Happy birthday, Martin Luther King Jr!

January 15th, 2013

Eighty-four years ago today, on January 15, 1929, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the second of three children to Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and his wife Alberta. As we prepare to celebrate King’s birthday on Monday—the official Martin Luther King Jr. Day—we will be using this week to feature stories and texts from our latest ebook, “The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” The ebook—which is free and available here—is full of stories, speeches, and songs by and about King and the Civil Rights Movement that will help students gain a deeper appreciation for the reasons why we as a nation set aside a day to celebrate King’s life and work. It is from this ebook that the following introduction to King comes:

Growing up, King Jr. attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his grandfather and father served as pastors. He graduated from a segregated high school at 15 and entered Morehouse College in 1945. Though initially uncertain about whether he wanted to enter the ministry, King chose to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and was ordained during his senior year of college. He then continued his studies at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected class president of the majority-white student body and graduated with distinction in 1951. While a doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston University, King met Coretta Scott, a music student originally from Alabama. The coupled married in 1953 and had four children over the next decade: Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.

As a graduate student, King developed and refined the personal beliefs that would guide his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. The doctrine of the Social Gospel, a liberal movement within American Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, became a guiding force in the young minister’s theology. King’s familial church, Ebenezer Baptist, emphasized social activism, public service, and charity, and his doctoral studies reinforced these teachings. In a 1952 letter to Coretta, King reaffirmed his belief in the Social Gospel, writing that he would “hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”

It was also while studying theology that King first encountered the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, whose advocacy of nonviolence deeply resonated with him. The Indian independence leader’s success in using nonviolent civil disobedience led King to hope that the same tactics could work for African Americans in the United States. King believed that nonviolent civil disobedience “breaks with any philosophy or system which argues that the ends justify the means. It recognizes that the end is pre-existent in the means.” Moreover, King argued that nonviolence prevents “discontent from degenerating into moral bitterness and hatred,” which “is as harmful to the hater as it is to the hated.” While the Social Gospel provided the moral imperative for participation in the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s example provided the practical model for King to combat racism and disenfranchisement.

Civil Rights Leader

In 1954, King moved to Montgomery, Alabama to become the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and his commitment to nonviolence faced its first test the following year during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A protest against the city’s segregated public buses began when a young African American activist named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. Parks’ act of civil disobedience launched the 381-day boycott of public transport, which ended when the US Supreme Court declared the city’s segregationist laws unconstitutional. During the strike, King was attacked, jailed, and threatened, but remained committed to the principles of nonviolence. The Montgomery Bus Boycott proved a major victory for King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance and brought the young minister into the national spotlight.

Three years later, King helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate nonviolent civil rights activism. In 1963, King led major demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama to combat segregation and unfair hiring practices. Jailed during the protests, King responded to a group of Alabama clergymen opposed to the public demonstrations in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by emphasizing the values of cooperation and empathy. He argued that all Americans benefit from creating a more equal society, writing, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That same year, King led the March on Washington, where he delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. A year later, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Though King continued to fight racial inequality and injustice, his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s left him estranged from former supporters. On April 4, 1968, King traveled to Memphis to support a strike of local sanitation workers. While standing on the balcony of his hotel, King, then age 39, was shot and killed.

 Learn more about King and the Civil Rights Movement he helped lead.

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