Martin Luther King Program

Office of the Provost

Biography

Birth and Family

Martin Luther King Jr. was born at noon Tuesday, January 15, 1929, at the family home, 501 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Charles Johnson was the attending physician. Martin Luther King Jr., was the first son and second child born to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King. Other children born to the Kings were Christine King Farris and the late Reverend Alfred Daniel Williams King. Martin Luther King's maternal grandparents were the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, and Jenny Parks Williams. His paternal grandparents, James Albert and Delia King, were sharecroppers on a farm in Stockbridge, Georgia.

He married the former Coretta Scott, younger daughter of Obadiah and Bernice McMurray Scott of Marion, Alabama on June 18, 1953. The marriage ceremony took place on the lawn of the Scott's home in Marion. The Reverend King, Sr., performed the service, with Mrs. Edythe Bagley, the sister of Mrs. King, maid of honor, and the Reverend A.D. King, the brother of Martin Luther King Jr., best man.

Four children were born to Dr. and Mrs. King:

Yolanda Denise (November 17, 1955 Montgomery, Alabama)
Martin Luther III (October 23, 1957 Montgomery, Alabama)
Dexter Scott (January 30, 1961 Atlanta, Georgia)
Bernice Albertine (March 28, 1963 Atlanta, Georgia)

Education

At the age of five, Martin Luther King Jr. began school at the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia. When it was discovered that he was not the school required age of six, he was not permitted to continue going to school. At age six, he was enrolled at the David T. Howard Elementary School. He also attended the Atlanta University Laboratory School and Booker T. Washington High School. Because of his high score on the college entrance examinations in his junior year of high school, he advanced to Morehouse College without formal graduation from Booker T. Washington. Having skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades, Dr. King entered Morehouse at the age of fifteen.

In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in Sociology. That fall, he enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. While attending Crozer, he also studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected president of the senior class and delivered the valedictory address; he won the Pearl Plafker Award for the most outstanding student; and he received the J. Lewis Crozer fellowship for graduate study at a university of his choice. He was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer in 1951.

In September of 1951, Martin Luther King Jr. began doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University. He also studied at Harvard University. His dissertation, "A Comparison of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Wieman," was completed in 1955, and the Ph.D. degree was awarded on June 5, 1955.

Honorary Degrees

From 1957 to 1967, Dr. King was awarded numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities in the United States and several foreign countries. They include the following:

1957
  • Doctor of Human Letters, Morehouse College
  • Doctor of Laws, Howard University
  • Doctor of Divinity, Chicago Theological Seminary
1958
  • Doctor of Laws, Morgan State College
  • Doctor of Humanities, Central State College
1959
  • Doctor of Divinity, Boston University
1961
  • Doctor of Laws, Lincoln University
  • Doctor of Laws, University of Bridgeport
1962
  • Doctor of Civil Laws, Bard College
1963
  • Doctor of Letters, Keuka College
1964
  • Doctor of Divinity, Wesleyan College
  • Doctor of Laws, Jewish Theological Seminary
  • Doctor of Laws, Yale University
  • Doctor of Divinity, Springfield College
1965
  • Doctor of Laws, Hofstra University
  • Doctor of Human Letters, Oberlin College
  • Doctor of Social Science, Amsterdam Free University
  • Doctor of Divinity, St. Peter's College
1967
  • Doctor of Civil Law, University of New Castle Upon Tyne
  • Doctor of Laws, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Martin Luther King entered the Christian ministry and was ordained in February 1948 at the age of nineteen at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, where he became Assistant Pastor. Upon completion of his studies at Boston University, he accepted the call of Pastorship of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, from September 1954 to November 1959, when he resigned to move to Atlanta to direct the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1960 until his death in 1968, he was co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church and President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr. King was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization which was responsible for the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956 (381 days). He was arrested thirty times for his participation in civil rights activities. He was a founder and president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1957 to 1968. He was also vice president of the national Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention. He was a member of several national and local boards of directors and served on the boards of trustees of several institutions and agencies. Dr. King was elected to membership in several learned societies including the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Accomplishments

From 1957 to 1968, Dr. King received several hundred awards for his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. Among them were:

  • Selected one of the most outstanding personalities of the year by Time, 1957
  • Listed in Who's Who in America, 1957
  • The Spingarn Medal from NAACP, 1957
  • The Russwurm Award from the National Newspaper Publishers, 1957
  • The Second Annual Achievement -- The Guardian Association of the Police Department of New York, 1958
  • Link Magazine of New Dehli, India, listed Dr. King as one of the sixteen world leaders who had contributed most to the advancement of freedom during 1959
  • Named Man of the Year by Time, 1963
  • Named American of the Decade by Laundry, Dry Cleaning, and Die Workers International Union, 1963
  • The John Dewey Award, from the United Federation of Teachers, 1964
  • The John F. Kennedy Award, from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago, 1964
  • The Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At age 35, Dr. King was the youngest man, the second American, and the third black man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, presented by the Jamaican Government. (Posthumously) 1968
  • The Rosa L. Parks Award, presented by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Posthumously) 1968
  • Posthumously, Dr. King was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Recording for his speech, "Why I oppose the war in Vietnam" in 1970 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter on July 11, 1977. These awards and citations among numerous others, are in the Archives of the Martin Luther King, Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Although extremely involved with his family, his church, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, activities for peace and justice, his world travels, and his many speaking engagements, Dr. King wrote six books and numerous articles:
    • The Measure of a Man (Philadelphia Pilgrim Press 1959). A selection of sermons.
    • Why We Can't Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). The story of the Birmingham Campaign.
    • Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). A selection of sermons.
    • Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row 1967). Reflections on the problems of today's world, the nuclear arms race, etc.
    • (Posthumously) The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper & Row 1967). The Masey Lectures, sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Speeches

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a vital personality of the modern era. His lectures and remarks stirred the concern and sparked the conscience of a generation; the movements and marches he led brought significant changes in the fabric of American life; his courageous and selfless devotion gave direction to thirteen years of civil rights activities; his charismatic leadership inspired men and women, young and old, in the nation and abroad.

Dr. King's concept of "somebodiness" gave black and poor people a new sense of worth and dignity. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, and his strategies for rational and nondestructive social change, galvanized the conscience of this nation and reordered its priorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, went to Congress as a result of the Selma to Montgomery march. His wisdom, his words, his actions, his commitment, and his dreams for a new cast of life, are intertwined with the American experience.

Dr. King's speech at the march on Washington in 1963, his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize, his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his final speech in Memphis are among his most famous utterances (I've Been to the Mountaintop). The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" ranks among the most important American documents.

Assassination

Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and intolerable working conditions. Dr. King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England on June 8, 1968 and returned to Memphis, Tennessee to stand trial for the assassination of Dr. King. On March 9, 1969, before coming to trial, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Dr. King's funeral services were held April 9, 1968, in Atlanta at Ebenezer Church and on the campus of Morehouse College, with the President of the United States proclaiming a day of mourning and flags being flown at half-staff. The area where Dr. King is entombed is located on Freedom Plaza and surrounded by the Freedom Hall Complex of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. The Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, a 23 acre area, was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977, and was made a National Historic Site on October 10, 1980 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Source: Curriculum package, Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission.

See timeline of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and career.