Martin Luther King Jr. is the first and only American private citizen to have a national holiday named after him, a recognition of his iconic status in the civil rights movement in winning desegregation and voting rights for American blacks. The holiday is set close to his January 15 birthday, on the third Monday in January. In 2011, a four-acre memorial and monumental granite sculpture in honor of his achievements as a civil rights activist and advocate for the rights of American blacks was built and dedicated on the Washington, D.C. Mall. There he had led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
At dedication ceremonies for the memorial, the first for an African American on the Washington Mall, President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, spoke of King’s achievements in “not only freeing black America from the shackles of discrimination, but also freeing many Americans from their own prejudices, and freeing Americans of every color from the depredations of poverty.” President Obama has frequently acknowledged that he is a beneficiary of King’s efforts in the civil rights movement. Indeed, the black vote in Obama’s election in 2008 was a deciding factor.
King was an ordained Baptist minister who earned a doctorate in theology from Boston University. His success in the civil rights movement as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of black churches was recognized in the United States and abroad when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Posthumously, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. He was chosen Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963.
An eloquent speaker, it was King’s dream to create a color-blind United States. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on a hot day in August, 1963, became a defining moment for the civil rights movement and ended on the powerful note:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Five years after that speech, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His battle for the rights of American blacks had stirred up latent and angry prejudice against him. Nonetheless, King and the civil rights movement had won major victories when the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 were passed into law. (Although blacks had technically had the vote since the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, they were routinely prevented from registering to vote and blocked at the polls.)
The American civil rights movement was given impetus in the 1950s by several localized confrontations, beginning with an incident in 1955 on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. A black woman, Rosa Parks, got on a city bus and sat in the middle of the bus where seats were reserved for blacks. But, when the front seats for white patrons filled, blacks were supposed to vacate the middle and make room, moving to the rear of the bus. Parks refused to move, and the bus driver had her arrested. It was the start of a 13-month Montgomery bus boycott, led by King who was arrested. During the boycott, the bus company’s revenues declined, and the boycott ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the city’s buses had to be integrated.
King and his friends, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin, banded together in 1957 to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of black churches to push ahead for civil rights in a nonviolent way. King had just been to India where he was impressed with the life and works of Gandhi, and he wanted to apply Gandhi’s ideas on nonviolent resistance to the problem of racism in the United States. In 1958, he wrote a book about the boycott and his ideas of nonviolence, Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, which had an impact on the civil rights movement that was taking shape. At a book signing in Harlem that fall, Dr. King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by an apparently deranged black woman. He was rushed into surgery at Harlem Hospital and survived.
Students at the state Agricultural and Technical University (A&T) in Greensboro, North Carolina, tried out King’s nonviolence resistance methods with a sit-in at the local Woolworth lunch counter where blacks were not served. They walked in and sat down at the counter and waited, virtually ignored while whites all around them were being served. More students came in the next few days, filling up the whole restaurant. The idea spread throughout the South, with sit-ins at public parks, libraries, museums, and swimming pools as well as restaurants, and with some success at integration. A group of students who were veterans of sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would sponsor the Freedom Riders who rode buses throughout the South in the early 1960s to test out Supreme Court rulings on integration. It was a dangerous mission that frequently resulted in attack. The Freedom Riders got national and presidential attention when, in 1961, a busload of Freedom Riders was attacked in Birmingham, Alabama. Apparently, the police held off as Ku Klux Klansmen boarded the bus and severely beat the white passengers.
President John Kennedy came into office in 1960 with hopes for a Civil Rights Act, but though he sympathized with King’s efforts, he was preoccupied with foreign affairs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. His brother, Robert Kennedy, serving as attorney general, advised Freedom Riders to work for their cause through legislation rather than the more dangerous and controversial bus tour. Meanwhile, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was increasingly concerned that King’s SNCC might be harboring Communists and was trying to force him out of the leadership. President Kennedy was pressed to authorize the wiretapping of King and other SCNC leaders. But the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 reflected Kennedy’s views and his call in a civil rights television address to the nation in June, 1963, for legislation that would give all Americans the right to be served in public facilities and to protect their right to vote.
His speech followed a major confrontation between blacks and the police force in Birmingham, Alabama, in May of 1963. King and his followers in the SNCC had organized a massive, nonviolent protest that would make a statement by filling the city’s jails and hopefully lead to negotiation. Black protesters were instructed to deliberately flout what they considered unfair laws and hold sit-ins to get themselves arrested. However, the police under the direction of Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor turned hoses and police dogs on the protesters who included many children, attracting nationwide attention and outrage. Connor lost his job and King was arrested. From jail, he wrote—on scraps of paper and pieces of newspaper—his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which protest groups ever after have revered for its call to civil disobedience.
Following the Birmingham protests and a number of other protests and sit-ins throughout the South, Dr. King and the SCNC planned a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, hoping to bring national attention to the continuing discrimination against blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters joined in, and on August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people showed up for the march, the largest protest group ever assembled in Washington to that date. President Kennedy, worried about the impact of the march on civil rights legislation, had asked King to change the focus of the intended march from its more strident demands, and he did so. But Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X said that the march was so watered down that he called it “the Farce on Washington.”
That day, King’s 17-minute speech, “I Have a Dream,” delivered symbolically on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, had a galvanizing effect on both marchers and observers. And the marchers put forth some demands, calling for an end to racial segregation in public schools, meaningful civil rights legislation, protection from police brutality for civil rights workers, a minimum wage, even self-government for Washington, D.C. Though these changes would take many years, the March on Washington was regarded as a success, as the new memorial on the Mall attests.
There were more confrontations and protests ahead for King and the SNCC. They organized a march from the Alabama city of Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, on March 7, 1995, to ask Governor George Wallace for protection of black voters trying to register and to confront him about the death of a protester in a February incident. This march was halted as police with tear gas and troopers on horseback stopped the march and attacked and beat the protesters, sending 17 of them to the hospital. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the day and the attacks made upsetting headlines and television images that shocked the nation and aroused support for civil rights.
King and the SNCC took their campaign to the North in 1966, starting in Chicago where marches were held in several suburbs but were not well received. When King returned to the South, Jesse Jackson, then a seminary student, was put in charge of the northern campaign. Meanwhile, King was also organizing protests and giving speeches against the Vietnam War, protesting that black men were fighting alongside white but would not be allowed to sit next to them in a school or movie theater. He led a “Poor People’s Campaign” and another march to Washington in 1968, contrasting the country’s generous military budget with the “miserliness” of that for poor people.
When black public sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, went on strike in March, 1968, to ask for better wages and better treatment, Dr. King went to Memphis to offer his support. There, on the night of April 3, he delivered his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” with a prophetic passage:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.
King was assassinated the next day, April 4, hit by a single shot to the head as he stood on the balcony of his hotel room at 6:01 P.M. An hour later, after an emergency surgery at the local hospital, he was pronounced dead. Jesse Jackson, who was with him at the time, recalled that King’s last words were about his favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which he wanted to have sung at an event that night. It was sung instead at his funeral by Mahalia Jackson.
There were race riots around the country as news of King’s assassination spread. President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning for April 7. Two months later, a man named James Earl Ray was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport on charges of a false passport and extradited to the United States, where it was learned that he had been in Memphis on the night of April 4, staying in a rooming house across the street from King’s motel. A shotgun with his fingerprints was found, and to avoid a jury trial that would have meant a death sentence, Ray confessed to the crime. He recanted three days later but was sentenced to 99 years in prison where he died, after one escape attempt, in 1998.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. He was the middle child, with an older sister, Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. His father was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Rev. Alfred Daniel Williams King. Martin attended elementary schools in Atlanta and Booker T. Washington High School, from which at the age of 15 (he had skipped the 9th and 12th grades), he went without graduating right into college at Morehouse College. Graduating from Morehouse with a BA in sociology, he went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1951. He became Dr. King with a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955 and a thesis entitled, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” During his career, King would be awarded 50 honorary doctorates.
Dr. King had been ordained a Baptist minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church when he was 19, and after graduation, he became the pastor of Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had married Coretta Scott in 1953 and they had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine. King moved his family to Atlanta in 1959 when he left the pastorate and to immerse himself in his civil rights crusade with the SCNC.
He was the author of eight books, including an autobiography. His life has inspired television shows, movies, and plays, including a recent Broadway drama, The Mountaintop, set at the Lorraine Motel on the night before he was killed. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life changed the lives of both black and white Americans. He was a controversial figure to all who opposed such change. But in one of his sermons, King explained:
All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Perennial, 2004.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborn Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, Special 75th Anniversary Edition. New York: HarperOne, 1992.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Ballantine Books, 1958.
Warren, Mervyn A. and Gardner C. Taylor. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.