USA // The South //

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–68)


Martin Luther King, Jr was born at 501 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, on January 15, 1929. The house was then home to his parents and his grandparents; both his maternal grandfather, Rev A. D. Williams, and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr, served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church nearby. Young Martin was ordained at 19 and became co-pastor at Ebenezer with his father, but continued his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, and at Boston University. Returning to the South, King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, where his leadership during the bus boycott a year later (see South central Alabama) brought him to national prominence. A visit to India in 1957 further cemented his belief in non-violent resistance as the means by which racial segregation could be eradicated. He returned to Atlanta in 1960, becoming co-pastor at Ebenezer once more, but also taking on the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As such, he became the figurehead for the civil rights struggle, planning strategy for future campaigns, flying into each new trouble spot, and commenting to the news media on every latest development. His apotheosis in that role came in August 1963, when he addressed the March on Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Despite King’s passionate espousal of non-violence, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI branded him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”, and persistently attempted to discredit him over his personal life. King himself became more overtly politicized in his final years. Challenged by the stridency of Malcolm X and the radicalism of urban black youth, he came to see the deprivation and poverty of the cities of the North as affecting black and white alike, and only solvable by tackling “the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism”. In the South, he had always been able to appeal to the federal government as an (albeit often reluctant) ally; now, having declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he faced a sterner and lonelier struggle. In the event, his Poor People’s Campaign had barely got off the ground before King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

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