Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. He was the oldest son of the Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King. He was named Michael Luther after his father, but later the Reverend King changed both their names to Martin Luther in honor of the great church leader.
Unhappily racial experiences made a deep and lasting impression on young Martin. One day his father took him to buy new shoes. When they sat down in the store, the clerk asked them to move to the back of the store. Dr. King took Martin by the hand and left the store rather than take that kind of treatment. Another time, the parents of boys Martin played with told him that they could no longer come out to play with him because they were white and he was black. Martin's feelings were hurt. His mother tried to explain about prejudice. She told him that blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not really free.
Martin liked sports. He played baseball, basketball and wrestling. But he especially liked reading. He liked reading about famous people in black history. He found out what it took for them to overcome difficulties and become successful. He liked to learn new words and use them.
He was fascinated by watching his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and other ministers control audiences with skillfully chosen words. He longed to follow in their footsteps.
He made words central to his life--weapons of defense and offense. His mother said that she could not recall a time when he was not intrigued by the sound and power of words. He once told her, "I'm going to get me some big words like that." . When he got to high school, his ability to use words enabled him to win an oratorical contest.
In September 1944, when he was only 15 years old, King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a black college, and his father and grandfather had gone there. He knew that his father would like him to become a minister, but at first Martin was not sure that was what he wanted to do. At first, he was undecided as to his course of study. However, his experiences at Morehouse shaped his direction for life. After meeting and talking with Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the college president, and Professor George Kelsey, head of the religion department, he made up his mind. King was enormously impressed. He saw in Mays what he wanted "a real minister to be"--a rational man whose sermons were both spiritually and intellectually stimulating, a moral man who was socially involved. Thanks largely to Mays, King realized that the ministry could be a respectable force for ideas, even for social protest. And so at seventeen King elected to become a Baptist minister, like his father and grandfather. At eighteen he was ordained a minister. The next year he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in sociology.
Martin was an excellent student and was the class valedictorian when he graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer. While at Crozer, King attended a lecture by Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, who was the president of Howard University in Washington, DC. Dr. Johnson "explained how Gandhi had forged Soul Force--the power of love or truth--into a mighty vehicle for social change." He "argued that the moral power of Gandhian nonviolence could improve race relations in America, too." King was mesmerized by Gandhi's concepts, and began reading profusely about his life and philosophy.
In 1951, King graduated from Crozer as valedictorian. He also received the Peral Plafkner Award for scholarship, $1,200, and the Lewis Crozer Fellowship to continue his studies. While at Boston University, Martin met Coretta Scott. Coretta, a beautiful young lady from Marion, Alabama, a graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. She and Martin were married in June, 1953. His father performed the ceremony at her home in Alabama.
Coretta had grown up with segregation too. She shared Martin's dream of a time when everyone everywhere could enjoy equal rights. On June 5, 1955, when he had completed his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology, the couple decided that they could make the greatest contribution by going back down South to work. Martin was installed by his father as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in October of 1954. Just a little more that a year later, Yolanda,
the first of the Kings' four children was born.
In December of 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Mrs. Parks was later tried in Montgomery City Court, charged with and found guilty of violating a state law mandating segregation. She was fined $10. Her attorney appealed the conviction. Coincident with Mrs. Parks' trial a one-day boycott of the buses by many members of Montgomery's Black community, was planned. Dr. King was asked to help, as was his friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. As a result of this, an organization was established, the "Montgomery Improvement
Association," (MIA) to orchestrate a complete and ongoing response to Montgomery's segregation. Dr. King was chosen president. Blacks walked to work or took cars or taxis, but they did not ride the buses. The one-day boycott stretched out to 382 days. Finally, after more than a year of protest, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was against the law.
Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that even though that battle against bus discrimination had been won in Montgomery, there was more that needed doing. As a result, on January 10-11, 1957, 60 Black leaders from 10 Southern states met at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and founded the Southern Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration. Its original agenda concerned "segregation in transportation facilities and voter registration."
In February 1957, the organization elected Dr. King as President and changed its name to the Southern Leadership Conference (SLC), organized to fight "Jim Crow" laws that discrimination against blacks. Offices for the new group were in Atlanta, and the Kings moved there. Martin became assistant pastor at his father's church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He spent much time traveling. He spoke all over the country, urging nonviolent ways of gaining civil rights. He and Mrs. King visited Europe and Africa. They went to India to study Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent ways of fighting for freedom.
King spoke of how a Pilgrimage would be an appeal to the nation, and the Congress, to pass a civil rights bill that would give the Justice Department the power to file law suits against discriminatory registration and voting practices anywhere in the South. On August 28, 1963, at least 250,000 people descended on Washington in the "largest single demonstration in movement history." Dr. King captured the day.
Following the march, the organizers were invited to a reception at the White House, where President John F. Kennedy "was bubbling over the success of the event."
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of Dr. King's crusade to secure equal rights for all came on December 10, 1964, when, at age 35, he was the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1966, he and his family moved to Chicago. People in the slums of big cities had problems that were as serious as the discrimination they faced in the South. King planned a Poor People's March on Washington, D.C. Shortly before the march, Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, where garbage workers were on strike for better working conditions. He led marchers through the streets in support of the strike. Violence broke out, and a young man was killed.
On April 4, King stood on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, talking with men who had been with him in his many civil rights efforts....