Facts, information and articles about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights leader prominent figure in Black History

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Facts


January 15, 1929, Atlanta, Georgia


April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee


Coretta Scott King


Leader of African American Civil Rights Leader
Nobel Peace Prize (1964)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977)
Congressional Gold Medal (2004)

Famous letters and speeches

“I have a dream” Speech

Letter from Birmingham jail

Letter to Coretta

Our God is Marching On (How Long? Not Long)

Martin Luther King Jr. Articles

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Martin Luther King in Berlin 1964Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looking into East Berlin from across the border wall in 1964, alongside Werner Steltzer, director of the Berlin Information Center.

Martin Luther King Jr. became the predominant leader in the civil rights movement to end racial segregation and discrimination in America during the 1950s and 1960s, and was a leading spokesperson for nonviolent methods of achieving social change. His eloquence as a speaker and his personal charism—combined with a deeply rooted determination to establish equality among all races despite personal risk—won him a worldwide following. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was selected by Time magazine as its Man of the Year. His “I Have a Dream”speech, which is now considered to be among the great speeches of American history, is frequently quoted. His success in galvanizing the drive for civil rights, however, made him the target of conservative segregationists who believed firmly in the superiority of the white race and feared social change. He was arrested over 20 times and had his home was bombed. Ultimately, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of a motel where he was staying in Memphis. A monument to Dr. King was unveiled in the national capital in 2012.

Early Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr., was born Michael Luther King Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. His father, in a 1957 interview, said that both he and his son were supposed to be named for the leader of the Protestant Reformation but misunderstandings led to Michael being the name on birth records. The boy became the third member of his family to serve as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. His training and experience as a minister undoubtedly contributed to his renowned oratorical style and cadence.

He also followed the educational path taken by his father and grandfather: he got his education in Georgia’s segregated public schools (from which he graduated at age 15). And he received a B.A. degree from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, a traditionally black college. He then went on to study theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, an integrated school where he was elected president of his senior class although it was comprised primarily of white students. In 1955, he received an advanced degree from Boston College in Massachusetts; he had completed the residence for his doctorate two years earlier. (In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee determined he had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation; plagiarism was also discovered in his word at Crozer. However, the committee did not recommend his degree be revoked. Evidence of plagiarism had been discovered by Boston University archivists in the 1980s.)

While in Boston, he met and married Coretta Scott, who would be his lifetime partner in both marriage and his campaign for civil rights. In 1954, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where King had been hired as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

He was already active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America’s leading African-American organization. At the time of his move to Montgomery, he was a member of its executive committee, and in December 1955, he led a 382-day boycott of Montgomery’s segregated public bus system. Negroes, the term then used for those of African descent, were relegated to the back of the bus and forced to give up their seats if a white person wanted to sit. Since many blacks lived in poverty or near-poverty, few could afford automobiles, and public busses were essential to them for traveling to and from work and elsewhere. During the boycott, King became a target for segregationists. Personal abuse, arrest, and the bombing of his home made clear the risks he would be taking if he continued to work with the movement for civil rights.

In 1957, that movement spawned a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to focus on achieving civil rights. King was elected president. By dropping reference to Negroes or colored people in its title and instead using the term “Christian Leadership” the organization was declaring its goals were not just those of one race but should be those of all Christian people. King strongly influenced the ideals of the organization.

During the next 11 years, he would speak over 2,500 times at public events, traveling over six million miles. He also wrote articles and five books to spread the message farther. In 1963, he was a leader in the massive civil rights protests at Birmingham, Alabama, that drew the attention of all America—indeed, of the entire world—to the discrimination African Americans faced and their demands for change. Arrested during the protests, he penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which became a manifesto for the civil rights revolution and placed King among America’s renowned essayists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Influence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

His tactics for achieving social change were drawn from those of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (known as Mahatma, “great soul”), who had used nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about change in his native India (as he had done with some success previously to win concessions for Indian immigrants living in South Africa’s apartheid system). Gandhi’s methods included boycotts of British goods and institutions. (Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi was repeatedly arrested and ultimately was assassinated by a fanatic.)

Although King stressed nonviolence, even when confronted by violence, those who opposed change did not observe such niceties. Protestors were beaten, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, tear-gassed, and attacked by police dogs; bombings at black churches, homes, and other locations took a number of lives; some—both black and white—who agitated for civil rights such as the right to vote were murdered, but the movement pressed on.

King was the most prominent leader in the drive to register black voters in Atlanta and the march on Washington, D.C., that drew a quarter-million participants. His message had moved beyond African Americans and was drawing supporters from all segments of society, many of them appalled by the violence they saw being conducted against peaceful protestors night after night on television news.

Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

During the rally in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his most famous speech, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, from the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Portions of that speech are often quoted, including, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The speech called not only for Negro rights, but for the rights of all people and, moreover, for friendship and unity among all Americans, with phrases such as, “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Beyond the repeated phrase, “I have a dream,” perhaps the best-known and most-often quoted portion of the speech comes from its concluding paragraph, which states:

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

It has been alleged that King plagiarized his famous speech from one given by Archibald Carey, a black pastor, in a 1952 speech to the Republican National Convention, just as it was found he had plagiarized others’ works in his collegiate papers. While there are similarities in the endings of the two speeches, those similarities are insufficient to be considered outright plagiarism and are based largely on the fact that both men quoted the opening verse of “America the Beautiful” as a lead-in to their closing remarks.

To read a transcript of the entire “I Have A Dream” speech, click here.

Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize

His oratory and impassioned drive, not just for equality under the law, but for true understanding and acceptance of all races and creeds by all races and creeds, led Time magazine to select Martin Luther King, Jr., as its Man of the Year for 1963. The following year, the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm, Sweden, awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. Then 35, he is the youngest man ever to have received it. The prize included an award of over $54,000, which he promised donate to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.

As the Vietnam War escalated, King spoke out against America’s involvement in the conflict. His antiwar position was an outgrowth of his belief in nonviolence, but to those who opposed King it intensified their belief he was pro-Communist and anti-American.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated

In the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where the majority of the city’s black sanitation workers had been striking since February 12 for increased job safety measures, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. The mayor, Henry Loeb, staunchly opposed all these measures. King was solicited to come to Memphis to lead a planned march and work stoppage on March 28.

That protest march turned violent when sign-carrying students at the end of the parade began breaking windows of businesses, which led to looting. One looter was killed and about 60 people were injured. The city of Memphis lodged a formal complaint in the U.S. District Court against King and several other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He and those leaders negotiated with the factions among the workers and their supporters who had initiated the march.

Assured that they would observe the creed of nonviolent civil disobedience, King agreed to return to Memphis for the rescheduled march on April 5. The district court had issued a restraining order, however, representatives of the SCLC met with the judge on April 4 and worked out a broad agreement that would permit the protest march to be held on April 8. Details were to be worked out on April 5.

On the evening of April 4, one of the SCLC representatives, Andrew Young (who would later serve as President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations and would be elected mayor of Atlanta), came to King’s room at the Lorraine Motel and informed him of what had been worked out with the judge. They prepared to go out to dinner, along with their colleagues. When King stepped onto the balcony in front of his room, he was shot and killed. He was just 39 years old.

In direct contrast to the nonviolence he had preached, riots broke out following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. In Chicago alone, nearly a dozen people died, 350 were arrested for looting, and 162 buildings were destroyed by arson.

James Earl Ray

The FBI quickly identified James Earl Ray as their primary suspect in the killing; his fingerprints had been found on the rifle and scope believed to have been used in the assassination, as well as on a pair of binoculars. The fatal shot had been fired from the bathroom window of a nearby rooming house.

Ray, a high-school dropout who had escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London, England, on June 8. In March 1969, he pled guilty and received a 99-year prison sentence. He escaped in 1977 but was recaptured after three days.

Almost immediately after his conviction, Ray tried to recant his confession, saying he had rented the room at the boardinghouse and bought the gun, but he had turned the weapon over to a man he called “Raoul.” In 1992, Ray published a book, Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin, giving his version of events, which suggested there had been a conspiracy and a government coverup. The case was not reopened, although a special congressional committee reported in 1978 that there was a “likelihood” Ray had not acted alone.

In March 1997, he met with one of King’s sons, Dexter, and told him, “I had nothing to do with shooting your father.” King’s widow and heirs began expressing their belief that Ray was innocent and the assassination was part of a conspiracy.

Ray never provided sufficient details to support his contention of a conspiracy and cover-up, but many besides the Kings doubt he acted alone. Among the conspiracy theories is one that claims FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who intensely disliked and distrusted King and had kept him under surveillance since 1962, was involved in the assassination—but like other theories about who killed Martin Luther King, Jr., this is mere conjecture.

Ray was never released from prison. He died of liver failure on April 22, 1998, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy

By the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the civil rights movement was evolving; in some ways, it seemed to be leaving him behind. New black power activists did not accept his philosophy of nonviolence as a way to achieve their goals. The FBI was breaking the power of the Ku Klux Klan, which had stood squarely in the way of racial equality. After successfully campaigning for Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland, King was not invited to the victory celebration. The next civil rights challenges, such as fighting poverty, were more abstract compared with the clarity of issues like discrimination in hiring and the use of public amenities. These new concerns would likely have proven more difficult for him to achieve the same levels of success as he had in his previous campaigns for equality and justice. On the last Saturday of his life, he mused about quitting his full-time role in the movement, though he seemed to talk himself out of that, according to one of his fellow activists, Jesse Jackson.

Yet, the lasting legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as a vibrant catalyst for social change cannot be denied. Among the prominent legacies of his ability to organize and energize the movement for equality are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His birthday has become a national holiday, when government offices and many private businesses close to honor his memory. A portion of the Lorraine Motel, including two persevered rooms and the balcony on which he was assassinated, are part of the National Civil Rights Museum.King’s birthplaceis now part of the National Park System.

His eloquent words live on, inspiring others who see injustices and seek to change them. He had a dream, and though it is still a long way from being fully realized, the America of his racially segregated youth and that of today’s integrated society—in which a black man was elected president of the United States having served two full terms from 2008-2016—are as far apart and different from each other as the planet Mars is from Neptune. It is impossible to imagine such sweeping change would occur as quickly as it did without a leader like Martin Luther King Jr. driving it forward.


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