Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

      This January, people all over the United States will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal. Yet, for the last five years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was under constant surveillance by the FBI.

The house Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The house Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

      Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. Just months after King was born the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Like many other families, the King family struggled, but made it through.

      Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father was a pastor of a Baptist church in Atlanta. His father was originally named Michael King and Martin Luther King, Jr. was Michael King, Jr. On a trip to Germany in 1934, he was so inspired by Martin Luther that he changed both his name and his son’s name to Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

      Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Germany. He was frustrated by the Catholic Church. He especially didn’t like the practice of priests requiring money to ensure the forgiveness of sins.

      In the 1930s and 1940s, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was growing up, the South was extremely segregated. This meant that black people and white people could not mix. Just sixty years before King was born, the South had still practiced slavery. The Civil War ended slavery, but it did not change the way many white people treated black people. Black citizens were beaten, insulted, and even killed.

      Even the government didn’t treat black people fairly. Black people could not use the same water fountains or bathrooms as white people, they had to ride in the back of buses (or stand if the bus was full), and their children could not attend “white” schools.

      While the 14th Amendment guaranteed all people equal protection under the law, the Supreme Court decided that segregation was legal as long as all facilities were “separate, but equal.” It was legal to have a “black” drinking fountain and a “white” drinking fountain as long as the two drinking fountains were the same quality. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. All of the “black” facilities were much worse than the “white” ones. Schools for black children only received materials that were thrown out by “white” schools.

      Martin Luther King, Jr. learned early on from his father that this system was not acceptable. A brilliant student, King skipped 9th and 12th grade and began college at the age of 15. After college, he went to seminary to become a pastor like his father.

Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife, Coretta, and their daughter, Yolanda.

Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife, Coretta, and their daughter, Yolanda.

      In 1953, King married Coretta Scott. The two would go on to have four children together.

      After marrying Coretta Scott, King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon after this, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Boston University.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

      One of King’s heroes was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was the famous leader of the nonviolent movement that won India’s independence from England. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the injustices of the South could be changed using Gandhi’s model of nonviolence and civil disobedience. He would break laws that were unfair in order to change them, but he wouldn’t hurt anyone.

      King’s first large act of civil disobedience was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. As a result, King led a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. For 385 days, all black citizens refused to ride the buses in the city.

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mugshots after being arrested. 

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mugshots after being arrested. 

Rosa Parks sitting with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rosa Parks sitting with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a crowd.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a crowd.

      During the bus boycott, King’s house was bombed, and he was thrown in jail. However, the bus boycott worked. Racial segregation on Montgomery buses was ended.

      King continued to work for racial equality. He led marches and sit-ins to bring attention to the problem of segregation. Many times King and his followers broke laws and were arrested. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested 29 times in his lifetime.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

      King’s most famous march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During this march, King gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. A quarter of one million people gathered to hear him speak.

      After the March on Washington, the FBI began watching King. They were worried that King had communist ties. Communism is the political idea that all members of society should share both work and benefits equally. Russia, the other world power of the time, was attempting to spread communism around the world. The United States was trying to stop communism from spreading.

Martin Luther King, Jr. meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Martin Luther King, Jr. meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

      The FBI followed King, bugged the phones in his offices and his home, and even searched his office by hand, but they found no evidence that he supported communism. This didn’t stop the FBI from sending threatening letters to King. They even sent one right before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

      On April 4, 1968, while staying at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. King’ s death brought riots all over the country. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement urged citizens to remember King’s message of nonviolence.

      Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy will always be his work in the Civil Rights Movement. However, towards the end of his life, King also focused on opposing the Vietnam War and ending poverty within the United States.

      Today we celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but we are also called to continue his mission. King not only believed in racial equality, but in a better life for everyone. He believed in the importance of serving his community. To honor his life and his message, think about what you can do to serve others and live his Dream.