King was born Michael Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia to the Rev. Michael Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King; the elder King legally changed both his first name and that of his son to Martin in 1935. He graduated from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in 1948 and from Crozer Theological Seminary with a B.D. in 1951. He received his Ph.D. from Boston University in 1955.
In 1954, King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which began when Rosa Parks refused to cede her seat to a white person. Dr. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on intrastate buses.
Following the campaign, King was instrumental in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, a group created to organize Civil Rights activism. He continued to dominate the organisation to his death, a position criticised by the more radical and democratic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SCLC derived its membership principally from black communities associated with Baptist churches. King was an adherent of the philosophies of nonviolent civil disobedience used successfully in India by Mohandas Gandhi, and he applied this philosophy to the protests organised by the SCLC. King correctly identified that organised, non-violent protest against the racist system of Southern separation known as Jim Crow, when violently attacked by racist authorities and covered extensively by the media, would create a wave of pro-Civil Rights public opinion, and this was the key relationship which brought Civil Rights to the forefront of American politics in the early 1960s.
He organized and led marches for the right to vote, desegregation, fair hiring, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were later successfully enacted into United States law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King and the SCLC applied the principles of nonviolent protest with astonishing success by choosing the method of protest, and the places in which protests were carried out, in order to provoke the harshest and most shocking retaliation from racist authorities. King and the SCLC were instrumental in the unsuccessful protest movement in Albany in 1961-2, where splits within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated the movement, in the Birmingham protests in the summer of 1963, and in the protest in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. King and SCLC joined SNCC in the city of Selma, Alabama in December 1964; SNCC had already been there working on voter registration for a number of months.
King and SCLC, in partial collaboration with SNCC, then attempted to organise a march which was intended to go from Selma to the state capital Montgomery starting on March 25, 1965. The first attempt to march, on March 7, was aborted due to mob and police violence against the demonstrators. The day has since become known as Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was a major turning point in the effort to gain public support for the Civil Rights movement, the clearest demonstration so far of the dramatic potential of King's techniques of nonviolence. King, however, was not present; after meeting with President Lyndon Johnson, he had attempted to delay the march until March 8, and the march was carried out against his wishes and without his presence by local civil rights workers. The footage of the police brutality against the protestors was broadcast extensively across the nation, and aroused a national sense of public outrage.
The second attempt at the march, on March 9, was ended when King stopped the march at the Pettus bridge on the outskirts of Selma, an action which he seems to have negotiated with city leaders beforehand. This unexpected action aroused the surprise and anger of many within the local movement. The march finally went ahead fully on March 25, with the agreement and support of President Johnson, and it was during this march that Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase "Black Power".
King was instrumental in the organisation of the March on Washington in 1963. This role was another which courted controversy, as King was one of the key figures who helped President John F. Kennedy change the intent of the march. Conceived as a further part of the Civil Rights protest, it became more of a celebration of the achievements of the movement - and the government - so far, a development which angered activists who were more radical than King.
King wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his long 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. Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States' role in the Vietnam War. In February and again in April of 1967, King spoke out strongly against the US's role in the war. In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the "Poor People's Campaign" to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
Along the way, King also had an impact on popular entertainment. He met Nichelle Nichols who mentioned that she was going to leave the cast of the television series, Star Trek, since she felt was being mistreated by the studio. King personally persuaded her to remain with the series for the sake of being an excellent role model for African Americans on television.
King was hated by many white southern segregationists. King was assassinated before the march on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, while preparing to lead a local march in support of the heavily-black Memphis sanitation workers' union. James Earl Ray confessed to the shooting and was convicted, though he later recanted his confession. Coretta Scott King, King's widow and also a civil rights leader, along with the rest of King's family won a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers, who claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King's assassination.
Since his death, King's reputation has grown to become one of the most revered names in American history to the point where his popular esteem has described him as effectively the 20th Century's equivalent of Abraham Lincoln. Supporters of this idea point out that both were leaders credited with strongly advancing human rights against poor odds in a nation divided against itself on the issue and were assassinated in part for it.
In 1986, a U.S. national holiday was established in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., which is called Martin Luther King Day. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's birthday. On January 18, 1993, for the first time, Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all 50 U.S. states.
King and the FBI
John F. Kennedy in the oval office with various civil rights activists including Martin Luther King.
King had a mutually antagonistic relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), especially its director, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI began tracking King and the SCLC in 1961. Its investigations were largely superficial until 1962, when it learned that one of King's most trusted advisers was Stanley Levison. Stanley Levison was a man whom the bureau suspected of involvement with the Communist Party, USA, to which another key King lieutenant, Hunter Pitts O'Dell, was also linked by sworn testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The bureau placed wiretaps on Levison and King's home and office phones, and bugged King's rooms in hotels as he traveled across the country. The bureau also informed then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and then-President John F. Kennedy, both of whom unsuccessfully tried to persuade King to dissociate himself from Levison. For his part, King angrily denied having any connections to Communism, stating at one point that "there are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida" - to which Hoover responded by calling King "the most notorious liar in the country."
Later, the focus of the bureau's investigations shifted to "discrediting" King through revelations regarding his private life. The bureau distributed reports regarding King's extramarital sexual affairs to the executive branch, friendly reporters, potential coalition partners and funding sources of the SCLC, and King's family. The Bureau also sent anonymous letters to King threatening to reveal information if he didn't cease his civil rights work. Finally, the Bureau's investigation shifted away from King's personal life to intelligence and counterintelligence work on the direction of the SCLC and the "racial" movement.