Martin Luther King Jr. was an American civil rights activist who is best known for using non-violent civil disobedience tactics to secure equal rights for African Americans. He was named Michael King Jr. at birth but later changed his name to Martin Luther King Jr. He was born on January 15, 1929. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother was a school teacher. He first attended Booker T. Washington High School and then entered Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, where he received a degree in Sociology. He was initially reluctant to be a minister like his father but later entered the seminary from where he graduated in 1951. He then enrolled at Boston University where he received his Ph.D. in June, 1955. In Boston, he met Coretta Scott, whom he married and the couple had four children.
King was deeply resentful at the racial discrimination he faced while growing up. During his junior year at high school he was forced to stand up on a bus ride with his teacher to make room for white passengers. This played a part in his later venture into civil rights activism. In 1954, he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He also became a member of the executive committee of NAACP i.e. the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Two incidents in 1955 led him to engage more actively in his cause for advancement of African American rights; the first was in March 1955 when a 15 year old African American girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat in a bus for a white man and later in December 1955 when an elderly African American woman named Rosa Parks did the same. Both women were jailed but later released due to mounting pressure by the community. After the Parks incident, King and other activists planned a city wide boycott of the bus service. The boycott lasted for 382 days where African Americans chose to walk to work and were widely harassed, both physically and mentally. The city of Montgomery suffered massive losses and eventually lifted the law requiring segregated public transportation for blacks and whites.
King and other activists then founded the SCLC i.e. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a platform to advocate for black rights. They conducted non-violent protests and worked for black voting rights. King was deeply influenced by the non-violent methods adopted by Mahatma Gandhi in India and he even travelled to India to meet with Gandhi. The SCLC organized mass meetings in many southern cities and travelled and lectured all over to preach equality and discuss race related issues. One of his key advisors and mentors was a civil rights activist named Bayard Rustin, and the two worked hand in hand. In February 1960, a group of African American students, inspired by King, organized a “sit-in” movement where they sat at racially segregated lunch counters and their work led to an end to the segregation in 27 cities in America.
King’s work had gained national popularity and he continued to organize mass demonstrations where he gave speeches to mobilize the black community to stand up for equal rights. In 1963, he gave his most famous speech beginning with “I have a dream” which attracted a crowd of more than 200,000 African Americans and led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. One demonstration in 1965 turned violent as the police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and sticks. There was a national outrage against the incident and much controversy which caused King to lose some supporters, but he stuck to his aim and continued to hold peaceful demonstrations. During a speech in 1968, King was assassinated by a sniper bullet fired by a former convict named James Earl Ray. Ray was later hunted down and jailed for 99 years, and he died in prison in 1998. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was a huge loss to the black community but his work was monumental in bringing about the end of black domination and mobilizing African Americans towards advancement and progress on an equal footing with the rest of the world. He received several awards, honors, honorary degrees and a national holiday has been declared in his honor in the United States.