Martin Luther King, Jr.
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...
(The entire section is 5,599 words.)