Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in nonviolent resistance as the path to gaining equal rights for Black Americans. He stood by this principle through many setbacks, always guiding with words of friendship, understanding, and unity. And as a result, his leadership in the Civil Rights movement helped steer a nation’s conscience, moving equal rights closer to the ideals the U.S. was founded on.
Martin was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15th, 1929. He described the community of his upbringing as wholesome and religious, average in income, and one of little crime. Yet even there, he experienced racism at a young age. When Martin was about six years old, the father of a white playmate refused to let the children continue a friendship because of their different races.
Martin’s parents helped the young boy cope with such experiences. “My mother confronted the age-old problem of the Negro parent in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small child…Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone,'” Martin wrote.
In his father, Martin saw an example of one who stood up to racism. In one instance, as Martin and his father were driving, a policeman pulled up and said, “All right, boy, pull over and let me see your license.” Martin’s father replied, “Let me make it clear to you that you aren’t talking to a boy. If you persist in referring to me as boy, I will be forced to act as if I don’t hear a word you are saying.”
While Martin experienced many such incidents of racism towards the Black community, he also experienced economic injustice that impacted a broader swath of society. Working at a plant for two summers as a teen, he observed the exploitation of poor white people. In his words, “Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.”
At home, Martin was raised in a devout household. His father served as pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Religion was an important part of Martin’s upbringing. Even though he questioned his faith at times, religion would serve as a core foundation for his views and become integral to his life.
Civil Rights Movement
After attending Morehouse College for undergraduate study, Martin entered a Ph.D. program in systematic theology at Boston University. While there, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, invited Martin to become their pastor. He accepted, completing his studies while working.
As pastor of the church, Martin also began taking leadership responsibilities in the Civil Rights movement. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in 1955, Martin was asked to lead what would become the more than year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.
During the boycott, Martin was arrested, imprisoned, and his home was bombed. Many others in the community experienced much hardship during the time as well. But the boycott led to changes, as the ruling in Browder v. Gayle at the United States District Court prohibited racial segregation on the public bus lines in Montgomery. And for Martin, he began to view boycotts as the community saying, “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.”
The years after took Martin through many marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and other forms of nonviolent resistance in advocating for progress. Arrested and imprisoned often, attacked, he continued preaching nonviolent resistance and unity. And with the movement came changes, both at the local level and with federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th, 1968.
Amongst his many wisdoms and aspirations, the following is an excerpt from Martin’s famous “I have a dream” speech:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.”
Note: While this biography doesn’t delve into Martin’s marriage to Coretta, we’d like to include the following quote from Martin: “I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Coretta, I could not have stood up amid the ordeals and tensions surrounding the Montgomery movement. In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Civil Rights Leader sources:
Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taken in 1964 – Demarsico, Dick, photographer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., half-length portrait, facing front / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/00651714/>.
King, Martin L, and Clayborne Carson. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998.
King, Martin Luther. I Have a Dream. HarperOne, 1991.