Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. King has become a national icon in the history of American progressivism.
A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, and organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that attracted national attention following television news coverage of the brutal police response. King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history. He also established his reputation as a radical, and became an object of the Federal Bureau of Investigation‘s COINTELPRO for the rest of his life. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital liaisons and reported on them to government officials, and on one occasion, mailed King a threatening anonymous letter that he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide.
On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. In 1965, he and the SCLC helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches and the following year, he took the movement north to Chicago. In the final years of his life, King expanded his focus to include poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”. King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., called the Poor People’s Campaign. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Allegations that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, had been framed or acted in concert with government agents persisted for decades after the shooting, and the jury of a 1999 civil trial found Loyd Jowers to be complicit in a conspiracy against King.
King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor. A memorial statue on the National Mall was opened to the public in 2011.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. His legal name at birth was “Michael King”. King’s father was also born Michael King. The father “changed” both names on his own during a 1934 trip to National Socialist Germany to attend the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. It was during this time he chose to be called Martin Luther King in honor of the great German reformer Martin Luther.
Martin, Jr., was a middle child, between an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind.
King was originally skeptical of many of Christianity’s claims. At the age of thirteen, he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school. From this point, he stated, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly”. However, he later concluded that the Bible has “many profound truths which one cannot escape” and decided to enter the seminary.
Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951. King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. They became the parents of four children: Yolanda King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice King.
King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was twenty-five years old, in 1954. King then began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Ph.D. degree on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman“. An academic inquiry concluded in October 1991 that portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly, but that his dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship”; the committee recommended that his degree not be revoked.
Poor People’s Campaign, 1968
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. King traveled the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would march on Washington to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol until Congress created an ‘economic bill of rights’ for poor Americans. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C., demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
King and the SCLC called on the government to invest in rebuilding America’s cities. He felt that Congress had shown “hostility to the poor” by spending “military funds with alacrity and generosity”. He contrasted this with the situation faced by poor Americans, claiming that Congress had merely provided “poverty funds with miserliness”. His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism”, and argued that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced”.
The Poor People’s Campaign was controversial even within the civil rights movement. Rustin resigned from the march stating that the goals of the campaign were too broad, the demands unrealizable, and thought that these campaigns would accelerate the backlash and repression on the poor and the black.
After King’s death
The plan to set up a shantytown in Washington, D.C. was carried out soon after the April 4 assassination. Criticism of King’s plan was subdued in the wake of his death, and the SCLC received an unprecedented wave of donations for the purpose of carrying it out. The campaign officially began in Memphis, on May 2, at the hotel where King was murdered.
Thousands of demonstrators arrived on the National Mall and established a camp they called “Resurrection City”. They stayed for six weeks.
Assassination and its aftermath
On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the black sanitary public works employees, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
On April 3, King addressed a rally and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address at Mason Temple, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. King’s flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane. In the close of the last speech of his career, in reference to the bomb threat, King said the following:
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
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 at the Lorraine Motel so often 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.”
Then, at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King 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’s; Jackson later changed his statement to say that he had “reached out” for King.
After emergency chest surgery, King was pronounced dead 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.