Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)
By Catherine A. Paul
Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr.) was an American Baptist minister, activist, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs (“Martin Luther King Jr.,” n.d.).
King was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He attended racially segregated public elementary and high schools and the private Laboratory High School of Atlanta University. At the age of fifteen, King was admitted to Morehouse College as a special student, and he graduated in 1948 with a degree in sociology (Saunders, 2005). He immediately enrolled at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he became engrossed in the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Richard Gregg and began developing his theory of nonviolent protest. King graduated with highest honors in 1951. He then pursued his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr. married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953 (Trattner, 1986).
King was ordained to the ministry by vote of the congregation in February 1948 at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia (Watkins, 1948). In January 1954, King began his first and only pulpit assignment at The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. There, his career as a civil rights leader also began. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and their success in breaking the barrier of segregation on public transportation in Montgomery catapulted King to prominence (Trattner, 1986).
Shortly after, in 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery and others founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King served as its first president (Trattner, 1986). With the SCLC, King led the unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia (the Albany Movement), and helped organize the 1963 nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Through this speech, King established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history (“Martin Luther King Jr.,” n.d.). Many right-wing conservatives, however, hardened their views on King, perceiving him as a misguided religious extremist. Many southern white fundamentalist and evangelical groups interpreted King’s integrationist and nonviolent philosophies as not only unbiblical and lacking in theological substance, but also as morally indefensible and socially disruptive (Baldwin, 2013).
On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance (National Park Service, n.d.; Trattner, 1986). In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. His efforts in Chicago were not wholly successful, however, and he began to lose the support of the young militant leaders in organizations such as Congress of Racial Equality(CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC). Consequently, King altered his approach to race in America, asserting that race was more than just prejudice; King believed that racism was a function of the American economic and social structures. He began to advocate for the reconstruction of society and a revolution of values (Trattner, 1986).
As a part of this new mission, King denounced the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” (Trattner, 1986). In response, white ecclesiastic circles questioned King’s patriotism and tried to paint him as a communist (Baldwin, 2013). J. Edgar Hoover had long been suspicious about communist infiltration of social movements (Downing, 1986). After the March on Washington, the FBI’s allegations that King was a communist intensified (Kotz, 2005). In fact, prior to his death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America (West, 2015). King simply sought to rebrand himself as the advocate for all of America’s poor by organizing a coalition of anti-poverty and anti-war supporters (Trattner, 1986). His dissent did not mean disloyalty; King proclaimed the difficult truth about a country he loved. Rather than anti-America, he was anti-injustice in America (West, 2015).
In 1968, King began planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C. called the Poor People’s Campaign. Unlike the March on Washington, The Poor People’s Campaign intended to bring protesters to DC for several days of sit-ins to interrupt congressional proceedings and the daily routines of the city in ultimate hopes of getting the government to respond to the plight of the poor. King paused his planning in order to go to Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers. He was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on April 4, 1968 (Saunders, 2005). His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities (“Martin Luther King Jr.,” n.d.).
King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also renamed for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011(“Martin Luther King Jr.,” n.d.).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A Historical Perspective: Full Documentary (1994)
This work may also be viewed through the Internet Archive.
For More Information:
“Beyond Vietnam:” Address delivered by MLK to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, at Riverside Church. April 4, 1967, New York City. Courtesy of Stanford University.
Documents, online audio lectures/discussions, and further resources. Courtesy of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: A Historical Perspective – Full Documentary written and directed by Thomas Friedman.
Letter From Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Full Document. Courtesy of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Recordings: Clips from the inaugural JFK Lecture Series speech by MLK on May 13, 1965. Courtesy of the Queens College Civil Rights Archives.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University: resources for teachers, students, and researchers.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Who Speaks for the Negro: 1964 audio interview & transcript with King about the Civil Rights Movement. Audio courtesy of the University of Kentucky. Digital archive created by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.
Baldwin, L. V. (2013). Distorted characterizations: Images of Martin Luther King Jr. in the conservative mind. In L. V. Baldwin & R. Burrows, The domestication of Martin Luther King Jr (pp. 1-28). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
Downing, F. L. (1986). To see the promised land: The faith pilgrimage of Martin Luther King, Jr. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
Kotz, N. (2005). Judgement days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the laws that changed America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books.
Martin Luther King Jr. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 3, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.
National Park Service. (n.d.). Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National historic site, Georgia. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior
Saunders, M. A. (2005). King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968). In J. M. Herrick & P. H. Stuart, Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America. (pp. 208-210). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Trattner, W. I. (1986). King, Martin Luther, Jr. Biographical dictionary of social welfare in America (46-48). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Watkins, L. (1948). Certification of minister’s license for Martin Luther King, Jr. Stanford University Libraries. Retrieved from https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230441/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/papers/vol1/480204-Certification_of_Ministers_License_for_Martin_Luther_King_Jr.htm
West, C. (2015). Introduction. The radical King: Martin Luther King Jr. (pp. ix-xvi). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2016). Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from
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[…] the first to have extensive television coverage. The march is remembered too as the occasion for Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It was a speech of hope and determination, and it epitomized the […]
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