Martin Luther King, Jr

Martin Luther King, Jr

Early life

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the son of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King’s father was born “Michael King,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was originally named “Michael King, Jr.,” until the family traveled to Europe in 1934 and visited Germany. His father soon changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther. He had an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind. King was originally skeptical of many Christianity’s claims. Most striking, perhaps was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”

King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. King and Scott had four children; Yolanda King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice King. King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when he was twenty-five years old in 1954.

Education

Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. He skipped ninth and twelfth grade and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. King then began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” A 1980s inquiry concluded portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly but that his dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship.”

Influences

Populist tradition and Black populism

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Harry C. Boyte, a self-proclaimed populist, field secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and white civil rights activist describes an episode in his life that gives insight on some of King’s influences:

My first encounter with deeper meanings of populism came when I was nineteen, working as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. One day I was caught by five men and a woman who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. They accused me of being a “communist and a Yankee.” I replied, “I’m no Yankee  my family has been in the South since before the Revolution. And I’m not a communist. I’m a populist. I believe that blacks and poor whites should join to do something about the big shots who keep us divided.” For a few minutes we talked about what such a movement might look like. Then they let me go.

When he learned of the incident, Martin Luther King, head of SCLC, told me that he identified with the populist tradition and assigned me to organize poor whites.

Thurman

Civil rights leader, theologian, and educator Howard Thurman was an early influence on King. A classmate of King’s father at Morehouse College, Thurman mentored the young King and his friends. Thurman’s missionary work had taken him abroad where he had met and conferred with Mahatma Gandhi. When he was a student at Boston University, King often visited Thurman, who was the dean of Marsh Chapel. Walter Fluker, who has studied Thurman’s writings, has stated, “I don’t believe you’d get a Martin Luther King, Jr. without a Howard Thurman”.

Gandhi and Rustin

Inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India in 1959, with assistance from the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee. The trip to India affected King in a profound way, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.” African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi’s teachings, counseled King to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence, served as King’s main advisor and mentor throughout his early activism, and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin’s open homosexuality, support of democratic socialism, and his former ties to the Communist Party USA caused many white and African-American leaders to demand King distance himself from Rustin.

Sermons and speeches

Main article: Sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout his career of service, King wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his experience as a preacher. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in 1963, is a “passionate” statement of his crusade for justice. On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading non-violent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States.

Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Main articles: Montgomery Bus Boycott, Jim Crow laws#Public arena, Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks

In March 1955, a fifteen-year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in compliance with the Jim Crow laws. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case; Edgar Nixon and Clifford Durr decided to wait for a better case to pursue. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, urged and planned by Nixon and led by King, soon followed. The boycott lasted for 385 days, and the situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King led the SCLC until his death. In 1958, while signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Blumstein’s department store on 125th Street, in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest by Izola Curry, a deranged black woman with a letter opener, and narrowly escaped death.

Gandhi’s nonviolent techniques were useful to King’s campaign to correct the civil rights laws implemented in Alabama. King applied non-violent philosophy to the protests organized by the SCLC. In 1959, he wrote The Measure of A Man, from which the piece What is Man?, an attempt to sketch the optimal political, social, and economic structure of society, is derived. His SCLC secretary and personal assistant in this period was Dora McDonald.

The FBI, under written directive from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, began telephone tapping King in the Fall of 1963. Concerned that