His dream? Equality for all.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion of civil rights, but he faced challenges and dangers.
What do you know about the man whose life is celebrated with a holiday next Monday? Martin Luther King Jr. greatly influenced the United States because he gave the civil rights movement a powerful voice. His use of nonviolent protest and dramatic oratory grabbed America's attention and convinced many people to strive for the end of segregation (keeping black and white people separate academically, socially, and so forth).
Born Jan. 15, 1929, he came from a long line of religiously motivated activists who also changed the societies in which they lived.
His father and grandfather both served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a prominent African-American church in Atlanta, and held leadership positions in the city's chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a civil rights organization.
The name he was given at birth – Michael – was changed when he was 5 years old. (The original Martin Luther was a 16th- century German priest and reformer whose protests sparked the historic Protestant Reformation.)
Before coming into his national pulpit, King went to school: four years at Morehouse College in Atlanta; three at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.; and five at Boston University's School of Theology. The 12 years of study helped form his beliefs and influence his views on civil disobedience and racial justice.
By the time he finished his Ph.D, in 1955, King had married Coretta Scott and accepted a job as minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
In December of that year, Rosa Parks famously defied Alabama's bus segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. That incident drew King into his first widely publicized civil rights campaign. He helped organize a bus boycott that lasted more than a year, until the US Supreme Court declared Alabama's bus rules unconstitutional.
In 1957, King and other black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate civil rights activities in the region. He became its president. King delivered his first national address that year; many more followed.
In 1960, King moved back to Atlanta. Working alongside his father at Ebenezer Church, King saw social activism as an outgrowth of his ministry: Freedom and equality were part of God's plan. Avoiding violence to achieve this goal, he believed, demonstrated Christian love.
King also believed that nonviolence would win people's support, rather than alienate them. And he thought that large gatherings and grand rhetoric, broadcast across the country, would force people to confront the injustice – and respond to it.
King's leadership role brought many challenges and even dangers. Opponents bombed his home. He was arrested several times. In April 1963, King spent a week in a Birmingham, Ala., jail for disobeying a court order against protest marches. After his release, he continued to mobilize demonstrators. When Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor authorized the police to use dogs and hoses against protesters, the brutal images spread across the country. These galvanized support for the civil rights movement.
His years of protest culminated in a momentous March on Washington in August 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation's capital, where King delivered a passionate cry for the country to practice the equality promised in its founding documents. In bold rhetoric, he shared his vision of a harmonious community, where "all of God's children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants – will be able to join hands and to sing ... 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' "
This became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. It propelled him to the height of his activism and broke major ground for the cause. Time magazine named King its 1963 "Man of the Year," and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
In March 1965, an Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, to support voter registration, also achieved landmark change. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act within months.
But the FBI, suspicious of the charismatic leader, started tapping King's phone in 1964.
Despite King's overwhelming contribution to the civil rights movement, his influence waned after the mid-1960s. And he lost popularity as militant black movements challenged his nonviolent stance.
King's efforts to branch out to new areas of activism met with little success. In 1966, he tried, in vain, to organize marches in Chicago. His popularity further eroded after he publicly criticized the Vietnam War. People were not listening to him as they used to – and without the nation's attention, he couldn't promote his causes.
In March 1968, King went to Memphis, Tenn., to help organize strikes. He was assassinated on April 4 while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying.
Even though his life was cut short, King's legacy continues. Within months of his death, his wife established a Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta in his name. King's home became a national historic site in 1980. King's birthday became a federal holiday in 1986.
Countless schools and streets across the country have been given the civil rights leader's name.
Museums and institutes continue to celebrate King's legacy. The Atlanta History Center will display many of his papers this year on his birthday, including his "I Have a Dream" speech, his Nobel Prize lecture, and his well-known "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (www.atlantahistorycenter.com).
Even more than his name or writings, King's passion for social justice lives on. He motivated many Americans – black churchgoers, poor workers, US presidents – to realize his 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.' "
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, say that I was a drum major for righteousness.
– Speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, 1968
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
– Letter from Birmingham jail, 1963
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
– Strength to Love, 1963
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon ... which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
– Nobel lecture, 1964
1929 – Michael King was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15. His father renamed him Martin Luther King when he turned 5. Martin Luther was a famous 16th-century theologian-turned-protester, whose revolutionary ideas changed the world.
1944-48 – King studied sociology at Morehouse College in Atlanta and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.
1948-51 – King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., and earned a bachelor of divinity degree.
1951-55 – King completed a doctoral program at Boston University's School of Theology.
1953 – On June 18, King married Coretta Scott in Marion, Ala., where her parents lived.
1954 – King became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., while finishing his Ph.D dissertation.
1955 – After Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving her bus seat to a white passenger, King helped lead a one-year boycott of buses in Montgomery.
1957 – King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC), to help organize civil rights activities in the region, and became its first president.
1959 – King spent a month in India studying the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, a famous proponent of nonviolent protest.
1960 – King became copastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with his father, who had inherited the position from his father.
1960-63 – King participated in numerous civil rights protests and was sometimes arrested or attacked for his involvement. A violent crackdown against protesters in Birmingham, Ala., motivated President John F. Kennedy to introduce civil rights legislation.
1963 – On Aug. 28, King roused 200,000 protesters for the March on Washington with his famous speech: "I Have a Dream."
1964 – In early January, Time magazine named King its 1963 "Man of the Year." His fame and influence aroused suspicion: The FBI wiretapped his home phone. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, landmark legislation against discrimination. King won the Nobel Peace Prize.
1965 – King tried to support protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., after they were violently beaten back. Some criticized him for thwarting their second attempt. On their third try, the protesters reached the state capitol, where King delivered another famous speech. Congress also passed the Voting Rights Act.
1966 – To support civil rights in the northern US, King relocated to a Chicago slum and organized marches, but they were not effective. With the rise of black militancy, his nonviolent principles lost popularity to more violent means of protest.
1967 – King's popularity further eroded when he criticized the Vietnam War during a speech in New York.
1968 – As part of the multiracial Poor People's Campaign founded by the SCLC, on April 4, King led a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tenn. He was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel while standing on a balcony. Later that year, King's wife established the Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
1980 – The center, along with King's home and church, became a National Historic Site.
1983 – Congress passed legislation naming a holiday for King. It was first celebrated in 1986.
• Compiled from books and websites by Carol Huang