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Martin Luther King Jr Biography

Last updated date: 29th Feb 2024
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Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was America's most prominent civil rights activist, and many consider him to be the greatest American leader of the 20th century. His leadership was instrumental in the United States for ending legal apartheid and empowering the African-American community. He was first and foremost a moral leader who advocated peaceful resistance as a way of bringing about political change, stressing that biblical values led by love would prevail over hate and fear-driven politics. He was a gifted orator, best known for his "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on August 28th 1963, at the March on Washington. 

In 1968, he was killed by an assassin's bullet at the age of 39. Martin Luther King Jr.'s influence and legacy extended beyond the United States, affecting the fight against apartheid in South Africa. King is only one of three Americans and the only African-American to have a national holiday, which is observed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on the third Monday in January, close to his birthday.

Martin Luther King Information

  • Martin Luther King jr birth date: January 15, 1929

  • Martin Luther King jr Birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia, U.S

  • Martin Luther King jr wife: Coretta Scott ​(m. 1953)

  • Martin Luther King jr children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, Bernice

  • Martin Luther King jr death date: April 4, 1968 (aged 39)

  • Martin Luther King jr death place: Memphis, Tennessee, U.S

  • Martin Luther King jr cause of death: Assassination by gunshot

About Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15th 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Mrs Alberta Williams King. The boy's father, Reverend Martin Luther King, was pastor of Atlanta's historic, prominent, and prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a cornerstone of Atlanta's black middle class. He governed his household with the zeal of an Old Testament patriarch, and he provided a lifestyle in which his children were educated, safe, and well-fed. By the Reverend King's order, his son (Martin Luther King Jr.) used the moniker "M.L." during his childhood.

M.L. was born a strong and healthy baby, preceded by his sister, Willie Christine, and followed by his brother, Alfred Daniel, or A.D. The church served as the nucleus around which the King family's life revolved. The sanctuary was also just three blocks from the large house on Auburn Avenue. 

M.L. joined Booker T. Washington High School in 1942, at the age of 13, after being slipped into grade school a year early by his parents and being bright and gifted enough to miss a few grades along the way.

He passed Morehouse College's entrance exam two years later as an outstanding high school junior, graduated from Booker T. Washington after eleventh grade, and enrolled in Morehouse at the age of fifteen. There, he was mentored by Benjamin Mays, the school's president and a civil rights veteran. 

King earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Morehouse College in 1948. He then enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was elected student body president and later graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree as class valedictorian in 1951.

He graduated from Boston University with a Doctor of Philosophy in Systematic Theology in 1955. As a result, from the age of 15 to 26, King embarked on an intellectual pilgrimage. He systematised a theological and social outlook through it, which was marked by unusually profound observations and an unwavering belief in the power of nonviolence and salvation through undeserved suffering.

Who was Martin Luther King jr’s Wife?

Martin Luther King Jr. married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953, after a whirlwind 16-month courtship. The wedding ceremony was conducted by King's father at Scott's parents' home in Marion, Alabama.

Martin and Coretta Scott King had four children together-

  • Yolanda Denise 

  • Martin Luther III 

  • Dexter Scott 

  • Bernice Albertine

While their views on a variety of contentious topics vary, all four children followed in their father's footsteps as civil rights activists. On January 30th 2006, Coretta Scott King died.

Martin Luther King Information on Career and Activism

To grasp the magnitude of King's 13-year crusade for freedom and justice, split his career into two periods: before and after the Selma, Alabama campaign. 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December 1955 and ended on March 25th 1965, with the popular voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. During the first century, King's sublime oratory and equally sublime bravery were fuelled by his belief in divine justice and his vision of a new Christian social order.

This resulted in a widespread acceptance of the principle of "noncooperation with evil" by Civil Rights Movement supporters. They opposed the social evils and injustices of segregation by peaceful, passive resistance, refusing to follow and/or comply with unfair and immoral Jim Crow rules. The beatings, jailings, abuses, and brutality that followed became the price that these demonstrators had to pay for their unparalleled victories.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

This initiative lasted from December 2nd 1955 to December 21st 1956, culminating in the Supreme Court declaring Alabama's bus segregation scheme unconstitutional. King's leadership had wrought a remarkable victory, as Montgomery blacks showed bravery, conviction, solidarity, and noble devotion to Christian values, and eventually accomplished their goal of desegregating the city's buses, following Mrs Rosa Parks' valiant stand and against the ensuing outcry of white hate and brutality. It was through this triumph that King and his ecclesiastical colleagues elevated the iconic status of the black clergyman as a pioneer in the fight for civil rights to new heights.

Birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Following the success of the Montgomery campaign, King saw the need for a mass movement to build on the victory. On August 7-8, 1959, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established, and King was unanimously elected president. This was a coalition that added a distinct emphasis to the already developed mix of major civil-rights organisations.

Stride Toward Freedom

On June 13th 1957, King met with Vice President Richard M. Nixon with his best friend, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy. King, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Lester Granger met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower a year later, on June 23rd 1958. Both Nixon and Eisenhower turned down the SCLC chief, and King eventually gave up on the possibility of collaborating with either of them.

From 1957 to 1959, King fought to-

(1) keep the Civil Rights Movement united; 

(2) raise much-needed funds; 

(3) systematise and disseminate the philosophy and practise of nonviolence, and 

(4) establish himself as a shrewd author.

Following the deranged Mrs Izola Curry's stabbing attempt on his life on September 20th 1958, King endeared himself to millions of black and white Americans around the country when he forgave the woman and declined to press charges against her.

On November 29th 1959, the SCLC chief resigned as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and spent the next three years witnessing historic events unfold in cities across the South. In 1960, he returned to his hometown of Atlanta and joined his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

He used this forum to promote the SCLC's and the Civil Rights Movement's goals while also attempting to maintain unity and peace among the SCLC, the NAACP, and the National Urban League. 

Throughout 1960, King was inspired by the unexpectedly positive growth of student sit-in protests around the South. The SCLC president was ecstatic that black students on so many campuses were now joining the fight. As the sit-ins grew in popularity, King boldly and firmly proclaimed his full support for their strategic bravery in the fight to desegregate eating establishments in Southern cities.

Thousands of blacks and sincere whites throughout the country pledged their allegiance to the cause using Bible-based methods of applied nonviolence (protest marches, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides). The administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had backed him up. Despite persistent misery, defeats, and notable failures, such as in Albany, Georgia (1961-1962), where the civil rights movement was completely and resoundingly defeated in its campaign to desegregate public parks, pools, lunch counters, and other services, progress was made. King and his lieutenants assessed their weakness and concluded that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had sided with the Albany segregationists.

During the late fall and early winter of 1962, King forged a new resolve through a series of speeches and written papers. From his discussions with Alabama's Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the head of the SCLC's Birmingham auxiliary, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), the SCLC leader devised a plan in which a successful direct-action campaign in Birmingham would compensate for the failure in Albany and finally end legal segregation in Birmingham.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail

From February to May 1963, King, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, and others drew national attention to Birmingham with their effort to deracinate the city's strict segregation policies and expose the world to the viciousness and brutality of the segregationists in this culture. It was bad enough that racism existed at lunch counters and in recruiting practises. 

The brutality of Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor's men, who unleashed dogs and firehoses on the peaceful protesters, contributed to the embarrassment. And King was determined that he and his people would awaken America's spiritual conscience in the streets of Birmingham.

Walk to Freedom with Martin Luther King Jr.

King was in Detroit, Michigan, sixty-six days before the famous March on Washington, at the behest of his ecclesiastical associate, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Franklin was a member of a group that included James Del Rio, a powerful local black millionaire, and other members of the Detroit Council for Human Rights. By orchestrating a major show of support, these activists were determined to engineer a significant Kingian breakthrough in the North and, as a result, open up a new Northern front. 

Detroit, as a booming black labour town, had a strong black middle class that had grown out of the workers of its car factories. Detroit's "Walk to Freedom With Martin Luther King Jr." was held on June 23, 1963, along the city's Woodward Avenue, and was organised by Tony Brown, a respected local newspaper journalist. 

A throng of 250,000 - 500,000 people marched in lockstep with the SCLC president as one single wave of humanity. The march came to an end at Covall Hall Auditorium, where King took the stage and delivered the "I Have A Dream'' speech, which he would repeat sixty-six days later at the Lincoln Memorial in front of a packed house. The event was described as "extraordinary" in Business Week magazine on June 29, 1963. King was hailed as the personification of nonviolence.

And, after the success of the Birmingham movement, he was gaining regular credibility at the time of the Detroit march. The Detroit march received extensive media coverage, reinforcing the lesson King had learned from the South's Freedom Rides, achieving genuine success in civil rights movements required doing something dramatic enough to elicit national media attention. None of his generation's black leaders had understood the lesson better than the SCLC president.

Campaigns in Selma and Chicago

By Christmas of 1964, the plans for "Project Alabama" had been finalised. The aim was to highlight the need for a federal voting-rights law that would give legal weight to the enfranchisement of African-Americans in the South. The protest marches and demonstrations from January to March 1965 demonstrated to Selma that the SCLC leader and his supporters were serious and playing for keeps.

During King's leadership of the Selma Movement, the city was visited by Malcolm X, who had flown in, addressed a crowd at Brown Chapel, given Coretta a message for King, and then left. Malcolm X was murdered by blacks in New York City two weeks later.

As blacks fought to make the right to vote a reality for themselves and all Americans, King's arrest in Selma on February 1st 1965, drew national attention as well as the attention of the Johnson White House. 

On March 7, a procession from Selma to Montgomery's State Capitol building began. King was unable to lead it because he was in Atlanta. State troopers armed with tear gas, billy clubs, bullwhips, and rubber tubing covered in barbed wire confronted the marchers. Using these guns, the troopers targeted the defenceless, unarmed protesters with such ferocity and wrath that 70 blacks were hospitalised and another 70 were treated for injuries by the end of the ordeal. 

The news of the violence shook the nation as it had never been shaken before that night when a film clip from Selma's "Bloody Sunday" disrupted the broadcast of ABC Television's Sunday-night movie, Judgment at Nuremberg. The national uproar was deafening, and the public backed the battered demonstrators. King led a second march on March 9 as a wave of public support bolstered his Selma Movement.

A wall of highway patrol officers hindered the march of 1,500 black and white demonstrators from crossing the Pettus Bridge. The demonstrators were told to stop marching. King protested, but it was in vain. At that point, the SCLC leader agreed not to press the issue and avoid a confrontation. Instead, he instructed his followers to kneel and pray before abruptly turning around. Many young Black Power radicals were enraged by King's decision, which they already saw as too cautious and conservative.

The moral support of these radicals was withdrawn. Nonetheless, the country had been awakened by the events in Selma, which caused widespread outrage and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On March 25, King and 25,000 of his supporters, escorted by 800 federal troops, completed a four-day, triumphant Selma-to-Montgomery march. The SCLC president had earned the title of "fresh Moses" by blacks, anointed to lead America on a modern-day Exodus to New Canaan.

Martin Luther King's Assassination and its Aftermath

In the spring of 1968, King's preparations for the Poor People's March were thwarted by a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, to express support for a sanitation workers' strike. The arrival of the SCLC chief in Memphis on April 3 caused a stir in the city and drew a slew of television photographers and camera crews. Two thousand supporters, as well as a huge press and television crew, gathered at Mason Temple that night to hear the twentieth century's most peaceful warrior deliver a speech. King had been hesitant to appear, but he eventually agreed to do so for the sake of the people who adored him.

His "I've Been To The Mountaintop" voice, which encapsulated and reaffirmed his life that night, was destined to become famous. To those who knew him at the time, King had given the impression that his life was coming to an end. The next day, at 6:01 p.m., as the SCLC chief stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was staying, a loud crack of a high-powered rifle was heard, and a bullet decimated the right side of King's face with such force that it violently knocked him backwards.

Rev. Ronald Denton Wilson later told The New York Times that his father, Henry Clay Wilson, was the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., not James Earl Ray. Rev. Wilson claimed that his father was the leader of a small group of assassins; that prejudice played no role in the assassination; that Henry Clay Wilson shot King because the former suspected the latter of being involved with the Communist movement; and that James Earl Ray was set up to take the fall for the assassination.

Legacy, Awards, and Achievements

At least fifty honorary degrees were bestowed on King by colleges and universities. On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for leading peaceful opposition to racial prejudice in the United States, making him the (at the time) youngest recipient of the prize. 

The American Jewish Committee awarded him the American Liberties Medallion in 1965 for his "exceptional advancement of the values of human liberty."

The NAACP presented him with the Spingarn Medal in 1957. He received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” two years later.

The Margaret Sanger Award was given to King by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1966 for "his valiant opposition to bigotry and his lifetime contribution to the promotion of social justice and human dignity."

In 1966, King was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a fellow. 

In November 1967, he travelled to the United Kingdom for a 24-hour trip to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University, making him the first African-American to do so.

In 1971, the civil rights activist was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for "Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam," while being nominated for three Grammy Awards.

President Jimmy Carter bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on King posthumously in 1977.

In 2004, King and his wife received the Congressional Gold Medal.

FAQs on Martin Luther King Jr Biography

Q1. Who is Martin Luther King Jr?

Ans: Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr.; January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an African American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesman and participant in the Civil Rights Movement.

Q2. What is Martin Luther King jr Famous for?

Ans: Martin Luther King Jr. is well-known for his contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. His most famous work is his 1963 speech "I Have a Dream," in which he expressed his desire for the United States free of segregation and racism.

Q3. Who was Martin Luther King jr Inspired by?

Ans: King was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and activist Bayard Rustin and had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational promoter of organised, peaceful resistance by the time the Supreme Court directed that the segregation in seating on public buses was unconstitutional in November 1956.