Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael King, Jr. on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia at the family home. He was the middle child of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Alberta Williams King, who was a school teacher. King’s father was originally born “Michael King”. When Michael, Jr. was six years old the family traveled to Europe and visited Germany. King’s father soon changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther. King had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel.
Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in Atlanta attending local grammar schools, Yonge Street Elementary School and David T. Howard Elementary School. He then attended the Atlanta University Laboratory School and Booker T. Washington High School. A brilliant student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grade. He entered Morehouse College at the age of fifteen without formally graduating from high school. King graduated in 1948 from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. While attending Crozer, King also studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected president of his senior class and delivered the valedictory address. He won an award for the most outstanding student and received a Crozer fellowship for graduate study at a university of his choice. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University and studied at Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D., a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology, from Boston on June 5, 1955. Dr. King has also been awarded many honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities in the U.S. and several foreign countries.
Martin Luther King, Jr. married Coretta Scott, younger daughter of Obadiah and Bernice McMurray Scott of Marion, Alabama on June 18, 1953. The ceremony took place on the lawn of the Scotts’ home in Marion. The Reverend King, Sr. officiated. Dr. and Mrs. King had four children: Yolanda (born in 1955), Martin Luther lll (1957), Dexter (1961) and Bernice (1963). After earning his Ph.D., Dr. King returned to the South to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was in Montgomery that Dr. King made his first mark on the civil-rights movement by mobilizing the black community during a 382-day boycott of the city’s bus lines. He overcame arrest and other violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional. Dr. King brought together a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). King was elected president and he soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, Dr. King, with assistance from the Quaker Group American Friends Service Committee, visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India in 1959. The trip to India affected him in a profound way. The trip deepened his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio interview before he left India, Dr. King stated, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
King returned to the United States in 1960 to become the co-pastor, along with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was becoming a national hero and a civil-rights figure of growing importance. His nonviolent tactics were put to their most severe test in Birmingham, Alabama during a mass protest for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. The police were brutal against the marchers. Dr. King was arrested. But he was not silenced. He wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to stand up to his critics. In 1963, King was a principle speaker at the historic March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In his Dream speech King expanded American values to include the vision of a color blind society and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
In 1964, Dr. King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means. When he returned from Norway, where he accepted the award, King took on new challenges. In Selma, Alabama he led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March.
Dr. King took his crusade north to Chicago, Illinois, launching programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide housing. He stood up to discrimination of the poor, no matter their color. Dr. King called for a guaranteed income; he threatened national boycotts; he spoke of nonviolent “camp-ins”. At the same time, King tried to create a new coalition based on equal support for peace and civil rights. He rallied behind a new cause- the Vietnam struggle. Dr. King’s timing was superb. Students, professors, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed to join the movement. He began to plan a massive march of the poor on Washington, D.C. A march so massive he believed Congress could not ignore it and the plight of their fellow Americans.
Dr. King interrupted his plans for the march to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation men’s strike. He vowed to discourage violence and to continue focusing national attention on the plight of the poor, unorganized city workers. The men were bargaining for basic union representation and long-overdue raises. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot in the neck while standing out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. With him on the balcony were Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. The shooter, James Earl Ray, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in the state penitentiary.
Dr. King’s legacy of peace and civil rights has lived on. His widow, Coretta Scott King, organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, which stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977. Later, on October 10, 1980, it was made a National Historic Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Also in 1977, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His birthday is a national holiday. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. In 2004, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum.