A minister, father, civil rights leader, humanitarian and husband—Martin Luther King, Jr., assumed myriad roles throughout his brief, prolific lifetime. Though he was born Michael King on January 15th, 1929, his father changed his name in honor of German reformer Martin Luther, setting the tone for his son’s remarkable career. Skeptical about Christianity growing up (and renouncing Jesus during Sunday school), he nevertheless decided to enter the seminary. Dr. King graduated from Morehouse College, obtained his bachelor of divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, received his Ph.D. in theology at Boston University, and became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, near wife Coretta Scott’s hometown of Heiberger—all by the age of 26.
Dr. King’s Christian beliefs propelled his activism, and he became involved in the civil rights movement very early in his career as a minister. In 1955, he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a peaceful protest against ongoing racial discrimination on the part of the city’s public transportation system. It was the same year that Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. The boycott continued for 385 days, becoming so fraught with tension that Dr. King’s home was bombed. His arrest during the protest set in motion legislation that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public busses As the founding member and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. King sought to harness the organizing power of black churches to embark on peaceful civil rights reform.
From the group’s creation in 1957 until his death in 1968, Dr. King led the SCLC in intense activism: a non-violent attack on segregation occurring in Albany, a campaign against social injustice in Birmingham, demonstrations in St. Augustine, and a partnership with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama. Among his loftiest endeavors with the SCLC was 1963’s March on Washington.
Together with the Big Six (a group of nationally recognized civil leaders that included Whitney Young, John Lewis and Roy Wilkins), Dr. King led the march that called on the government for an end to racial segregation in public schools and protection of civil rights workers from police brutality, among other demands. It also marked one of the most important moments in Dr. King’s career and a pivotal moment in history when he delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”
Dr. King met with dignitaries, sat down with President Lyndon Johnson to express his opposition to the Vietnam War, and traveled the country to champion local injustices.
In 1968, on one of his civil rights initiatives, Dr. King went to Memphis in support of the black sanitary public works employees, who had been on strike for approximately one month. He addressed the rally of workers who had come to hear him speak and was shot dead the next day at the Lorraine Motel, where he and his entourage regularly stayed.
Reportedly his last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform at an event King was going to attend that evening: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
For his work, Dr. King received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, as well as numerous honorary degrees and awards, such as the American Civil Liberties Medallion and the John F. Kennedy Award. He endured several attempts on his life, allegations of adultery, and persecution by the FBI. Just days after Dr. King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (commonly known as the Fair Housing Act), prohibiting housing-related discrimination on the basis of race, religion or natural origin—a cause he championed strongly during the final years of his life.