Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to parents Martin Luther Sr., a preacher at a nearby church, and Alberta King, a former schoolteacher. He grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, then home to some of the most prominent and prosperous African Americans in the country.
Young Martin was a gifted child and attended segregated public schools and at the age of 15 was admitted to Morehouse College, the alma mater of both his father and maternal grandfather, where he studied medicine and law. Although he had not intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the ministry, he changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse’s president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality. After graduating, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree, then, a graduate program at Boston University, earning a doctorate in systematic theology.
While in Boston he met the love of his life, Coretta Scott, a young singer from Alabama. The couple wed shortly thereafter and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
King soon became a social activist who played a key role in the American civil rights movement beginning in the mid-1950s. He sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and all victims of injustice, through peaceful protest. He became the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
The King family had been living in Montgomery for less than a year when the highly segregated city became the epicenter of the burgeoning struggle for civil rights, galvanized by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Activists coordinated a bus boycott that would continue for 381 days. The Montgomery Bus Boycott placed a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners.
In 1957, KIng and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By that time, King had entered the national spotlight and had also become a target for white supremacists, who firebombed his family home that January. On September 20, 1958, Izola Ware Curry walked into a Harlem department store where King was signing books and stabbed him in the chest with a knife. King survived; however, the attempted assassination only reinforced his dedication to nonviolence.
King, working with a number of civil rights and religious groups, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful political rally. Held on August 28, 1963 and attended by some 200,000 to 300,000 participants, the event is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement and a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The March on Washington culminated in King’s most famous address, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for peace and equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial —a monument to the president who a century earlier had brought down the institution of slavery in the United States — he shared his vision of a future in which “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.'”
Reference: Bettmann Archives.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.