Dr. King did not begin his life as a crusader or public figure. He had much more modest beginnings in rural Atlanta. Born Michael King, Jr., he was the middle child of Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Michael King, Sr. served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law, who was the church’s prior pastor. At this point, the elder king decided to change his name to Martin Luther to honor the famed protestant religious leader. His son soon decided to adopt the name as well.
A religious family, the Kings tried to shield their children from the realities of racism that were alive and well in the country. They believed racism and segregation to be an affront to God’s will, and Martin, Sr. discouraged separation of class and taught these lessons to his children. Those lessons resonated with Martin, Jr.
Dr. King attended Booker T. Washington High School and was so advanced he was able to skip both the 9th and 11th grades. He went on to college at the age of 15, graduating from Morehouse College in 1948 with a degree in sociology. In his junior year of college, King enrolled in a Bible class that sparked a renewed enthusiasm for the ministry. He later enrolled in the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he received a Bachelor’s of Divinity. Later he attended Boston University and earned a Ph.D. at the age of 25. It was during his time in Boston that he met his future wife, Coretta Scott. While he was completing his dissertation work, Dr. King became the pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Ala.
Martin Luther King, Jr. became directly involved in the civil rights movement after the head of the local NAACP chapter in Montgomery met with him on the night that Rosa Parks was arrested for failure to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Dr. King helped institute the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During this time, African-Americans refused to ride the public bus system in Montgomery. The boycott lasted 382 days. During that time, Dr. King’s home was bombed due to his involvement in the boycott and he was arrested for conspiracy. His work paid off on December 21, 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on public transportation was illegal.
Dr. King promoted nonviolent protests against unfairness to the African-American community, urging civil disobedience and peaceful protests, tenets that formed the basis for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, which he led. He participated in numerous nonviolent protests and was arrested several times. During one stint in jail he penned his famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Dr. King established a relationship with fellow African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who shared similar interests, including the teachings of Gandhi. Rustin would serve as King’s mentor and also was the main organizer of the March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963. Approximately 250,000 demonstrators were involved in the march and it was the largest demonstration in the nation’s capital up to that time. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King issued his famed “I Have a Dream” speech. He later met with President John F. Kennedy to appeal for greater rights for African-Americans and called for an end of segregation.
As a result of his civil rights efforts, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964 at the age of 35. He was the youngest person ever to receive the honor. He donated all of the prize money to his racial equality effort.
Through the late 1960s. Dr. King expanded his Civil Rights Movement to other cities. But he was often met with criticism, especially when he appealed to white middle-class citizens. Many militant black organizations considered King’s methods too weak and ineffective. His support was faltering and Dr. King grew weary of marches, jail and protests. However, in April of 1968, a labor strike in Memphis drew King’s attention, and he gave a speech about the sanitation labor dispute, which would prove to be prophetic. The next day, on April 4, Dr. King was hit by a sniper’s bullet while standing on an outside terrace of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel. King’s words from the previous day, including, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land,” were haunting. James Earl Ray was charged with the assassination.
In his honor, Americans have celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday since 1986. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. Many streets have been renamed in his honor, and Dr. King will remains a source of inspiration decades after his death.
Unique ways to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Few people in American history have had as strong an impact on the United States as Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who was slain in 1968 at the age of 39. Through his message of nonviolence, King changed the lives of millions.
Though is death was tragic, King’s life remains something to celebrate, a fact recognized by the federal government in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. For many, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a time to reflect on King’s life and advance his message. The following are a few unique ways adults and children alike can celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
• Give back to your community. A community leader who made countless sacrifices for both his own community and the nationwide community, King is perhaps best honored by those who make efforts to give back to their communities. Volunteer and help the less fortunate, be it working at a soup kitchen or an assisted living facility.
• Read about the Civil Rights Movement with your children. Thanks to advancements in technology, men, women and children alike now have a wealth of information at their fingertips. This makes it easy for parents to discuss the Civil Rights Movement, and King’s role in that movement, with their children. The older kids are, the more deeply parents can explain the struggles King encountered. Even adults without children are likely to be enlightened by studying the Civil Rights Movement and King’s life in closer detail.
• Listen to or read King’s speeches.
Renowned for his abilities as an orator, King gave numerous speeches throughout his life, many of which are equally if not more moving today than they were during his lifetime. While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is widely known, King gave many more speeches throughout his lifetime. The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is something to celebrate, and the holiday is a great time to reflect on and study his life while making efforts to improve your community.
The evolution of Black History Month
Black History Month, sometimes referred to as African American History Month, is a federally recognized month-long commemoration of the achievements of African Americans and the roles they have played in shaping United States history. Each February, Americans recognize notable African American individuals. Canada and the United Kingdom also observe Black History Month, with the UK celebrating in October rather than February.
Many deserving people are recognized during Black History Month, which no doubt serves to inspire African Americans and others who appreciate the role African Americans have played and continue to play.
One of the lesser known yet highly influential individuals to play a key role in the development of Black History Month was Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was a son of former slaves who spent his childhood working in coal mines and quarries. Self-taught in English and arithmetic, Woodson attended high school and completed the curriculum in two years. He eventually received a Masters degree in History from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Woodson was disheartened that textbooks and American history largely ignored the achievements of Black Americans. Therefore, he began the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and founded a complementary journal.
According to The Freeman Institute Foundation, Woodson decided to launch a Negro History Week in 1926. He picked the second week of February to have the recognition fall between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two pioneers of racial equality.
Although the first Negro History Week met with mild responses, eventually the yearly tradition caught on and its popularity grew. It wasn’t until 1969, however, that Negro History Week transformed into Black History Month, after a proposition by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University. In 1976, 26 years after Woodson’s death, Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government.
Black History Month has grown considerably since Woodson first launched Negro History Week nearly a century ago. His words about why he felt African American history was so important still resonate today: “What we need is not a history of selected races of nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”