(Created by Khadijah Jackson, History 135, August 2004)
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Why is Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered the most notable figure in the American civil rights movement?


Michael Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second child born to the union of Michael Luther King, Sr. and Alberta King. His father later changed both his own and his son’s first name to Martin, in order that they resembled that of the sixteenth-century religious reformer Martin Luther.

Martin Luther King had a strong desire to be an educated man. He excelled in nearly every educational setting afforded to him. He skipped two grades in high school and was admitted to Morehouse College at the age of 15. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Morehouse, he followed his ministerial calling and entered Crozer Theological Seminary. Three years later, he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree. With a fellowship awarded from Crozer, Martin continued his quest for higher education at Boston University and received a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology. In the years to follow, Martin received a host of honorary degrees in law, divinity, and humanities from educational institutions throughout the world.

http://www.educationplanet.com/redirect?url=http://www.pathfinder.com/Life/mlk/mlkpics.html Martin’s willingness to excel and change unjust activities may be attributed to his strong Christian background. He was engulfed in deep-rooted faith, as both his father and maternal grandfather were Baptist ministers who shared a congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Shortly before he graduated from Morehouse College, he too was ordained at the age of 19 as Baptist minister by his father and assisted in leading the congregation at Ebenezer. He later became the pastor at a church in Montgomery, Alabama and then moved to back to Atlanta, again to join the Ebenezer congregation. While in Atlanta, he became a founder of what would become one of the integral organizations of the Civil Rights Movement – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Founders of the SCLC had two great things in common; they were all southern black ministers who had suffered the humility of unequal civil rights.

Because of institutional segregation Dr. King was introduced to the inequalities of race at an early age. As a child, his best friend was a white boy. He and the boy were allowed to play together but were not permitted to attend the same school. Martin did not quite understand why others did not practice his parents’ golden rule of "treating EVERYONE EQUAL and with respect."

Throughout the years to follow, Martin encountered more situations of inequality such as those associated with public use facilities, transportation, and voting. Dr. King felt something needed to be done, but he insisted it had to in a rational manner and without violence. He embraced the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, who believed those in power could be forced to change through “peaceful revolution” and the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, who believed “if enough people would follow their conscience and disobey unjust laws, they could bring about a peaceful revolution.” Armed with such philosophies, King headed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and lead one of the first mass civil rights protests. The year long Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first action taken to desegregate the Montgomery, Alabama public bus system. He later recounted the events of this protest in a book, Strive Toward Freedom (1958). King and the SCLC lead many more boycotts, sit-ins and protests throughout the southern United States in an attempt to peacefully demand equal civil rights, and social and economic justice, not only for just African Americans, but all minorities and disadvantaged Americans.

http://www.educationplanet.com/redirect?url=http://www.pathfinder.com/Life/mlk/mlkpics.html King faced many obstacles while on his mission for equality. He was arrested over twenty times for protesting. He was the object of several violent attacks, both to his person and his property. He received threatening phone calls, his home was bombed and set afire, and he was even stabbed. King faced opposition from not only whites and their leaders but also from some of his own race. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a diverse group of students who desired social change.  Initially, King supported the efforts of the SNCC, but soon conflict surfaced. Dr. King wanted to be patient and continue to work non-violently toward equality. The SNCC became militant, and wanted immediate action taken on its issues and did not desire to wait for changes. Because of such philosophical differeces, the two forces soon grew apart. Martin also faced obstacles that were initiated by the federal government. He was subjected to several unwarranted investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and undue harassment by its head, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover felt King caused too much ‘trouble’ and called him "the most notorious liar in the country." Hoover thought if there was negative publicity questioning King's morality, perhaps his followers may not be as supportive. Fortunately, Hoover and his attempts to discredit Dr. King did not hinder King’s efforts toward securing equal rights for all.


The Selma to Montgomery March, publicized by King, proved to be a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The violent events that took place during the march prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to force passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; after which matters involving race relations began to change. Attitudes toward racial equality did not totally change with the Act, but it was definitely a start. Despite the Act being a turning point, there was still more work to be done. Unfortunately, Dr. King did not live to continue his hard work and dedication nor see it come to fruition. While in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers, he was tragically shot and killed on the balcony of hotel room by James Earl Ray. Compared to the death of President John F. Kennedy, who was also a great helper to 'the people', it was a sad day in history.

http://www.educationplanet.com/redirect?url=http://www.pathfinder.com/Life/mlk/mlkpics.html Dr. King has been credited with motivating many to the support of the civil rights movement. His great orations, such as I Have Dream at the March on Washington, inspired many. When he spoke, his fervor, dedication, commitment and passion for racial justice became contagious. Martin was truly a driving force in minority America’s quest for equality. He "had a dream" and a vision that one day would everyone would be treated equal and with respect. It has become reality.

"For the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late."

-Martin Luther King, Jr., 4 July 1965


  • 15 January 1929, Michael Luther King born in Atlanta, Georgia to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King.  He was later renamed Martin (Jr.)

  • 20 September 1944, Martin entered Morehouse College at the young age of 15

  • 8 June 1948,  King Martin graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology
  • 8 May 1951,King graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity degree
  • 18 June 1953, wed by his father, King married Coretta Scott Williams
  • 31 October 1954, Reverend King became the 21st pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama
  • 5 June 1955, Dr. King received a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology
  • 14 February 1957, Dr. King and others found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  • 17 September 1958, Dr. King published his first book, Strive Toward Freedom
  • November 1959, Reverend King left Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and returned to Atlanta
  • 16 April 1963, King wrote A Letter from Birmingham Jail while incarcerated

  • 28 August 1963, Dr. King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

  • 3 January 1964, named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1963

  • June 1964, King's book, Why We Can’t Wait published

  • 10 December 1964, King won Nobel Peace Prize
  • Spring1965, Dr. King experienced perhaps the most violent of confrontations in his quest for civil rights in Selma, Alabama; several were killed and many injured.
  • 6 August 1965, pressured by the events in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, giving African Americans the right to vote 
  • January 1967, Dr. King's book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community  published
  • 4 April 1968, Dr. King assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray
  • 9 April 1968, Dr. King laid to rest at his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia
  • 10 October 1980, U.S. Department of Interior deemed the Freedom Hall Complex of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. a National Historic Site
  • November 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed bill creating the third Monday of each January as Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday
  • 15 January 1986,  First day MLK holiday observed
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WWW sites
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University is a plethora of information regarding the man, his efforts, struggles and accomplishments.  Full texts of his speeches, sermons and writings may be found. This site also contains many links to other sites with information about the civil rights movement.

The King Center is the "official living memorial" dedicated to the memory of MLK.

The Seattle Times.com website is a great resource for general information about Dr. King and his work.

Biography on A&E contains an extremely detailed account of Dr. King's life.

MLK Online contains inspiring quotes by MLK.

Some other recommded websites:


Recommended Books

Books by Dr. King:

Some of Dr. King's perspectives on the events that took place the civil rights movement are included in his books: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), Why We Can't Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), Conscience for Change (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Company, 1967), The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Row, 1968),  and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

Books about Dr. King:

Two memoirs, written by two people who knew him best, his wife and his son: King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt, Henry & Co., 1993) and King, Dexter Scott. Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir. (New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 2003).

Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998).

Other books concerning King:

The following books contain truly inspirational speeches and sermons by Dr. King: Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, eds. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 2001).

Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, eds. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.(New York: Warner Books, 1998).

Related Events

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For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu