Today, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice and for putting his life on the line for racial equality and the advancement of African-Americans.

Born Michael King Jr. on Jan. 15, 1929, the future King was the middle of three children of parents Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Family patriarch Michael Sr. took over his father-in-law’s Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, in 1931, changing his name to Martin Luther King Sr. in honor of German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. Years later, King Jr. would follow suit.


The precocious student skipped both ninth and 11th grades at Booker T. Washington High School, entering Morehouse College as an undergrad at age 15. In 1948, he earned a sociology degree from the respected HBCU. He went on to attend Crozer Theological Seminary, and later Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in theology.

After completing his formal education, King, Rosa Parks and several fellow activists organized the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major protest of the civil rights movement. Other key figures responsible for the organization and success of the boycott include A. Philip Randolph, Jo Ann Robinson, Edgar Daniel Nixon, Fred Gray and Charles Langford. Still, King’s unique skill as an orator and philosopher of civil disobedience were pillars on which the movement was built—King was inspired by the peaceful practices of Mohandas Gandhi. 

As King’s notoriety grew, so did the movement, his impassioned speeches appealing to northern Whites, as well as to Christian and American ideals. In 1963, King led the massive March on Washington, where 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the Lincoln Memorial to hear the charismatic leader’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Soon, the federal government began to show support, ratifying the 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes (literacy tests and other measures to keep African-American citizens disenfranchised) and passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation in public spaces and banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

In October of that same year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, donating his $54,600 in prize money to the movement.

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind,” King said in his acceptance speech. “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

The movement then set its sights on addressing federal voting rights. King organized an initial march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital building in Montgomery but did not participate himself. Protesters were turned back by state authorities with nightsticks and tear gas, the day later becoming known as “Bloody Sunday.”

King did lead the second march but was met with state troopers on the
Edmund Pettus Bridge. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led the procession of 1,500 to kneel in prayer and then turn back. The largely symbolic moment contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a city sanitation workers strike. During this trip, he gave his final speech at the Mason Temple Church, where he prophetically told the crowd, “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.”

The next day, April 4, King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray, a White escaped convict, pleaded guilty to his murder the following year and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Representative John Conyers was the first to propose making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday just four days after his assassination. It took 11 more years for the motion to come up for a vote on the House of Representative’s floor. Despite support from President Jimmy Carter and members of Congress, the 1979 bill was five votes short of passing. The King Center, with help from names such as Stevie Wonder and widow Coretta Scott King, led the charge in reintroducing the bill, which passed by 53 votes in 1983.

For more MLK Day coverage, check out Inside Ebony.