Written January 15, 2015 by Nancy Campbell Mead
Dr. Martin Luther King was born “Michael King” on January 15, 1929 (his name was later changed to “Martin Luther” in honor of the German religious reformer who was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation). He is best known for his advancement of civil rights using “non-violent civil disobedience”.
King graduated from public school at the age of 15, then attended the all black Morehouse College where he earned his B.A. degree in 1948. He then attended theology school in Pennsylvania, earning a B. Div. from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951. He earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955.
While still a Ph.D. student, King married Coretta Scott in 1953. They subsequently had four children. King could not be described as a feminist. He limited his wife’s role in the civil rights movement and expected her to stay home and be a housewife. After King’s death, Coretta became active in social justice issues and remained so until her death in 2006.
King first came to national attention based on his roll in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Soon after, he, along with several others founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for the purpose of organizing black churches to conduct non-violent protests in support of civil rights. He and the SCLC led and actively participated in (and was sometimes arrested) the Albany Movement of 1961, the Birmingham campaign of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, the St. Augustine Movement of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1964-65, the Selma Voting Rights Movement and “Bloody Sunday” of 1965. He was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam War, and connected the war with economic injustice. In 1968, King organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” which was revolutionary and caused dissension among some in the SCLC.
It was during the March on Washington that King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech:
“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 the 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 little 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 today.
I 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 little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.”
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. He was in Memphis, TN in support of the black sanitary public works employees who had been on strike for several weeks. It was the night before his death that he prophetically he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in which he said: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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.”
During King’s short life he was awarded over 50 honorary college degrees. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including, in 1965, being the youngest recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize. Posthumously, King was awarded a Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word Album” for his “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam”, in 1977 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and with his wife the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.