King was a Baptist minister and social activist who led the civil rights movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.
His leadership was fundamental to the movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the United States.
King rose to national prominence as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which promoted nonviolent tactics including the massive March on Washington in 1963, to achieve civil rights.
He understood the power of television and his well-publicised tactics of nonviolent action (sit-ins and protest marches) led to devoted support from many African Americans and liberal whites in all parts of the country, as well as support from the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, as Michael King, Jr., he came from a middle-class family, with both his father and maternal grandfather Baptist preachers.
Though it was a comfortable upbringing, he never forgot the time when one of his childhood white friends said they could no longer play together because they’d gone to different, segregated schools.
Before beginning college in 1944 under a special wartime enrolment programme, King spent a summer on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. It was his first extended stay away from home and his first experience of race relations outside the segregated South. He was shocked by how peacefully the races mixed in the North.
“Negroes and whites go [to] the same church,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “I never [thought] that a person of my race could eat anywhere.”
In his senior year he decided to enter the ministry, as his father had urged. His college president, Benjamin Mays, became his mentor: Mays was a a gospel activist committed to fighting racial inequality and criticised the African American community for doing too little to fight for change out in the real world.
The Montgomery bus boycott
Having earned a bachelor of divinity degree, King took up studying for a doctorate at Boston University. While there he met Coretta Scott, a native Alabamian who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in 1953 and had four children.
King had been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, for just over a year when the city’s small group of civil rights advocates decided to contest racial segregation on the city’s public bus system, following Rosa Park’s refusal to surrender her seat to a white passenger on 1 December 1, 1955.
“We have no alternative but to protest."
These activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the transit system and chose King as their leader. In his first speech to the group as its president, King said:
“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
Although King’s home was dynamited and his family was threatened, he continued to lead the boycott until, just over a year later, the city’s buses were desegregated.
The Southern Christian Leadership conference
Seeking to build on the success of the Montgomery action, King set about organising the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This gave him a network throughout the South, and a national platform from which to speak.
He travelled America discussing issues around race with religious and civil rights leaders. He also met foreign leaders, and learned about Gandhian concepts of peaceful noncompliance (satyagraha), becoming increasingly convinced that nonviolent resistance was the right way ahead.
In 1960 the family moved back to his home city of Atlanta, where King joined his father as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He increasingly dedicated his time to the SCLC and the civil rights movement, declaring that the “psychological moment has come when a concentrated drive against injustice can bring great, tangible gains.”
In late October 1960 he was arrested with 33 young people protesting segregation at the lunch counter in an Atlanta department store. Charges were dropped, but King was sent to Reidsville State Prison Farm on the thin excuse that he had violated probation on an earlier minor traffic offence. The case became a national issue, generating outrage.
Over the next few years, King rose to ever greater public attention.
The Letter from Birmingham jail
In Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, King’s campaign to end segregation drew nationwide attention when police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators.
He was jailed along with large numbers of supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. These did not include all the Black clergy of Birmingham, however, and he was strongly opposed by some white clergy who had issued a statement urging African Americans not to support the demonstrations. From the Birmingham jail, King wrote:
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Near the end of the campaign, King joined other civil rights leaders in organising the historic March on Washington. On 28 August 1963 an interracial crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. This is where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, speaking of his faith that all men, someday, would be brothers.
Taken together, all these actions helped drive public opinion in support of change, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorising the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment. In December 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
The later years
The first signs of opposition to his tactics from others inside the civil rights movement came during the March 1965 demonstrations in Selma, Alabama. The demonstration was designed to underline the need for a federal voting rights law that would support African Americans in the South, many of whom still struggled to vote.
King organised an initial march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, but did not lead it himself. The marchers were turned back by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas. He was determined to lead a second march. Heading a procession of 1,500 marchers, Black and white, he set out across Pettus Bridge outside Selma until the group came to a barricade of state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, he led his followers to kneel in prayer and then unexpectedly turned back. This decision cost King the support of many young radicals who already believed he was too cautious. Still, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was eventually passed.
"I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
In the face of mounting criticism, especially in the slums of Northern cities, King broadened his approach to include concerns other than racism. At speeches at peace rallies, he committed himself to opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
His plans for a Poor People’s March to Washington were interrupted in the spring of 1968 by a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. As he prophetically told a crowd at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis on 3 April, t:
“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.”
The next day, while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet. The killing sparked riots and disturbances in over 100 cities across America. On 10 March 1969, James Earl Ray, a white man, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Although the U.S. government conducted several investigations into the murder, each time it concluded that Ray was the sole assassin – despite many other theories.
In the years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. has remained the most widely known African American leader of his era. There is a national holiday in his memory and many states and municipalities have enacted King holidays, raised public statues and paintings, and named streets, schools, and other entities after him.
Without a doubt, his legacy has endured many decades after his untimely death.