Article abstract: As founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King spearheaded the nonviolent movement that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, the second child of the Reverend Michael Luther and Alberta Williams King. He was originally named Michael Luther King, Jr., but after the death of his paternal grandfather in 1933, King’s father changed their first name to Martin to honor the grandfather’s insistence that he had originally given that name to his son in the days when birth certificates were rare for blacks. Nevertheless, King was known as M. L. or Mike throughout his childhood. In 1931, King’s father became pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, only a block away from the house where King was born.
King’s father was both a minister and a bold advocate of racial equality. His mother was the daughter of the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, who had preceded King’s father as pastor of Ebenezer and had established it as one of Atlanta’s most influential black churches. Both of King’s parents believed in nonviolent resistance to racial discrimination. He grew up under the strong influence of the church and this family tradition of independence.
King was a small boy, but vigorously athletic and intellectually curious. He enjoyed competitive games as well as words and ideas. Intrigued by the influence of his father and other ministers over their congregations, young King dreamed of being a great speaker. Lerone Bennett noted:
To form words into sentences, to fling them out on the waves of air in a crescendo of sound, to watch people weep, shout, respond: this fascinated young Martin. . . . The idea of using words as weapons of defense and offense was thus early implanted and seems to have grown in King as naturally as a flower.
King excelled as a student and was able to skip two grades at Booker T. Washington High School and to enter Morehouse College in 1944 at age fifteen. At first he intended to study medicine, but religion and philosophy increasingly appealed to him as the influence of Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays and Dr. George D. Kelsey of the religion department grew. Mays, a strong advocate of Christian nonviolence, sensed in King a profound talent in this area. In 1947, King was ordained a Baptist minister, and after graduation the following year he entered theological studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
During his studies at Crozer and later in a doctoral program at Boston University (1951-1954), King deepened his knowledge of the great ideas of the past. Especially influential upon his formative mind were the Social Gospel concept of Walter Rauschenbusch, the realist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, and above all, the nonviolent reformism of Mohandas K. Gandhi. In Gandhi, King found the key to synthesizing his Christian faith, his passion for helping oppressed people, and his sense of realism sharpened by Niebuhrian theology. Later King wrote:
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. . . . It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform.
King realized that nonviolence could not be applied in the United States exactly the way Gandhi had used it in India, but throughout his career King was devoted to the nonviolent method. In his mind, Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (force of truth) and ahimsa (active love) were similar to the Christian idea of agape, or unselfish love.
In Boston, King experienced love of another kind. In 1952, he met Coretta Scott, an attractive student at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married at her home in Marion, Alabama, by King’s father the following year. Neither wanted to return to the segregated South, but in 1954, while King was finishing his doctoral dissertation on the concepts of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, he received a call to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Their acceptance marked a major turning point in their own lives, as well as in American history.
By then King was twenty-five years old and still rather small at five feet, seven inches. With brown skin, a strong build, large pensive eyes, and a slow, articulate speaking style, he was an unusually well-educated young minister anxious to begin his first pastorate. As the Kings moved to the city which had once been the capital of the Confederacy, they believed that God was leading them into an important future.
King quickly established himself as a hardworking pastor who guided his middle-class congregation into public service. He encouraged his parishioners to help the needy and to be active in organizations such as the NAACP. Montgomery was a rigidly segregated city with thousands of blacks living on mere subsistence wages and barred from mainstream social life. The United States Supreme Court decision of 1954, requiring integration of public schools, had hardly touched the city, and most blacks apparently had little hope that their lives would ever improve.
An unexpected event in late 1955, however, changed the situation and drew King into his first significant civil rights activism. On December 1, Rosa Parks, a local black seamstress, was ordered by a bus driver to yield her seat to a white man. She refused, and her arrest triggered a 381-day bus boycott that led to a United States Supreme Court decision declaring the segregated transit system unconstitutional. King became the principal leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which administered the boycott, as thousands of local blacks cooperated in an effective nonviolent response to legally sanctioned segregation.
Quickly, the “Montgomery way” became a model for other Southern cities: Tallahassee, Mobile, Nashville, Birmingham, and others. In January, 1957, King, his close friend Ralph David Abernathy, and about two dozen other black ministers and laymen met at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to form a Southwide movement. Subsequent meetings in New Orleans and Montgomery led to the formal creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King used as the organizational arm of his movement.
From this point onward, King’s life was bound with the Southern nonviolent movement. Its driving force was the heightened confidence of thousands of blacks and their white supporters, but King was its symbol and spokesman. He suffered greatly in the process. In 1958, while promoting his first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), an account of the Montgomery boycott, he was stabbed by a black woman. He was frequently arrested and berated by detractors as an “outside agitator” as he led various campaigns across the South. By early 1960, he had left his pastorate in Montgomery to become copastor (with his father) of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and to give his time more fully to SCLC.
Not all of King’s efforts were successful. A campaign in Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and 1962 failed to desegregate that city. At times there were overt tensions between King’s SCLC and the more militant young people of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was created in the wake of the first significant sit-in, in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February, 1960. King supported the sit-in and freedom ride movements of the early 1960’s and was the overarching hero and spiritual mentor of the young activists, but his style was more patient and gradualist than theirs.
King’s greatest successes occurred from 1963 to 1965. To offset the image of failure in Albany, the SCLC carefully planned a nonviolent confrontation in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. As the industrial hub of the South, Birmingham was viewed as the key to desegregating the entire region. The campaign there was launched during the Easter shopping season to maximize its economic effects. As the “battle of Birmingham” unfolded, King was arrested and wrote his famous “letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he articulated the principles of nonviolent resistance and countered the argument that he was an “outside agitator” with the affirmation that all people are bound “in an inextricable network of mutuality” and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Birmingham campaign was an important victory. Nationally televised scenes of police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor’s forces using fire hoses and trained dogs to attack nonviolent demonstrators stirred the public conscience. The Kennedy Administration was moved to take an overt stand on behalf of civil rights. President Kennedy strongly urged the Congress to pass his comprehensive civil rights bill. That bill was still pending in August, 1963, when King and many others led a march by more than 200,000 people to Washington, D.C. At the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, King delivered his most important speech, “I Have a Dream,” calling upon the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘that all men are created equal.”’
After the March on Washington, King reached the height of his influence. Violence returned to Birmingham in September when four black girls were killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In November, President Kennedy was assassinated. Yet in July, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act that ended most legally sanctioned segregation in the United States. Later in 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Increasingly, he turned his attention to world peace and economic advancement.
In 1965, King led a major campaign in Selma, Alabama, to underscore the need for stronger voting rights provisions than those of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The result was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gave the federal government more power to enforce blacks’ right to vote. Ironically, as these important laws went into effect, the ghettos of Northern and Western cities were erupting in violent riots. At the same time, the United States was becoming more deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and King was distressed by both of these trends. In 1966 and beyond, he attempted nonviolent campaigns in Chicago and other Northern cities, but with less dramatic successes than those of Birmingham and Selma.
King’s opposition to the Vietnam War alienated him from some of his black associates and many white supporters. Furthermore, it damaged his relationship with the FBI and the Johnson Administration. Many observers have seen his last two years as a period of waning influence. Yet King continued to believe in nonviolent reform. In 1968, he was planning another march on Washington, this time to accentuate the plight of the poor of all races. In April he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a local sanitation workers’ strike. On the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, he was shot to death by James Earl Ray. King’s successor, Ralph David Abernathy, carried through with the Poor People’s March on Washington in June. King was survived by Coretta and their four children: Yolanda Denise (Yoki), Martin Luther III (Marty), Dexter, and Bernice Albertine (Bunny). Soon Coretta established the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change to carry on, like the SCLC, his work.
Martin Luther King, Jr., embodied a number of historical trends to which he added his own unique contributions. He was the author of five major books and hundreds of articles and speeches. His principal accomplishment was to raise the hopes of black Americans and to bind them in effective direct-action campaigns. Although he was the major spokesman of the black movement, he was modest about his contributions. Just before his death he declared in a sermon that he wanted to be remembered as a “drum major for justice.” Essentially, he is. The campaigns he led paved the way for legal changes that ended more than a century of racial segregation.
Above all, King espoused nonviolence. That theme runs through his career and historical legacy. He left a decisive mark on American and world history. His dream of a peaceful world has inspired many individuals and movements. In 1983, the United States Congress passed a law designating the third Monday in January a national holiday in his honor. Only one other American, George Washington, had been so honored.
Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. The best study of King’s intellectual and spiritual development, based on extensive primary material from King’s student days as well as later writings. Ansbro sees King in positive terms, focusing on the pivotal role of nonviolence based on agape in his social theology. Moral premises of nonviolence are skillfully analyzed. Organization, which is more thematic than historical, is at times complex.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr. What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. ed. New York: Johnson Publishing Co., 1976. Originally published in 1964 while King was still living, this well-written volume captures the meaning of King’s personality and faith. Bennett, a fellow graduate of Morehouse College and distinguished black historian and editor of Ebony, shares many details of King’s childhood and intellectual development. Although less thoroughly documented than some later biographies, Bennett’s account is stronger than some in presenting King as a man driven by ideals and willingness to sacrifice.
Brauer, Carl M. John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Indispensable reading for understanding King’s political impact and the setting within which the Civil Rights movement developed. Brauer traces in detail, and with thorough documentation, the development of Kennedy’s civil rights advocacy and the role of King in shaping the political culture of the 1960’s.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Personal Portrait. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986. The most thorough recounting of the life of King, with extensive material on SCLC as well. Garrow carefully documents King’s personal life, the origins and progress of his movement, and does so with specific attention to the famous leader’s internal struggles. In particular, King’s struggle with sexual temptations, and his sometimes agonizing awareness that his life was at risk, come through powerfully in this well-researched account. In places, brief on interpretation and perspective, but a highly valuable source on King, the movement, and the FBI’s probing of them.
Garrow, David J. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1981. Garrow has established impressive authority in analyzing King’s public career. This work examines the roots and nature of the FBI’s opposition to King and SCLC and demonstrates that serious efforts were made to discredit King as a national leader. Well documented, although to some degree limited by lack of access to the FBI tapes on King’s personal life.
King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Written shortly after King’s death, this book is a valuable personal account of the King family, the Montgomery bus boycott, and several later SCLC campaigns. Its chief value lies in what it shares about Coretta’s own thinking, her husband’s personal trials and accomplishments, and the human reality of the civil rights story. It needs to be balanced by scholarly accounts of the campaigns and King’s biography.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1958. Not only King’s first book, but the best as a source of his intellectual pilgrimage. Shares many internal details of his own development as well as the origins and nature of the boycott. The last part is a comprehensive analysis of the Church’s role in race relations.
King, Martin Luther, Sr., with Clayton Riley. Daddy King: An Autobiography. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1980. A refreshing addendum to the scholarly accounts of King and his family. Reflects a proud father’s view of his famous son, as well as the struggles and suffering of the King family. The theme of unrelenting commitment to nonviolence comes through clearly. Contains a foreword by the late Benjamin E. Mays and by Andrew J. Young.
Lewis, David Levering. King: A Critical Biography. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. A reprint with some modifications of the 1970 edition, this book is a useful account of the evolution of King’s public career. Hampered by lack of certain documents available after the 1970’s, it is nevertheless valuable reading. Lewis sought to write a critical biography rather than a eulogy of King. The casual use of first names detracts somewhat from the overall objectivity of the book’s coverage. Particularly incisive on the Birmingham campaign of 1963.
Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982. Prepared by a professional biographer as part of his trilogy on Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although there are few new conclusions about King, his personal life and struggles are more frankly treated than in any previous biography. Well documented, including references to numerous interviews of people who knew King.
Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the 1980s. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. The first comprehensive history of SCLC, with considerable biographical information on King. Based on a wide variety of sources, including many interviews. Analyzes SCLC’s organizational history, the nature of King’s social dream, and the continuity of King’s ideas and influence after 1968.
Ralph, James R., Jr. Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Walton, Hanes, Jr. The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1967. A thoroughly documented account of King’s political beliefs and problems. Somewhat weak on the changing strategy of King’s movement, but a valuable guide to his linkage of faith and political practice.
Ward, Brian, and Tony Badger. The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 1995.