Accessibility links

Breaking News

Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Honored Each Year


Martin Luther King, Jr., a Southern black minister and civil rights leader, crusaded for equality through nonviolent means. His "I Have a Dream" speech epitomized, for many, a universal dream for a fairer, more equal American society and world. Dr. King's achievements are honored each year in the United States with a national holiday.

Michael Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. The son of a Baptist minister, he later changed his name to Martin, after the religious figure who founded the Lutheran denomination.

Dr. King's father, a well-known preacher, frequently expressed impatience with the segregationist policies common in the U.S. for much of the 20th century. The father's views had a profound effect on young Martin, his oldest son.

While studying for his Ph.D. in theology at Boston University, Dr. King met and married Coretta Scott. They had four children together.

A deeply religious man, Dr. King was also a strong civil rights advocate. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, triggering a chain of events that would catapult Martin Luther King to international fame.

He led a boycott of the city's buses -- a nonviolent demonstration lasting 382 days. Despite suffering great personal abuse, Dr. King emerged victorious, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.

From 1957 to 1968, Dr. King traveled more than six million miles across the U.S., addressing social injustice in its myriad forms. He arranged sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent protest, based on his Christian upbringing and tactics he'd learned from Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who popularized nonviolent protest.

The massive protests in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s caught the attention of the whole world, and inspired Dr. King to write his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," which many consider the manifesto of the Black American's fight for equality.

In August 1963, while leading a peaceful civil rights march in Washington, D.C., he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"I have a dream, that one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

The speech and the march were highlights in Dr. King's battle for racial equality. That same year, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize. At age 35, he was the youngest man to receive that honor.

In 1965, in an attempt to grant blacks the right to vote in the South, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

But the victories, political and personal, came at a price. Although the protests were supposed to be non-violent, clashes between law officers and protesters were increasingly common.

Ultimately, Dr. King himself fell prey to the violence around him. In Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to lead a demonstration, Dr. King was shot and killed in April 1968.

Dr. King's assassination sparked demonstrations in cities throughout the U.S., leading to tens of thousands of injuries and arrests. Between 60,000 to 70,000 stood in the streets of Atlanta, where King's funeral was held.

In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a national holiday.

While he lived, Dr. King was a controversial leader in the civil rights movement -- deeply suspect to some for his militancy and insurgent views, revered by others for his nonviolent beliefs.

Today, Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. is a time to remember the injustices that Dr. King fought against, and to remember a dream, which is shared by many.