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Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968, was critical to the civil rights movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the United States.
As one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the mid-twentieth-century United States, Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolent tactics borrowed from Mohandas Gandhi in seeking to overturn segregation, a decision that contributed to King’s earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King (original name Michael Luther King Jr.) was the son and maternal grandson of Baptist preachers, both of whom served at the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. His parents’ comfortable middle-class lifestyle afforded young Martin a solid education and opportunities not available to all black Americans at the height of segregation. His secure upbringing, however, did not shield him from the prejudices then common throughout the South.
King entered Morehouse College at age fifteen under a special wartime program intended to boost enrollment. He graduated in 1948 after entering the ministry, and he spent the next three years at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he studied Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence as well as the works of contemporary Protestant theologians. After earning a bachelor of divinity degree, King moved on to Boston University to earn a doctorate. There he met Coretta Scott, a native Alabamian who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in 1953 and had four children. King received his doctoral degree in 1955, a year after he accepted a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Montgomery’s civil rights advocates decided in 1955 to contest racial segregation on that city’s public transportation system. When Rosa Parks, an African- American woman, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and police arrested her for violating the city’s segregation law, the activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the transportation system. They chose King as their leader. He quickly showed his commitment to the cause through his inspiring rhetoric and public fearlessness after his family home had been bombed. Just over one year after the start of the boycott, the city integrated the bus system.
Wanting to capitalize on the success of the Montgomery boycott, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in hopes of creating a national movement. He lectured on race-related issues around the country and abroad. A meeting with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru helped cement his belief in using nonviolent resistance. He also drew inspiration from the struggles of Africans trying to overthrow colonialism and establish independent nations.
In 1960, King became co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father. The position allowed him to devote much of his time to the SCLC and civil rights. Sensing the time had come to launch a concentrated attack against segregation, he supported sit-in demonstrations staged by local black college students. His arrest and imprisonment for violating his probation on a minor traffic offense received national attention, especially after Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy interceded on his behalf. The move garnered so much publicity that it most likely contributed to Kennedy’s narrow victory eight days later.
The next five years found King’s influence at its peak. He did not shy away from using the news media—especially television, then in its infancy—to bring national and international attention to the civil rights struggle. Images of women and children offering no resistance while being beaten by police or attacked by police dogs stunned the American public, and brought pressure on the administrations of Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to enact and enforce federal civil rights legislation.
Not everyone in the black community supported King’s tactics. In the spring of 1963, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” defending the use of nonviolent tactics instead of the simple negotiation supported by many black clergy of Birmingham. King argued that nonviolent direct action would bring about such a crisis that the white community would have no choice but to negotiate. Later that summer, to bring about further pressure on federal legislators, King participated in the historic March on Washington. Nearly 200,000 attended the peaceful rally to demand equal justice under the law. There, he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he emphasized his belief that one day, all men would be brothers, regardless of racial or cultural distinctions. The following year saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to desegregate public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities and in employment. The high watermark of the civil rights movement, and perhaps of King’s life, came in December when he received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The Selma, Alabama, demonstrations of March 1965 revealed the first opposition to King’s tactics within the civil rights movement. When King opted not to confront armed state troopers and instead turn back, the decision cost him the support of many young radicals who were already criticizing him for being too cautious. Though the march influenced the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King appeared to be growing out of touch with radical activists who faced poverty and other problems in addition to segregation in urban centers and the North. Their public derision of King and the seeming failure of nonviolent demonstrations to bring about further change led him to change his focus and move beyond concerns of race. In 1967, he firmly came out in opposition to the Vietnam War, a decision that cost him further support in parts of the black community and in Washington. His attempt to widen his base by organizing a coalition of the poor of all races did not gain him great support in any segment of the population.
Undeterred, King began planning a Poor People’s March to Washington in the spring of 1968. He interrupted his planning efforts to go to Memphis, Tennessee, to lend his support to a strike by that city’s sanitation workers. A sniper killed him while he stood on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel. His death touched off rioting in over one hundred cities across the country. More importantly, it hastened the shift of the civil rights movement toward violent confrontation, followed by its splintering in the 1970s and slowing in the face of backlash against affirmative action beginning in the 1980s. Part of this is attributable to King’s elevation over the years to martyr status. Some scholars and social activists have argued that this deification has caused the civil rights movement to lose sight of the grassroots efforts necessary to effect social change, and has diluted King’s own message of economic justice. Nonetheless, that his legacy can still spark such debate decades later testifies to his continued social and political relevance.
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- Branch, T. (1999). Pillar of fire: America in the King years, 1963–65. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Branch, T. (2007). At Canaan’s edge: America in the King years, 1965–68. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Carson, C. (Ed.). (1998). The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.
- Carson, C. (Ed.). (1992–2000). The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Vols. 1–4). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Dyson, M. E. (2000). I may not get there with you: The true Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press.
- Oates, S. B. (1982). Let the trumpet sound: The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row.