and boycotts. His frequent speeches on racism and social justice, meanwhile, solidified his status as the civil rights movement's most influential and inspiring spokesman.

Leads marches in Birmingham and Washington, D.C.

During the early 1960s the civil rights movement developed into a powerful force in American society. Civil rights demonstrations such as the May 1963 march in Birmingham, Alabama—in which city authorities brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators (including children) with police dogs, clubs, and high-pressure water hoses—triggered shock and anger in both black and white communities across much of the country. This violence, combined with King's powerful defense of the movement's goals, further increased support for the SCLC and forced the U.S. government to turn its attention to the issue of racial justice.

In August 1963, the civil rights movement held a massive rally in Washington, D.C. During this gathering, which attracted hundreds of thousands of black and white civil rights supporters, King delivered his most famous speech. In this address, commonly known as his "I Have a Dream" speech, King eloquently explained the basic goal that motivated the entire movement: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," he stated.

In 1964 the U.S. government finally began changing some of the laws that had victimized blacks and other minorities for so many years. It passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and forbade discrimination in schools and businesses. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his key role in guiding this historic legislation into law.

But other racist laws remained in effect, especially in the South, and King and his allies continued their fight. They held numerous rallies and protest marches to publicize their cause and to highlight the problems of poverty and despair that affected many black communities. In 1965 these activities resulted in additional civil rights legislation. The most important of these new laws was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which barred states from using voter qualification tests that discriminated against blacks.

Martin Luther King and Vietnam

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, King remained devoted to improving the lives of blacks across the country. He knew that despite the passage of laws that ended discrimination, years of inferior education and limited economic opportunities had plunged many black communities into poverty. With this in mind, he called for the United States to institute new social programs to help black families improve their lives.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry) supported King's calls for economic justice. In fact, Johnson had signed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act into law, and he talked about using new social programs to build a "Great Society" in America. But in 1965 and 1966 King began to see the United States's growing involvement in the Vietnam War as a potential threat to the future of black America and the moral well-being of the country as a whole.

The Vietnam War was a conflict that pitted the U.S.supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. The Viet Cong were guerrilla fighters who wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite the two countries under one Communist government. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States sent money, weapons, and advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong. In 1965 the United States began using thousands of American combat troops and extensive air bombing missions to crush the Communists. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that claimed the lives of thousands of young American troops and divided communities all across the United States.

President Johnson's decision to begin bombing North Vietnam in 1965 greatly bothered King. As the civil rights leader studied the history of American involvement in the conflict, he determined that U.S. policies toward Vietnam had been "morally and politically wrong" for years. He also concluded that the money spent waging war in Vietnam should instead be used to fund social programs to reduce poverty and discrimination in American society. Finally, he noted that in terms of percentage, black soldiers were dying in much greater numbers than white soldiers in Vietnam.

Speaks out against the war

In 1965 King made his first public criticisms of the war. He argued that U.S. forces were "accomplishing nothing" in Vietnam, and he called on the Johnson administration to end hostilities and negotiate a peace settlement. But King's remarks, which were made when the American antiwar movement was just beginning to form, were denounced by other civil rights leaders. They warned King that by criticizing American policy in Vietnam, he risked losing Johnson's support for civil rights and antipoverty legislation. The criticism of black civil rights leaders was quickly echoed by national politicians and prominent magazines, who said that King did not know what he was talking about.

Stung by the criticism, King stopped speaking out about Vietnam for several months. But in 1966 he decided that he could no longer remain silent. He accepted the cochairmanship of the antiwar group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) and begin delivering sermons critical of the war. At the end of 1966, he declared in testimony before a Senate subcommittee that "poverty . . . and social programs are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession . . . . The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy hopes and possibilities for a decent America."

King delivered his most famous antiwar speech on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City before an audience of CALCAV religious leaders. In this speech, known variously as the "Riverside Speech," the "Beyond Vietnam" speech, and "A Time to Break Silence," King condemned America's military policies in Vietnam as evil. He also repeated his charge that America's poor were suffering because of the country's decision to pour its resources into bombs, tanks, helicopters, and other weaponry. "Somehow this madness must cease," King declared. "I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast [with shock and horror] at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours."

Leaders of America's antiwar movement praised King's speech and rejoiced that he was lending his moral authority to their cause. In addition, many other civil rights leaders supported King's stand. They agreed that the war drained attention and funding away from America's internal problems, and they characterized his speech as a brave attempt to turn America away from an evil war. "King's actions prove that he had a more compelling and complex view of American patriotism," stated Eric Michael Dyson in I May Not Get There with You. "His willingness to criticize his country when it was wrong proved his concern for its moral destiny."

But King's Riverside address attracted fierce condemnation from other quarters. Some black leaders claimed that his remarks showed that civil rights were no longer a priority for him. In addition, his speech angered President Johnson and his administration. And many of the nation's leading magazines attacked him for his antiwar stance. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report all published negative articles on King's antiwar beliefs, and a Life magazine editorial charged that by connecting "civil rights with a proposal that amounts to abject [total] surrender in Vietnam . . . . King comes close to betraying the cause for which he has worked so long."

But King refused to back down. Instead, he continued to express his deep opposition to the war, and made a special effort to unite the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement under one banner. Many historians believe that King's stand against Vietnam increased public opposition to the war among both blacks and whites in late 1967 and early 1968.

On April 4, 1968—exactly one year after he gave his Riverside address—King was assassinated by a sniper during a visit to Memphis, Tennessee. News of his death triggered riots in dozens of American cities and caused feelings of shock and outrage throughout the world. In 1969 a white man named James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to murdering King. He was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. Since then, many historians have speculated that Ray did not act alone, but no accomplices have ever been found.

King's murder robbed America of one of its greatest voices. But his message of black pride and racial justice lived on and became an essential part of the nation's history. In 1983 the U.S. government formally recognized King's life and contributions to American society by establishing a national holiday in his honor. This holiday is observed on the third Monday in January so that it takes place on or near King's January 15 birthday.


Albert, Robert J., and Ronald Hoffman, eds. We Shall Overcome: MartinLuther King Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin LutherKing Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Fairclough, Adam. "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam." Phylon, January 1984.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Random House, 1986.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

King Reacts to "The Children of Vietnam"

Many scholars believe that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s opposition to the Vietnam War increased dramatically after he read an article called "The Children of Vietnam" by William Pepper in Ramparts magazine in early 1967. King aide Bernard Lee recalled in David Garrow's book Bearing the Cross that the text and pictures in the article had a devastating impact on the civil rights leader. "When he came to Ramparts magazine he stopped. He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, 'Doesn't it taste any good?,' and he answered, 'Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.'"

Martin Luther King Jr

views updated May 23 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.

The African American minister and Nobel Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), originated the nonviolence strategy within the activist civil rights movement. He was one of the most important black leaders of his era.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga. He attended the Atlanta public schools. Following graduation from Morehouse College in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary, having been ordained the previous year into the ministry of the National Baptist Church. He graduated from Crozer in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955.

In Boston, King met Coretta Scott, whom he married on June 18, 1953. Four children were born to them. King became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954. He became active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Alabama Council on Human Relations.

Nonviolence: The Bus Boycott

In December 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for violating a segregated seating ordinance on a public bus in Montgomery, black citizens were outraged. King, fellow minister Ralph Abernathy, and Alabama's state chairman of the NAACP called a public meeting. African Americans were urged to boycott the segregated city buses, and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed. The boycott lasted over a year, until the bus company capitulated. Segregated seating was discontinued, and some African Americans were employed as bus drivers. When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, the boycott ended in triumph for black dignity.

Overnight, Martin Luther King had become a national hero and an acknowledged leader in the civil rights struggle. The victory had not been easy. Elected president of the MIA, King's life was in constant danger. His home was bombed, and he and other MIA leaders were threatened, harassed, arrested, and jailed.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In January 1957 approximately 60 black ministers assembled in Atlanta to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to continue the civil rights fight. King was elected president. A few months later he met Vice President Richard Nixon at the celebration of Ghanaian independence in Accra. A year later King and three other black civil rights leaders were received by President Dwight Eisenhower. However, neither meeting resulted in any concrete relief for African Americans who, meanwhile, were growing increasingly restive under continued racial discrimination.

In February 1958 the SCLC sponsored 21 mass meetings in key southern cities as part of a "Crusade for Citizenship." The goal was to double the number of black voters in the South. King was traveling constantly now, speaking for "justice" throughout the country. A year later Dr. and Mrs. King visited India at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King had long been interested in Mahatma Gandhi's practice of nonviolence. Yet when they returned to the United States, the civil rights struggle had greatly intensified, and violent resistance by whites to the nonviolent efforts of black demonstrators filled the newspapers with accounts of bloody confrontations.

Increasing demands were being made upon King as an advocate of nonviolent change. He moved his family to Atlanta in 1960 and became associate pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ralph Abernathy soon followed, and the two men worked in tandem for the remainder of King's career.

"Sit-in" Movement

In February 1960 the "sit-in" movement was begun in Greensboro, N.C., by African American students protesting segregation at lunch counters in city stores. The movement quickly spread throughout North Carolina to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The black students were frequently joined by white students and other sympathizers. On April 15 the SCLC called a conference of sit-in leaders to coordinate the movement. King urged the young people to continue using nonviolent means. Out of this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged. For a time the SNCC worked closely with the SCLC, though ultimately the two groups went their separate ways.

By August a report issued by the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta stated that the sit-ins had succeeded in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities. In October delegates at the SCLC meeting resolved to focus nonviolent campaigns against all segregated public transportation, waiting rooms, and schools. They would increase emphasis on voter registration and would use economic boycotts to gain fair employment and other benefits for African Americans. An important department store in Atlanta, a widely known symbol of segregation, was the first objective. When King and 75 students entered the store and requested lunch-counter service, he and 36 others were arrested. Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce, however, and charges were dropped, but King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic offense conviction. John F. Kennedy, currently campaigning for the presidency, made a dramatic telephone call to Mrs. King. Political wheels were set in motion, and King was released.

Freedom Riders

In a subsequent move, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SCLC, and SNCC joined in a coalition. A Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee was formed with King as chairman. The idea was to "put the sit-ins on the road" by having pairs of black and white volunteers board interstate buses traveling through the South to test compliance with a new Federal law forbidding segregated accommodations in bus stations. A great deal of violence resulted, as resisting whites overturned and burned buses, assaulted the Freedom Riders, and attacked newsmen. Many of the arrested riders went to prison rather than pay fines. However, public furor moved the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce nonsegregation laws in buses engaged in interstate transportation and in their servicing terminals.

In December 1961 King and the SCLC were invited by black leaders in Albany, Ga., to lead their civil rights struggle. After 2,000 frustrated African Americans clashed with police, King called for a "day of penitence." King himself was jailed, tried, and given a suspended sentence. In an ambitious voter education program in Albany and the surrounding area, SNCC and SCLC members were harassed by whites. Churches were bombed, and local black citizens were threatened and sometimes attacked. King's nonviolent crusade responded with prayer vigils. It was not until the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act was passed that public facilities in Albany were desegregated.

In May 1962 King was asked to assist in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., and the SCLC made plans to hold its annual convention there. The Birmingham campaign began with a series of workshops on nonviolence. In early 1963 King made a speaking tour, recruiting volunteers and obtaining money for bail bonds for those arrested in the struggle. On April 3 a manifesto was issued by the black community, and the campaign began in earnest with picketings and sit-ins. On the Friday before Easter, Dr. King was jailed; on Easter Sunday, African Americans appeared at white churches asking to join their fellow Christians in worship. When Dr. King's brother was arrested on his way to the Birmingham jail to pray for King, a near riot resulted.

On May 2 some 6,000 school children marched to demonstrate against school segregation; 959 children were arrested. The next day, as volunteers gathered in a church, police barred the exits, and fire hoses and police dogs were turned on the teen-age demonstrators.

The SCLC's campaign continually met harassment from the Birmingham police. Finally, a period of truce was established, and negotiations began with the city power structure. Though an agreement was reached, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of King's brother and the motel where SCLC members were headquartered. Enraged black citizens rioted; Alabama state troopers moved in and set up undeclared martial law. King and SCLC personnel continued to urge nonviolence, and tensions seemed to ease for a time. But more violence erupted when white racists refused to comply with Federal school integration laws. The worst came when a bomb thrown into a black church killed four little girls.

Civil Rights Rally in Washington

The year 1963 was eventful in the struggle for civil rights. In June, King and 125,000 persons marched in a "Freedom Walk" in Detroit. On August 27, over 250,000 black and white citizens assembled in Washington, D.C., for a mass civil rights rally, where King delivered his famous "Let Freedom Ring" address. That same year he was featured as Time magazine's "Man of the Year."

The next year King and his followers moved into St. Augustine, Fla., one of America's most thoroughly segregated cities. After weeks of nonviolent demonstrations and violent counterattacks by whites, a biracial committee was set up to move St. Augustine toward desegregation. A few weeks later the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

In September 1964 King and Abernathy went to West Berlin at Mayor Willy Brandt's invitation, where King received an honorary doctorate from the Evangelical Theological College. The two civil rights leaders then went to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul VI. Back in the United States, King endorsed Lyndon Johnson's presidential candidacy. That December, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965 the SCLC concentrated its efforts in Alabama. The prime target was Selma, where only a handful of black citizens had been permitted to vote. King urged President Johnson to expedite the Voting Rights Bill, and he announced a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the black people's determination to vote. But Governor George Wallace refused to permit the march, and the 500 persons who gathered to march were beaten by state troopers and "possemen." The march continued anyway, and Selma's black citizens were joined by hundreds of blacks and whites from other states, including many notable churchmen. On March 21 over 10,000 persons followed King from Selma toward Montgomery. Only 300 were allowed to make the 4-day march, but they were joined by another 25,000 in Montgomery for the march to the capital to present a petition to Governor Wallace.

New Issues: Vietnam War

In 1965 King made a "people-to-people" tour of northern cities. But the growing militancy of black people in Watts and Harlem, and even in Mississippi and Alabama, caused Dr. King to reassess the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he had fathered. Although he reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolence, he understood the intense frustration experienced by blacks when their own nonviolent tactics left them open to dangerous violence from the opposition. He was troubled, too, about the American involvement in the war in Vietnam and found himself increasingly pushed toward leadership in antiwar groups.

In 1967 King began speaking directly against the Vietnam War, although many civil rights advocates criticized this. While serving a 4-day sentence in Birmingham stemming from the 1963 demonstrations, King and his brother, Abernathy, and Wyatt Tee Walker began planning a "Poor People's March" to bring together the interests of the poor of all races.

The Assassination

In January 1968 Dr. King and other antiwar leaders called for a Washington rally on February 5/6. He also announced that the Poor People's March would converge in Washington on April 22. Following the February rally, King toured key cities to see firsthand the plight of the poor. Meanwhile, in Memphis, Tenn., black sanitation workers were striking to protest unequal pay and poor working conditions. The protest soon became citywide, with grievances ranging from police brutality to intolerable school conditions. In March, King went to lead the Memphis demonstrations. The march ended in a riot when some frustrated young blacks began breaking windows, looting, and burning stores. Police retaliation was swift and bloody. In Memphis on April 3, King addressed a rally; speaking of threats on his life, he urged followers to continue the nonviolent struggle no matter what happened to him.

The next evening, as King stood on an outside balcony at the Lorraine Hotel, he was struck by a rifle bullet. He was pronounced dead at 7:00 P.M. in a Memphis hospital.

King was a prolific writer. Among his most important works are Stride toward Freedom (1958), Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can't Wait (1964), Where Do We Go from Here (1967), and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968). Collections of his writings include A Martin Luther King Treasury (1964) and I Have a Dream (1968).

Further Reading

Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969), is his wife's account. Other biographies include Lerone Bennett, Jr., What Manner of Man (1964); William Robert Miller, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968); Charles Eric Lincoln, Martin Luther King (1969); and David L. Lewis, King: A Critical Biography (1970), written by a young black historian. An unfavorable view of King and his work is Lionel Lokos, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King (1968). □

King Jr., Martin Luther

views updated May 21 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.

Born: January 15, 1929
Atlanta, Georgia
Died: April 4, 1968
Memphis, Tennessee

African American civil rights activist and minister

The minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) originated the use of nonviolent methods within the civil rights movement. He was one of the most important African American leaders of his time.

Early life

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He attended Atlanta public schools and then went on to Morehouse College. After graduation from Morehouse in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary and graduated in 1951. He then received his doctorate (an advanced degree) in theology (the study of religion) from Boston University in 1955.

In Boston King met Coretta Scott, whom he married on June 18, 1953. Four children were born to the couple. In 1954, King became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, he became active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Alabama Council on Human Relations.

Nonviolence: the bus boycott

In December 1955, Rosa Parks (1913), a black woman, was arrested for violating a segregated seating ordinance (a law enforcing separation between African American and white people) on a public bus in Montgomery. Black citizens were outraged. At the time, many public places, including buses, were segregated. King, along with fellow activists, urged African Americans to boycott the segregated city buses. (In a boycott people refuse to use products and services provided by people, businesses, or organizations until policies and procedures are changed.) From this boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed. The bus boycott lasted more than a year. Finally, the bus company agreed to the protesters demands and ended segregated seating. The U.S. Supreme Court later stated that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, or went against the laws of the Constitution.

Overnight, Martin Luther King had become a national hero as a leader in the civil rights struggle. The victory had not been easy. As an elected president of the MIA, King's life was in constant danger. His home was bombed, and he and other MIA leaders were constantly threatened, arrested, and jailed.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In January 1957 approximately sixty black ministers assembled in Atlanta to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to continue the civil rights fight. King was elected president. In February 1958 the SCLC sponsored twenty-one mass meetings in southern cities as part of a "Crusade for Citizenship." The goal was to double the number of black voters in the South. King was now traveling constantly, speaking for "justice" throughout the country.

A year later the Kings visited India at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (18891964). King had long been interested in nonviolence as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi (18691948). Yet, when they returned to the United States, the civil rights struggle had become much more intense. Violent resistance by whites to the nonviolent efforts of black demonstrators filled the newspapers with stories of bloody fights.

"Sit-in" movement

In February 1960 the "sit-in" movement started in Greensboro, North Carolina. African American students began this nonviolent form of protest by sitting at "white only" lunch counters in city stores. The movement quickly spread throughout much of the South. On April 15, 1960, the SCLC called a meeting of sit-in leaders to organize the movement. King urged the young people to continue using nonviolent means. Out of this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged.

By August 1960 the sit-ins had succeeded in ending segregation at lunch counters in twenty-seven southern cities. In October 1960 the SCLC decided to increase their efforts to get African Americans registered to vote, use boycotts to gain fair employment, and work to end segregation in public places.

A popular department store in Atlanta, widely known for its policy of segregation, was the first goal in this renewed effort. When King and seventy-five students entered the store and requested lunch-counter service, he and thirty-six others were arrested. However, Atlanta's mayor worked out a truce and charges were dropped. But King was imprisoned for breaking the terms of his court supervision that resulted from a traffic offense conviction. John F. Kennedy (19171963), who at the time was campaigning for the presidency, made a telephone call to Mrs. King, and then worked to get King released.

Freedom riders

Soon the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SCLC, and SNCC joined together to form the Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee with King as chairman. The idea was to "put the sit-ins on the road" by having pairs of black and white volunteers board interstate buses traveling through the South. This would test a new federal law forbidding segregated bus stations. A great deal of violence resulted as resisting whites overturned and burned buses, assaulted the Freedom Riders, and attacked newsmen. Many of the arrested riders chose prison rather than pay fines. However, the protest worked, forcing the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce laws against segregation.

The movement heats up

On May 2, 1963, some six thousand school children marched to demonstrate against school segregation. The next day, as volunteers gathered in a church, police blocked the exits, and turned fire hoses and police dogs on the teenage demonstrators.

Finally, there was a truce between the civil rights groups and the police. Then, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK; a group that believes the white race is better than all other races) bombed the home of King's brother and the motel where SCLC members were headquartered. Enraged black citizens rioted and Alabama state troopers moved in and set up undeclared martial law, or temporary rule by the military. King and SCLC personnel continued to urge nonviolence but more violence erupted when white racists refused to obey federal school integration laws. The worst came when a bomb thrown into an African American church killed four little girls.

"Let Freedom Ring"

The year 1963 continued to be eventful in the struggle for civil rights. In June King led 125,000 people on a "Freedom Walk" in Detroit, Michigan. On August 27, more than 250,000 black and white citizens gathered in Washington, D.C. for a mass civil rights rally. There, King delivered his famous "Let Freedom Ring" address. That same year he was featured as Time magazine's "Man of the Year."

In 1964 King and his followers moved on to St. Augustine, Florida, one of America's most segregated cities. After weeks of nonviolent demonstrations and violent counterattacks by whites, a committee was set up to move St. Augustine toward desegregation. A few weeks later, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which made discrimination (unequal treatment) based on race illegal, was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson (19081973). In December 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Target: Alabama

In 1965 the SCLC concentrated its efforts in Alabama. The first target was Selma, where only a handful of black citizens had been allowed to vote. King urged President Johnson to rush the Voting Rights Act and announced a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the black people's determination to vote. (The Voting Rights Act, which was passed on August 10, 1965, made it illegal for Southern states to prevent African Americans from voting and registering to vote.) Alabama Governor George Wallace (19191998) refused to permit the march, and the five hundred people who gathered to march were beaten by state troopers.

Nonetheless, the march continued, and Selma's black citizens were joined by hundreds of black and white protesters from other states. On March 21, 1965, more than ten thousand people followed King from Selma toward Montgomery. Only three hundred were allowed to make the full four-day march, but they were joined by another twenty-five thousand in Montgomery for the final leg to the Capitol to present a petition (a written demand) to Governor Wallace.

New issues: Vietnam War

In 1965 King made a "people-to-people" tour of northern cities. A growing number of black people were becoming aggressive in the struggle for their rights. Their position caused King to take another look at the nonviolent civil rights movement that he had fathered. Although committed to nonviolence and civil rights, he was also troubled about the American involvement in the Vietnam War (196573; a war in Vietnam in which American forces supported South Vietnam in their fight against Communist North Vietnam). He soon found himself pushed toward leadership in antiwar groups.

In 1967 King began speaking directly against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, although many civil rights advocates criticized this position. Around this time, while serving a four-day sentence in Birmingham, which was a result of the 1963 demonstrations, that King and other activists began planning a "Poor People's March." The march was to be held in Washingon, D.C. on April 22, 1968, to bring together the interests of the poor of all races.

Death to a dream

In February 1968 King led an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. In March, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to lead demonstrations against a wide range of complaints, including police brutality and poor school conditions. The march ended in a riot when some frustrated young African Americans began breaking windows, looting, and burning stores. The police reacted quickly and violently.

In Memphis on April 3, 1968, King addressed a rally. Speaking of threats on his life, he urged followers to continue the nonviolent struggle no matter what happened to him. The next evening, as King stood on an outside balcony at the Lorraine Motel, he was struck by a rifle bullet. He died a few hours later.

A monument to King

In December 1999, a four-acre site near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was approved as the location for a monument to King. The site is near the place where King delivered his "I have a dream" speech in 1963. In September 2000, a design was selected. The monument will be the first to honor an individual African American in the National Mall area.

For More Information

Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 2002.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

King, Coretta Scott, ed. The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Newmarket Press, 1983.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson. New York: Intellectual Properties Management, 1998.

Millender, Dharathula H. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Young Man with a Dream. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983.

King Jr., Martin Luther

views updated May 09 2018

Martin Luther King Jr.

Born January 15, 1929
Atlanta, Georgia

Died April 4, 1968
Memphis, Tennessee

Minister and civil rights leader

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He believed that the peaceful coordination of large groups of people could bring about change in society. Before the 1960s, blacks were segregated, separated from whites, especially in the South. Public facilities were divided into those for whites and those for blacks. Segregation applied to schools, bathrooms, neighborhoods, jobs, and even seats on buses and trains. Usually, black facilities were in much worse condition than those available to whites. In some areas, whites verbally and physically attacked blacks because of their ethnicity. During the 1960s, blacks and whites who opposed these practices started to demand an end to segregation and other types of racial discrimination. A strong public speaker, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a leader among the protestors and attracted many to the civil rights movement. The demonstrations that King helped to organize gave rise to the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Act that formed a legal basis for the end of segregation and discrimination in the United States.

The making of a minister

Born Michael Luther King Jr. on January 15, 1929, King was renamed Martin when he was six years old by his parents Alberta Williams and Michael Luther King Sr. His father was a minister who preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King learned to recite the biblical scriptures before he was five years old and took to reading early, especially the Bible. His parents did their best to protect him from the discrimination against blacks that was widespread in Atlanta during the 1930s. But King was still forced to sit at the back of the bus, attend segregated black schools, and suffer racial prejudice.

When King was six years old he began attending an elementary school for black children. His white friends were sent to a different school. He and his friends were told that they could not be friends anymore because they were of different races. This event upset him so much that his mother was forced to tell him the story of their people's slavery and the subsequent segregation of the United States. But she insisted that he was just as good as anyone else, a belief that never faded from King's mind. King attended Booker T. Washington High School, the only black high school in Atlanta. Despite the poor quality of his school, King excelled academically and was admitted to Morehouse College in 1944 at age fifteen.

King had great respect for Dr. Benjamin E. Mays (c. 1894–1984), president of Morehouse College, who often preached about social justice. He also enjoyed the sermons of Dr. George D. Kelsey, head of the theology (religion) department. Both of these men helped King to discover his calling to the ministry. When King was seventeen, his father arranged for King's first sermon in front of a large crowd at the family's church. It was such a success that King was ordained and made assistant pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1947. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a bachelor of arts degree. He received a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1951. King was then accepted at Boston University's graduate school, finishing his doctorate in 1955. In graduate school King met a music teacher, Coretta Scott. They married in 1953 and eventually had four children. He felt that his destiny lay in the South, despite his wife's reservations about leaving the more liberal North. He took a position preaching at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of 1954.

The Montgomery bus boycott

In Montgomery, Alabama, King found a receptive audience for his sermons. The community would follow his teachings and lend him the manpower needed to effect change. He became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1955. The group had just won the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case (1954), which proved that segregated schools were "inherently unequal." King's growing sense of duty toward the civil rights movement propelled him to organize and lead a 382-day boycott of the local bus system. The boycott was sparked by the refusal of a black woman, Rosa Parks (1913–), to give up her seat to a white person on December 1, 1955.

On December 5, 1955, Montgomery's buses were empty. King was voted to head the negotiations, but the situation did not quickly change. King's family was constantly bothered with threatening phone calls. He was arrested on January 26, 1956 for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. Then, King's home was bombed on January 30. He was released from jail fairly quickly on the speeding charge, and no one was hurt in the bomb blast. However, his family's safety had been compromised. Nevertheless, King remained steadfast in his convictions. On March 22, 1956, the state of Alabama found King guilty of inciting a boycott. His charge was later repealed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on November 13 that segregation on buses was illegal. On December 21, 1956, Montgomery's buses were officially desegregated.

President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Created in 1957, the SCLC had its headquarters in Atlanta. This group of black leaders was organized to coordinate the civil rights movement in the South. It sought to help to promote such causes as desegregation and increasing black voters and their participation in elections. On September 3, 1958, King was arrested for loitering at the Montgomery courthouse. He refused bail, preferring to draw attention to his unlawful arrest. The court released him on the basis that the government would prefer not to spend the money on his upkeep. Shortly after King's release, a black woman stabbed him in the chest during a book-signing event for his history of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom.

Civil Rights Timeline of the 1960s

1960The sit-in protest movement against racial segregation at restaurants and stores begins at a Woolworth's department store lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
1961Blacks and whites ride buses together on Freedom Rides to the South from Washington, D.C., challenging segregation on public transportation.
1962Riots break out when James Meredith enrolls as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation on public transportation is illegal.
1963Demonstrations take place in Birmingham, Alabama. NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers is murdered. The March on Washington, D.C., features the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech.
1964The Civil Rights Act is signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The bill makes segregation and discrimination illegal.
1965Black nationalist Malcolm X is murdered. Civil rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where the nonviolent protest is brutally broken up by state troopers. The Voting Rights Act becomes law, making it easier for blacks to vote.
1968Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. Another Civil Rights Act passes, making discrimination in housing practices illegal. Staunch civil rights supporter Robert F. Kennedy, brother of deceased U.S. president John F. Kennedy, is also assassinated.

King recovered quickly, but if the stab wounds had been slightly to the left or right, he would have died. Stunned by his brush with death, King decided in early 1959 to fulfill a lifelong wish to travel to India. He paid his respects at the grave of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), the Indian activist. Gandhi's nonviolent protests helped India win independence from Britain in 1947. The peaceful activism of Gandhi, whose life was cut short by assassins in 1948, had greatly inspired King in his civil rights work. According to King biographer Stephen B. Oates in Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "He came home with a deeper understanding of nonviolence and a deep commitment as well. For him, nonviolence was no longer just a philosophy and a technique of social change; it was now a whole way of life." When King returned to the United States, he became co-pastor with his father at the family's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he could also remain active in the SCLC.

Sit-ins and freedom rides

Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled frequently and wrote several books about his experiences. He helped coordinate the "sit-ins" of 1960, in which groups of blacks refused to move from the white sections of stores and restaurants. King also was instrumental in the Freedom Rides that began on Southern buses during 1961, forcing the racial mixing of public transportation. These forms of nonviolent protest often caused an alarming amount of violent opposition from whites, including beatings and mass arrests. King and several other black leaders met with President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) in 1963 to plead the case for civil rights legislation that would end the need for protest and the resulting violence. However, Kennedy was not yet open to the idea.

On April 3, 1963, the Birmingham Movement began, in which blacks demonstrated for desegregated stores and fair store hiring practices. King was arrested. While in jail he wrote the now famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on old newspaper and pieces of toilet paper. This time Kennedy took notice and sent the FBI to assure King's safety. The protests continued into May, with thousands of blacks of all ages marching through the streets of Birmingham. Police used dogs and water hoses to try to subdue the masses. On May 10, 1963, the demands of the protestors were met, due in no small part to the support of the Kennedy administration. King also spoke during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, rallying supporters with his "I Have a Dream" speech. In the speech, as quoted in the Seattle Times, King stated: "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 one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, formally protecting the rights of blacks as equals of whites. King won the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964. He traveled to Norway to accept the award and donated the prize money to further the civil rights movement. Upon his return, he led the Selma-Montgomery Freedom March in support of voter registration in March 1965. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry) signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal regulation of the voting process. Although he had already accomplished a great deal, King continued to work to protect and expand the rights of Americans, regardless of race.

Soon, however, his life was violently cut short. After King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support a sanitation workers' strike, James Earl Ray (1928–1998) shot and killed King with a bullet through the neck. The assassination occurred on April 4 while King stood on the balcony of a hotel. King continues to be remembered as one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. His January birthday has become a national holiday in the United States.

For More Information


Bennett, Lerone, Jr. What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Chicago, IL: Johnson, 1964.

Haskins, James. The Life and Death of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1992.

January, Brendan. Martin Luther King Jr.: Minister and Civil Rights Activist. Chicago, IL: Ferguson Publishing, 2000.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969, revised, 1993.

King, Coretta Scott, ed. The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Newmarket Press, 1983.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper, 1982.

Pettit, Jayne. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man with a Dream. New York: Franklin Watts, 2001.

Wukovits, John F. Martin Luther King Jr. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Web Sites

"I Have a Dream." The Seattle Times. (accessed August 2004).

The King Center. (accessed August 2004).

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (accessed August 2004).

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