Martin Luther King, Jr.: Biography And Facts About The Civil Rights Movement's Greatest Orator

By | January 13, 2021

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(National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you were alive when Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching for freedom as a Baptist minister and activist or you've just been inspired by his groundbreaking work, you should know that his life is much more than marching and giving speechesHis work to end segregation and racism earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, but he was more than a collection of his accomplishments. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who who fought to be the face of desegregation while under intense scrutiny from both allies and enemies.

Not Always A Martin, But Always A King

Georgia plays an important role in King's life, not only because that's where he first became a known entity but because it's where he was born. On January 15, 1929, Michael King, Jr. came into the world via Atlanta, Georgia. His family was made up of ministers and sharecroppers, and his father was the head pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church from the early '30s.

Following a trip to the Europe, where King's father witnessed the rise of Nazism, he knew he had to denounce the fascist regime. He changed his and his son's names in honor of the German protestant leader upon his return to the States in 1934, though Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth certificate wasn't changed until July 23, 1957.

Much of King's early life revolved around the scripture and violence. He read the Bible aloud daily and often found himself on the wrong end of his father's belt. According to his father, whenever he faced discipline, the young King stood still and quiet, taking the abuse without a word.

King was only a boy when he came face to face with brutal truth of racism. When he was six years old, he made friends with a young white boy, but when the two tried to play at the boy's house, the boy's parents forbid King from playing with their son. When King brought this up to his parents they explained racism to him as best as they could, and the young boy became determined to "hate every white person" until his parents explained that it was his Christian duty to love each and every human being, regardless of their beliefs.

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(National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

The Young King

In his adolescence, King watched as his father fought segregation, and though he rarely overcame the structural racism of the South, he never stopped fighting for equal rights. In 1936, King, Sr. led a civil rights march to the city hall in Atlanta to protest voting rights discrimination, essentially providing a blueprint for how his son would spend his adult life. In high school, the younger King became known for his public speaking abilities, but after winning an oration contest in 1944, he was forced by a cruel bus driver to stand all the way to Georgia, leaving him scarred and frustrated. Rather than finish high school, King took the entry exam to Morehouse College as a junior and began attending at the age of 15.

While at Morehouse, King played football before deciding to study under minister Benjamin Mays, the man he referred to as his "spiritual mentor." In 1948, at the age of 19, King graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. in sociology before enrolling in the Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, where he began to understand the importance of his public image. As a black minister, he knew he would be held to the highest moral standard and have to make tough choices, like breaking off his relationship with a German woman who worked at the school out of fear of the consequences of an interracial marriage.

After graduating from Crozer in 1951, King began his doctoral studies at Boston University while working as an assistant minister at Twelfth Baptist Church under the tutelage of a family friend. On June 18, 1953, King married Coretta Scott on her parent's lawn, but the young family never had a moment to enjoy their wedded bliss. By 1955, inspired by the arrest of Rosa Parks, King was leading his followers in a 385-day boycott of Montgomery's public transportation system, during which time his home was firebombed by a white supremacist. Standing feet away from the the charred remains of his former home, King told his supporters, "I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them, love them, and let them know you love them." Instantly, he became a star of the Civil Rights movement.

The same year, King earned his doctorate and began working as a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In the 1980s, researchers discovered that King had plagiarized some of his dissertation, but after an investigation into the paper in 1991, there was no recommendation to revoke his degree.