Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his death in 1968. Born in Atlanta, King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, tactics his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and in 1957 became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971; the holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King’s legal name at birth was Michael King, and his father was also born Michael King, but, after a period of gradual transition on the elder King’s part, he changed both his and his son’s names in 1934. The elder King would later state that “Michael” was a mistake by the attending physician to his son’s birth, and the younger King’s birth certificate was altered to read “Martin Luther King Jr.” in 1957. King’s parents were both African-American, and he also had Irish ancestry through his paternal great-grandfather.
King was a middle child, between older sister Christine King Farris and younger brother A.D. King. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind, and he enjoyed singing and music. His mother was an accomplished organist and choir leader who took him to various churches to sing, and he received attention for singing “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus”. King later became a member of the junior choir in his church.
When King was a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family’s home. When the boys were six, they started school: King had to attend a school for African Americans, and the other boy went to one for whites (public schools were among the facilities segregated by state law). King lost his friend because the child’s father no longer wanted the boys to play together.
“I have a Dream”
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a speech to a massive group of civil rights marchers gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought together the nations most prominent civil rights leaders, along with tens of thousands of marchers, to press the United States government for equality. The culmination of this event was the influential and most memorable speech of Dr. King’s career. Popularly known as the “I have a Dream” speech, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced the Federal government to take more direct actions to more fully realize racial equality.
Mister Maestro, Inc., and Twentieth Century Fox Records Company recorded the speech and offered the recording for sale. Dr. King and his attorneys claimed that the speech was copyrighted and the recording violated that copyright. The court found in favor of Dr. King. Among the papers filed in the case and available at the National Archives at New York City is a deposition given by Martin Luther King, Jr. and signed in his own hand.
More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history.
King delivered a 17-minute speech, later known as “I Have a Dream“. In the speech’s most famous passage—in which he departed from his prepared text, possibly at the prompting of Mahalia Jackson, who shouted behind him, “Tell them about the dream!”
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, 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 slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
“I Have a Dream” came to be regarded as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory. The March, and especially King’s speech, helped put civil rights at the top of the agenda of reformers in the United States and facilitated passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The original typewritten copy of the speech, including King’s handwritten notes on it, was discovered in 1984 to be in the hands of George Raveling, the first African-American basketball coach of the University of Iowa. In 1963, Raveling, then 26, was standing near the podium, and immediately after the oration, impulsively asked King if he could have his copy of the speech. He got it.
The violence in Selma had a domino effect: prompted by the images and reports from Alabama, the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act was introduced in the House on March 17th and in the Senate on March 18th. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., unable to attend the first march, led a second and then a third demonstration on March 21st, walking all the way from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Consider this: In the early 1960s, Selma, Alabama, and surrounding Dallas County had a voting-age population of around 30,000, more than half of which was black. But at the time only a few hundred of its black residents were registered to vote. All across the South, Jim Crow discrimination, literacy tests, poll taxes, and violence had denied black Americans access to the ballot. In fact, no African American had served in the U.S. Congress from a former Confederate state since 1901.
During the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began a coordinated, though not necessarily unified, effort to dismantle segregation throughout the South. Voter registration programs, demonstrations, and sit-ins grabbed national headlines. Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but when black residents of Selma tested the law’s non-discrimination clauses, many wound up in jail. The Dallas County Improvement Association, a group composed of black students and community leaders, contacted the SCLC and invited the group and Dr. King to lead a new large-scale voting rights push.
The Dallas County courthouse designated two days a month for voter registration, but the SCLC’s plan pushed people to register every day beginning in the middle of January 1965. The first day’s protest ended without arrests, but on the second day, the police detained 66 individuals. Each day following, black men and women waited in line at the courthouse in Selma, and each day more was arrested. By the first week of February, the number of jailed protestors in Selma had swelled to 3,300.7
On February 1st, Dr. King himself was arrested in Selma. From prison, King composed “A Letter from a Selma, Alabama Jail” which ran as an advertisement in the New York Times four days later. “When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed,” King wrote, “many decent Americans were lulled into complacency because they thought the day of difficult struggle was over…. This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me that there are on the voting rolls.”
On March 21st, after two weeks of negotiating with federal officials, Dr. King and thousands more gathered for a third time in Selma, lining up to march to Montgomery. With the National Guard watching from the side of the road, the column crossed the Pettus Bridge without incident. An earlier court order had limited the number of people who could make the trip to the state capital to 300, and after the others turned around, the core group walked 54 miles over four days, sleeping in designated fields along the highway.
On March 25th, on the road just outside of Montgomery, tens-of-thousands of people—from Selma, from elsewhere in Alabama, and from across the country—joined the marchers. When the massive group reached the state capitol, Dr. King delivered his landmark “How Long, Not Long” speech, intoning that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Governor Wallace refused to meet with the marchers and later sent an aide outside to receive their petition.
King was booked in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel (owned by Walter Bailey) in Memphis. Abernathy, who was present at the assassination, testified to the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations that King and his entourage stayed at Room 306 so often that it was known as the “King-Abernathy suite.” According to Jesse Jackson, who was present, King’s last words on the balcony before his assassination were spoken to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was attending: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord‘ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, as he stood on the motel’s second-floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. Jackson stated after the shooting that he cradled King’s head as King lay on the balcony, but this account was disputed by other colleagues of King; Jackson later changed his statement to say that he had “reached out” for King.
After emergency chest surgery, King died at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7:05 p.m. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King’s autopsy revealed that though only 39 years old, he “had the heart of a 60-year-old”, which Branch attributed to the stress of 13 years in the civil rights movement.
King’s main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the U.S. Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VIII of the Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability). This legislation was seen as a tribute to King’s struggle in his final years to combat residential discrimination in the U.S.
Internationally, King’s legacy includes influences on the Black Consciousness Movement and the civil rights movement in South Africa. King’s work was cited by and served as an inspiration for South African leader Albert Lutuli, who fought for racial justice in his country and was later awarded the Nobel Prize. The day following King’s assassination, school teacher Jane Elliott conducted her first “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise with her class of elementary school students in Riceville, Iowa. Her purpose was to help them understand King’s death as it related to racism, something they little understood as they lived in a predominantly white community.
King has become a national icon in the history of American liberalism and American progressivism. King also influenced Irish politician and activist John Hume. Hume, the former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, cited King’s legacy as quintessential to the Northern Irish civil rights movement and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, calling him “one of my great heroes of the century.”
King’s wife Coretta Scott King followed in her husband’s footsteps and was active in matters of social justice and civil rights until her death in 2006. The same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, she established the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to preserving his legacy and the work of championing nonviolent conflict resolution and tolerance worldwide. Their son, Dexter King, serves as the center’s chairman. Daughter Yolanda King, who died in 2007, was a motivational speaker, author, and founder of Higher Ground Productions, an organization specializing in diversity training.
Even within the King family, members disagree about his religious and political views about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. King’s widow Coretta publicly said that she believed her husband would have supported gay rights. However, his youngest child, Bernice King, has said publicly that he would have been opposed to gay marriage.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Beginning in 1971, cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, and states established annual holidays to honor King. At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. Observed for the first time on January 20, 1986, it is called Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Following President George H. W. Bush‘s 1992 proclamation, the holiday is observed on the third Monday of January each year, near the time of King’s birthday. On January 17, 2000, for the first time, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all fifty U.S. states. Arizona (1992), New Hampshire (1999) and Utah (2000) were the last three states to recognize the holiday. Utah previously celebrated the holiday at the same time but under the name Human Rights Day.
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