Martin Luther King Jr. | Biography, Early Life, Awards and Facts

Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister. He was a leader of the African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. King headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Through his activism and inspirational speeches, he leads the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. | Biography

  • Full Name: Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael King Jr.)
  • Birth: 15 January 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
  • Died: 04 April 1968 (aged 39), in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
  • Cause of Death: Assassination by gunshot
  • Resting Place: Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park
  • Father: Martin Luther King Sr.
  • Mother: Alberta Williams King
  • Spouse: Coretta Scott ​(m. 1953)​
  • Children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, Bernice
  • Education: Morehouse College (BA), Crozer Theological Seminary, Boston University (Ph.D.)
  • Profession: Baptist minister, activist
  • Important Movements: Civil rights movement, the Peace movement

Early Life and Education

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on 15 January 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father Martin Luther King Sr. was a pastor in a church and a civil rights leader and his mother, Alberta Williams King was a former school teacher. He had an older sister, Christine King Farris, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel "A.D." King. In his childhood, King and his two siblings would read aloud the Bible as instructed by their father. King's father would regularly use whippings to discipline his children. King's father later remarked King was the most peculiar child whenever you whipped him.

One day, King witnessed his brother A.D. emotionally upset his sister Christine and he took a telephone and knocked out A.D. with it. When Martin Luther King Jr. and his brother were playing at their home, A.D. slid from a banister and hit their grandmother, Jennie, causing her to fall down unresponsive. King, believing her dead, blamed himself and attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window. Upon hearing that his grandmother was alive, King rose and left the ground where he had fallen.

Sometime later, King became friends with a white boy whose father owned a business across the street from his family's home. In September 1935, both of them started school, but King had to attend a school for black children, Younge Street Elementary School and soon afterward the parents of the white boy stopped allowing King to play with their son, stating to him "we are white, and you are colored". After this, the king relayed this happening to his parents and they had a long discussion about slaving and racism in America.

King witnessed his father stand up against segregation and various forms of discrimination. King's father led hundreds of African Americans in a civil rights march to the city hall in Atlanta, to protest voting rights discrimination, in 1936.

At the age of 11, in September 1940, King was enrolled at the Atlanta University Laboratory School for the seventh grade and there, he took violin and piano lessons and showed keen interest in his history and English classes. On 18 May 1941, King had sneaked away from studying at home to watch a parade and after this, King was informed that something had happened to his maternal grandmother. When he returned home, he found out that his grandmother had suffered a heart attack and died while being transported to a hospital.

He believed that his deception of going to see the parade may have been responsible for God taking her and he jumped out of a second-story window at his home, but again survived an attempt to kill himself. After the king's this step, his father instructed him, that he (King) should not blame himself for her death, and that she had been called home to God as part of God's plan that could not be changed. Soon after this, King's father decided to move the family to a two-story brick home on a hill that overlooked downtown Atlanta.

When King was 13 years old, he became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal, in 1942, and at the same age, he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school. That year he went to Booker T. Washington High School. He was such an excellent student that he skipped two grades in high school. He said that he found himself unable to identify with the emotional displays and gestures from congregants frequent at his church, and doubted if he would ever attain personal satisfaction from religion.

In high school, King became known for his public-speaking ability and developed an interest in fashion, commonly adorning himself in well-polished patent leather shoes and tweed suits. Due to this ability, the king's friends gave him the nickname "Tweed" or "Tweedie". On 13 April 1944, in his junior year, King gave his first public speech during an oratorical contest. In the contest, he stated that "black America still wears chains. The finest negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar", and was selected as the winner of the contest.

At the age of fifteen, he went to Morehouse College. Throughout his time in college, King studied under the mentorship of the university's president, Baptist minister Benjamin Mays. King, along with other students worked at the farm to be able to provide for their educational costs at Morehouse College. On weekdays King and the other students worked in the fields, picking tobacco from 7:00 am till at least 5:00 pm, enduring temperatures above 100°F, to earn roughly USD $ 4 per day and on Friday evenings, they visited downtown Simsbury to get milkshakes and watch movies, and on Saturdays, they would travel to Hartford, Connecticut to see theatre performances, shop and eat in restaurants.

They would also go to Hartford to attend church services, each Sunday, at a church filled with white congregants. Martin graduated with a degree in sociology in 1948 (aged nineteen). He continued his education and attended the Crozer Seminary, and later Boston University and received his Ph.D., in 1955.

Martin Luther's Important Movements

In 1954, Martin Luther joined the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became a pastor. He was also selected as an official member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In March 1955, a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl, called Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in violation of Jim Crow laws, in Montgomery, local laws in the Southern United States that enforced racial segregation. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case, but they decided to wait for a better case to pursue because the incident involved a minor. The same case occurred after Nine months on 01 December 1955, when a black lady named Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

Here the first major civil rights protest campaign was started, called the Montgomery bus boycott. There was major discrimination in all public spaces at the time, even the bus seats were segregated so as to ensure that whites do not mingle with African-Americans. Parks was arrested for her bold move. The boycott placed an economic strain on the public transit system. King became the protest's leader and official spokesman. The boycott lasted for 385 days and in this process, King was imprisoned, even his house was bombed.

King handled the situation and the protest came to an end. After the boycott was successful, King and other civil rights activists founded an organization in 1957, called the Southern Christians Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was formed to organize African-American churches to conduct non-violent protests. King was also a great orator. He delivered many speeches on racism and other sensitive issues. He met different religious and fellow civil rights leaders through his outreach.

In 1959, he met the family members and followers of Gandhi. King described this encounter in his autobiography. He wrote many books and articles during this time. King's first book was 'Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story 1958. He continued to work tirelessly with his SCLC partners. He also took part in one of the most important civil rights battles of the 1960s. He was part of the non-violence movement, especially during the Birmingham campaign of 1963. He came up with a civil rights declaration called the 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'.

In 1963, King organized the famous 'March on Washington, in which thousands of people marched to show their support for the civil rights movement. King raised issues like discrimination in public schools, protection from police harassment, and prejudice in employment. He gave his legendary speech containing the much-quoted words "I have a dream". It is one of the most influential speeches in history. The March on Washington was also successful. His last address was called "I've been to the Mountaintop". He visited Jamaica in 1965, and then spent some more time there in 1967 to write his last book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

Awards and Honors

Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded at least fifty honorary degrees from colleges and universities and many Awards for his works for Civil Rights.

  1. On 14 October 1964, King became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (at the time), which was awarded to him for leading nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in the U.S.
  2. In 1965, King was awarded the American Liberties Medallion by the American Jewish Committee for his exceptional advancement of the principles of human liberty.
  3. In 1957, the king was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.
  4. In 1959, he won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his book "Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story".
  5. In 1966, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America awarded King the 'Margaret Sanger Award' for his courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity.
  6. In 1966, King was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  7. In November 1967, he went to the United States for receiving an honorary degree from Newcastle University, being the first African American to be so honored by Newcastle.
  8. In 1963, the king was titled 'Person of the year' by Time Magazine.
  9. King was nominated for three Grammy Awards and he posthumously won the Best Spoken Word Recording in 1971 for "Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam".

In 1977, King posthumously was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. King was second in Gallup's List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. He was voted sixth in an online "Person of the Century" poll by the same magazine. King placed third in the Greatest American contest conducted by the Discovery Channel and AOL. King and his wife were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

Knife Attack on King, 1958

On 20 September 1958, when King was signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Blumstein's department store in Harlem, was attacked by 'Izola Curry—a mentally ill black woman who thought that King was conspiring against her with communists. This lady stabbed the king in the chest with a letter opener, which nearly impinged on the aorta. King received first aid from police officers Al Howard and Philip Romano.

Woman King underwent emergency surgery with three doctors: Emil Naclerio, Aubre de Lambert Maynard, and John W. V. Cordice. He remained hospitalized for several weeks and survived this. Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous speech "I have a dream" on 28 August 1963, when the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. In this speech, King emphasized his belief that someday all men could be brothers. In this speech, he said- "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."

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Personal Information

King married Coretta Scott in 1953. She was a singer, author and civil rights activist. The couple had four children, namely, Yolanda King (eldest daughter), who was born in 1955, Martin Luther King III (son), born in 1957, Dexter Scott King (son), born in 1957, and Bernice King (youngest daughter), born in 1963. Their first daughter, Yolanda was died in 2007. During their marriage, King limited Coretta's role in the civil rights movement, expecting her to be a housewife and mother.


King died on 04 April 1968 at the age of 39, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot while he was standing on the Lorraine Motel's second-floor balcony. The shooter, was James Earl Ray, a malcontent drifter, and former convict, and was eventually apprehended after a two-month, international manhunt. Ray pleaded guilty, in 1969, to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison on April 23, 1998. After the king's death, many of his followers participated in a nationwide riot. His wife took up the leadership of the civil rights movement. Coretta became an active member of the women's movement and the LGBT rights movement.

Years after his death, he is the most widely known African American leader of his era. To pay tribute to this great leader, the National Civil Rights Museum was built. Several streets were also named after him. The third Monday of January was declared as a National Holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring the legacy of the slain civil rights leader and the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated in 1986, and in all 50 states in 2000.

"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase."

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

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