Born Michael King Jr. on this date in Atlanta to parents Rev. Michael, Sr. (later Martin Luther, Sr.) and Alberta, he would later change his name to reflect his father’s as a teen. One of three siblings, King was involved early on in the church as a result of his father’s ministry. Although he initially shunned religion and the teachings of his father, he later concluded that the gospel had value in his life.
A capable high school student, Dr. King skipped grades and entered the famed Morehouse College at age 15, graduating in 1948 with a degree in Sociology. Later, he enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. King graduated from the school with a Bachelor’s in Divinity in 1951. Two years later, he would marry Coretta Scott (pictured left) – who would later become an icon in her own right.
Watch Dr. King’s life story here:
At 25 years of age, King would become the head pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. The following year in 1955, King began doctoral studies at Boston University and received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. King’s dissertation was later found to be plagiarized and nearly derailed the scope of his academic work. Although Boston University investigated and later discovered the infraction, King’s doctorate was not revoked.
King would find inspiration in theologian Howard Thurman, a former classmate of his father’s at Morehouse. Thurman’s mission work around the globe led him to meetings with noted Indian Civil Rights leader Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. King visited with Thurman, who served as his mentor, often. At the time, Thurman, who is said to have been key in delivering the message of non-violent protest to the young King, also served as the dean of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University.
In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed following the efforts and response to the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” in 1955. Rosa Parks jump started the Civil Rights Movement that same year, after refusing give up her seat to a White person. Dr. King and several other leaders joined the boycott, creating the SCLC.
With the help of Quakers, Dr. King traveled to India in 1959 to visit with Gandhi. The trip was the necessary push needed to galvanize Dr. King’s desire to employ a similar approach with non-violent disobedience protests Stateside. SCLC activist Bayard Rustin, also a student of Gandhi’s teaching, served as King’s right hand in planning the 1963 “March On Washington” and was a trusted ally.
Releasing just a handful of books during his lifetime, Dr. King’s written work contained nearly the entire scope of his personal and academic pursuits. “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” was released in 1958. His last work, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community” saw a 1967 release.
During his life, King also became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 1964, where he was recognized for his work in leading non-violent protests to combat racism during what some viewed as the zenith of the civil rights fight in America.
On March 29, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated by a lone gunshot as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis. Plagued for years by threats of violence, including a bombing of his home, Dr. King had long known that the dangers of his life’s work made him a target. Still, he fearlessly trudged on fighting on the behalf of the voiceless.
In a fitting series of events, President Barack Obama will be sworn in to his historic second term on the federally recognized holiday of King’s birthday on the 21st. Although the holiday was first observed in 1986, after President Ronald Reagan’s signing of a 1983 bill, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that all 50 states recognized the day. President Obama will surely mention the significance of the holiday even as he too ascends to a new level because of his own strides.
Dr. Martin Luther King was truly a unique individual. He did not tout himself as perfect, and as evidenced over the years, there have been attempts to unearth the more clandestine parts of his life. What should not be questioned, however, is his sincerity in wanting to improve the condition for not only his own people, but for the entire human family. There will never be another King, but because of his great sacrifice, there will always be hope.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!