Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 as the son of the preacher Martin Luther King Sr. and the teacher Alberta Christine Williams King in Atlanta, Georgia. His name’s dependence on that of Martin Luther has always been of great significance for the deeply religious man. Although he grew up under rather affluent conditions - contrary to most other Blacks -, King was familiar with the history of race discrimination from examples in his own family, as his grandfather had been born the son of slaves. King knew the common, everyday racism in the South, expressed by strict segregation in all public places from his own experiences and even as a youth he began to speak up against these discriminations.
Early on, he discovered his talent for public speeches; a skill he developed as an assistant preacher in his father’s church and later at college. First, Martin attended Morehouse College in Georgia, from where he graduated in sociology in 1948. Afterwards, he went to Chester, Pennsylvania, where he studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary. Here, he continued his philosophy studied and postulated ideas on the theory of preaching and holding public speeches. This and studying works of many kinds helped him in defining his positions regarding social reforms and the kind of political work he wanted to pursue. King is quoted saying that it was mostly Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas in this regard that helped him find his way. He finished his academic career in 1955 with a doctorate in Philosophy at Boston University.
Two years earlier, in 1953, King had returned to the South and had accepted the position of a pastor in a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Back then, Montgomery was a big city with a Black majority, which was however pushed to the edges of society by the Whites, as was the case everywhere in the South. Without foreseeing it, King had laid a foundation for his future by deciding for Montgomery. In 1955, the city got into the national spotlight because of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which went on for more than a year. This event was initiated by the black population following the arrest of Rosa Parks, a civil rights activist, who had refused to yield her seat on a public bus to a white person. King became the coordinator of the boycot which intended to demonstrate the large economic significance of the black population while it had so little rights. The success of the peaceful protest, made evident by the 1956 Supreme Court verdict that prohibited racial segregation in public buses led to widespread recognition of Martin Luther King’s work. After the boycot, he made his ideas of resistance against suppression public in countless rallies and events in the American South.
The rise in popularity opened many doors for King - his words were heard and piece by piece, he and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC were able to score a number of points in the fight against unequal treatment - but it also had its shady sides. King became the thorn in the flesh of White fanatics, for example the Ku-Klux-Klan and it also didn’t take long until the FBI, especially the agency’s boss J. Edgar Hoover, began to develop an interest in King.
The political climate in America in the 60s was charged and public opinion polarized in many issues. The Vietnam War, dealing with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, President Kennedy’s liberal administration, the emancipation of the black population and dealing with the perceived threat of communism were some of the topics in which the country’s population was deeply divided. The panicked attempt to expulse even the slightest trace of communist ideas from the USA, finally gave Hoover the boilerplate for a comprehensive surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., reaching far into his private sphere, when King started cooperating with the attorney Stanley Levison. Levison had for a long time been suspected of conducting communist activities and King working with him became a welcome disguise for the attempt to move the Black Civil Rights movement into the FBI’s focus.
Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King faced larger obstacles than before. He was arrested multiple times in the next years, often with questionable reasons; his actions were often cut off by the authorities. An example for this were the peaceful protests in Albany, Georgia, taking place since 1961, in which he participated and which finally remained without success. In analyzing, King blamed the actions’ failure on a lack of preparation and organization and drew conclusions for his future work. From 1963 on, he organized a protest in Birmingham, Alabama, against department stores run by Whites. In the protest, Blacks peacefully blocked the eateries reserved for Whites over several days, supplemented by evening meetings in churches. As the leader of the protest, King was arrested and only released after eight days, a fact that further enhanced his popularity. An escalation happened when police adavanced on the protesters with great brutality on May 3, a fact that attracted nationwide attention. In order to prevent more pictures of this sort, President John F. Kennedy sent government representatives to Alabama, who finally successfully negotiated a compromise between both parties, which was widely regarded as a victory for the movement.
As it showed, the events in Birmingham were the first heralds of a conflict growing more intense between Blacks and Whites. Especially white extremist groups, notably the Ku-Klux-Klan, reacted with violence to the growing protests and the increasing public attention. In the following months, many abductions and murders of civil rights activists occured and there was an increasing number of assaults, on Martin Luther King and others. These brutal suppression attempts however also lead to more and more people joining the ranks of the movement. The most impressive proof of this came at the hands of King, when he and other civil rights leaders organized the March on Washington, bringing more than 250,000 people to the streets in June 1963, speaking up for equal rights and liberty. The background for the march was a law introduced by Kennedy, aimed at lifting large parts of segregation, which was in Congress for ratification. At the end of the march, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Only a few weeks after this impressive signal sent to the public, John F. Kennedy was murdered; the man who had opened the doors to government politics for the black civil rights movement wider than ever before. A lot of people feared set-backs in the fight for equal rights after Kennedy’s death. His successor as President however, Lyndon B. Johnson, made sure the law came into effect in 1964. That same year, on the climax of his political achievements, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Despite the abolishment of segregation by law, the movement still faced grim resistance in the US South, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama, where the respective governors refused to apply the law. King from now on focused even more on this part of the country. In Selma, Alabama for example, he initiated actions with the goal to include Blacks in the election register without obstacles being placed in their way. Four demonstrators died in the course of these protest actions - another turning point for the movement which from now on grew more radical.
Martin Luther King, being from the southeastern part of the USA, from the beginning had a difficult position in the North and West of the country with his ideas of peaceful resistance. Leaders from these regions, for example Malcolm X pursued more radical ideas, leading to violent riots for example in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965. King’s attempts to achieve a better living situation for Blacks in Chicago by means of peaceful protests failed in 1966. After that, discussions among the activists over whether they should continue to work peaceful or by using violence in the future intensified. Nevertheless, King managed to bring 200,000 people together for a protest march in New York City in 1967.
Martin Luther King had to witness how a large number of his followers turned away from him because of the discussion about non-violence. To a certain degree, however, King himself was the reason for vanishing support from politicians - President Johnson being among them - when he repeatedly spoke up against the Vietnam War. But King pursued his goals with great determination and planned to use the next large event he organized, a civil rights march to Washington as a sign of protest against this war as well. Before that, he conducted a number of events in Memphis, Tennessee, but these were in parts greatly sabotaged by the FBI in such a way that violent riots happened.
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. James Earl Ray was arrested and sentenced as the perpretator, but there have always been theories and witness accounts claiming that the small-scale criminal Ray was not the only one responsible. Just like after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, many even blamed American government circles to carry a partial guilt. After an initial confession, Ray himself would later change his story and claim to be not guilty.
King’s death caused a wave of unrests and riots everywhere in the USA, costing the lives of 39 persons. In the end, King’s philosophy of peaceful protests did not find full acceptance everywhere, but it had achieved greater successes than all other initiatives of black civil rights leaders. For this reason, Martin Luther King is still seen as the nationwide leader of the emancipation movement and as the one activist to whom America owes the far-reaching abolishment of race segregation.