Inspired by advocates of nonviolence such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bayard Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought equality for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and victims of injustice through peaceful protest.
Born to Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, and Alberta Williams King, a former schoolteacher, in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929, King grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
A gifted student, King attended public schools and at the age of 15 was admitted to Morehouse College, where he studied medicine and law.
Although he had not intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the ministry, he changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse’s president, Benjamin Mays, an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality. After graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree.
King later enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, completing his coursework in 1953 and earning a doctorate in systematic theology two years later.
While in Boston he met Coretta Scott. The couple wed in 1953 and settled in Montgomery, Ala., where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They had four children: Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and Bernice Albertine King.
The King family had been living in Montgomery for less than a year when the highly segregated city became the center of the civil rights movement. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the local NAACP chapter, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Activists coordinated a bus boycott that would continue for 381 days, placing a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. King was chosen as the protest’s leader and official spokesman.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional in 1956, King had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational proponent of organized, nonviolent resistance. In 1957, he and other civil rights activists — most of them fellow ministers — founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to achieving full equality for African Americans through nonviolence.
In his role as SCLC president, King traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on nonviolent protest and civil rights as well as meeting with religious figures, activists and political leaders.
In 1960, King and his family moved to Atlanta, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The new position did not stop King and his SCLC colleagues from becoming key players in many of the most significant civil rights battles of the 1960s.
During the Birmingham campaign of 1963, activists used a boycott, sit-ins and marches to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices and other injustices in one of America’s most racially divided cities.
Arrested for his involvement on April 12, King penned the civil rights manifesto known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an eloquent defense of civil disobedience addressed to a group of clergymen who had criticized his tactics.
Later that year, King worked with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices African Americans continued to face across the country.
Held on Aug. 28 and attended by 200,000 to 300,000 participants, the event is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement and a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march culminated in King’s most famous address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for peace and equality. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a monument to the president who a century earlier had brought down the institution of slavery in the United States — he shared his vision of a future.
The speech and march cemented King’s reputation at home and abroad; later that year he was named Man of the Year by Time magazine and in 1964 he became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1965, King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that erupted between segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Ala., where the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized a voter registration campaign.
Captured on television, the brutal scene outraged many Americans and inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson, who sent in federal troops to keep the peace.
That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote — first awarded by the 15th Amendment — to all African Americans.
On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.
After years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, among others, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of King. Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986.