Martin Luther King Jr. - Important Figures in US History

Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. Editorial credit: lazyllama /
Statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. Editorial credit: lazyllama /

Martin Luther King Jr. was born as Michael King, Jr. on January 15th, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. Both his marital grandfather and father were ministers of the Baptist Church, and as such he grew up in a very religious environment. He entered public school at the age of 5, and attended Booker T. Washington High School. He was an exceptional student and skipped two grades, entering Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was only 15 years old. In 1948, King graduated with a Sociology Degree, and subsequently attended the Crozer Theological Seminary. Upon graduation, he enrolled in Boston University and earned his Ph.D. by the time he was 25 years old.

4. Career

King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. After receiving this position, he soon became more and more involved in local civil rights struggles and with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to give up her seat on a public city bus to a white person, local NAACP leader E.D Nixon met with King to plan a citywide bus boycott. King was chosen to lead the boycott, and he made a series of important speeches during the boycott. The event, which lasted 381 days, ultimately forced the city of Montgomery to lift many of its racial segregation laws. After that, King helped facilitate and support many boycott movements and protests in a number of other cities, and in doing so he became a famous figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

3. Major Contributions

Starting in 1963, King organized a series of large demonstrations, the first of which was held in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. King was imprisoned along with many of his supporters for his involvement with it, and during his time in jail that followed he wrote the famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail". This letter expressed his theories of non-violence and civil disobedience, both of which became theoretical foundations and guiding lights of other civil rights efforts to follow, not only in the U.S. but also across the world. Later on in that year, King and many other civil rights activists organized the historic "March on Washington", which directly involved more than 200,000 participants. There, he delivered the famous speech "I Have a Dream". King's dedicated and effective efforts directly contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in all publicly-owned facilitates, and authorized the Federal government to desegregate all public accommodations.

2. Challenges

Although the Civil Rights Movement achieved major successes and received more and more support as time went on, King and his fellow activists were also met with growing hostilities and aggression with those people who were unhappy with the changes. Demonstrations and marches were sometimes met with police violence and riots. The church also issued restraining orders to stop marches from taking place. Facing such challenges, King did not back off, though he changed into more mild tactics, which unintentionally alienated many of the younger and more aggressive members of the movement. His non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens also irritated many black militants, who thought his methods to be ineffective and weak. Facing such criticism, King sought to draw connections between discrimination and poverty, and to tackle economic problems faced by all people, black, white, or otherwise, as well.

1. Death and Legacy

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, on a balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only 39. Although his death aroused riots and demonstrations across the country, King ultimately left a profound legacy of peace behind him. He is the most well-known African American activist and civil rights leader. Hundreds of public places and a U.S. National Holiday are named after him today, and he was awarded more than fifty honorary degrees. He was by no means an perfect man who solved all of his country's problem, but his dedication, courage, eloquence, and faith helped bring about significant changes in the conditions and perceptions of African-Americans in the U.S. His commitment to non-violence and civil disobedience still inspire people who fight injustice and oppression worldwide to this very day.


More in Society