Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), was a Baptist pastor and civil rights leader who was instrumental in ending legal segregation in the United States.
Martin Luther King was born Michael King, Jr., but in 1934 his father changed his name to Martin Luther King in honor of the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. King’s father, and his grandfather before him, pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Martin grew up amid legalized segregation in the South—blacks and whites were forbidden from going to the same schools, eating at the same counter in restaurants, and riding in the same section of the bus. Martin attended schools in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, earning a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955.
Martin Luther King, Jr., met Coretta Scott in Boston, and the two were married in 1953. He took a pastorate in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1955 something happened that changed the course of King’s life: Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery. Civil rights advocates decided to boycott the public bus system, and they chose King as their leader and spokesman. Throughout the boycott, which lasted a little more than a year, King faced many threats, but he persevered; in the end, the transit system was desegregated.
Following his success in Alabama, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began to speak on race-related issued throughout the country. As King developed and refined his message, he took a staunch nonviolent approach, drawn from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1960 King and his family moved to Atlanta, where he became the co-pastor with his father of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In the next years, King participated in sit-ins and marches to protest segregation in the South. He was arrested several times (about 30 times in his lifetime). From a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote the following: “Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid” (from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 1963).
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., led an assembly of more than 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and there gave his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” which contains this passage: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The year after King’s speech, the Civil Rights Act was passed and signed into law. The federal government was then authorized to enforce desegregation, and racial discrimination in publicly owned facilities and in employment was outlawed.
In the mid-1960s, some within the civil rights movement began to criticize the effectiveness of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, nonviolent tactics. The rising black power movement openly called for violence in the fight against racism. King stayed true to his principles, however, refusing to support acts of violence, no matter the ultimate goal.
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike of city workers. While there, King was killed at his motel by a sniper. In 1983 a new national holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, was established on the third Monday in January. In 2011 a permanent national memorial to Dr. King was dedicated in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, theology was rooted in the social gospel, a system that sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, racial injustice, poor education, crime, and war. In the social gospel, foundational biblical doctrines such as sin, salvation, heaven, and hell were downplayed in favor of social action. King was also influenced by neo-orthodoxy, theological liberalism, and non-Christian ideas such as the teachings of Gandhi. King consistently appealed to the Christian principles of brotherly love, justice, and freedom and, in doing so, had a profound impact on the civil rights movement and the history of the United States. The biblical orthodoxy of some of his doctrine may be in doubt, but the lasting effects of the social reformation he helped lead certainly glorify God.