King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968), Minister, Civil Rights Leader, and Activist

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King, Martin Luther, Jr.
(1929-1968), minister, civil rights leader, and activist.

Born into a black Baptist family in Atlanta, Georgia, King, the most influential civil rights leader and clerical activist in American history, was descended from two notable religious figures: His maternal grandfather founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1895, and his father became pastor of that church in 1932. Admitted at fifteen to Morehouse, an elite black college in Atlanta, King decided to become a minister after hearing scholars such as Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse, depict religion as a potential force for social change.

King became ordained at his father's church in 1947, and after earning a B.A. in sociology from More-house in 1948, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. King graduated from Crozer in 1951 and began his doctoral study at Boston University's School of Theology. In 1954 King accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The following year he earned his doctorate, and soon afterward he unexpectedly assumed a new role as social activist that would increasingly dominate his life.

In December 1955, the arrest of a black woman, Rosa Parks, for refusing to yield her seat on a bus to a white man, led blacks to organize a boycott of the offending bus company and to choose King as their leader. The boycott triumphed in December 1956, aided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that over-turned segregation laws for public transportation. King emerged as a national figure, in part a tribute to his eloquent definition of the campaign as a struggle, not against whites, but against injustice.

The protest in Montgomery set the pattern for King's later campaigns by fusing mass action with expressly spiritual ideals. Among the diverse sources of King's thought was the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, whose essay "On Civil Disobedience" in 1849 declared, "In a society where anyone is imprisoned unjustly, the proper place for a just man is also a prison." King also cited the early-twentieth-century minister of the "Social Gospel," Walter Rauschen-busch, who insisted that achieving justice, even more than personal piety, was the key to salvation. From the hard-edged neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, King recognized that evil may not always be healed by love alone. Above all, King embraced the tenets and techniques of the Hindu ascetic Mohandas Gandhi, whose readiness to go to jail for breaking unjust laws, together with acts of nonviolent mass resistance such as marches and boycotts, had helped end British colonial rule in India.

In 1957 King created a network of activist southern ministers known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). From 1960 to 1965 he led or endorsed virtually every major nonviolent challenge to segregation throughout the South. In the spring of 1963 King's nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham were met by police beatings and attack dogs, images of which shocked the American public into support for black civil rights. On August 28, 1963, King voiced his dream of racial brotherhood in religious imagery that culminated with his invoking "the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.' " In March 1965 King led the last great campaign of the nonviolent black protest movement, a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that sparked passage of the powerful Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King's last years were marked by leadership of a widening circle of protests against racism, poverty, and war, which he saw as interrelated injustices. The flaring of ghetto riots persuaded him that the nonviolent protest movement had to shift its focus to aid the mass of ghetto blacks. His increasing activity in the northern ghettos after 1965 accompanied growing doubts about an economic system that he felt "often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty." King also became a sharp critic of American involvement in Vietnam, which he charged had caused untold devastation and diverted resources from compelling domestic tasks. King spent his final months aiding a strike by impoverished sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was slain by a white racist named James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

King was neither the first nor the most militant African-American apostle of nonviolent resistance. But his matchless eloquence, honed by years of northern graduate training and southern Baptist preaching, inspired both blacks and whites with a vision of racial harmony that rested equally on the Judeo-Christian ethic and the American democratic creed. King inspired as well by personal example, as he braved arrests, threats, FBI surveillance and harassment, and ultimately martyrdom in pressing his reform causes. Throughout, he shared his faith in the triumph of freedom, equality, and peace despite all obstacles, proclaiming, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

See alsoCivil Rights Movement; Judeo-Christian Tradition; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Prison and Religion; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Bibliography

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 –1963. 1988.

Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963 –1965. 1998.

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

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 1958.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1968.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can't Wait. 1964.

Lewis, David Levering. King: A Biography, 2nd ed. 1978.

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

Robert Weisbrot