Martin Luther King, Jr. Credit: Public Domain photo

A quick glance at the biography of Martin Luther King:

Martin Luther King was the most important figure when it came to civil rights movement. He worked hard to obtain social changes for African Americans. He, himself, was an African American. He was also a Baptist minister and he was known for being a great public speaker and for encouraging people to attend peaceful campaigns rather than using violence to achieve their rights. He established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC) in 1957 and in 1963 he led a large crowd of people on a protest march to Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It was where he made his famous “I have a dream” speech. In 1964 he won the Nobel Prize for peace. Four years later, in 1968, he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, by Earl Ray. The person who has continued his work after his death up to now is Coretta Scott King, his wife. In the US there is a national holiday on January 15 to celebrate his birthday.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King, Jr., known as the greatest leader of the civil rights movement, was born Michael Luther King, Jr. in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather and his father were pastors of a local church called the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Although the blacks in the South were suffering from poor conditions, the King family could afford a comfortable life at the time.

In 1929 when King was born, most black people were living in the south under severe conditions. In addition to having financial difficulties, they were deprived of a lot of civil rights. In other words, blacks and whites lived in different worlds. In the South, blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, they could not attend the same school as the whites, most blacks in the South could not vote, they could not eat in the same restaurants as whites; there were even different drinking fountains for blacks and whites.

King was graduated at the age of fifteen from high school after attending segregated schools in Georgia. He was a clever child and he did well at school. He received his BA degree from the same institution his father and grandfather had attended. It was called Morehouse College and it was a famous Negro institution in Atlanta. Then he had three years of theological study in Pennsylvania. He won a scholarship from Boston University while he was in Pennsylvania and as a result, he could get his PhD in 1955. When he was in Boston he got acquainted with and later got married a young woman named Coretta Scott who was an artist. They had two sons and two daughters.

In 1954 King accepted to become the pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, named the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Simultaneously he became a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP). He was ready then to be the guide for the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of that time in the United States by managing the plan for the bus boycott of 1955 which lasted for 382 days. Rosa Parks was the person who initiated it. In 1955 she refused to give her seat to a white man while she was at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as the local law required her to do so. She was arrested and then Martin Luther King encouraged African Americans in Montgomery not to use the buses. Although most of the blacks in Montgomery did not have cars, they either walked to work or stayed at home. It was only after the Supreme Court announced that the laws regarding segregation on buses were unconstitutional that Negroes and whites could ride the buses equally (December 21, 1956). From the time King decided to become a voice in the civil rights movement, he was encountered with lots of perils. During the days of the bus boycott, not only King was arrested but also his house was bombed.

In 1957 there was a meeting of hundreds of Southern black church leaders. They shared their opinions and at the end King came to the conclusion that black people had to work together to achieve their rights. He believed that they had to be united. One of his favorite sayings was “United we stand, divided we fall”. In 1957 he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC) and was elected its president. It members were mostly African American church leaders. The organization supported peaceful protests and its roots were taken both from Christianity and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi who was a great inspiration for King from the time King was in college.

The year 1960 was important for African Americans. As King’s policy of nonviolent behavior was becoming more and more popular in the South, African Americans put a new way of protesting into practice which was called “sitting-in”. Black people in the South were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants as whites did. In February 1960, four black students in North Carolina, walked into a restaurant and ordered a meal, but the waitress refused to take their order. As a result, the students did not leave the restaurant. They started a “sit-in”. Other students joined them quickly. Although those students were arrested, sit-ins became more and more popular. Even white students in the North travelled to the South to join the sit-ins. Martin Luther King joined a sit-in which was held at an Atlanta restaurant in October 1960.

He was arrested and put in prison. The person who could help King in prison was Senator John F Kennedy. He asked the judge to set King free, as Coretta Scott had already gone to him for help, and the judge did so by setting him free.

From 1957 when the organization was established till 1968 when King was assassinated, the SCLC organized King’s speeches of over twenty-five hundred times and his travels of over six million miles. King also wrote five books in addition to his many articles. His leadership for massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, happened in these years. The protest was what he called a coalition of conscience. He also encouraged the African Americans of Alabama to register in order to vote. Then 1963, the same year when he was chosen as the Man of the Year by Time magazine, he led a peaceful march of 250,000 people to Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC where he gave his address “I have a dream”. At that time, twelve million of nineteen million black citizens in the US lived in the South. He compared opinions with President John F Kennedy and he also campaigned for President Lyndon B Johnson. He was arrested for more than twenty times and was attacked at least four times. He was given five honorary degrees and became not only a figure of the civil rights movement but also a world figure.

He received the Nobel Prize for peace in 1964, when he was only thirty-five, making him the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When he became aware of his selection, he donated his prize money of $54,123 to the development of the civil rights movement.

On April 4, 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee in order to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage collectors of the city. On the same day, while he was standing on the balcony of his motel room, he was shot and killed by a man called James Earl Ray. His assassinator was sentenced to 99 years in prison and died while he was serving his sentence in 1998. But many people believed that Ray was not alone and that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination designed by white politicians and acted by Ray.

On the stone above his grave the last words of his most famous speech are engraved:
“Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

But have the followers of Martin Luther King achieved his goals and dreams? The answer to this question is “not yet”, King’s dream of true equality has not fully come true, as right now in the US a young African American is five times more likely to be put in prison, out of work, or dead in street violence when compared to a young white American.


Hansen, D. D. (2003). The dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the speech that inspired a nation. New York: Harper Collins Publisher.

McLean, A. C. (2003). Martin Luther King. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Falk, R. (1993). Spotlight on the USA. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haberman, F. W. (1972) Nobel lectures, peace 1951-1970. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company.

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