What do you know about the man whose life is celebrated with a
holiday next Monday? Martin Luther King Jr. greatly influenced the
United States because he gave the civil rights movement a powerful
voice. His use of nonviolent protest and dramatic oratory grabbed
America's attention and convinced many people to strive for the end
of segregation (keeping black and white people separate
academically, socially, and so forth).
Born Jan. 15, 1929, he came from a long line of religiously
motivated activists who also changed the societies in which they
His father and grandfather both served as pastor of Ebenezer
Baptist Church, a prominent African-American church in Atlanta, and
held leadership positions in the city's chapter of the NAACP
(National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a
civil rights organization.
The name he was given at birth - Michael - was changed when he
was 5 years old. (The original Martin Luther was a 16th- century
German priest and reformer whose protests sparked the historic
Before coming into his national pulpit, King went to school: four
years at Morehouse College in Atlanta; three at Crozer Theological
Seminary in Chester, Pa.; and five at Boston University's School of
Theology. The 12 years of study helped form his beliefs and
influence his views on civil disobedience and racial justice.
By the time he finished his Ph.D, in 1955, King had married
Coretta Scott and accepted a job as minister of Dexter Avenue
Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
In December of that year, Rosa Parks famously defied Alabama's
bus segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
That incident drew King into his first widely publicized civil
rights campaign. He helped organize a bus boycott that lasted more
than a year, until the US Supreme Court declared Alabama's bus rules
In 1957, King and other black ministers formed the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate civil rights
activities in the region. He became its president. King delivered
his first national address that year; many more followed.
Fighting with nonviolence
In 1960, King moved back to Atlanta. Working alongside his father
at Ebenezer Church, King saw social activism as an outgrowth of his
ministry: Freedom and equality were part of God's plan. Avoiding
violence to achieve this goal, he believed, demonstrated Christian
King also believed that nonviolence would win people's support,
rather than alienate them. And he thought that large gatherings and
grand rhetoric, broadcast across the country, would force people to
confront the injustice - and respond to it.
King's leadership role brought many challenges and even dangers.
Opponents bombed his home. He was arrested several times. In April
1963, King spent a week in a Birmingham, Ala., jail for disobeying a
court order against protest marches. After his release, he continued
to mobilize demonstrators. When Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull"
Connor authorized the police to use dogs and hoses against
protesters, the brutal images spread across the country. These
galvanized support for the civil rights movement.
His years of protest culminated in a momentous March on
Washington in August 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the
nation's capital, where King delivered a passionate cry for the
country to practice the equality promised in its founding documents.
In bold rhetoric, he shared his vision of a harmonious community,
where "all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and
Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants - will be able to join hands and
to sing ... 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are
free at last.' "
This became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. It propelled
him to the height of his activism and broke major ground for the