The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate today, January 16th,¹ was an ordained Baptist minister, humanitarian, and tireless champion for civil rights.
The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 to the Rev. Michael King and Alberta Williams King. He was named Michael at birth after his father. In 1931 his father became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, after which time Rev. King referred to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.
King graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was ordained during his senior year. He attended Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and received his doctorate in systematic theology from the Boston University School of Theology in 1955.
While in Boston King met Coretta Scott. The two were married on June 18, 1953 in Marion, Alabama. The following year King accepted the pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. In December 1955 the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Society chose Dr. King to be its leader. The society’s year-long bus boycott—precipitated by the actions of Rosa Parks—focused national attention on the treatment of African-Americans across the south.
In 1957 Dr. King became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), guiding civil rights activities across the south. In 1958 King published Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, which increased his national stature. He also survived his first assassination attempt: while signing copies of his book in Harlem King was stabbed with a letter opener by Izola Ware Curry, a mentally-ill woman.
In 1963 King cemented his preeminence as a civil rights leader by spearheading the Birmingham campaign. His decision to allow himself to be arrested on April 12th pressed President John F. Kennedy to introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation. King’s speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—attended by more than 200,000 people—was the culmination of countless marches across the country. His “I Have a Dream” speech remains sacred in the repository of American texts.
Dr. King’s ability to orchestrate national attention on civil rights protests, combined with his legendary oration, made him the most influential spokesman for civil rights during the early 1960s. King was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in late 1963; in December 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
King’s efforts culminated on July 2, 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 soon followed. After 1965, however, King’s influence ebbed in the face of the rising profile of black militancy. Where King had stressed the Gandhian principles of non-violent resistance, black radicals instead turned (posthumously) toward the Black Nationalism of Malcolm X. King refused to abandon his core beliefs in integration and non-violence. Even as his popularity waned, King spoke out strongly against American involvement in the Vietnam War.
In December 1967 Dr. King formed the Poor People’s Campaign to pressure the federal government in strengthening its anti-poverty efforts. The campaign was in its early stages when King became involved in the Memphis, Tennessee sanitation workers’ strike. On April 4, 1968 King was readying to address a rally in Memphis when he was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray. Dr. King was thirty-nine.²
It has been nearly half a century since Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis; yet we continue to honor his life and mark his passing today because his work—our nation’s work—is not done. Until we no longer think in terms of color, but character, our work continues. Until race no longer plays a part in whom we elect to our highest office, our work continues. Until we can say with certainty that we have guaranteed every person’s dignity, our work continues. May we remain as vigilant in our work as we do in our remembrance of Dr. King.
¹ This post originally published January 19, 2015.
² Portions of this text excerpted from the King Center’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For more, see http://www.thekingcenter.org.