King, Martin Luther, Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
   African-American preacher and civil rights leader
   Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister and leader of the Civil Rights movement in the united States in the 1960s, was born Michael King in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. His father was a prominent African-American minister and pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In 1933, the elder King had both his name and his son's name changed to Martin Luther King (after his father's two brothers). The younger King enrolled at Morehouse College at age 15. His call to the ministry came during his college years, and after graduation in 1948 he attended Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he became the first African American elected as class president and was also his class valedictorian. At Crozier, he first encountered the nonviolent philosophy of the recently martyred Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948).
   King pursued graduate studies at Boston university and while there married Corettta Scott (b. 1927). He received his Ph.D. in 1955 and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to serve as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
   Shortly after King's arrival in Montgomery, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white patron of the local bus system. The incident sparked a boycott of the city buses by African Americans, and the young pastor was named president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a hastily formed organization to guide the boycott effort. Before the Supreme Court's ruling the next year quashing the segregation laws relative to the bus system, King's home was bombed. The success of the boycott led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as president. In 1958, his first book appeared, Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
   Starting in 1959, when he became associate pastor of his father's church in Atlanta, King devoted most of his time to the SCLC. In 1961, he joined a number of fellow clergy who seceded from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., over its refusal to support the Civil Rights movement; they founded the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
   King led a new phase of the movement in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was arrested during a protest march. There he wrote one of his most memorable pieces, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," later included in his book Why We Can's Wait (1964). Shortly thereafter, he led the 1963 march on Washington in support of new civil rights legislation. During the event, he gave his oft-quoted "I Have a Dream" speech, which helped inspire the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the movement grew, on January 3, 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the Man of the Year, and in December received the Nobel Peace Prize.
   In 1965, King led a ministers' march in Selma, Alabama, in which some 1,500 clergy participated. When several of the ministers were beaten, President Lyndon Johnson intervened and called for the passing of a Voting Rights Bill, which was signed into law before the year was out.
   King decided to carry the movement to the urban North. However, the nonviolent tactics so effective in the South did not work well in Chicago. After a token victory, he withdrew. He wrote his next book, Where Do We Go from Here, Community or Chaos? to answer critics, most notably the "Black Power" movement.
   King's opposition to the war in Vietnam threatened his alliances with the White House that had been so helpful to the movement. His work on poverty would cost him his life. On April 4, 1968, while in Memphis to support striking garbage collectors, King was assassinated. In what remains a controversial decision, James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder.
   King was succeeded by a number of associates. Fellow Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy (1926-90) became the new head of the SCLC. Jesse Jackson (b. 1941), then a young minister, left the SCLC and for a generation was a major force in the continuing civil rights struggle. In 1977, Abernathy was succeeded by Joseph E. Lowery (b. 1924), who remained as leader through the 1990s.
   Corretta Scott King emerged as a leader in her own right, largely though her speaking and writing. During the 1970s, she raised the money for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, dedicated in Atlanta in 1981, and over which she served as president until 1995. Over time, her children have played a role in the center, her son Dexter Scott King succeeding her as head of the King Center.
   In the decades since his death, King has become an international Christian figure inspiring a scope of efforts to liberate the poor, oppressed, and outcast of the world. While many follow his teachings, others have used him as the catalyst to develop new Christian approaches to social change in the varieties of liberation theology. Perhaps no others Christian leader so altered the course of both secular and religious history in the 20th century.
   Further reading:
   ■ Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman, eds., We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990)
   ■ Lewis V Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1991)
   ■ James A. Colaiaco, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence (New York: St. Martin's, 1993)
   ■ Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958)
   ■ ----, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967); , Why We Can't Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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