Martin Luther King, Jr., was born Michael Luther King, Jr. on 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Martin Luther King, changed his name and his son’s first name from Michael to Martin Luther in 1934, after traveling to the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin and seeing Wittenberg Church where the famous theologian Martin Luther had begun the Protestant Reformation. King began his education at the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He then attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, receiving a BA degree in sociology in 1948. King was also ordained as a Christian minister in February 1948 at the age of nineteen at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1948 he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. After three years of theological study, he was elected President of a predominantly white senior class, and was awarded the BD in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies in 1951 at Boston University and studied systematic theology. King married Coretta Scott in 1953, and the following year he accepted the pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King received his PhD in systematic theology in 1955 from Boston University.
King was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from September 1954 to November 1959. Always ready to confront racial injustice wherever he found it, King was by this time a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading civil rights organization in the United States. He was ready in December 1955 to accept the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization which was responsible for the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956. He was a founder and President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1957 to 1968, and moved to Atlanta in 1960 to direct its activities as well as being co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King led important protests in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963, prompting President Kennedy to send civil rights legislation to Congress which facilitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King was the leader of the historic March on Washington on 28 August 1963 and was designated Man of the Year for 1963 by Time magazine. In addition to his civil rights activism, he was vice president of the national Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention. King was also elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s renown as a civil rights leader espousing a nonviolent philosophy started with the 1955–6 Montgomery Bus Boycott. After he was elected President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, he had an organizational structure from which to oversee the now escalating civil rights movement. The ideals of SCLC were taken from Christianity but its operational techniques of nonviolent protest were taken from Mahatma Gandhi.
King’s fame grew as the civil rights movement spread from Montgomery to Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960, when four young college students staged non-violent sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. Though King spoke at the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina to coordinate more sit-ins, conflicts soon arose between King and the more militant college students. Tensions between these two organizations quickly rose when SCLC and SNCC both tried to stage mass demonstrations in Albany, Georgia during 1961–2. Largely unsuccessful in bringing about an end to racial apartheid in this city, King’s more integrationist SCLC and SNCC’s militant separatism thereafter took divergent paths to fighting racism.
King went on to fight racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, using similar tactics such as boycotts and mass demonstrations that had been successful in Montgomery six years earlier. He was arrested during one of the demonstrations in April 1963, and from his Birmingham jail cell wrote about his concerns and criticisms about the slow pace of justice for black Americans in his famous manifesto of the civil rights movement “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on 16 April 1963. Birmingham caught the attention of the entire world, providing what King called a “coalition of conscience.” Later in 1963 he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., to which he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. After 1963 King gained an international reputation as a charismatic leader and became the confidante of Presidents John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and other world leaders.
King was arrested numerous times for his participation in civil rights activities and his life was threatened frequently. He was personally abused and his home was bombed. In the spring of 1967, in speeches at the Chicago Coliseum and at Riverside Church in New York, King associated himself with the Vietnam peace movement. This resulted in opposition. In the middle of plans for a “Poor People’s March in Washington,” King made the second of two trips to Memphis to rally support for the garbage collectors there who were on strike for better wages and improved working conditions.
The night before he was assassinated, King delivered his last speech, the prophetic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple, the national headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, in Memphis, Tennessee. In this speech, King envisioned a future where the color of someone’s skin would no longer matter.
King’s lectures and remarks stirred the concern and sparked the conscience of several generations. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes in the fabric of American life. His courageous and selfless devotion gave direction to thirteen years of civil rights activities. His charismatic leadership inspired men and women, young and old, and whites and blacks in the American nation and abroad.
King contributed more to the causes of American national freedom and equality than any other individual of the twentieth century. In his short life, King was instrumental in helping Americans realize and rectify those unspeakable flaws, which were tarnishing the name of America. The events which took place in and around his life were earth-shattering, for they represented an America that was hostile and quite different from the America that is seen today. During his time, black Americans were treated as second-class citizens due to racial segregation. This meant that blacks were not allowed to sit at the same counter for lunch and had to sit only in the back seat of the bus. From 1955 to 1968 King exposed the racial injustice of this “other” America using Christian tenets and nonviolent active resistance. He tried to strike a delicate balance in appealing to moderate whites while at the same delivering a message of hope to black Americans that their days of being treated as second-class citizens were ending.
King did not denounce the American system of government. He condemned those practices allowed by the system, which are not consistent with its pronounced ideals. King was very much influenced by Gandhi, among many other people. He was particularly impressed by the results of Gandhi’s campaign for independence from British rule in India. To encourage his followers to persevere in nonviolence, King frequently appealed to the fact that Gandhi had used the weapons of truth, noninjury, courage, and soul-force and still had been able to challenge the might of the British Empire to win independence for his people.
Gandhi strengthened King’s belief that there is a moral obligation to resist evil. Like Gandhi, King stressed that nonviolence is not passive but active resistance. King was also similar to Gandhi in that he consistently declared that his nonviolent protests were directed against the forces of evil at work in the unjust systems, not against the persons who were involved in administering the systems. King also shared Gandhi’s vision of the value of unearned suffering. He recognized that the willingness to suffer could arouse the conscience of the opponent and he drew strength from Gandhi’s plea to his followers. The redemptive power of unearned suffering was a recurrent theme in King’s sermons and writings. He also identified with Gandhi’s insistence that nonviolence should include the internal nonviolence of the spirit.
King was convinced that agape could serve as the life force of creative nonviolence because it does not distinguish between friend and enemy, but attempts to regard every man as a neighbor. In his concept of agape King was influenced by Paul Tillich , as well as Anders Nygen, a Swedish bishop and theologian. King was also very much indebted to George Davis and the Boston personalists, especially L. Harold Dewolf for the main development of his concept of agape. DeWolf maintained that the scriptures, while they stress the sinfulness of man, still emphasize his higher nature. He stressed that man bear upon his person the stamp of his maker. De Wolf explained that when man aspires to goodness, he is responding to the call of God that summons him to a maturation of his humanity.
In his speeches and writings, King frequently referred to his personalist conviction that man is made in the image of God. On one occasion King received the word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed. After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby, he had to confront the rage of a crowd of blacks bent on retaliation. As he spoke to them, his own willingness to forgive prompted him to dispel their rage and to renew their commitment to nonviolence. His favorite topic in the meetings in the churches during mass demonstrations was the dialogue on forgiveness between Jesus and his disciple Peter, who had denied knowing Jesus in order to escape persecution.
To King, agape involves the recognition of the fact that all human life is interrelated. He asserted that humanity must be seen as a single process. All men are brothers and therefore, whatever directly affects one person affects all indirectly. For example, he recognized that not only did the American enslavement of blacks adversely affect the freedom of white labor, which had to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery, but also discrimination affects poor whites. The existence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It is, therefore, necessary for each American to be actively concerned about injustices to every other American. When a police dog is used to attack a child in a Birmingham demonstration, it attacks every American.
Unlike his contemporary and black nationalist Malcolm X, King was an integrationist. At the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963, in his famous “I have a Dream” speech to an estimated 250,000 people, King praised the white persons who had participated in the March on Washington for realizing that their destiny was linked to the destiny of other races. Since all persons are interdependent, King’s sermons and activities revealed his consistent commitment to national and international interracial cooperation.
King’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance is based on six basic principles, and is outlined in his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958). In opposition to the proponents of Black Power and SNCC, who had lost faith in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence, he argued that blacks must regard themselves as Americans and that the solutions to their problems will not come through the creation of a separate black nation within this nation. Their goal must be full participation in the life of the nation and this attainment of power and self-fulfillment will come through alliances with dedicated whites. King’s conviction that love is the unifying force at the center of the universe caused him to expand his concern to include the poor throughout the world.