"Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last"
-Dr Martin Luther King
by Clayborne Carson
One of the world's best known advocates of
non-violent social change strategies, Martin Luther King, Jr., synthesized ideas drawn
from many different cultural traditions. Born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, King's roots
were in the African-American Baptist church. He was the grandson of the Rev. A. D.
Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church and a founder of Atlanta's NAACP chapter, and
the son of Martin Luther King, Sr., who succeeded Williams as Ebenezer's pastor and also
became a civil rights leader. Although, from an early age, King resented religious
emotionalism and questioned literal interpretations of scripture, he nevertheless greatly
admired black social gospel proponents such as his father who saw the church as a
instrument for improving the lives of African Americans. Morehouse College president
Benjamin Mays and other proponents of Christian social activism influenced King's decision
after his junior year at Morehouse to become a minister and thereby serve society. His
continued skepticism, however, shaped his subsequent theological studies at Crozer
Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and at Boston University, where he received
a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. Rejecting offers for academic positions, King
decided while completing his Ph. D. requirements to return to the South and accepted the
pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
On December 5, 1955, five days after Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city's rules mandating segregation on buses, black residents launched a bus boycott and elected King as president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. As the boycott continued during 1956, King gained national prominence as a result of his exceptional oratorical skills and personal courage. His house was bombed and he was convicted along with other boycott leaders on charges of conspiring to interfere with the bus company's operations. Despite these attempts to suppress the movement, Montgomery bus were desegregated in December, 1956, after the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional.
King's effectiveness in achieving his
objectives was limited not merely by divisions among blacks, however, but also by the
increasing resistance he encountered from national political leaders. FBI director J.
Edgar Hoover's already extensive efforts to undermine King's leadership were intensified
during 1967 as urban racial violence escalated and King criticized American intervention
in the Vietnam war. King had lost the support of many white liberals, and his relations
with the Lyndon Johnson administration were at a low point when he was assassinated on
April 4, 1968, while seeking to assist a garbage workers' strike in Memphis. After his
death, King remained a controversial symbol of the African-American civil rights struggle,
revered by many for his martyrdom on behalf of non-violence and condemned by others for
his militancy and insurgent views.
Other Great Places to Look
|Timeline of King's Life @ The Seattle Times MLK Site|
|Civil Rights Interactive Tour @ The National Civil Rights Museum|
|MLK jr. Profile, The Gandhi of Civil Rights @ L I F E Online|
|Biographical sketch @ Louisiana State University Website|
|Chronological Biography @ Louisiana State University Website|
|Robert F. Kennedy's speech on Dr. King's death, April 4, 1968 @ Ray's FK Site|
|Buckman Elementary School's Timeline Page @ the Room 100 Home Page|