KING, MARTIN LUTHER The one name most clearly associated with the Civil Rights Revolution during the mid-twentieth century was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Apostle of nonviolence and dedicated humanitarian, King attracted broader support from the American black community than any previous African American leader, including Booker T. Washington. His violent and premature death in 1968 represented one of the most tragic and ominous developments in the history of the United States.
Born Michael Luther King, Jr. on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, King's given name was changed to Martin while still a child. His mother, the late Alberta Williams King, was the daughter of Rev. Alfred D. Williams, who founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta during the late nineteenth century. His father, Michael Luther King, Sr. (whose given name was also later changed to Martin), succeeded Williams as pastor at Ebenezer in 1932. Under his leadership, Ebenezer became one of the most prominent black churches in the United States.
A precocious youth, King graduated from high school and had matriculated at Morehouse College before he was sixteen. Following in his father's footsteps, he decided to devote his life to the ministry, being ordained at Ebenezer in 1947. A year later, he graduated from Morehouse and entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Following a distinguished academic career at Crozer, King enrolled in a Ph. D. program at Boston University's School of Theology, receiving his doctorate in 1955. During his sojourn in Boston, King met and married Coretta Scott, a native of Alabama and an alumnus of Antioch College.
While completing his doctoral dissertation in 1954, King was offered and accepted the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Quickly gaining local recognition in Montgomery's black community, he was called upon to lead the now-famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. Utilizing the Gandhian principle of nonviolent civil disobedience, King mobilized the blacks of Montgomery in a successful yearlong campaign to desegregate public transportation in that city. As a result of this success and of his own charismatic personality, King was catapulted into the national limelight. The Civil Rights Revolution, it appeared, had found its leader.
In 1957, a group of black ministers led by Dr. King laid the groundwork for a new civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Calling for "total integration" and "full citizenship rights," the SCLC under the leadership of King dedicated itself to the nonviolent elimination of Jim Crow practices throughout the South. Although not always successful in its efforts, the SCLC's participation in the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963 and the Selma March of 1965 did much to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 respectively.
Dr. King's participation in the mammoth March on Washington during August 1963 cemented his position as the most dynamic, charismatic and meaningful black civil rights leader of his day. It was on this occasion that he delivered his passionate "I have a dream" oration, evoking the prospect of a day in the future when white children and black children would walk hand in hand "on the red hills of Georgia" and when black children as well as white "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." Millions of Americans, black and white, were deeply moved by King's "dream," and for a moment — fleeting as it might have been — the "dream" seemed a distinct possibility.
Recognition of King's sincerity, zeal and leadership in the civil rights struggle came when he was named Time's "Man of the Year" for 1963 and, later, when he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps his greatest triumph. In 1967, King announced his opposition to American policy in southeast Asia, characterizing the Vietnam conflict as a "tragic adventure." Protesting that money spent for bombs should be spent to improve domestic conditions among the poor and oppressed, King declared that the United States was playing "havoc with the destiny of the entire world." Shortly thereafter, he began to formulate plans for a Poor People's March on Washington to demonstrate in a dramatic manner the needs of the ignored masses of downtrodden Americans. But on April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, Tennessee, King was cut down by an assassin's bullet while standing outside of his motel room. The fact that the confessed killer, James Earl Ray, was a white man caused a shock wave of terror and incredible racial violence throughout the United States. For many blacks, King's death symbolized the death of his dream. "The extent to which this dream became a nightmare," according to historian Edgar Toppin, "is an index of the degree to which the racism King optimistically hoped to erase permeates America." For a fuller discussion of Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence and of black reaction to his assassination, see: NONVIOLENCE and SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE.