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A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King Jr.
U.S. Embassy New Delhi/ Flickr CC

In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Miami when he had a meeting with producer Abby Mann, who was contemplating a film about King. Mann asked the 37-year-old minister how the movie should end. King replied, "It ends with me getting killed." Throughout his civil rights career, King was painfully aware that a number of white Americans wanted to see him destroyed or even dead, but he accepted the mantle of leadership anyway, assuming its heavy burden at the young age of twenty-six. The twelve years King spent fighting first for civil rights and later against poverty changed America in profound ways and turned Dr. Martin Luther King into "the moral leader of the nation," in A. Philip Randolph's words.

Childhood

King was born on January 15, 1929, to an Atlanta pastor, Michael (Mike) King, and his wife, Alberta King. Mike King's son was named after him, but when little Mike was five, the elder King changed his name and his son's name to Martin Luther, suggesting that both had a destiny as great as the founder of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther King, Sr., was a prominent pastor among African Americans in Atlanta, and his son grew up in a comfortable middle-class environment.

King Jr. was an intelligent boy who impressed his teachers with his efforts to expand his vocabulary and sharpen his speaking skills. He was a dutiful member of his father's church, but as he grew older, he did not show much interest in following in his father's footsteps. On one occasion, he told a Sunday school teacher that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was ever resurrected.

King's experience in his youth with segregation was mixed. On the one hand, King Jr. witnessed his father stand up to white policemen who called him "boy" instead of "Reverend." King Sr. was a strong man who demanded the respect he was due. But, on the other hand, King himself had been subject to a racial epithet in a downtown Atlanta store. When he was 16, King, accompanied by a teacher, went to a small town in southern Georgia for an oratorical contest; on the way home, the bus driver forced King and his teacher to give up their seats for white passengers. King and his teacher had to stand for the three hours it took to return to Atlanta. King later noted that he had never been angrier in his life.

Education

King's intelligence and excellent schoolwork led him to skip two grades in high school, and in 1944, at the age of 15, King began his university studies at Morehouse College while living at home. His youth did not hold him back, however, and King joined the college social scene. Classmates remembered his stylish mode of dress-a "fancy sportcoat and wide-brimmed hat."

King became more interested in the church as he grew older. At Morehouse, he took a Bible class that prompted his conclusion that whatever doubts he had about the Bible, it contained many truths about human existence. King majored in sociology, and by the end of his college career, he was contemplating either a career in law or in ministry.

At the start of his senior year, King settled on becoming a minister and started acting as assistant pastor to King Sr. He applied and was accepted into Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He spent three years at Crozer where he excelled academically-more so than he had at Morehouse-and began to hone his preaching skills.

His professors thought he would do well in a doctoral program, and King decided to attend Boston University to pursue a doctorate in theology. In Boston, King met his future wife, Coretta Scott, and in 1953, they married. King told friends that he liked people too much to become an academic, and in 1954, King moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist church. That first year, he finished his dissertation while also building up his ministry. King earned his doctorate in June of 1955.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Shortly after King finished his dissertation, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was on a Montgomery bus when told to give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused and was arrested. Her arrest marked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The evening of her arrest, King received a phone call from union leader and activist E.D. Nixon, who asked King to join the boycott and host the boycott meetings at his church. King hesitated, seeking the counsel of his friend Ralph Abernathy before agreeing. That agreement catapulted King into the leadership of the civil rights movement.

On December 5, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization leading the boycott, elected King as its president. The meetings of Montgomery's African-American citizens saw the full realization of King's oratorical skills. The boycott lasted longer than any had predicted, as white Montgomery refused to negotiate. Montgomery's black community withstood the pressure admirably, organizing car pools and walking to work if necessary.

During the year of the boycott, King developed the ideas that formed the core of his non-violent philosophy, which was that the activists should, through quiet and passive resistance, reveal to the white community their own brutality and hatred. Though Mahatma Gandhi later became an influence, he initially developed his ideas out of Christianity. King explained that "[t]his business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through him."

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