The Formative Years

(January 15, 1929- April 4, 1968)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr . was born Michael Luther King Jr .; he later changed his name to Martin. His grandfather began his family's long tenure as pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta serving from 1914 to 1931. King became the assistant pastor to his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia in February of 1960. King attended segregated public schools in Georgia. As a child, King was fascinated with the power of words. At age 15, after achieving high scores on his college entrance exam, King skipped his senior year of high school and started college at Morehouse. King enjoyed listening to Dr Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse College and an ordained minister. After he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology, King became a Baptist minister in 1948. In 1951, King also received a B.D. in theological study from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. While at Crozer, King was deeply inspired by a lecture given by Mohandas Gandhi , who used passive protests instead of armed rebellion to force the British out of India. King continued his religion studies by enrolling in a doctoral program at Boston University. King received a doctorate degree in theology in 1955 from Boston University.

While in Boston King met Coretta Scott in 1952. They married on June 18, 1953 in Marion, Alabama . They had two sons and two daughters from this union: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.

Joining the Struggle

In 1954, King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As a strong worker for African American civil rights, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a member of the executive committee. At this time, The NAACP was the leading organization of its kind in the nation. In early December of 1955, he accepted leadership of the first great African-American nonviolent demonstration in the United States. He started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a political and social protest campaign, that same year. The purpose of this movement was to oppose the city's policy of segregation on its public transit system. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks , an African-American woman and secretary for the NAACP, refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger. As a consequence, Parks was arrested for violating the city's segregation law. Activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to boycott the transit system and chose King as their leader. The boycott lasted 382 days. After the Supreme Court of the United States had declared laws requiring segregation on buses as unconstitutional, the MIA voted to end the boycott. The Montgomery bus lines resumed full service and King was one of the first passengers on the new and integrated bus system.

Leading the Nation's Civil Rights Movement

In 1957 King became the chairman of the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. This group was later renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) , an organization formed to provide new leadership for the new burgeoning civil rights movement. King took ideals for this organization from Christianity and operational techniques from Mohandas Gandhi . On February 18, 1957 King's picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine. On May 17, 1957 he was honored in Washington, D.C. and delivered his first speech to the nation entitled �Give Us the Ballot�. In the eleven year period 1957-1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over 2,500 times. He appeared wherever there was injustice, protest, and action. King authored five books: Stride toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story ; Strength to Love ; The Measure of a Man ; Why We Can't Wait; and Where Do We Go From Here : Chaos or Community. King led a massive protest in the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama and caught the attention of the entire world. His campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and in hiring practices drew nationwide attention. In response, policeman attacked demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. King and large numbers of supporters�including schoolchildren-- were jailed. From his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote an eloquent letter detailing his philosophy of nonviolence.

King initiated the drives in Alabama for the registration of African-Americans as voters. On August 28, 1963, King led a peaceful march on Washington, D.C. He delivered his monumental � I Have a Dream� speech in front of 250,000 people. King conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965, King began to express doubts about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967, King delivered a speech entitled �Beyond Vietnam�. King took a strong stance against the United States' role in the war, stating that the U.S. was in Vietnam �to occupy it as an American colony� and accusing the United States government of being �the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today�. King was arrested over twenty times and assaulted at least four times. At 35, King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize . King donated all of his prize money ($54,123) to organizations fighting for justice in order to further the efforts of the civil rights movement. From March 17 to March 25, 1965 King along with other protestors marched from Selma to Montgomery (fifty one miles) as they voiced their right to vote.

In 1968 King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the �Poor People's Campaign� to address issues of economic justice. On April 3, 1968 King delivered the speech, �I've Been to the Mountaintop� in Memphis Tennessee at Stanford University. King calls for unity, economic actions, boycotts, and nonviolent protests while addressing the Memphis Sanitation Strike . This would be the last speech delivered by King.

Martin Luther King Jr 's Legacy Lives On

King was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for his �Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam� (1971), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (by President Jimmy Carter in 1977), and the Congressional Gold Medal Award in 2004.

In the years after his death, King remained the most widely known African-American leader of his era. Martin Luther King Jr . Day was established as a United States Federal holiday in 1986. He has been confirmed as a major historical figure by the successful establishment of a national holiday in his honor and by the construction of the King Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. near Lincoln Memorial . States and municipalities have made an effort to honor King by enacting holidays, authorizing public statues and paintings, and naming streets, schools and other entities.

Speeches delivered by Dr. King include:

� I Have a Dream �, �I See the Promised Land/ I've Been to the Mountaintop�, �The Birth of a New Nation�, �Loving Your Enemies�, �Rediscovering Lost Values�, �Beyond Vietnam�, �Give Us the Ballot�, �Our God is Marching On�, and �The Purpose of Education�.

Did You Know?

-Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael Luther and changed his name in honor of the great sixteenth century reformer

-Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed by all 50 states in 2000

-Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from high school at age 15

-Martin Luther King Jr. donated all of his Nobel peace prize money to organizations committed to furthering the progress of the civil rights movement, rather than using it for his own family's finances


Compiled by Talisha Horrey, Hussman Foundation