The life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Any number of historic moments in the civil-rights struggle have been used to identify Martin Luther King, Jr. — prime mover of the Montgomery bus boycott, keynote speaker at the March on Washington, youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But in retrospect, single events are less important than the fact that King, and his policy of nonviolent protest, was the dominant force in the civil-rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement, from 1957 to 1968.

King was born Michael Luther King in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929 — one of the three children of Martin Luther King Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta (Williams) King, a former schoolteacher. (He was renamed "Martin" when he was about 6 years old.)

After going to local grammar and high schools, King enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. He wasn't planning to enter the ministry, but then he met Dr. Benjamin Mays, a scholar whose manner and bearing convinced him that a religious career could be intellectually satisfying as well. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1948, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., winning the Plafker Award as the outstanding student of the graduating class, and the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship as well. King completed the coursework for his doctorate in 1953, and was granted the degree two years later upon completion of his dissertation.

Married by then, King returned South to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. There, he made his first mark on the civil-rights movement, by mobilizing the black community during a 382-day boycott of the city's bus lines. King overcame arrest and other violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.

A national hero and a civil-rights figure of growing importance, King summoned together a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was elected its president, and he soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.

After finishing his first book and making a trip to India, King returned to the United States in 1960 to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Three years later, King's nonviolent tactics were put to their most severe test in Birmingham, during a mass protest for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. Police brutality used against the marchers dramatized the plight of blacks to the nation at large, with enormous impact. King was arrested, but his voice was not silenced: He wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to refute his critics.

Later that year King was a principal speaker at the historic March on Washington, where he delivered one of the most passionate addresses of his career. Time magazine designated him as its Person of the Year for 1963. A few months later he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. When he returned from Norway, where he had gone to accept the award, King took on new challenges. In Selma, Ala., he led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. King next brought his crusade to Chicago, where he launched programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide housing.

In the North, however, King soon discovered that young and angry blacks cared little for his preaching and even less for his pleas for peaceful protest. Their disenchantment was one of the reasons he rallied behind a new cause: the war in Vietnam.

Although he was trying to create a new coalition based on equal support for peace and civil rights, it caused an immediate rift. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) saw King's shift of emphasis as "a serious tactical mistake." The Urban League warned that the "limited resources" of the civil-rights movement would be spread too thin.

But from the vantage point of history, King's timing was superb. Students, professors, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed into the movement. Then, King turned his attention to the domestic issue that he felt was directly related to the Vietnam struggle: poverty. He called for a guaranteed family income, he threatened national boycotts, and he spoke of disrupting entire cities by nonviolent "camp-ins." With this in mind, he began to plan a massive march of the poor on Washington, D.C., envisioning a demonstration of such intensity and size that Congress would have to recognize and deal with the huge number of desperate and downtrodden Americans.

King interrupted these plans to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation men's strike. He wanted to discourage violence, and he wanted to focus national attention on the plight of the poor, unorganized workers of the city. The men were bargaining for basic union representation and long-overdue raises.

But he never got back to his poverty plans. Death came for King on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the black-owned Lorraine Hotel just off Beale Street in Memphis. While standing outside with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, King was shot in the neck by a rifle bullet. His death caused a wave of violence in major cities across the country.

However, King's legacy has lived on. In 1969, his widow, Coretta Scott King, organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Today it stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His birthday, Jan. 15, is a national holiday, celebrated each year with educational programs, artistic displays, and concerts throughout the United States. The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Photo galleries

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. establishes himself as the national leader of the civil-rights movement, leading boycotts and staging protests against segregation in the South.
Voting rights becomes the focus of King and other civil-rights leaders. They organize protests across the nation, bringing more attention to their efforts - and more violent responses from opponents.
King's opposition to the Vietnam War makes headlines while his battle for civil rights continues. But on April 4, 1968, an assassin's bullet ends his crusade.

His words

The famous speech delivered in 1963 to more than 200,000 civil-rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Excerpt: "I still have a dream"
Excerpt: "Let freedom ring"
King gave this speech, saying "I may not get there with you," the day before he was assassinated.
Excerpt: "We will get to the promised land"
On nonviolence:
King felt compelled to respond to those who would advise African Americans to wait patiently for justice. He outlines the reasons for his peaceful approach in this 1963 letter.
King used his 1964 speech, given in Oslo, Norway, as a reminder of the ongoing struggle.
For students:
In 1967, a group of students in Philadelphia listened to King talk about his hopes for them.
King's article in the Morehouse student paper, the Maroon Tiger, in 1947, argues that the critical intellect requires moral development.
Example of a sermon:
King preaches to congregants in 1967 about a life of length, breadth and depth.
On poverty:
In this chapter of his last book, King writes about the need to address poverty as an issue of class, not race.


  • = Key moments in MLK's life and beyond
  • = Key moments in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond


  • Jan. 15: Michael Luther King Jr., later renamed Martin, is born to schoolteacher Alberta King and Baptist minister Michael Luther King in Atlanta, Ga.


  • King graduates from Morehouse College in Atlanta with a B.A.


  • Graduates with a B.D. from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.


  • June 18: King marries Coretta Scott in Marion, Ala. They will have four children: Yolanda Denise (b.1955), Martin Luther King III (b.1957), Dexter (b.1961), Bernice Albertine (b.1963).


  • Brown vs. Board of Education: U.S. Supreme Court bans segregation in public schools.
  • September: King moves to Montgomery, Ala., to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.


  • After coursework at New England colleges, King finishes his Ph.D. in systematic theology.
  • Bus boycott launches in Montgomery, Ala., after an African-American woman, Rosa Parks, is arrested December 1 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person.


  • Jan. 26: King is arrested for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone.
  • Jan. 30: King's house is bombed.
  • Dec. 21: After more than a year of bus boycotts and a legal fight, the Montgomery buses desegregate.


  • January: Black ministers form what becomes known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King is named first president one month later.
  • In this typical year of demonstrations, King travels 780,000 miles and makes 208 speeches.
  • Garfield High School becomes the first Seattle high school with a more than 50 percent nonwhite student body.
  • At previously all-white Central High in Little Rock, Ark., 1,000 paratroopers are called by President Eisenhower to restore order and escort nine black students.


  • King's first book, "Stride Toward Freedom," is published, recounting his recollections of the Montgomery bus boycott. While King is promoting his book in a Harlem book store, an African American woman stabs him.


  • King visits India. He had a lifelong admiration for Mohandas K. Gandhi, and credited Gandhi's passive resistance techniques for his civil-rights successes.


  • King leaves for Atlanta to pastor his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church.
  • The sit-in protest movement begins in February at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. and spreads across the nation.


  • Freedom rides begin from Washington, D.C: Groups of black and white people ride buses through the South to challenge segregation.
  • King makes his only visit to Seattle. He visits numerous places, including two morning assemblies at Garfield High School.


  • King meets with President John F. Kennedy to urge support for civil rights.
  • Blacks become the majority at Garfield High, 51 percent of the student population - a first for Seattle. The school district average is 5.3 percent.
  • Two killed, many injured in riots as James Meredith is enrolled as the first black at the University of Mississippi.


  • King leads protests in Birmingham for desegregated department store facilities, and fair hiring.
  • April: Arrested after demonstrating in defiance of a court order, King writes "Letter From Birmingham Jail." This eloquent letter, later widely circulated, becomes a classic of the civil-rights movement.
  • Police arrest King and other ministers demonstrating in Birmingham, Ala., then turn fire hoses and police dogs on the marchers.
  • June 12: Medgar Evers, NAACP leader, is murdered as he enters his home in Jackson, Miss.
  • About 1,300 people march from the Central Area to downtown Seattle, demanding greater job opportunities for blacks in department stores. The Bon Marche promises 30 new jobs for blacks.
  • About 400 people rally at Seattle City Hall to protest delays in passing an open-housing law. In response, the city forms a 12-member Human Rights Commission but only two blacks are included, prompting a sit-in at City Hall and Seattle's first civil-rights arrests.
  • Aug. 28: 250,000 civil-rights supporters attended the March on Washington. At the Lincoln Memorial, King delivers the famous "I have a dream" speech.
  • 250,000 people attend the March on Washington, D.C. urging support for pending civil-rights legislation. The event is highlighted by King's "I have a dream" speech.
  • The Seattle School District implements a voluntary racial transfer program, mainly aimed at busing black students to mostly white schools.
  • Sep. 15: Four girls are killed in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.


  • Seattle City Council agrees to put together an open-housing ordinance but insists on putting it on the ballot. Voters defeat it by a 2-to-1 ratio. It will be four more years before an open-housing ordinance becomes law.
  • Three civil-rights workers are murdered in Mississippi.
  • July 2: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • King's book "Why We Can't Wait" is published.
  • King visits with West Berlin Mayor Willy Brant and Pope Paul VI.
  • Dec. 10: King wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Out of 955 people employed by the Seattle Fire Department, just two are African American, and only one is Asian, account for less than 0.2 and 0.1 percent of the force, respectively. By the end of 1993, the department is 12.2 percent African American and 5.6 percent Asian.


  • Jan. 18: King successfully registers to vote at the Hotel Albert in Selma, Ala. and is assaulted by James George Robinson of Birmingham.
  • February: King continues to protest discrimination in voter registration and is arrested and jailed. He meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson Feb. 9 and other American leaders about voting rights for African Americans.
  • Feb. 21: Malcolm X is murdered. Three men are convicted of his murder.
  • Mar. 16-21: King and 3,200 people march from Selma to Montgomery
  • Aug. 6: President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act, which King sought, authorizes federal examiners to register qualified voters and suspends devices such as literacy tests that aimed to prevent African Americans from voting.
  • Aug. 11-16: Watts riots leave 34 dead in Los Angeles.


  • Apr. 4: King is assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., by James Earl Ray, unleashing violence in more than 100 cities.
  • In response to King's death, Seattle residents hurl firebombs, broke windows, and pelt motorists with rocks. Ten thousand people also march to Seattle Center for a rally in his memory.
  • Aaron Dixon becomes first leader of Black Panther Party branch in Seattle.
  • There is a rally at Garfield High in support of Dixon, Larry Gossett, and Carl Miller, sentenced to six months in the King County Jail for unlawful assembly in an earlier demonstration. Before the speakers finish, firebombs and rocks begin flying toward cars coming down 23rd Avenue. Sporadic riots break out in Seattle's Central Area during the summer.


  • Edwin Pratt, executive director of the Seattle Urban League and a moderate and respected African American leader, is shot to death while standing in the doorway of his home. The murder is never solved.


  • Seattle School Board adopts a plan designed to eliminate racial imbalance in schools by fall 1979.


  • Seattle becomes the largest city in the United States to desegregate its schools without a court order; nearly one-quarter of the school district's students are bused as part of the "Seattle Plan." Two months later, voters pass an anti-busing initiative. It is later ruled unconstitutional.
  • In a blow to efforts to diversify university enrollment, the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws racial quotas in a suit brought by Allan Bakke, a white man who had been turned down by the medical school at University of California, Davis.


  • Jan. 20: The first national celebration of King's birthday as a holiday.
  • Feb. 24: King County Council passes a motion to rename King County in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.


  • Douglas Wilder of Virginia becomes the nation's first African American to be elected state governor.


  • The first racially based riots in years erupt in Los Angeles and other cities after a jury acquits L.A. police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an African American.


  • King County's name change is made official by Gov. Christine Gregoire's signing of Senate Bill 5332.


  • Jan. 30: King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, dies at age 78. Four presidents – Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush – attended her funeral.


  • Nov. 4: Barack Obama becomes the first African American to be elected president of the United States.


  • Oct. 16: The national memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. is dedicated and opened to the public in Washington, D.C.


  • Following the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fl., the Black Lives Matter movement emerges as a new force for civil rights.