Martin Luther King Jr. Biography - Quotes, Day, & Assassination

Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights activist and scholar who led the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established to commemorate his assassination.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Who Was He?

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist clergyman and civil-rights activist who, starting in the mid-1950s, had a seismic influence on racial relations in the United States.

Among his various endeavors, King served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was instrumental in eliminating the legal segregation of African American residents in the United States, as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, via his advocacy and inspiring lectures.


Among other honors, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He is acknowledged as one of history’s most important and inspiring African American leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Early Years

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, as Michael King Jr., the middle child of Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King.

The King and Williams families were originally from rural Georgia. A.D. Martin Jr. Williams was a country clergyman for many years before moving to Atlanta in 1893.

He transformed the tiny, struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church, which had roughly 13 members, into a powerful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks, and they had one child, Alberta, who survived.

Martin Sr. was born into a sharecropper family in an impoverished rural hamlet. Following an eight-year engagement, he married Alberta in 1926. The newlyweds relocated to A.D.’s Atlanta house.

Martin Sr. took over as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church when his father-in-law died in 1931. He, too, became a prominent clergyman, taking the name Martin Luther King Sr. after the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. Michael Jr. would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps and take up the moniker himself.

Willie Christine King was King’s elder sister, while Alfred Daniel Williams King was his younger brother. The King’s children were raised in a safe and caring home. Martin Sr. was the more stern disciplinarian, but his wife’s softness readily offset the father’s harsh hand.

Despite their best efforts, King’s parents were unable to totally protect him from bigotry. Martin Sr. battled against racial discrimination not just because his race was victimized, but also because he saw racism and segregation as an insult to God’s plan. He fiercely discouraged his children from feeling superior to others, which had a lasting influence on Martin Jr.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, King began attending public school at the age of five. He was baptized in May 1936, although the experience left little of an effect on him.

King was 12 years old when his grandmother, Jennie, died after a heart attack in May 1941. The incident was particularly distressing for King since he was out viewing a parade against his parents’ wishes when she died. Disgusted by the news, young King reportedly attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window of the family house.

King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was described as a gifted student. He skipped ninth and eleventh grades and enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15 in 1944. He was a popular student, particularly among his female peers, but he was an uninspired student who slid through his first two years.

Despite his family’s extensive involvement in the church and worship, King questioned religion in general and was uneasy with excessively emotional demonstrations of religious devotion. This unease persisted throughout his teens, prompting him to decide against joining the ministry, much to his father’s chagrin.

But in his junior year, King attended a Bible class, restored his faith, and started to consider a ministry career. He informed his father of his choice in the autumn of his senior year.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Education and Spiritual Development

In 1948, King graduated from Morehouse College with a sociology degree and enrolled in the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1951, he graduated as valedictorian of his class and was named student body president. He was also awarded a fellowship for graduate school.

However, while in college, King rebelled against his father’s more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool. He got connected with a white lady and struggled for a long time before ending the romance.

During his last year of seminary, King was mentored by Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, who had a tremendous impact on King’s spiritual growth. Mays was a vocal supporter of racial equality who pushed King to see Christianity as a vehicle for social change. King enrolled at Boston University after getting accepted by numerous universities for his Ph.D. studies.

During his doctoral studies, King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and pianist at Boston’s New England Conservatory. In June 1953, they married and had four children: Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice.

While still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. In 1955, he finished his Ph.D. and received his degree. King was just 25 years old at the time.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Montgomery Bus Strike

On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man, in contravention of local law. Claudette Colvin, a teen, was then arrested and transported to prison.

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At first, the local NAACP branch thought they had a good case to challenge Montgomery’s segregated bus policy. However, when it was known that Colvin was pregnant, civil rights activists felt that this would embarrass the very devout Black community and render Colvin (and hence the group’s activities) less believable in the eyes of sympathetic white people.

They were given another opportunity to present their case on December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks, 42, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus that evening to return home after a long day at work. She sat on the first row of the bus’s “colored” section in the center. As the bus drove along, all of the seats in the white section filled up, and many more white people were aboard.

When the bus driver saw numerous white males standing, he requested that Parks and several other African Americans vacate their seats. Parks stayed seated despite the fact that three other African American passengers grudgingly gave up their seats.

The driver requested her to give up her seat again, and she refused. Parks was arrested and detained on charges of breaching the Montgomery City Code. Parks was found guilty a week later in a 30-minute hearing and fined $10 plus a $4 court charge.

E.D. was arrested the night Parks was arrested. Nixon, the local NAACP chapter’s president, met with King and other local civil rights activists to arrange the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was chosen to head the boycott because he was young, well-educated, had strong family ties, and had professional prestige. However, since he was new to the town and had few opponents, it was assumed that he would have high credibility with the Black community.

“We have no alternative but to protest,” King declared in his first speech as the group’s president. “For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the impression that we liked the way we were being treated, but we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”

King’s deft eloquence infused fresh life into Alabama’s civil rights battle. The bus boycott included 382 days of walking to work, as well as harassment, violence, and intimidation against Montgomery’s African American population. Both the mansions of King and Nixon were assaulted.

However, the African American community filed a lawsuit against the municipal legislation, claiming that it was illegal based on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate is never equal.” After losing many lower court judgments and incurring significant financial losses, the city of Montgomery repealed the legislation requiring segregated public transit.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Conference of Southern Christian Leaders

Following their success, African American civil rights activists saw the need for a national organization to better organize their activities. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was created in January 1957 by King, Ralph Abernathy, and 60 pastors and civil rights activists to harness the moral authority and organizing ability of Black churches. They would assist in the organization of nonviolent demonstrations to encourage civil rights change.

King’s membership in the organization provided him with both a southern base of operations as well as a national platform. The organization believed that enfranchising African Americans in the voting process was the greatest place to start in giving them a voice. The SCLC staged more than 20 large gatherings in important southern cities in February 1958 to register Black voters in the South. King visited with religious and civil rights groups and spoke on race-related topics around the nation.

With the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success with nonviolent agitation, King traveled to Gandhi’s birthplace in India in 1959. The journey had a great impact on him, strengthening his devotion to America’s civil rights battle.

Bayard Rustin, an African American civil rights fighter who had studied Gandhi’s teachings, became one of King’s colleagues and advised him to commit himself to the ideas of nonviolence. Throughout his early involvement, Rustin acted as King’s mentor and counselor, and he was the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

But, as a homosexual with purported Communist Party affiliations, Rustin was a divisive figure at the time. Despite the fact that his advice was vital to King, many of his other supporters advised him to remove himself from Rustin.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Sit-In in Greensboro

A group of African American students in North Carolina launched the Greensboro sit-in campaign in February 1960.

In the city’s businesses, the kids would eat at racially segregated lunch counters. When told to leave or sit in the colored area, they just sat there, exposing themselves to verbal and occasionally physical abuse.

The movement rapidly spread to numerous other cities. The SCLC hosted a meeting with local sit-in leaders in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. During their demonstrations, King urged students to continue using peaceful ways.

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The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was created as a result of this conference, and it collaborated with the SCLC for a period. By August 1960, the sit-ins had succeeded in bringing an end to segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.

By 1960, King had gained national attention. He returned to Atlanta to co-pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father, but he also maintained his civil rights work.

On October 19, 1960, King and 75 students went into a nearby department shop and asked for lunch counter service, but they were turned down. King and 36 others were detained after refusing to leave the counter area.

Atlanta’s mayor brokered a peace after realizing the incident would harm the city’s image, and charges were finally dropped. However, King was imprisoned shortly after for breaking his probation on a traffic charge.

The news of his arrest found its way into the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King. Kennedy conveyed his displeasure with King’s punitive response to the traffic ticket, and political pressure was swiftly applied. King was quickly freed.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Birmingham Jail Letter

King organized a rally in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. With whole families present, police used dogs and fire hoses on protestors.

King was imprisoned, along with a significant number of his followers, but the incident received widespread notice. However, both Black and white clergy chastised King for taking risks and jeopardizing the children who attended the event.

King eloquently stated his notion of nonviolence in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”

Martin Luther King Jr.: Speech “I Have a Dream”

By the conclusion of the Birmingham campaign, King and his followers were planning a large rally in the nation’s capital that would include different organizations all calling for nonviolent change.

The historic March on Washington brought over 200,000 people under the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech here, emphasizing his idea that one day all men may be brothers.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. / “I Have A Dream” address, August 28, 1963

The increasing tide of civil rights activism had a significant impact on popular perception. Many individuals in non-racial cities started to challenge the country’s Jim Crow laws and the almost century of second-class treatment of African American residents.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Nobel Prize in Peace

As a consequence, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, authorizing the federal government to enforce the integration of public accommodations and prohibiting discrimination in publicly owned institutions. As a result, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Throughout the 1960s, King’s fight was ongoing. The pattern of advancement appeared to be two steps ahead and one step back at times.

On March 7, 1965, a planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol, devolved into violence when police with nightsticks and tear gas confronted marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Although King was not on the march, the assault was broadcast, and photos of bleeding and gravely wounded marchers were shown. Seventeen protesters were hospitalized in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

A second march was canceled because a restraining order was issued to prevent the march from taking place. A third march was scheduled, and King made sure he was there. A new strategy was used in order not to offend Southern judges by breaking the restraining order.

On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 demonstrators, both black and white, attempted to cross the Pettus Bridge once again but were met by barriers and state police. Instead of pursuing a confrontation, King directed his people to kneel in prayer before turning around.

Alabama Governor George Wallace persisted in his efforts to prevent another march until President Lyndon B. Johnson offered his support and authorized U.S. troops to intervene. The demonstrators will be protected by Army personnel and the Alabama National Guard.

On March 21, around 2,000 people started a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. On March 25, an estimated 25,000 marchers congregated in front of the state capital, where King made a broadcast address. President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act five months after the historic nonviolent demonstration.

From late 1965 through 1967, King extended his civil rights campaign into major American cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. However, he faced growing criticism and public challenges from youthful Black power activists.

Many Black militants were turned off by King’s gradual, nonviolent approach and appeal to white middle-class residents. They saw his techniques as too weak, too late, and ineffectual.

To respond to this criticism, King started to connect prejudice and poverty, and he began to speak out against the Vietnam War. He believed that America’s engagement in Vietnam was politically unsustainable and that the government’s actions in the war were discriminatory against the poor. He wanted to widen his support by building a multi-racial alliance to solve the economic and job issues of all disadvantaged people.

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Who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.?

By 1968, King’s years of protests and confrontations had taken their toll. He was sick of marching, going to prison, and living under the fear of death. He was getting dissatisfied with the sluggish development of civil rights in America, as well as the growing criticism from other African American leaders.

Another march on Washington was planned to resurrect his cause and draw attention to a broader variety of concerns. A sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in the spring of 1968 drove King to one last campaign.

On April 3, he delivered his final and eerily prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” telling supporters at Memphis’ Mason Temple, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following day while standing on a balcony outside his Lorraine Motel room. After a two-month worldwide search, the gunman, a disgruntled wanderer and former felon called James Earl Ray, was arrested.

Riots and protests erupted in over 100 places throughout the country in response to the killing. Ray pled guilty to the assassination of King in 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. On April 23, 1998, he passed away in jail.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Legacy

King’s death had a profound effect on racial relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is still regarded as the most prominent African American leader of his time.

His life and efforts have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a monument on Washington, D.C.’s Independence Mall.

However, his life remains contentious. In the 1970s, FBI papers obtained via the Freedom of Information Act indicated that he was being watched by the government and that he was involved in adulterous relationships and communist influences.

Extensive archival research has resulted in a more balanced and comprehensive assessment of his life, portraying him as a complex figure: flawed, fallible, and limited in his control over the mass movements with which he was associated, yet a visionary leader deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Day

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983. Day, a federal holiday commemorating the late civil rights leader’s legacy.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Day was first observed in 1986, and in 2000, it was observed in all 50 states.

Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes

  • But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
  • There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.
  • Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
  • The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
  • Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
  • The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
  • The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.
  • We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.
  • Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.
  • I have a dream that my four 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.
  • The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but with no morals.
  • I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
  • Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
  • A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.
  • At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.
  • Right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
  • In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.