Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. King Jr. grew up in a loving, Black, Christian home. King Sr. was a noted civil rights activist and severe disciplinarian.
King Jr. attended Morehouse College in 1944, at the age of 15. He played football and worked in a tobacco field to earn $4 a day. He pondered the lack of segregation in Connecticut, and marveled that "Negroes and whites go to the same church." He graduated with his BA in sociology in 1948.
He then enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He fell in love with the daughter of an immigrant German cafeteria worker. He could not marry her because she was white, and interracial marriage would endanger his career as a pastor in the South.
In 1951, he began his doctorate at Boston University. He audited philosophy classes at Harvard and hung out with other young ministers and jazz musicians. He completed his dissertation in 1955. In 1991, an investigation revealed part of the dissertation had been plagiarized, in that he used several passages without citations.
While at Boston University he was introduced to Coretta Scott, already an activist in her own right. They were married on her parent's front lawn in Alabama in 1953. They had four children together. Scott's activism was allegedly limited by her husband as she assumed the roles of wife and mother.
In March of 1955, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Nine months later, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. These two incidents led to the 385 day-long Montgomery bus boycott, in which King was a central figure. For his leadership, King was rewarded with an arrest and his house was bombed. The boycott concluded in Browder v. Gayle, a U.S. District Court decision which ended segregation on all Montgomery public buses.
In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded by civil rights activists to motivate and consolidate Black voices and conduct nonviolent protests. King held a leadership position within the group.
In 1958, he was signing copies of his book in a Harlem bookstore, when a mentally ill Black woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener.
In 1959, he returned to Atlanta where he served with his father as co-pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church. The governor of Georgia was hostile towards King and stated, "wherever [he] has been there has followed in his wake a wave of crimes." In May of 1960, King was pulled over for driving without a license (although he had a valid one from Alabama). His lawyer agreed to a deal that involved probation.
In 1960, the Atlanta Student Movement asked King to participate in one of their sit-ins. On October 19 they assembled inside Rich's, a prominent Atlanta department store, and King was one of many who were arrested. The authorities released everyone but King, who was sentenced to four months of hard labor. In the middle of the night after his sentencing he was transported to a maximum-security prison. As an election was approaching, people pleaded with the Presidential candidates to intervene on King's behalf. Too scared of alienating the Southern White vote, Nixon declined to make any comment. Nixon's opponent, John F. Kennedy, called the governor directly, enlisted the help of allies including his brother Robert, and personally phoned Mrs. Scott-King to offer his help. King was released two days later, and Kennedy narrowly won the November 8th election.
The protests continued through 1961. In March, King helped broker a deal that the city's lunch counters would desegregate along with the court-mandated desegregation of schools that coming fall. This was not soon enough for many involved, and they were unhappy with the compromise King struck. In December 1961 King and the SCLC joined forces with the Albany Movement, a desegregation group. During a protest there King was again arrested. He was given the option of 45 days in jail or a $178 fine (around $1500 today). He chose jail, but three days into his sentence Billy Graham bailed him out.
The point of the protests and marches organized by King, the SCLC, and the ASM were the securing right to vote, desegregation, labor protections, and equal civil rights for Black Americans. The system of segregation in the South was held together by Jim Crow laws. There were many years with little progress, and people were angry and frustrated. The Albany Movement dissolved.
In April of 1963, the SCLC organized marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama. The intent was to intentionally break laws that were unfair. They brought in children and young adults to participate in the demonstrations. The Birmingham Police Department used high-pressure water cannons and police dogs against the protestors, including the children. Video footage of police violence against Black citizens was broadcast on the national news, and many people were outraged. King was arrested for the 13th time (out of a total of 29). This was when he composed "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he states, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed." He points out in this letter that laws do not determine moral correctness, and that everything Hitler did was legal. The president of the United Auto Workers raised $160,000 to bail out King and the other protestors.
In 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI to begin tapping King's telephone line due to his involvement with SCLC. They were allegedly trying to find communists. Although they didn't find any communists, they used the tapes and the COINTELPRO (an illegal counter intelligence operation) to force King out of the organization's official leadership.
August 28, 1963 was the date of the March on Washington. The SCLC, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality organized the march. In organizing the March on Washington, King collaborated with Bayard Rustin, an openly gay democratic socialist. Kennedy also reluctantly helped to recruit more protestors after he realized the protest would proceed no matter what he said about it. More than 250,000 people attended the march. They made specific demands: end racial segregation in schools, grant equal civil rights through real changes in real laws, provide protection from police brutality, and a $2 minimum wage for all (about $17 today). It was here King gave his 17-minute oratory, "I Have a Dream." This is regarded as one of the most influential speeches in American history.
In 1964, the third Civil Rights Act was passed.
In December 1964, King, the SCLC, and the SNCC joined together in Selma, Alabama. A local judge there had recently banned the gathering of three or more people from the SCLC or SNCC, and banned 41 named civil rights leaders. King defied the order by speaking at Brown Chapel. Marches were organized from Selma to Montgomery, and the peaceful marchers were assaulted by police and civilians alike. Bloody Sunday occurred in March 1965, when a protest was stopped when the participants were beaten and gassed by the police and possemen.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. King continued to organize marches and give speeches, including "How Long, Not Long" on the steps of the Alabama state capitol. Here he says, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
In 1966, King and allies moved North to Chicago. The protests here were met with more violence, thrown objects, and screaming mobs. During one march King was hit in the head with a brick.
In 1967 King gave a speech, "Beyond Vietnam," expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War. He said, "A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.'" This cost him support from several important allies, including President Lyndon Johnson.
In 1968 King and the SCLC organized the "Poor People's Campaign." He travelled the country, rallying folks and calling on the government to invest in rebuilding America. He felt that Congress had shown "hostility to the poor" by spending "military funds with alacrity and generosity." He contrasted this with the situation faced by poor Americans, claiming that Congress had merely provided "poverty funds with miserliness." His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of "racism, poverty, militarism and materialism", and argued that "reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, King stood on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot from above, and died at 7:05pm that evening.
His favorite hymn was "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." His last words were a request to a musician friend to play it pretty.