King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968)

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a minister, theologian, and central leader in the civil rights movement. He grew to prominence as an organizer for black civil rights in the American South and quickly became a national figure fighting for racial justice during the 1950s and 1960s.

On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was born into an upper-class black family in Atlanta, Georgia. Although he was originally named Michael, King's father changed his name in 1934 in honor of the founder of the protestant reformation.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Library of Congress)

King also had one brother and one sister. At the early age of 15, he completed grade school and enrolled at the elite all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta where he graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology. In 1951, King continued his education by completing a bachelor of divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and a doctoral degree in theology from Boston University in 1955. His dissertation was entitled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” While studying in Boston, King met his future wife, Coretta Scott, who was a music student at the same university. They were married on June 18, 1953, at her family's home in rural Alabama. The couple went on to have four children. In 1954, King began his ministerial career as pastor of the prominent Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. While serving in this first post, King was catapulted into the national civil rights spotlight during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.

In 1957, King joined other southern civil rights leaders in Atlanta to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Again, King agreed to serve as president of the SCLC, an organization that became one of the central civil rights activist groups in the United States for the next decade. Three years after the SCLC was established, he returned to Atlanta to pastor the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

King's national and international notoriety as a civil rights leader continued to grow during the first half of the 1960s. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1964, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in the nation's capital. Later that year, King and other civil rights activists reached a milestone when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also the same year, King became the first black American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights leadership. King and his colleagues had another major victory the following year with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring that all black Americans had the right to vote.

In the final years of his life, King broadened the scope of his activism by initiating the Poor People's Campaign. This new crusade focused on broader economic inequalities that affected diverse racial groups throughout the United States. In April 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support city garbage workers who were striking for better working conditions as part of this campaign. While in his hotel room on April 4, King was fatally shot by a repeat criminal, James Earl Ray, and was buried the following week in Atlanta. After his death, Coretta Scott King established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change to raise awareness of many of the social justice issues that King had championed during his lifetime. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan established an annual celebration of King's life on the third Monday of January.

Lance Edward Poston

See also: African Americans and Populism ; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) ; Freedom Riders ; Great Society ; Poverty Campaigns


Bass, Jonathan. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.