Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but his first name was later changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. From 1960 until his death King acted as co-pastor alongside his father. King attended public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He received a B.A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished institution located in Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded a B.D. degree in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott.
In 1954, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was ready, then, early in December 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a leader.
In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Mahatma Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience and inspiring his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a manifesto of the civil rights struggle. He planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, “I Have a Dream”. He conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American Blacks but also a world figure.
On October 14, 1964, at the age of thirty-five, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement. In 1965, he and the SCLC helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches and the following year he took the movement north to Chicago. In the final years of his life, King expanded his focus to include poverty and the Vietnam War. In 1968 King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.