Martin Luther King Jr. was a major leader of the U.S. civil rights movement beginning in the mid-1950s. Americans celebrate his birthday as a national holiday each January, recalling the struggle to end racism and bigotry in America. King was an eloquent Baptist minister who advocated and participated in nonviolent means to achieve civil right for blacks and equality for all.
King received a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozier Theological Seminary in 1951 and earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Boston University in 1955. He came from a long line of Baptist ministers. His father was pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and in 1960, King moved to the city to pastor his father’s congregation. King was chosen as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
In 1963, he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after a nonviolent protest that led to a confrontation with Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor and municipal authorities. While in jail, King was criticized by a group of white clergymen who blamed him for inciting the violence and who voiced concerns about his civil rights strategy. It was then that he penned his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” King ended his letter with these words:
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
King’s most soaring and hopeful civil rights plea came in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Here he delivered his rallying “I Have a Dream” speech.”
For his work to end segregation and discrimination, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King was only 35 years old when he accepted the prize on behalf of all who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, making him the youngest recipient of the award at the time.
But the seeds of human hatred and bitterness cut short King’s life less than four years later. On April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he was shot to death by James Earl Ray. King was only 39 years old. Though he did not waver from his position and practice that nonviolence must remain the approach of the civil rights movement, he died a martyr’s death from an assassin’s bullet.