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Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK)

Civil Rights Movement 1960s

Eternal Flame of Peaceful Resistance

His name represents the dream of a nation united. He shared his gift and risked his life to drive the darkness of racism from a country in need of a light.

American pastor and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 39 when he died. In his short but remarkable life, he did more to advance racial equality through nonviolent means than centuries of bruises and bloodshed had done.

He remains one of history’s most celebrated figures in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

MLK: Formative Years

Michael King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, to Reverend Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. During a trip to Nazi Germany in 1934, Michael, Sr. changed both his name and his son’s in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther.

Martin, Jr. established himself as bright and mature early on. As a student in Atlanta, he skipped the 9th and 12th grades and enrolled at Morehouse College when just 15 years old without a high school diploma.

He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 with a B.A. in sociology and then went on to pursue a degree in divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.

MLK: Adulthood and Shaping Beliefs

King continued his education with doctoral studies at Boston University. He earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology in June 1955.

His developing worldview was strongly influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Christian gospels, which he quoted often in writing and speech. He believed that people should love their neighbors as themselves, pray for and be kind to their enemies, and give their greatest reverence to God.

He was likewise inspired by the nonviolent activism advocated by India’s Mahatma Gandhi. In April 1959, he traveled to India to deepen his perspective of nonviolent resistance and how it could be applied to America’s racial problems.

Where other civil rights leaders of his era espoused achieving equality by any means, King relied on the powers of collective will and peaceful protest to confront poverty and discrimination.

Because of oppositional efforts to mark him as a firebrand, he often had to choose his words with care to avoid association with communism. In private, he spoke of his interest in democratic socialism as a desirable system for civil rights and resource distribution.

MLK: Defining Roles and Events

Martin Luther King’s talents and activism propelled the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1954, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. By this time, he was also a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Such positioning prepared him for what would soon come.

In December 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a crowded bus. Guided in large part by King, Montgomery’s black community responded by refusing to ride public buses for more than a year. The boycott dealt a major blow to the bus company. Soon after, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in transportation unconstitutional, and Montgomery dropped its ordinance requiring it.

In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization formed by black community leaders to inspire nonviolent civil rights efforts. SCLC-organized events and activities drew national attention to the plight of Birmingham’s blacks, who staged open marches, occupied public spaces and disobeyed city laws they perceived as unfair. Media coverage of the Birmingham Police Department’s aggressive responses to their protests sparked national outrage and widened sympathy for the city’s struggle for equality.

King was also a catalyst of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom (the March on Washington). The initiative aimed to increase government pressure to stop segregation in public schools, create civil rights legislation and labor laws, protect civil rights workers from police brutality and establish a fair minimum wage for all. The march drew more than 250,000 people of different ethnicities to the National Mall, where King gave his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech that touched the nation. 

His cumulative work in the 1950s and 60s ultimately helped compel two American legislative landmarks: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legalized racial discrimination and segregation in the U.S., and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed the obstacles to blacks’ being able to vote.

MLK: Assassination in Memphis

King’s brilliant life would come to an abrupt and tragic end on April 4, 1968.

He and the SCLC had launched the “Poor People’s Campaign” in 1968 to address remaining issues of economic injustice. The crusade took him around the country with the goal of organizing an occupation of Washington, D.C. to insist on government action.

In late March 1968, King stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitary public workers on strike for better wages and treatment. On April 3, he visited Mason Temple and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the last of his career.

At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, as he stepped out onto the balcony from his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel, a shot rang out. The bullet, allegedly fired by James Earl Ray, killed him. Riots throughout the U.S. soon followed, as did theories and opinions about Ray’s guilt and possible involvement in a conspiracy.

MLK: Honors and Legacy

King’s spirit was decorated with distinction both before and after his death, forever marking his place in American civil rights.

In October 1964, at age 35, he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Days after his assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 including a section known as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2004, King and his wife, Coretta, received the Congressional Gold Medal.

King is the only non-president to be commemorated with a federal holiday. He is also the fourth non-president and first African American to be memorialized with a statue in the National Mall. More than 730 U.S. cities have streets named in his honor as well.

King himself mainly wanted to be remembered as one who “tried to ‘feed the hungry,’ ‘clothe the naked’…and ‘love and serve humanity’”.

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