Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader. As a proponent of civil disobedience and nonviolence to challenge unjust laws, he led and helped organize some of the largest and most successful mass protests of the Civil Rights Movement. As a devout Christian, King believed in the Social Gospel, and that the church had a role in serving the underprivileged and fighting social injustice. As a leader in the African American church and community, he felt the church could always do more, and inspired his congregations to participate in social protests. He won many awards and garnered recognition for much of his civil rights campaign work and passionate oratory.

Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Table of contents

    Martin Luther King Jr. Biography

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, the son of Alberta and Michael King Sr. in Atlanta, Georgia. As a black child growing up in the Jim crow south he experienced racism firsthand through segregation. In the south at the time, it was completely legal to have separate businesses and public facilities for whites and blacks.

    Jim Crow - set of laws legalizing the segregation of white and black people in the south.

    As a child, King also had a friendship with a young white boy. Eventually, he was told that they could not spend time together because they were white and he was black.

    Martin Luther King Jr. also saw how differently his father and he were treated when they attempted to patronize a white business. Witnessing his father's refusal to comply with whites-only segregation in stores was formative for young King. His father was active in the church and led a ministry that grew from hundreds to thousands. King, Sr. also spent time in Berlin and witnessed the rise of nazism. Seeing the race parallels back home, he officially denounced nazism. King Sr. was also active in civil rights protests and belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

    Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a very Christian household. King's grandmother would read to King and his siblings the bible daily, and they all went to church regularly. The black community was built around the church, especially in the south, where they could enjoy space free from the gaze and always-present threat of violence from white people.

    King was raised in a house steeped in modern Christian traditions. As punishment, King and his siblings were whipped. His father remarked that King had an unusual resolve. While the whipping was clearly painful for King, he would stand motionless crying without a sound. This behavior would prove to be prophetic of King's character.

    As a civil rights leader, King strategically advocated nonviolent protest, where often protesters anticipated being beaten but vowed to not retaliate violently back. Televised coverage would ultimately gain the sympathy of viewers. Peaceful protesters were cruelly beaten and brutalized by law enforcement and consequently were perceived to be overreacting.

    Reaching international audiences would further bolster the civil rights movement by putting America under the scrutiny of other nations who could hold the U.S. government accountable for their actions.

    In adolescence, Martin Luther King Jr. was most drawn to English and history studies in school. King read dictionaries to expand his vocabulary. As the son of a preacher, he was very fascinated with language and public speaking. King also studied Christianity closely and began rejecting certain aspects of the Baptist Christian community. He felt the church wasn't doing enough to serve the poor and underprivileged—a central tenet of Christianity—especially in his predominantly middle-class congregation.

    Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't only consumed with studies and preaching, and as a teenager friends remarked that he loved to dress fashionably and dance with girls.

    Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. suit formal portrait Martin Luther King Jr. biography StudySmarterMartin Luther King Jr. was rarely seen without wearing a tweed suit. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    On April 13, 1944, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first public speech and won an oratorical contest in Dublin, Georgia. This was a hugely formative experience for King. After his personal triumph, en route back to Atlanta, the bus driver demanded that King and his accompanying teacher give their seats to white people. King recalled that this was the angriest moment of his life.1

    Martin Luther King Jr. Education

    Education played a key role in shaping the person Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for today. While he was always learning through his church and bible studies, King received a formal education and skipped grades more than once. Martin Luther King Jr. skipped 9th grade in order to enroll early at Booker T. Washington High School, a historically all-black high school. Here he developed further his fondness for English and History. High school is also where his interest in sociology began.

    At fifteen, King enrolled in Morehouse College, a prestigious historically black college that his father and grandfather also went to. Through Morehouse College, King had the opportunity to travel up north to Connecticut to work on a tobacco farm during the summers. Here he experienced what life could be like to live integrated.

    While racism still existed in much subtler ways in the northern United States, King more or less was able to experience almost anything he wanted and was not barred from entry to any establishment on account of his blackness. He could patronize any business or service, and go to the same diners or clubs as white people. This freedom bolstered his faith in the possibilities that could be achieved in racial equality down south. In 1948, King graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at nineteen years old.

    Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have a dream Martin Luther King Jr. education StudySmarterMartin Luther King Jr.'s oratory ability was famously memorialized in his "I Have a Dream" speech. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s experience in the north inspired him to apply to schools outside the south. He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He was quite involved in extracurricular activities and became the President of the student body. He earned a Bachelor in Divinity in 1951.

    Martin Luther King Jr. began his doctoral studies at Boston University in 1951 the same year he graduated from Crozer. He earned his Ph.D. in systemic theology. While studying at Boston University, he met his future wife Coretta Scott. They had four children and finally settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where King was called to pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s Achievements

    Martin Luther King has led and organized numerous civil rights campaigns which resulted in successful legislative reforms affecting the lives of millions of black Americans and minorities. Below are some of the most famous and successful achievements of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Southern Christian Leadership Conference

    In 1957, King along with other prominent leaders formed the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The goal was to consolidate the power and moral authority of the black church community. The SCLC was pivotal in organizing many of the successful civil rights campaigns that Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for.

    Montgomery Bus Boycott

    On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, and secretary for the NAACP, refused to give up her seat to white passengers on a bus when ordered by the driver, leading to her arrest. While not the first incident of its kind, the NAACP felt this was a stronger case to win in court. This led to a 385-day-long boycott where black riders, comprising the majority of bus ridership, refused to ride the buses, planning their own carpools instead. The NAACP tasked Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the boycott. His arrest and jail time received unprecedented news coverage and propelled him into the national spotlight.

    Civil Rights Act 1964

    A landmark piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination illegal on virtually any grounds. Whether it was employment or place of business, no one or no thing could be denied to someone because of their race, ethnicity, sex, and/or nation of origin. Effectively ending legal segregation in the south, the passage was a success for the principal lobbyists of the NAACP among other leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. himself.

    Martin Luther King Jr. arrest martin luther king jr. achievements StudySmarterMartin Luther King Jr. was arrested over 29 times in total. Source: Wikimedia.

    Nobel Peace Prize

    On October 14, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He subsequently donated the award money to civil rights organizations.

    Voting Rights Act 1965

    Like the Civil Rights Act before it, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is another monumental achievement of the civil rights movement. Essentially it extends protections nationwide on voter discrimination and regulates elections to increase voter accessibility. Previously archaic laws made voting especially difficult for black Americans.

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s Famous Work

    While Martin Luther King Jr did write five books, he is most famous for his "I Have a Dream" speech at the capitol on August 28, 1963. Heavily televised, King addressed a live audience of more than a quarter-million people.

    This event was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is considered one of the biggest and most successful peace protests in American history.

    It's no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. King wanted to directly connect this historic moment with Abraham Lincoln and his famous "Gettysburg Address" (1863), which is inscribed on the side of the Lincoln Memorial. Abraham Lincoln gave this speech at the dedication of the first national soldier's cemetery to honor the soldiers who died fighting the deadliest battle of the civil war. Lincoln sought to reframe the Civil War as a fight for equality and to renew the morale to continue fighting to preserve the Union against the pro-slavery rebels known as the Confederacy.

    The "Gettysburg Address" referenced the "Declaration of Independence" stating that all men are created equal. Earlier that year Lincoln signed the "Emancipation Proclamation" essentially freeing all slaves. Martin Luther King Jr.'s echoing of Lincoln was a symbolic gesture honoring the late President, but served as a reinterpretation of the "Declaration of Independence" as well. In "I Have a Dream" King asked America to live up to its own standards and finally create an equal society where black Americans can achieve the American dream.

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was abruptly cut short at 39 years old. He was assassinated by a sniper bullet while standing outside on the balcony of his hotel room. An hour later after emergency surgery, he was officially pronounced dead on April 4, 1968. Gunman James Earl Ray was convicted for the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

    King was forever memorialized by his March on Washington address "I have a dream". Numerous statues and memorials across the country are dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday observed across the United States. Posthumously, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter and his wife Coretta accepted it on his behalf. The highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to both King and his late wife Coretta, on the 50th-anniversary celebration of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world by highlighting the hypocrisy of America. The United States billed itself as a champion of liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, white supremacy openly and unabashedly oppressed black people and minorities. King showed that civil disobedience was necessary when the law was unjust, and that nonviolent peaceful protest was an effective tool to bring about social change.

    Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes

    ...I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood..."

    -Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech excerpt

    Martin Luther King Jr. repeats the word dream, again and again, in reference to the American Dream. Essentially, the most American principle is the pursuit of happiness, and the right of an individual to pursue it. America proudly proclaims itself as the land of the free, free to choose and live one's own life. Government is a consensual agreement and is granted authority by individuals to protect their rights. King's speech highlighted the daily injustice that black Americans experience as additional barriers in their pursuit of happiness. King hoped to inspire empathy in other Americans who are indoctrinated since birth about the American dream. Ideally, he wanted for them to equate racial equality as very American, hoping to show that black Americans want the same things as white Americans, and that differences can be set aside so American citizens can live in harmony.

    I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.-Anti-War Conference, Los Angeles, California, February 26, 1967.

    Martin Luther King Jr. felt that the war in Vietnam went against American ideals. The official stated objective of the war was to stop the spread of communism. The war was very controversial in King's time, and his open objection to the war earned him enemies in the US government. King felt that war was incompatible with his message of nonviolence and unconditional love towards one's enemies. He was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolence to protest colonial British power in India. To Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War appeared as an extension of colonialism perpetuated by the US military.

    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

    -Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

    Martin Luther King Jr. viewed injustice as everyone's problem. King believed the expression that a rising tide lifts all boats. Meaning, that if we allow injustice to happen, it will keep us from creating a just society where everyone can live free and happily.

    Martin Luther King Jr. - Key Takeaways

    • Martin Luther King Jr. is a famous baptist minister and civil rights leader
    • He help create and lead numerous civil rights campaigns that led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964
    • Martin Luther King Jr. was a proponent of nonviolent peaceful protest
    • King believed injustice anywhere was a threat to justice anywhere, and it is society's obligation to strive toward cooperation and harmony.
    • One of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speeches, the "I Have a Dream" speech, was on August 28, 1963 to over 250,000 people.

    1. Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1983)

    Frequently Asked Questions about Martin Luther King Jr.

    What is Martin Luther King Jr. famous for?

    Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for being a prominent civil rights leader in the United States.

    How did Martin Luther King Jr. change the world?

    Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world by exposing the hypocrisy of racism in the United States.

    What are 10 facts about Martin Luther King Jr?

    10 Facts about Martin Luther King Jr are:


    1. He was a prominent civil rights leader.
    2. King was born on January 15, 1929.
    3. He wrote and delivered the "I Have a Dream" Speech in 1963.
    4. He was a devout Christian.
    5. King's father was a Baptist pastor.
    6. King attended Morehouse College, a historically black college.
    7. King married Coretta Scott, and they had four children.
    8. King attended Booker T. Washington High School, a historically black high school.
    9. King earned a Ph.D. in systemic theology at Boston University.
    10. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

    When was Martin Luther King Jr. born?

    Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929.

    Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

    James Earl Ray was convicted for the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. 

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