Martin Luther King Jr.: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Monica Gragg

Monica has taught college-level courses in Tourism, HR and Adult Education. She has a Master's in Education and is three years into a PhD.

This lesson takes you on a journey of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. Martin Luther King, Jr. was perhaps the most influential leader of the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King

The Onset of the Civil Rights Movement

The 1950s - 1960s was a significant period in U.S. history. The Second World War had ended, and the economy was growing. The housing market was flourishing, and suburban life was becoming popular. Sounds idyllic, right? While the country was experiencing this prosperity, it was legal to not hire someone because they were Black. Blacks also could not vote, and policies of segregation meant that Blacks could not use the same restrooms, attend the same schools, or even sit in the same part of the bus as Whites. This racial discrimination, or unfair treatment of people because of the color of their skin, was not right. The country needed a leader to unite people and prompt change. That leader was Martin Luther King, Jr, commonly known as MLK.

'Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.'

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

The Young MLK

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael King in 1929. He was named after his father, who was a Baptist minister. When Michael King, Sr. took over his relative's church, he changed his name to Martin Luther, after a prominent German Protestant religious leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed suit.

MLK was a smart kid. He skipped ninth and eleventh grade, and at fifteen he followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps by attending Morehouse college. After Morehouse, he went to Crozer Theological Seminary and eventually earned his PhD at Boston University. He was just 25 year old. During his graduate studies, he met his wife, Coretta Scott. Coretta was an activist with her husband, using her talents in singing and the violin to express nonviolent activism. After he graduated, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama and raised four kids. MLK would become the minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist church.

'If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.'

--Martin Luther King Jr.

Early Activism

In 1955 a Black woman, Rosa Parks, boarded a bus to come home from work. She was tired, and she sat. When the White section filled up and the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat, she refused. She was arrested as a result. That night, a virtually unknown MLK met with leaders of the National Association of Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to organize a city bus boycott. They chose MLK to lead the boycott based on his youth, training, and connections. The boycott lasted for 381 days and would be later referred to as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 20, 1956, a federal court ruled that segregation on the buses was unconstitutional. This marked the beginning of MLK's reputation as a celebrated, peaceful, social activist in American history.

A Dedication to Nonviolence and The 'I Have a Dream' Speech

MLK continued his work towards nonviolent reform in the public eye; however, in 1963, one of MLK's peaceful demonstrations against segregation became violent. Despite the numbers of women, young people, and families participating in the demonstration, the Birmingham Alabama police released dogs and used water hoses on the demonstrators. The demonstration received nation-wide attention because of the police brutality; however, it was King who was arrested for demonstrating without a permit. While in jail, he wrote the famous 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'. The letter was written in response to a group of clergymen, who advocated that social change take place in the courts, not in the streets. King replied in his open letter by saying that it was a patriotic responsibility to nonviolently protest unjust laws. The letter was reprinted several times during the summer of 1963 and garnered a wide audience.

Birmingham police releasing dogs on demonstrators
Dog attack Birmingham Demonstration

Birmingham police spraying demonstrators
Hose attack at Birmingham Demonstration

MLK's momentum only grew. In August, 1963, an estimated 200,000-300,000 people joined The March on Washington. MLK delivered his most famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day--the 'I Have a Dream' speech. The speech was partially improvised and called for an end to racism in general. It was so moving that it is considered by many to be one of the most influential speeches in American history.

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