Martin Luther King Jr.

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The Civil Rights Movement

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In 1954 King settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had accepted an appointment as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The following year he was able to put his theory of nonviolent resistance to the test. In December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle- aged, African American seamstress, was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. The next evening leaders of the African American community met in King’s church. Under his leadership they organized a boycott of the bus system that lasted more than a year. Before it ended, King’s home was firebombed, and he was jailed for the first of many times. Ultimately, however, the boycott was successful and King emerged as a national figure in the Civil Rights movement, which mobilized millions of people to break down the barriers to racial equality.

Shortly after the boycott, African American clergymen organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and made King its president. King used the SCLC to organize high-visibility, nonviolent campaigns against discriminatory practices, hoping that exposing the evils of racism would arouse national consciousness against its debilitating effects. One of the most famous of his campaigns was a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, in which his supporters faced powerful opposition while exercising their right to protest their grievances and express their determination to vote.

The Vote

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The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified in 1870 to prohibit states from denying male African American citizens their right to vote. For nearly a century, however, African Americans in the South who attempted to register to vote had encountered state election laws designed to disfranchise them. In 1958 King led a voter registration drive in the South in order to increase the numbers of African American voters for the 1960 presidential elections. Seeing the right to vote as the key to lasting change in race relations, King chastised African Americans for their political apathy. He warned that they would remain voiceless victims of the political system unless they exercised the fundamental right to express their political preferences at the ballot box.

The effect of King’s registration drive was minimal. The voting booth remained off-limits for most African Americans in the South, until March 7, 1965. On that day—which historians have dubbed “Bloody Sunday”—approximately seven hundred Selma African Americans, with King’s support, began a fifty-four mile trek to Montgomery to dramatize their challenge to Alabama’s discriminatory election laws. Shortly after starting out, they met state troopers who ordered them to return. Instead, with heads bowed in prayer, they continued. Television cameras captured images of state troopers attacking marchers with billy clubs, whips, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. The next day television audiences watched in horror as defenseless men and women fell to the ground covered with blood.

The response to “Bloody Sunday” was immediate and overwhelming. Thousands of Americans abruptly converged on Selma to support the marchers. Members of Congress from both political parties were deluged with mail and telephone calls condemning the violence, and demonstrators converged on the White House demanding that President Lyndon B. Johnson send federal troops to Selma. On Monday evening, March 15, the president made an impassioned appeal for civil rights legislation that would guarantee that no one would be denied the right to vote because of race. Two days later a federal district judge lifted an injunction against another planned march from Selma to Montgomery. Then the president, after nationalizing the Alabama National Guard, sent military police and other federal officials to Selma. The following Sunday, more than three thousand people resumed the...

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march to Montgomery.

They arrived on March 24. The following day, King led what had swollen into a jubilant procession of twenty-five thousand people through Montgomery to the capitol. As expected, Governor George Wallace, refused their pleas. However, in August President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation outlawed the use of literary tests, which had been used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote, and authorized federal marshals to register voters in states where 50 percent of the voting-age population had registered for or failed to vote in the 1964 national election. Today, the millions of African Americans able to express their political preferences by voting owe a great deal to King.

In 1964 King was accorded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Civil Rights movement. But on April 4, 1968, his life was ended by an assassin.

Early Life

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Martin Luther King, Jr., was born Michael Luther King on January 15, 1929; later his father, also Michael Luther King, changed both his and his son’s first names to Martin. King’s father and grandfather, Adam Daniel Williams, were both Baptist ministers. King began cultivating his distinct oratory skills while in high school in Atlanta. After participating in a summer work program for Morehouse College students, King was admitted to the college at age fifteen. There he began receiving oratory awards, which he continued to win throughout his life. In 1948, King received his bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Morehouse College, then received a bachelors degree in divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1951, and a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. King married Coretta Scott in Marion, Alabama, in 1953. The Kings eventually had four children—Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine. In 1954, King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

King became involved in one of the first and most dramatic moves toward desegregation. In 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person. After her arrest for disobeying the city’s segregation rules, African American community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which elected King its president and launched a bus boycott that lasted 381 days. After a series of court cases, the buses were desegregated in 1956.

In the latter part of the 1950’s and until his death, King was a dominant force in the Civil Rights movement. In 1959, King resigned his post as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to devote more time to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a nonviolent civil rights group that he had helped organize in 1957. The SCLC sought to help African Americans obtain their rights and put an end to segregation. King moved to Atlanta and, in 1960, became the copastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father. In 1959, King, who had studied the life and teachings of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and was indoctrinated in his nonviolence principles, visited India as guest of Prime Minister Nehru.

The 1960’s

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King’s involvement with the Civil Rights movement increased, and through SCLC, he was involved in many more protests and sit-ins. King joined Atlanta students in a sit-in protest in October, 1960. King was jailed along with the student protesters for sitting at a segregated restaurant in Rich’s Department Store; he refused bail in order to stay with the student protesters.

In December, 1961, King joined civil rights activists in Albany, Georgia, who were attempting to desegregate public transportation facilities. He, along with many other demonstrators, was arrested for marching without a permit. The authorities promised to negotiate with African Americans and desegregate the bus and train terminals. King, who was not part of the negotiations, was released on bond and left. However, the Albany authorities reneged on their promises.

In spring, 1963, King and the SCLC initiated a campaign to desegregate public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama, which had gained a reputation for being opposed to desegregation. Demonstrations began in early April, and King was arrested and released. He organized demonstrations in which children, age six to eighteen, marched. At first arrests were peaceful; then on May 3, police and firefighters, using dogs and fire hoses, attacked the children. Images and stories of the event filled the television screen and appeared in newspapers throughout the nation and overseas. The event outraged millions of Americans and awakened long-slumbering African American resentments. Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who had ordered the attacks on the protesters, came to symbolize police brutality in the minds of many Americans. Much of this sentiment helped lead to the creation and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The most successful and inspirational civil rights event that King was involved in was the March on Washington, in August, 1963, which brought together a number of civil rights groups and attracted more than 250,000 protesters. The march culminated at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous and powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. He spoke of his vision for a nation in which people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

King was named 1963 Man of the Year by Time magazine and was featured on the cover of the January, 1964, issue. He became the first African American ever to receive that distinction. In December of 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in using nonviolence to promote social change.

King organized protesters and led a march from Selma to Montgomery in March, 1965, to call attention to the need for a federal voting rights law. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law in August. That same month, King publicly denounced the Vietnam War and urged the president to seek peaceful negotiations. King continued his antiwar protest, and in April, 1967, he delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.

He turned his efforts toward improving the quality of life for the poor. In March, 1968, King led a group of approximately six thousand protesters in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers. On April 3, 1968, King delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at the Mason Temple in Memphis. April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King was assassinated.

James Earl Ray was arrested and charged with the murder. Ray pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison but later claimed to be innocent. He died of liver and kidney disease in April, 1998, still seeking a trial.


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King’s nonviolent protests against segregation and racial inequality affected people around the world as well as in the United States. His words, his oratorical skill, and efforts in the field changed the attitudes of many Americans and focused attention on the rights of African Americans. His work helped enable the passage of two pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which secured important rights for African Americans.

Subsequent Events

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Four days after King’s death, Representative John Conyers of Michigan submitted the first legislation proposing to make King’s birthday a national holiday. This effort failed; however, his family and followers never gave up trying. Singer- songwriter Stevie Wonder was one of the biggest proponents of making King’s birthday a national holiday. He lobbied in Washington, D.C., and even wrote a song expressing his feelings for King. Through many attempts, King’s birthday became a legal holiday on January 20, 1986.

The Love Ethic

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By love, King meant more than a positive feeling. Drawing upon the rich linguistic heritage of the Greeks, he defined love not in terms of eros (romantic love) or even philos (brotherly love), but agape, a word used in the New Testament to mean unselfish, redemptive love. Like Gandhi, King believed that love is a potent force in human relations, capable of effecting reform without crushing the opponent. The real “enemy” in this view is not a group of people but a system that exploits both the oppressor and the oppressed. People should love their enemies, he said, because “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

The Higher Law

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After years of studying the ideas of Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Marx, Gandhi, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others, King developed a synthesis of Christianity and Gandhian nonviolence that satisfied his longing for a method “that would eliminate social evil.” He found in Gandhi’s thought what he could not find elsewhere, and the result was a synthesis: “Christ furnished the spirit and the motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.”

Ambiguities had to be resolved in real situations. One that King often faced was the question of breaking segregationist laws without appearing to oppose rule under law, a particularly frustrating issue in the Birmingham campaign of 1963. Jailed for defying a federal injunction, he was criticized by several local clergymen who characterized him as an outside agitator. Although he rarely responded to criticism, this time he felt compelled to answer in what is called his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Of all people, he felt, clergymen should most readily understand that his actions were consistent with the prophetic tradition of leaving one’s home to carry God’s message. He could not be an outsider, because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”; he was violating the injunction on the same grounds used in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas Aquinas to denounce laws that were contrary to God’s higher law. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Ethics and the legal codes that enforce public morality were thus linked to the moral order of creation.

The Elements of Nonviolent Ethics

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The higher moral law was one of the four main components of King’s social ethics. The second, the principle of reconciliation, went beyond law to the level of community. To damage society permanently was contradictory, in his view. Just as God in Christian theology is a reconciler, so the social reformer must seek reconciliation. All sides in the confrontation must emerge with dignity and confidence that their interests will be protected in the new society.

Third, King believed that resistance by public officials or private citizens to social justice was only the surface manifestation of deeper evil. Reforms could not in themselves destroy that evil. For every pharaoh lying dead on the seashore—in a popular analogy to the Old Testament Exodus from Egypt—others will arise. The final victory over evil lies in the eschatological future. In that sense, King’s social ethic combined a vision of the final victory of good with the necessity of confronting specific societal flaws with confidence that even partial victories are important.

No ethical principle was more basic to King’s nonviolent ethics than was the concept of redemptive suffering. He knew that even the most limited gains in the civil rights movement would come with difficulty. Freedom would never be granted voluntarily. It had to be taken, and suffering would often result. Making frequent allusions in sermons and speeches to Christ’s suffering on the cross, King compared the nonviolent struggle against racism to the redemptive suffering of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Suffering in a righteous cause would expose evil to public consciousness, as Gandhi had done with British oppression in India, and offer an alternative model of behavior. “Recognizing the necessity for suffering,” wrote King, “I have tried to make of it a virtue.” This did not mean that King invited martyrdom, but it did suggest an approach to morality that recognized the persistence of evil despite dedicated opposition.

Implications for Ethical Conduct

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King’s ethics demanded adherence to nonviolence based on the prophetic tradition. Although he was not primarily an original thinker, King infused nonviolent theory with a new intellectual integrity and created an effective grassroots movement to apply and test its viability in social reform efforts, international relations, and personal living. The nonviolent social ethics he articulated required discipline and the willingness to suffer for a good higher than that of one’s personal safety or comfort.


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Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. This study of King’s intellectual and spiritual development is based on extensive primary material from King’s student days as well as his later writings. Ansbro focuses on the pivotal role of nonviolence based on agape in King’s social theology.

Baldwin, Lewis V., ed. The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. A multidisciplinary collection of essays exploring the ways in which King integrated religious ideals and political action.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work offers the most comprehensive account of King’s early career.

Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. The second volume in Branch’s history of King and the civil rights era, this work contains a wealth of detail that is at times overwhelming.

Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000. An attempt to distinguish the popular image of King from the reality of the man, exploring his imperfections as well as his lesser-known views.

Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. This slim volume serves as a superb introduction for students interested in King’s life and impact.

Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr.. New York: Viking, 2002. A relatively brief biography of King that concentrates on the civil rights leader’s personality within the context of his turbulent era. Touches on King’s relationship with the Kennedys and Hoover’s maniacal surveillance of him.

Friedly, Michael, and David Gallen. Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI File. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1993. The extended introductory essay is followed by material from King’s FBI file, and includes excerpts from tapes that the FBI secretly made of King’s private conservations.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Personal Portrait. New York: William Morrow, 1986. Garrow carefully documents King’s personal life and the origins and progress of the Civil Rights movement. He pays particular attention to internal struggles, including King’s sexual temptations and his agonizing awareness that his life was at risk.

Garrow, David J. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. This work examines the roots and nature of the FBI’s opposition to King and demonstrates that serious efforts were made to discredit King as a national leader.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. This book is a valuable personal account of the King family, but it must be balanced by scholarly accounts. The revised edition does not differ significantly from the original edition, which was published shortly after King’s death.

Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press, 1984.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. A biography that was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy award.

Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive; a History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the Nineteen-Eighties. New York: P. Lang, 1987.

Schulke, Flip. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Documentary …Montgomery to Memphis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. A pictorial journey through King’s activist years.

Washington, James, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. This collection includes material that King wrote or said from throughout his career. However, the brief introductory essay does not provide an analytical framework from which to study the excerpts.

Watley, William D. Roots of Resistance; the Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1985.


Critical Essays