Martin Luther King Jr.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968), American clergyman and Nobel Prize winner, one of the principal leaders of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest. King’s challenges to segregation and racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s helped convince many white Americans to support the cause of civil rights in the United States. After his assassination in 1968, King became a symbol of protest in the struggle for racial justice.Order now
Education and Early Life
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., a Baptist minister, and Alberta Williams King. His father served as pastor of a large Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, which had been founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s maternal grandfather. King, Jr.
was ordained as a Baptist minister at age 18.
King attended local segregated public schools, where he excelled. He entered nearby Morehouse College at age 15 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1948. After graduating with honors from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1951, he went to Boston University where he earned a doctoral degree in systematic theology in 1955.
King’s public-speaking abilities—which would become renowned as his stature grew in the civil rights movement—developed slowly during his collegiate years. He won a second-place prize in a speech contest while an undergraduate at Morehouse, but received Cs in two public-speaking courses in his first year at Crozer.
By the end of his third year at Crozer, however, professors were praising King for the powerful impression he made in public speeches and discussions.
Throughout his education, King was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the struggles of oppressed peoples. At Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University, he studied the teachings on nonviolent protest of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. King also read and heard the sermons of white Protestant ministers who preached against American racism. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse and a leader in the national community of racially liberal clergymen, was especially important in shaping King’s theological development.
While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a music student and native of Alabama. They were married in 1953 and would have four children. In 1954 King accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church with a well-educated congregation that had recently been led by a minister who had protested against segregation.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Montgomery’s black community had long-standing grievances about the mistreatment of blacks on city buses. Many white bus drivers treated blacks rudely, often cursing them and humiliating them by enforcing the city’s segregation laws, which forced black riders to sit in the back of buses and give up their seats to white passengers on crowded buses. By the early 1950s Montgomery’s blacks had discussed boycotting the buses in an effort to gain better treatment—but not necessarily to end segregation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a leading member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was ordered by a bus driver to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she refused, she was arrested and taken to jail. Local leaders of the NAACP, especially Edgar D. Nixon, recognized that the arrest of the popular and highly respected Parks was the event that could rally local blacks to a bus protest.
Nixon also believed that a citywide protest should be led by someone who could unify the community. Unlike Nixon and other leaders in Montgomery’s black community, the recently arrived King had no enemies.
Furthermore, Nixon saw King’s public-speaking gifts as great assets in the battle for black civil rights in Montgomery. King was soon chosen as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization that directed the bus boycott.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for more than a year, demonstrating a new spirit of protest among Southern blacks. King’s serious demeanor and consistent appeal to Christian brotherhood and American idealism made a positive impression on whites outside the South. Incidents of violence against black protesters, including the bombing of King’s home, focused media attention on Montgomery. In February 1956 an attorney for the MIA filed a lawsuit in federal court .