Michael Luther King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Martin Luther King, Sr. was also named “Michael,” but later adopted the name “Martin” in honor of the German priest and theologian during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Likewise, Michael Jr. later changed his name to Martin. He grew up in a family of clergymen, beginning with his grandfather in 1914 and his father in 1931 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ironically, however, King was not as enthusiastic about the faith he was brought up to believe during his youth as he came to be in his adulthood. In fact, King often questioned religion and disliked overly-passionate displays of religious acts. He could not reconcile how religion fit into the changing and modern world. However, after studying the Bible in-depth, King changed his outlook on religion and was set on a path to a life in ministry.
King was said to be a precocious child, skipping both the 9th and 11th grades in high school. Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, King graduated from Morehouse College, a distinguished African-American institution in Atlanta with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology. After graduation in 1948, he attended Crozer’s Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania to earn a Bachelor of Divinity degree. After earning a fellowship at Crozer, he was able to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at Boston University in 1953. While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory. They married in 1954 and later had two sons and two daughters. Still working on his dissertation, King moved back down south and served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, he earned his PhD from Boston University.
At the end of the year, King was informed about an arrest of a woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery. The woman was 42-year-old Rosa Parks; she was tired from a long day of working. When the section designated for white passengers only had reached capacity, several white men were left standing which urged the bus driver to demand that Parks, as well as a few others, give up their seats. While the others reluctantly listened to the bus driver, Parks refused. Subsequently, she was arrested for violating Montgomery City Code. That very night, King along with other civil rights activists gathered to plan a citywide bus boycott to protest the unjustifiable arrest of Rosa Parks. The boycott lasted over a year, during which the black community endured harassment, threats, and no public transportation. After many court sessions and lost cases and dollars, the City of Montgomery finally revoked its law mandating segregation in public transportation.
The Montgomery bus boycott only marked the beginning of national protests that King had set out to embark upon. He wanted justice, equality, and change for the black community in America. King lectured on racial and civil rights issues across the country and demonstrated peaceful protests, which he followed after the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, along with other black church leaders and civil rights activists. Soon, King supporters began performing “sit-ins” at lunch counters throughout the south. Similar to the segregation on buses, lunch counters and restaurants had designated areas for whites and blacks, but black protesters began fighting this inequality by sitting in the white-section and refusing to leave it. In spite of the harassment and violence that often resulted in these “sit-ins,” the law mandating this segregation was also lifted.
Again and again, peaceful protests for civil rights and equality were demonstrated by the black community throughout the country. Through the encouragement of the politically strong and powerful leadership of King, little-by-little the Civil Rights Movement was blossoming and cementing itself into the collective memory of American history. In 1960, King gained the advocacy of John F. Kennedy after being arrested for a petty traffic violation. In 1963, King visited Birmingham in Alabama and assembled a group of fervent protesters to hold a demonstration. The event gained national attention after learning of King’s arrest and the violent treatment of the protesters by the Birmingham police force. King was criticized by black and white clergymen for the demonstration because it put young children and innocent citizens in attendance at risk. Despite the unfortunate events at Birmingham, he continued to campaign.
After his release from Birmingham jail, King planned another and even larger demonstration with his supporters to March on Washington for a peaceful change. As a result, 200,000 people gathered along Lincoln’s Memorial on August 28, 1963 to hear King recite his famous and influential speech, “I Have a Dream.”
King’s unrelenting efforts resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which authorized the federal government to outlaw the discriminatory acts on ethnicity, religion, and women. Moreover, segregation laws were lifted and voting requirements were amended to end discriminatory practices against the black community which resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Before King’s untimely death on April 4, 1968, he received the Noble Peace Prize in 1964 and continued to demonstrate peaceful protests throughout the 1960’s to inspire change in the world:
“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In honor of this American hero, the United States celebrates another year of his legacy on January 21, 2013 as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.