Biographical Outline of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Information from the King Center website
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a vital figure of the modern era. His lectures and dialogues stirred the concern and sparked the conscience of a generation. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes in the fabric of American life through his courage and selfless devotion. This devotion gave direction to thirteen years of civil rights activities. His charismatic leadership inspired men and women, young and old, in this nation and around the world.
Dr. King’s concept of “somebodiness,” which symbolized the celebration of human worth and the conquest of subjugation, gave black and poor people hope and a sense of dignity. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, and his strategies for rational and non-destructive social change, galvanized the conscience of this nation and reordered its priorities. His wisdom, his words, his actions, his commitment, and his dream for a new way of life are intertwined with the American experience.
Birth and Family
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born at noon on Tuesday, January 15, 1929 at the family home, 501 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Charles Johnson was the attending physician. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first son and second child born to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Also born to the Kings were Christine, now Mrs. Isaac Farris, Sr., and the Reverend Alfred Daniel Williams King. The Reverend A.D. King is now deceased.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s maternal grandparents were the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Jenny Parks Williams. His paternal grandparents were James Albert and Delia King, sharecroppers on a farm in Stockbridge, Georgia.
He married Coretta Scott, the younger daughter of Obadiah and Bernice McMurry Scott of Marion, Alabama, on June 18, 1953. The marriage ceremony took place on the lawn of the Scott’s home in Marion, Alabama. The Rev. King, Sr. performed the service, with Mrs. Edythe Bagley, the sister of Coretta Scott King as maid of honor, and the Rev. A.D. King, the brother of Martin Luther King, Jr., as best man.
Four children were born to Dr. and Mrs. King:
- Yolanda Denise (November 17, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama)
- Martin Luther III (October 23, 1957, Montgomery, Alabama)
- Dexter Scott (January 30, 1961, Atlanta, Georgia)
- Bernice Albertine (March 28, 1963, Atlanta, Georgia)
At the age of five, Martin Luther King, Jr. began school, before reaching the legal age of six, at the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta. When his age was discovered, he was not permitted to continue in school and did not resume his education until he was six. Following Yonge School, he was enrolled in David T. Howard Elementary School. He also attended the Atlanta University Laboratory School and Booker T. Washington High School. Because of his high scores on the college entrance examinations in his junior year of high school, he advanced to Morehouse College without formal graduation from Booker T. Washington. Having skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades, Dr. King entered Morehouse at the age of fifteen.
In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in Sociology. That fall he enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. While attending Crozer, he also studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected President of the Senior Class and delivered the valedictory address. He won the Peral Plafkner Award as the most outstanding student, and he received the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship for graduate study at a university of his choice. He was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer in 1951.
In September of 1951, Martin Luther King, Jr. began doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University. He also studied at Harvard University. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” was completed in 1955, and the Ph.D. degree was awarded on June 5, 1955.
Dr. King was awarded honorary degrees from various colleges and universities in the United States and several foreign countries. They include:
- Doctor of Humane Letters, Morehouse College
- Doctor of Laws, Howard University
- Doctor of Divinity, Chicago Theological Seminary
- Doctor of Laws, Morgan State University
- Doctor of Humanities, Central State University
- Doctor of Divinity, Boston University
- Doctor of Laws, Lincoln University
- Doctor of Laws, University of Bridgeport
- Doctor of Civil Laws, Bard College
- Doctor of Letters, Keuka College
- Doctor of Divinity, Wesleyan College
- Doctor of Laws, Jewish Theological Seminary
- Doctor of Laws, Yale University
- Doctor of Divinity, Springfield College
- Doctor of Laws, Hofstra University
- Doctor of Humane Letters, Oberlin College
- Doctor of Social Science, Amsterdam Free University
- Doctor of Divinity, St. Peter’s College
- Doctor of Civil Law, University of New Castle, Upon Tyne
- Doctor of Laws, Grinnell College
Martin Luther King, Jr. entered the Christian ministry and was ordained in February 1948 at the age of nineteen at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Following his ordination, he became Assistant Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Upon completion of his studies at Boston University, he accepted the call of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was the pastor of Dexter Avenue from September 1954 to November 1959, when he resigned to move to Atlanta to direct the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1960 until his death in 1968, he was co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Dr. King was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that was responsible for the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956 (381 days). He was arrested thirty times for his participation in civil rights activities. He was a founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1957 to 1968. He was also Vice President of the National Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention. He was a member of several national and local boards of directors and served on the boards of trustees of numerous institutions and agencies. Dr. King was elected to membership in several learned societies including the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. King received numerous awards for his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. Among them were the following:
- Selected as one of the ten most outstanding personalities of the year by Time Magazine, 1957.
- Listed in Who’s Who in America, 1957.
- The Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1957.
- The Russwurm Award from the National Newspaper Publishers, 1957.
- The Second Annual Achievement Award from The Guardian Association of the Police Department of New York, 1958.
- Selected as one of the sixteen world leaders who had contributed most to the advancement of freedom during 1959 by Ling Magazine of New Delhi, India.
- Named “Man of the Year, “ by Time Magazine, 1963.
- Named “American of the Decade,” by the Laundry, Dry Cleaning, and Die Workers, International Union, 1963.
- The John Dewey Award, from the United Federation of Teachers, 1964.
- The John F. Kennedy Award, from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago, 1964.
- The Nobel Peace Prize, at age 35, the youngest man, second American, and the third black man to be so honored, 1964.
- The Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, presented by the Jamaican Government, posthumously, 1968.
- The Rosa L. Parks award, presented by The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, posthumously, 1968.
- The Aims Field-Wolf Award for his book, Stride Toward Freedom.
The above awards and others, along with numerous citations, are in the Archives of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia.
Although extremely involved with his family, his church, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, activities for peace and justice, his world travels, and his many speaking engagements, Dr. King wrote six books and numerous articles. His volumes include:
- Stride Toward Freedom, (New York: Harper & Row, 1958). The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
- The Measure of a Man, (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1959). A selection of sermons.
- Why We Can’t Wait, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). The story of the Birmingham Campaign.
- Strength to Love, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). A selection of sermons.
- Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). Reflections on the problems of today’s world, the nuclear arms race, etc.
- The Trumpet of Conscience, (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). The Massey Lectures. Sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Posthumously).
Dr. King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Dr. King was in Memphis to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and intolerable working conditions. James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England on June 8, 1968, and returned to Memphis, Tennessee on July 19, 1969 to stand trial for the assassination of Dr. King. On March 9, 1969, before coming to trial, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
On December 8, 1999, a jury of twelve citizens of Memphis, Shelby County, TN concluded in Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, III, Bernice King, Dexter Scott King and Yolanda King Vs. Loyd Jowers and Other Unknown Conspirators that Loyd Jowers and governmental agencies including the City of Memphis, the State of Tennessee, and the federal government were party to the conspiracy to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s funeral services were held on April 9, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church and on the campus of Morehouse College, with the President of the United State proclaiming a day of mourning and flags being flown at half-staff. The area where Dr. King is entombed is located on Freedom Plaza and is surrounded by the Freedom Hall Complex of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site. The site is a 23-acre area was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977 and was made a National Historic Site on October 10, 1980 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In recent years, events in the lives of the King family have continued to reflect the tragedy and the triumph so uniquely combined in Dr. King’s own life and is intrinsic, perhaps, in the lives of all dedicated persons the world over.
Just a little more than a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, his younger brother, Alfred Daniel, died in a tragic accident at his home in Atlanta. Funeral services were held at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 24, 1969, where Alfred Daniel had served as co-pastor.
On Sunday, June 30, 1974, Mrs. Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed as she sat at the organ in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Again, through an act of violence, there ended a life that was totally nonviolent, a life that was thoroughly Christian, a life that reflected love for all persons and unselfish service to humankind. Again, the indomitable faith of the King family was put to the test, and again love prevailed amid the greatest sadness. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., bereft by the violent deaths of his two sons and now by the equally tragic death of his devoted wife, could still say – and did say – at her funeral service on July 3, “I cannot hate any man.”
In 1975, the year following his wife’s death, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. resigned his forty-four year pastorate at Ebenezer, passing on the active leadership of the church to the young and inspired Dr. Joseph L. Roberts, Jr. At his retirement banquet on August 1, 1975, however, “Daddy King” made it clear – as if anyone could have thought otherwise – that his resignation did not mean his retirement from the full and active life that has described his long career. This “Giant of a Man,” as he was acclaimed on that memorable evening, continued to work and to speak and to use the gifts with which the Lord had endowed him in the loving service of others. Among the Rev. King, Sr.’s many accomplishments is the completion of his one luxury, the publication of his autobiography, Daddy King. Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. died on November 11, 1984 of a heart attack at Crawford W. Long Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. He was 84 years of age. Funeral services were held on November 14, 1984.
Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963, along with his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize, and his final sermon in Memphis are among his most famous utterances. The following excerpts reveal the cogency, conviction and persuasion of his powerful speaking style.
(From the speech “March on Washington”)
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today¼I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with the little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
“This hope is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the south with. And with this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
“...And so let freedom ring, from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring¼And when we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
(From the Acceptance Speech, The Nobel Peace Prize, 1964)
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding of events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of a thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final world in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger that evil triumphant.”
(From the sermon “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968)
“...That’s the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’ ‘Not, if I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office everyday and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God once more for allowing me to be here with you.”
“...And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system. ‘We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?”
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Speeches used by permission of Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia, as Manager of The King Estate.