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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Martin Luther King, Jr., has been hailed as a prophet, a modern Moses, and the conscience of a nation. The son of a southern middle-class African American minister and his wife, King became an internationally known leader of the Civil Rights movement. King gained worldwide recognition for his philosophy of...

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Martin Luther King, Jr., has been hailed as a prophet, a modern Moses, and the conscience of a nation. The son of a southern middle-class African American minister and his wife, King became an internationally known leader of the Civil Rights movement. King gained worldwide recognition for his philosophy of nonviolent social change. In 1964 he became the youngest person to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

King attended school in Atlanta but did not formally complete high school. Instead, he passed an examination that allowed him to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. During his undergraduate studies he was ordained into the Christian ministry. After graduating, King continued his education at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, finishing at the top of his class. He earned his Ph.D. in 1955 from the Boston University School of Theology.

While he was minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had their first child two weeks before Rosa Parks made her fateful decision not to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man. Five days later, King was elected president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, and the now-famous bus boycott officially began. After 381 days of nonviolent protest, during which King was arrested and indicted, federal injunctions were served and Montgomery buses were integrated on December 21, 1956.

King and his followers accomplished in thirteen years what decades had failed to produce. The minister traveled across the globe meeting with world leaders, all the while continuing to reach millions of poor, disfranchised African Americans by participating in numerous boycotts and marches. Early on, he spoke at places as varied as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington D.C., the American Jewish Conference in New York, and the National Bar Association in Milwaukee. He published Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story in 1958, a book concerned not only with the Montgomery boycott but also with the gulf between rich and poor. At the beginning of 1960, King moved his family to Atlanta, accepting a call to the Ebenezer Baptist Church where his own father was copastor.

King had founded and was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in early 1957. This group continued in the tradition of nonviolent social change, despite the growing dissent and call for violence in the 1960’s by other radical black leaders. One of King’s most famous essays, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” was written while he was imprisoned during sit-in demonstrations held in 1963 to protest the segregation of eating facilities. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered that same year at the March on Washington, the first large integrated protest march. Strength to Love, a classic collection of sermons explaining the central elements of King’s philosophy of nonviolence, was also published in 1963. In 1964 King not only recounted the Birmingham story but also traced the history of civil rights for three centuries in the book Why We Can’t Wait. King’s audience grew with each protest and publication. The actions of his followers gained more and more sympathy as the news media showed photographs and footage revealing the violence experienced by the peaceful protesters.

King’s last years were ones of highs and lows. In 1964 three white volunteers were murdered while helping with a voter-registration drive organized to help African Americans register in highly racist southern towns. Race riots occurred in Harlem and other northern cities. In 1965 an Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery was met with horrible violence. “Black Power” was first used by Black Panther leaders as a slogan to advocate violence in 1966, and Dr. King was stoned while leading a peaceful march for open housing in Chicago. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed parts of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, however, and King had an audience with the pope in the Vatican before receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 1964. More voter registration campaigns were initiated, as was the Chicago Project for open housing.

King began openly to denounce the Vietnam War, and in 1967 he published Where Do We Go from Here?, a treatise on the evils of racism and poverty. His last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” was delivered in Memphis during a march supporting striking sanitation workers on April 3, 1967, one day before a sniper killed the civil rights leader on the balcony of his hotel room. King left behind not only a loving family and friends but also an entire world that learned from his bold words and courageous actions.

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