Martin Luther King, Jr.
American clergyman and civil rights leader, b. Atlanta, Ga., grad. Morehouse College (B.A., 1948), Crozer Theological Seminary (B.D., 1951), Boston Univ. (Ph.D., 1955). The son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King was ordained in 1947 and became (1954) minister of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Ala. He led the boycott (1955–56) by Montgomery blacks against the segregated city bus lines, and he attained national prominence by advocating a policy of passive resistance to segregation. In 1956, he gained a major victory and prestige as a civil rights leader when the Montgomery buses began to operate on a desegregated basis. After the Montgomery success, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which gave him a base to pursue further civil rights activities, first in the South and later nationwide. His philosophy of nonviolent resistance led to his arrest on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 60s. He organized (1963) the massive March on Washington, which brought more than 200,000 people together. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. King's leadership in the civil rights movement was challenged in the mid-1960s as others grew more militant. However, King's interests widened from civil rights to criticism of the Vietnam War and to a deeper concern for poverty. His plans for a Poor People's March to Washington were interrupted (1968) for a trip to Memphis, Tenn., in support of striking sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed by an assassin's bullet on the balcony of the motel where he was staying. James Earl Ray was later convicted of his murder. His birthday is an American national holiday, celebrated on the third Monday in January.
See his Stride Toward Freedom (1958), Why We Can't Wait (1964), and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967). See biographies by K. L. Smith and I. G. Zepp, Jr. (1974), Steve Oates (1982), and David Garrow (1986); Coretta King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969).