Martin Luther King, Jr.

Also known as: Martin Luther King, Michael Luther King
Jan. 15, 1929-April 4, 1968
Nationality: American
Occupation: Civil Rights Leader, Minister (religion)

Michael King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in the Atlanta home of his maternal grandfather, Adam Daniel Williams (1863-1931). He was the second child and the first son of Michael King Sr. (1897-1984) and Alberta Christine Williams King (1903-1974). Michael Jr. had an older sister, Willie Christine (b. 1927), and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams (b. 1930-1969). The father and later the son adopted the name Martin Luther, after the religious figure who founded the Lutheran denomination.

The family background was rooted in rural Georgia. A. D. Williams was already a minister himself when he moved from the country to Atlanta in 1893. There he took over a small struggling church with some 13 members, Ebenezer Baptist. In 1899 Williams married Jennie Celeste Parks (1873-1941). The couple had one child that survived, Alberta Christine, M. L. King Jr.'s mother. A. D. Williams was a forceful preacher who built Ebenezer into a major church.

Michael King Sr. came to Atlanta in 1918. He had known the hard life of a sharecropper in a poor farming country. His father, James Albert King (1864-1933), was irreligious, became an alcoholic, and beat his wife, Delia Linsey King (1873-1924). In the fall of 1926, Michael Sr. married Alberta Williams after a courtship of some eight years. The newlyweds moved into A. D. Williams's home.

When Williams died in 1931, Michael King Sr. followed in his father-in-law's footsteps as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, too, became a very successful minister. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. As King Jr. said in "An Autobiography of Religious Development," an essay written for a class at Crozer Seminary when he was 23: "It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present."

King Sr. was inclined to be a severe disciplinarian, but his wife's firm gentleness — which was by no means permissive — generally carried the day. The parents could not, of course, shield the young boy from racism. King Sr. did not endure racism meekly; in showing open impatience with segregation and its effects and in discouraging the development of a sense of class superiority in his children, King Sr. influenced his son profoundly.

King Jr. entered public school when he was five. On May 1, 1936, King joined his father's church, being baptized two days later. His conversion was not dramatic — he simply followed his sister when she went forward. A period of questioning religion began with adolescence and lasted through his early college years. He felt uncomfortable with overly emotional religion, and this discomfort initially led him to decide against entering the ministry.

Jennie Williams, King Jr.'s grandmother, died of a heart attack on May 18, 1941, during a Woman's Day program at Ebenezer. The death was traumatic for her grandson, especially since it happened while he was watching a parade despite his parents' prohibitions. Distraught, he seems to have attempted suicide by leaping from a second-story window of the family home. He wept on and off for days and had difficulty sleeping.

King studied in the public schools of Atlanta, spent time at the Atlanta Laboratory School until it closed in 1942, and then entered public high school in the tenth grade, skipping a grade. After completing his junior year at Booker T. Washington High School, he entered Morehouse College in the fall of 1944 at the age of 15. Since the war had taken away most young men, Morehouse, a men's college, turned to young entrants in desperation.

Attends Morehouse

The five-foot seven-inch tall King was a ladies' man and loved to dance. He was an indifferent student who completed Morehouse with a grade point average of 2.48 on a four-point scale. At first King was determined not to become a minister, and he majored in sociology. Under the influence of his junior-year Bible class, however, he renewed his faith. Although he did not return to a literal belief in scripture, King began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year he told his father of his decision. King Jr. preached his trial sermon at Ebenezer with great success. On February 25, 1948, he was ordained and became associate pastor at Ebenezer.

King decided to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, a very liberal school. King rose to the challenges of Crozer, earning the respect of both his professors and classmates. In addition to becoming the valedictorian of his class in 1951, he was also elected student body president, won a prize as outstanding student, and earned a fellowship for graduate study. During this time, King also rebelled against his father's conservatism and now made no secret about drinking beer, smoking, and playing pool. He became enamored of a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could bring himself to break off the affair.

During his last year at Crozer, King began to read the iconoclastic theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr and his challenge to liberal theology — and thus, to King's own ideas at the time — became the most important single influence on King's intellectual development, far surpassing his later interest in Mahatma Gandhi. After being accepted for doctoral study at Yale University, Boston University, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, he enrolled in graduate school at Boston University in the fall of 1951.

As King pursued his graduate studies, he also sought a wife. Early in 1952 he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer. She was the daughter of Obie and Bernice Scott, born in Heiberger, Alabama, on April 27, 1927. Growing up on her father's farm, she learned to work hard before attending Antioch College. King's parents opposed the marriage at first, but King prevailed and the marriage took place in June of 1953. King Jr. and Coretta had four children: Yolanda (b. November 17, 1955), Martin Luther III (b. October 23, 1957), Dexter (b. January 30, 1961), and Bernice Albertine (b. March 28, 1963).

In September of 1954 while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King completed his Ph.D. dissertation comparing the religious views of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and was awarded the degree in June of 1955. In November of 1990, scholars confirmed that significant parts of King's dissertation had been taken from the work of a fellow student, Jack Boozer, and one of the subjects of his dissertation, Paul Tillich.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus, setting off a chain of events that catapulted King to world fame. Several groups within Montgomery's black community decided to take action against segregated seating on the city buses. The NAACP, the Women's Political Council, the Baptist Ministers Conference and the city's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zionist ministers united with the community to organize a bus boycott. After a successful beginning of the boycott on Monday, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) came into being that afternoon, and King accepted the presidency. His oratory at that evening's mass meeting roused the crowd's enthusiasm, and the boycott continued. It took 381 days of struggle to bring the boycott to a successful conclusion.

As MIA leader, King became the focus of white hatred. On the afternoon of January 26, King was arrested for the first time, spending some time in jail before being released. About midnight he was awakened by a hate phone call. As he sat thinking of the dangers to his family, he had his first profound religious experience. As he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom:

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." 

On January 30, the King home was bombed. The bombing inspired the MIA to file a federal suit directly attacking the laws establishing bus segregation. In the second half of February the white establishment decided to arrest nearly 100 blacks for violating Alabama's anti-boycott law. These arrests focused national attention on Montgomery. King was arrested, tried, and convicted on March 22. The following weekend he gave his first speeches in the North.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws requiring bus segregation. Montgomery's mayor refused to yield. After long legal procedures, the Supreme Court's order to end bus segregation was served in Montgomery on Thursday, December 20, 1956. Despite jeopardized jobs, intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan, police harassment, and bombings, the success of the boycott became apparent when King and several allies boarded a public bus in front of King's home on December 21, 1956.

King was in Atlanta when five bombs went off at parsonages and churches in Montgomery in the early morning of January 10, 1957. On this date, a two-day meeting was scheduled to begin in Ebenezer Baptist Church to lay out plans to create an organization to maintain the momentum of the movement for change throughout the South. King returned to Montgomery to inspect the bomb damage and was present for only the final hours of the meeting. In a follow-up meeting in New Orleans on February 14, the group adopted the name Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and elected King president. King made his first trip abroad to attend the independence ceremonies in Ghana on March 5, 1958. In June, King received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his leadership.

King and his organization became increasingly estranged from the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, who feared the effect of another mass black organization on the NAACP's branches in the South and also disapproved of the SCLC's call for direct action. Nonetheless, King pressed forward and the SCLC's plans for a voter registration drive beginning in 1958 went forward. In need of a capable organizer at the Atlanta office, the SCLC's first choice was Bayard Rustin, who was a very effective worker but also vulnerable to smears because of his homosexuality. Rustin found a role at SCLC in a less visible position. Ella Baker came to Atlanta to take Rustin's place and shouldered much of the initial burden of organizational work for the SCLC. In spite of her efforts, the 1958 Lincoln Day launch of the voter registration drive failed to attract much attention, and the SCLC seemed on the point of disappearing.

As King was writing his book on the Montgomery boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, he benefited from the very frank criticism of white New York lawyer Stanley D. Levinson, who became one of King's most trusted advisors. Levinson was also a key factor in the FBI's later surveillance of King: there were allegations of a connection between Levinson and the Communist Party that formed one of the legal bases for wiretaps of King's telephone communications. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover ordered those wiretaps as well as surveillance of King, of King's advisors outside the SCLC and of their relationships to Communism and homosexuality. The FBI hoped to use the information to discredit King and his organization.

In June of 1958, King joined A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and National Urban League leader Lester B. Granger in an unsatisfactory meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In September King was again arrested in Montgomery as he tried to enter a courtroom. King decided to serve his 14-day jail sentence for refusing to obey an officer rather than pay the $14 fine. He avoided jail time, however, as the police commissioner paid the fine to avoid the publicity King would have garnered. After this police incident, while at a book signing, King was critically stabbed by a deranged black woman.

King spent some time convalescing. In early February of 1959 he, his wife, and his biographer, Lawrence D. Reddick, embarked on a busy 30-day trip to India, sponsored by the Gandhi Memorial Trust. Through much of the year, SCLC floundered in the face of organizational and financial problems, aggravated by the lack of a clear goal beyond voter registration. On November 29, 1959, King announced his resignation from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to move to Atlanta to take on full-time responsibilities at SCLC.

The Sit-ins Begin

Student activism provided the spark that gave new life to the Civil Rights Movement. On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University) demanded service at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro and continued to sit after their demands were refused. The sit-ins spread rapidly across the South. The first contact between the students and the SCLC occurred on February 16, 1960, as King delivered a well-received speech at a meeting held in Durham to coordinate more sit-ins. As soon as King returned to Atlanta, he discovered he was under indictment for perjury on his Alabama state tax forms. The ongoing legal procedures would be a matter of great concern to King until an all-white jury returned a verdict of not guilty on May 28, after a three-day trial.

Ella Baker, who realized she could not continue her active leadership role at SCLC much longer, arranged a meeting of student leaders at Shaw University beginning on April 15. King had the votes to establish the student movement as a branch of the SCLC but did not wish to alienate Baker, who aimed at an independent organization. Thus, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came into existence. Nonetheless, as the sit-ins continued, the adult leaders continued to quarrel; in particular, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was still very unhappy. Rustin offered to resign from SCLC and King accepted. Ella Baker also left, with bitter feelings on both sides.

On October 2, 1960, King reluctantly joined a renewal of sit-ins at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta. King was arrested and spent his first night ever in jail. A compromise freed all participants except King, who was held as being in violation of the terms of probation for an earlier traffic ticket. Sentenced to a four-month term in prison, he was taken to the state prison at Reidsville, Georgia. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express sympathy, and continued legal efforts secured King's release after eight days in jail. On March 10, 1961, in spite of his private reservations, King spoke in favor of a compromise desegregation plan for Atlanta and won the support of the student organizers, who previously had vociferously labeled the plan a sell-out.

On May 4 the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Rides, inaugurating a new phase in the struggle. On May 14 in Anniston, Alabama, the Freedom Riders encountered violent resistance. After further major trouble in Birmingham, they arrived in Montgomery on May 20 to be beaten by a white mob. At a Montgomery rally on May 21, King called for a large-scale nonviolent campaign against segregation in Alabama. A white mob surrounded the church where the rally took place, and the participants could not leave until about six the following morning.

King continued a heavy speaking program, bringing in sizable amounts of money to finance SCLC. In August SCLC joined SNCC, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and CORE in establishing the Voter Education Program (VEP). Over the next years considerable friction surfaced between VEP and SCLC over the SCLC's handling of money and its lackluster efforts in some areas. The leading organization of black Baptists also attacked King at this time. Under its leader, Joseph H. Jackson, the National Baptist Convention opposed the sit-ins. In August, Jackson held back an attempt by younger ministers to replace him and denounced King in very strong terms. This dispute eventually led King's supporters to form a rival organization, the Progressive Baptist Convention. At the same time King was involved in a dispute with SNCC over funding. The students felt SCLC owed SNCC part of the funds King's organization raised.

The Albany and Birmingham Challenges

In November of 1961 SNCC's attempt to establish a voter registration drive in Albany, Georgia, became a major learning experience. King made his first personal effort in December; in August of 1962, he gave up the attempt to break down segregation there. The police chief of Albany discerned that the real threat to segregation came from the use of violence, which would provoke federal intervention. He broke the momentum of the protest, and cooperation between SNCC, SCLC, the NAACP, and local blacks broke down in mutual recrimination.

In December the bombing of a Birmingham church drew King's attention to that city. Not only did Fred Shuttleworth's Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights appear so well-established as to reduce the possibility of friction between various black factions, Birmingham's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, was an ideal opponent. A staunch segregationist with a hot temper and little judgment, Connor was sure to make hasty mistakes and resort to violence.

The campaign got off to a shaky start, but Connor, now a lame-duck but clinging to office, helped immensely by unleashing police dogs to attack marchers. In a series of meetings King was able to bring local black leaders to his support — he had belatedly discovered that Shuttleworth was distrusted by many — but problems remained. An intense discussion of strategy with his coworkers ensued. If King did not get himself arrested, he would seem to be making the same kind of retreat that had happened in Albany; if he did, he risked being cut off from the movement at a crucial juncture. After 30 minutes of solitary prayer, King announced his decision to court arrest.

Having been arrested, King passed a difficult first night in solitary confinement, but over the next few days, events began to justify his decision. National support grew and money for bail flowed in — Harry Belafonte, for example, managed to raise $50,000. President Kennedy again made the gesture of telephoning his sympathy to Coretta Scott King.

Before he was released from jail nine days after his arrest, King read an open letter signed by eight white clergymen who denounced demonstrations. King set down a 20-page response called "Letter from Birmingham Jail." This document became the most quoted and influential of King's writings. To keep the demonstrations going, James Bevel now recruited schoolchildren who began to march on May 2. Six hundred people went to jail that day. In a few days Connor turned fire hoses as well as dogs on the demonstrators. On May 10, under pressure from the White House, white businesses made some concessions to black demands. Since King found it increasingly difficult to restrain his followers from violence, he accepted the rather weak concessions and declared victory.

In the wake of Birmingham, King turned his attention to a march on Washington as a way of keeping up pressure for federal civil rights legislation. There were long and difficult negotiations between all parties concerned before the August event came into being.

On August 28, 1963, King won his gamble for a massive nonviolent protest in the nation's capital, even as events in the country seemed to be outpacing nonviolence. The peaceful demonstration drew some 200,000 blacks and whites to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and King delivered his most famous public address, the "I Have a Dream" speech.

As King kept up a hectic schedule of engagements and speeches, the FBI increased its surveillance. The strain on his family life was so great that he and Coretta King had a telephone quarrel, duly recorded by the FBI. The problems in SCLC continued: staff frictions made it difficult to settle on plans for future direct action. On July 2, 1964, the movement celebrated a victory as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Civil Rights Act. Still, problems were mounting. A white backlash grew in the North and South, and the Ku Klux Klan indulged in increased violence in the South.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was determined to discredit King; in November of 1964 the FBI sent King a tape of one of his encounters with another woman, along with a note recommending suicide. Rumors of King's infidelities had circulated since the early 1950s but remained principally speculative until Ralph Abernathy's book, with its frank admission of adulteries, brought the matter into the open in 1989.

In October of 1964, as a result of extreme fatigue, King entered a hospital in Atlanta. It was at the hospital that King learned he had received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964. He was 35 years old. Earlier that year, King became the first black American to be named Time magazine's "Man of the Year." Journalists and politicians from around the world turned to King for his views on a wide range of issues. However, as King stated in his Nobel acceptance speech, he remained committed to the "twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice."

In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, SCLC determined to target obstacles to voting, and Selma, Alabama seemed to be the right place to begin. SCLC dramatized its point on national television on May 7, 1965, when the attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery was brutally stopped by the police. President Johnson then asked Congress for a voting rights bill, which was passed in August. This was also the month that revealed the depth of black frustration outside the South. A civil disturbance in the Watts section of Los Angeles lasted six days and cost 34 lives, ushering in a period of several years of endemic urban unrest.

It was not clear how SCLC and King could move from their civil rights work in the South to addressing the economic problems of poverty in the North and elsewhere. In 1966, King undertook the Campaign to End Slums in Chicago. After nine months the campaign ended in failure. King discovered the liberal consensus on race relations stopped short of fundamental economic change. In addition, President Johnson's preoccupation with the war in Vietnam undermined government attention to internal reforms.

King took a stance against American involvement in Vietnam. His position in the Civil Rights Movement was under challenge, and the whole movement fell apart. SNCC began to repudiate him in June of 1966 as members adopted the slogan "Black Power," while rejecting white allies and calling for the use of violence. In October King announced plans for a new initiative in 1968, the Poor People's Campaign. King wanted to recruit poor men and women from urban and rural areas — of all races and backgrounds — and lead them in a campaign for economic rights.

In an attempt to raise money for the campaign, King accepted an invitation to speak in support of Memphis sanitation workers on March 18, 1968. A mishandled demonstration on March 28 collapsed in disorder. King planned a new, better-organized demonstration and gave a very moving address to an audience of 500 at Memphis Temple on April 3. He spoke of and accepted the possibility of his own death, a recurring theme in his speeches. The following evening, shortly after 5:30 p.m., King was shot and killed on the balcony outside his motel room.

King's assassination led to disturbances in well over 100 cities and, before the violence subsided on April 11, the deaths of 46 people (mostly African Americans), 35,000 injuries, and 20,000 people jailed. On April 9 King's funeral was held in Ebenezer; in addition to the 800 people crammed into the sanctuary, a crowd of 60,000 to 70,000 stood in the streets. He was buried in Southview Cemetery, near his grandmother. On his crypt were carved the words he often used: "Free At Last, Free At Last Thank God Almighty I'm Free At Last."

In 1986 Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a national holiday. While alive, King became the symbol of hope for African Americans and for America as a whole that brotherhood and sisterhood could be obtained. The quintessential black leader, King's legacy reminds one of how far America has come, and how far it still has to go.


Biography Resource Center. Gale.
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