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Martin Luther King Jr.

Last modified 18 October 2011.

First published 29 December 2000. Reviewed June 2002

Country: United States.

Cause: Civil rights for African-Americans.

Background: Africans are transported to America as slaves from 1619. Slavery is abolished following the Civil War of 1861-65 but racism and segregation remain. In the middle of the 20th Century the fight for equality for African-Americans leads to massive civil rights campaigns.

Mini biography: Born on 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, US. He is christened Michael Luther King Jr, but later has his name changed to Martin. His father and maternal grandfather are Baptist preachers with histories of civil rights activity. His great grandfather was also a preacher. King is deeply attached to his close-knit family. On the day that his grandmother dies he jumps in despair from a second-floor window of his home but lands unhurt.

As a boy he experiences the racial discrimination of the time. On one occasion he and his schoolteacher are ordered to give up their seats to white passengers during a lengthy bus ride. "When we didn't move right away, the driver started cursing us out and calling us black sons of bitches," King later recalls. "I decided not to move at all, but my teacher pointed out that we must obey the law. So we got up and stood in the aisle the whole 90 miles to Atlanta. It was a night I'll never forget. I don't think I have ever been so deeply angry in my life."

King is educated at segregated public schools in Georgia. At 15 he enrols at Atlanta's Morehouse College.

While at Morehouse he is influenced by the writings of the 19th Century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, including the essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. He decides that the ministry will best provide the foundations on which to build his emerging ideas on social change.

1948 - King graduates from Morehouse College with a bachelor of arts degree then enters Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here he is strongly influenced by the teachings of India's Mahatma Gandhi. "From my background I gained my regulating Christian ideals," he later says. "From Gandhi I learned my operational technique."

"I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi ... the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

1951 - King receives a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer and is awarded a fellowship. He enrols to study for a doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. While at the university he meets and marries Coretta Scott. Scott, like King, comes from Alabama.

Meanwhile, King works actively for civil rights, becoming a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the leading black rights organisation of the time.

1955 - King completes his doctorate at Boston University then returns with his wife to Alabama, where he has accepted a position as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The town is soon to become the focus of the civil rights movement.

On 1 December a local African-American woman named Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. Black activists form the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the transport system and chose King as their leader. The boycott takes effect on 5 December. That night King addresses the protesters.

"We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated," he says. "But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice. ... Our method will be that of persuasion not coercion. We will only say to the people, 'Let your conscience be your guide'."

The boycott continues for 381 days until the Montgomery buses desegregate after the US Supreme Court declares Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional.

During the boycott King is arrested and his home bombed. When in the aftermath of the bombing it appears that rioting may break out King calls for nonviolent protest and calms the community.

1957 - King organises the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to build on the success of the Montgomery action and is elected as its president. He tours at home and abroad to speak on civil rights and becomes convinced that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom, taking his inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.

1960 - King returns to Atlanta, the headquarters of SCLC, becoming co-pastor with his father of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He supports the civil rights "sit-in" demonstrations undertaken by local African-American college students and, in late October, is arrested with 33 young people protesting segregation at the lunch counter in an Atlanta department store. Charges are dropped, but King is sentenced to Reidsville State Prison Farm for violating his probation on a minor traffic offence committed several months earlier. He is released when Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy intercedes. Eight days later Kennedy wins the election.

1961 - In December King is arrested during a demonstration in Albany, Georgia. He declares that he will stay in jail until the city desegregates but just two days later comes out on bail. The Albany protest movement collapses. King is bitterly criticised for helping to kill it. Later he admits his mistake.

"We attacked the political power structure instead of the economic power structure," he says. "You don't win against a political power structure where you don't have the votes. But you can win against an economic power structure when you have the economic power to make the difference between a merchant's profit and loss."

1963 - King begins planning a mass protest campaign for Birmingham, Alabama, which he declares is the "most thoroughly segregated big city in the US." He travels to the city to conduct workshops in nonviolent, civil disobedience techniques and recruits 200 protesters willing to go to jail for the cause. Early in the year he announces that he will lead the demonstrations in Birmingham until "Pharaoh lets God's People go."

King arrives in Birmingham in the first week of April. The civil disobedience campaign begins, lasting for a month as day after day African-Americans are arrested and jailed for violating the city's segregation laws. Finally on 7 May the police become violent, turning dogs and fire hoses on 2,500 demonstrators then baton-charging the crowd. During the campaign more than 3,300 African-Americans, including King, are jailed.

While in custody King writes his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' in response to a statement by eight clergymen from Alabama criticising the Birmingham campaign.

"One day the South will recognise its real heroes," King writes. "They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonising loneliness that characterises the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolised in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: 'My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.' They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." Full copy of the letter.

The civil rights movement across the US is galvanised by the events in Birmingham. Demonstrations erupt in cities and towns around the nation.

In June President Kennedy reacts, agreeing to submit broad civil rights legislation to Congress (which eventually passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

Near the end of the Birmingham campaign King joins with other civil-rights leaders to organise a march on Washington to demand equal justice for all citizens. On 28 August an interracial crowd of more than 250,000 gather in the capital. King addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. Full copy of the speech.

King is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year for 1963. "Few can explain the extraordinary King mystique," the magazine says. "Yet he has an indescribable capacity for empathy that is the touchstone of leadership. By deed and by preachment, he has stirred in his people a Christian forbearance that nourishes hope and smothers injustice."

"The march (on Washington) made irreversible all that had gone before in the year of the Negro revolution," the magazine continues. "In that year, the Negroes made more gains than they had achieved in any year since the end of the Civil War. A speedup in school integration in the South brought to 1,141 the number of desegregated school districts. In the North, city after city reexamined de facto school segregation and set up plans to redress the balance. In 300 cities in the South, public facilities - from swimming pools to restaurants - were integrated, and in scores of cities across the nation, leaders established biracial committees as a start toward resolving local inequities. ... Still, for every tortuous inch gained, there are miles of progress left to be covered."

In an eyrie premonition of things to come, the magazine reflects on the threat of death "in the form of crackpots" that hovers around King wherever he goes. "I just don't worry about things like this," King is quoted as saying. "If I did, I just couldn't get anything done. ... The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important. If you are cut down in a movement that is designed to save the soul of a nation, then no other death could be more redemptive."

1964 - The Civil Rights Act is passed. The act authorises the federal government to enforce desegregation and outlaws discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment.

In December King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Aged 35, he is the youngest man to have received the award. Presenting the prize, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says King "is the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence."

"He is the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all men, to all nations and races.

"Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered." Full copy of the presentation speech.

Speaking at his Nobel Lecture on 11 December, King proposes solutions to the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war. "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon," he states.

"Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep." Full copy of the lecture.

1965 - Civil rights activists demonstrate for a federal voting law that will protect the rights of African-Americans. King organises a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital. When confronted by a barricade of state troopers he leads his followers in prayer and then retreats, a decision that costs him the support of many young radicals who question his policy of nonviolent resistance. However, the Voting Rights Act is passed during the year. The act authorises federal examiners to register qualified voters and outlaws practices such as literacy tests that aim to prevent African-Americans from voting.

Meanwhile, racial tension in the Watts district of Los Angeles spills into violence when full-scale rioting breaks out in August.

1966 - The rioting in Watts turns the attention of King and other civil rights activists to the urban race problem. King initiates a drive against racial discrimination in Chicago, targeting segregation in housing. After six months of demonstrations, the city agrees to strengthen the enforcement of existing laws and regulations. However, the agreement has little practical effect.

King's advocacy of nonviolent protest continues to be criticised by the more radical elements of the civil rights movement, including "black power" proponent Stokely Carmichael.

1967 - King begins to broaden his agenda in response to the criticism. He commits himself publicly to opposing the US involvement in the Vietnam War and attempts to widen his base by initiating a nonracial poor people's campaign.

1968 - King travels to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike by the city's garbage workers. On 4 April he is shot dead while standing on the balcony of the motel where he is staying. James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the murder on 10 March 1969 and is sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Postscript

1983 - The US Congress votes to allow an annual national holiday in King's honour on the third Monday of every January. The first King holiday is observed in 1986.

2011 - A memorial to King is officially dedicated in Washington on 16 October. The memorial is located in the precincts of the National Mall, between the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963.

Comment: King was only 39 at the time of his assassination. He had done much to convince white Americans of the need for civil reform and had given his African-American constituency an eloquent and authoritative voice. One is left wondering what else he would have achieved had he lived. His adherence to the principles of nonviolence and noncooperation advocated by Mahatma Gandhi were not popular with all African-Americans but they enabled King to retain the moral high ground in the battle for equality. One also wonders what King would think of the state of race relations in the US today.

Certainly the institutional impediments to equality have been removed but terrible hate crimes are still committed and the attitude of some authorities to African-Americans is still disgraceful. African-Americans and other minorities are still the poorest and are still overrepresented in the criminal system. But this is not a circumstance that is unique to the US. Change the ethnicity of the minority and the same could be said of Australia or Canada or Europe, or just about anywhere.