Martin Luther King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota in 1967

Civil Rights Activist, Baptist Minister, Author

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), né Michael King Jr., was a Baptist minister, the author of six books, and the leading American civil rights campaigner of his generation. His motivational speeches were instrumental in driving change towards greater racial equality in American society, where discrimination by colour was rife until well into the 20th century. In his professional life, King worked as a Christian minister of the Baptist denomination.

Michael was born in Atlanta, Georgia, where his maternal grandfather had been a pastor at a Baptist church. His paternal grandparents were tenant farmers. His father, Michael King Sr., followed his own father-in-law into the ministry, serving under him as assistant pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church before taking over as pastor when he died in 1931.

During a visit to Berlin organised by the American Baptist Church in 1934 in order to attend a convention of the Baptist World Alliance that was due to take place there, Michael Sr. was so appalled by the rise of racial discrimination under the prevailing Nazi regime that he assumed the name of Martin Luther King in honour of the influential historical theologian Martin Luther, and began to refer to his infant son as Martin Luther King Jr., eventually leading to his name being changed accordingly on his birth certificate in 1957.

Martin Jr., as he was now known, grew up in the strongly religious atmosphere fostered by his family. His grandmother Jennie regularly read Bible stories to the children in the evenings, and his father became a pillar of the local Baptist community as the congregation of his church rose into the thousands. Martin himself learned and sang hymns and recited selected verses from the Bible before he was of school age. Around the age of six, he began regularly attending church with his mother, who played the piano there.

After befriending a local white boy in his infancy, King Jr. started school in 1935, and was saddened to be placed in a separate school from his friend owing to education being segregated by colour at the time. The other boy’s parents subsequently forbade Martin to continue to meet their son socially outside school, citing his colour as the reason. When Martin told his parents, they explained to him the history of racism in the USA, including its origins in slavery, leaving him with a pronounced feeling of systemic injustice. At first, he felt minded to feel hatred towards white people, but he was swiftly corrected by his parents on the grounds that Christian love must be universal.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965
Peter Pettus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1936, King Sr. led hundreds of local black Americans in a protest march for civil rights to Atlanta’s city hall, helping to foster his son’s pride in the example he set.

After moving to his first secondary school, Atlanta University Laboratory School, in 1940, Martin Jr. took a particular interest in history and English, and also pursued his musical talents, taking lessons in both piano and violin. He was so successful in classes that he skipped an entire year and went on to start High School a whole year early in 1942. Here, he again excelled in English, and developed a reputation for his public speaking ability, becoming a member of the school’s debating team.

In 1941, King Jr. attempted suicide by jumping from an upstairs window after his grandmother Jennie died from a heart attack, blaming himself for this because he had left home without permission to watch a parade when he was supposed to be studying that day. However, he survived with only minor injuries. He was nonetheless so shocked by the sudden loss of his grandmother that he started to openly question certain aspects of received Christian theology, including specifically the Resurrection.

In 1942, Martin began working part-time as an assistant manager at a delivery station for the Atlanta Journal. The income from this job helped support his growing taste for smart clothing, and he became known for his tweed suits and patent leather suits during his teen years.

In 1944, King Jr., accompanied by one of his teachers, travelled to the small city of Dublin, Laurens County, Georgia, in order to participate in an oratorical (public speaking) contest held there. He gave a powerful speech raising consciousness of racial discrimination in the United States, and was awarded first prize in the contest. On his return journey to Atlanta, he was ordered by the bus driver to give up his seat to a white passenger when all the other seats were full, and was insulted by the driver with a rude name in the process. Although when directed by his teacher to comply, Martin did so, he was understandably left feeling extremely angry at this incident, which seemed to serve as a telling reminder of the persistence of the very racial discrimination for speaking against which he had just been granted some recognition.

If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence.

That same year, aged just 15, he was accepted at a local university in Atlanta called Morehouse College, an establishment his father and maternal grandfather had both attended before him, and one that was traditionally open only to black men. He was able to start unusually early thanks to the college at that time exceptionally accepting applicants who had completed just one or two years of High School, subject to their passing its entrance examination, in order to fill student spaces vacated by young men who had been enlisted into the armed forces during the critical latter stages of World War II in which the USA had been actively participating.

Before commencing at the College, King took a summer job working in the town of Simsbury, Connecticut, on a tobacco plantation owned by Cullman Brothers Tobacco, as part of a partnership arranged with the College to help its students cover the cost of their fees. Surprised to find that there was no racial segregation to be seen in Connecticut, King took positive inspiration from the experience, which gave him an enhanced belief that a change away from discrimination was possible.

The president of Morehouse at the time, Benjamin Mays, was himself a Baptist minister, and fostered in Martin a spiritual calling that led to him opting to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ministry himself once he had graduated from his studies. In 1948, he attained his B.A. in sociology, and moved on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, where he studied for another three years, before further graduating with a B.Div. in 1951.

King Jr. then decided to pursue a doctorate in theology, which he took at Boston University for the next there years, during which time he worked part-time at a Baptist church in Boston. In 1954, he was appointed pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, while still working on his PhD dissertation, entitled A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. His doctorate was finally awarded in June 1955.

During his time at Crozer, King had begun to date a young white woman whose mother was a cook, and he wanted to marry her, but was cautioned against it by friends on the grounds that an interracial marriage would induce ill-feeling in both the white and the black communities, so he reluctantly ended their relationship after six months.

At Boston, he met another black student, Coretta Scott (1927-2006), through a mutual friend, and, impressed by her independent history of civil rights activism, asked her to marry him after they had dated for a short while. They were married at her ancestral home of Heiberger, Alabama, in June, 1953.

During his time in Alabama, Martin participated on a committee of representatives of the African-American community investigating a case in which a 15-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, as was required by the Jim Crow laws that still enforced racial segregation in the southern United States at the time. The outcome was an organised boycott of public buses in Montgomery, led by King personally at the request of local civil rights leader Edgar Daniel Nixon (1899-1987). In retaliation for his role, King was arrested and imprisoned, and his house was successfully targeted with an explosive device. The boycott lasted for just over a year before the United States District Court ruled to outlaw racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses. The success of this campaign brought King Jr. to national prominence as a spokesman for the civil rights campaign.

Leaders of the March on Washington posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Rowland Scherman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In January 1957, Martin Jr. invited more than fifty black Church ministers and other activists to his father’s church in Atlanta, to form a new civil rights organisation to coordinate nonviolent direct action to end racial segregation on all bus networks in the southern USA.  This led to the creation in February of the Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration, with King Jr. appointed as its first President, a role he would retain for the rest of his life. By August, the organisation had changed its name to Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It still exists today.

In 1958, King’s account of his bus rights campaign in Montgomery was published as a book called Stride Toward Freedom, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That September, while signing copies of his book at a department store in Harlem, New York, he was stabbed by Izola Curry (1916-2015), a woman who was suffering from paranoid delusions and believed him to be conspiring against her in league with communists. He spent several weeks in hospital but survived his injuries, and after being declared mentally unfit to stand trial, she was sent to a mental hospital, where she remained for the rest of her remarkably long life.

In 1959, after five years at Montgomery, King Jr. was given leave by the Baptist Church to return to Atlanta, where he preached alongside his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was initially greeted with antagonism by the state governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver (1918-2005), who suggested that his presence would increase crime rates, and undertook to place him under surveillance.

In October 1960, the newly formed Atlanta Student Movement, a youth civil rights organisation formed by university students in Alabama, asked King to join its members in a staged protest against the collective failure of the still-ongoing 1960 Presidential election campaign to place Civil Rights prominently on its agenda. In a show of solidarity with the students’ causes, King agreed to take part. In the event, he was among many protestors arrested, but the only one to be detained and charged after his arrest, in an apparent campaign of deliberate persecution by the authorities. He was sentenced to four months’ hard labour at a maximum-security prison. His confinement became a political issue in the run-up to the election, which was to be held on November 8th, and one of the candidates, John F. Kennedy, exerted influence to secure King’s early release. This led to King’s grateful father endorsing Kennedy’s candidature for the Presidency.

In 1961, the ongoing student civil rights movement in Atlanta achieved some success, as it was agreed to end racial segregation at the city’s lunch counters and schools from the Autumn.

In 1962, New York lawyer Henry Wachtel (1917-1997) founded a new organisation called the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, whose purpose was to legally and financially support the human rights movement. King Jr. was appointed as its honorary President. Wachtel subsequently became a close associate of King, and formed a group called the Research Committee whose role was to advise him personally on matters of policy and politics. It remained active in this role for many years, and has been credited with considerable influence over his speeches.

Later that year, King worked with the Gandhi Society to formulate a document sent to President John F. Kennedy, calling on him to issue an executive order to end segregation. However, Kennedy declined. He regarded some of King’s associates within the SCLC with suspicion as dangerously subversive communists, and authorised the FBI, led at the time by John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), to monitor the communications of King and several other SCLC leaders via wiretapping. The FBI’s wiretaps failed to detect any treasonous revolutionary communist plots. However, Hoover remained strongly antagonistic to King, and is believed to have sent him a threatening anonymous letter in 1964.

In the meantime, the SCLC organised numerous civil rights marches and actions in different cities and states, whose causes were generally met with public sympathy across the United States.

The most notable of these was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held in Washington. D.C. on August 28th, 1963, which was co-organised by the SCLC among five other major civil rights organisations, although the primary organiser was the African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), a former member of the Communist Party USA, from whose socialist political views King Jr. distanced himself.

In the meantime, the SCLC organised numerous civil rights marches and actions in different cities and states, whose causes were generally met with public sympathy across the United States.

The most notable of these was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held in Washington. D.C. on August 28th, 1963, which was co-organised by the SCLC among five other major civil rights organisations, although the primary organiser was the African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), a former member of the Communist Party USA, from whose socialist political views King Jr. distanced himself.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with Martin Luther King in the White House Cabinet Room, 1966
Yoichi Okamoto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The March on Washington demanded a law to prohibit racial discrimination in employment, the ending of racial segregation in schools, and a $2 minimum wage, among other civil rights reforms. It was also the setting for the delivery of King’s most famous speech, remembered for his repeated use of the line ‘I have a dream…’.

The positive public reception to these marches ultimately led to major legislative reform in the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). In October 1964, King Jr. was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his nonviolent campaigning against racial inequality.

However, the SCLC’s activism continued, with Chicago becoming the venue of its campaigns in 1966. Here, King was met with a less sympathetic reception than in the south, with some militant white crowds attacking the marches he led with bottles. At one point, he was struck by a brick.

From 1967 to 1968, King expressed outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, costing him the support of many senior white politicians who had previously been sympathetic to his civil rights causes.

Also in 1967, Martin had published a book addressing poverty in the United States, called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Following this, in 1968, the SCLC began to campaign around the country to organise a march on and occupation of Washington, D.C., under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign. The march was planned to take place on May 2nd as a disruptive protest against the plight of the poor throughout the United States and to call for a new economic bill of rights.

However, just under a month before the planned march, while on the campaign trail in Memphis, Tennessee, King was fatally shot on April 4th while standing on the balcony of the hotel where he was staying, and died in hospital an hour later.

The assassination of such a popular and influential civil rights leader at the age of just 39 led to rioting in many cities across the United States. James Earl Ray (1928-1998) was arrested on suspicion of murder, and convicted after entering a guilty plea in a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death sentence. However, just days later, he retracted his confession, and he continued to plead his innocence for the rest of his life, so his incarceration remained controversial until his ultimate death in prison, with many suspecting the secret services of having conspired to have King killed and having framed Ray.

During his short life, King Jr. also authored several other books, including The Measure of a Man (1959), Strength to Love (1963), Why Can’t We Wait (1964), and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968).