Since 1986, Americans have honored the life and career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday in January. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often observed as a day of service and giving back to the community in the spirit of King’s own activism. From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, King was one of the most iconic leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. His philosophy of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience lead to several legislative victories for the movement.
If you’re looking to learn more about his life and career this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’ve compiled a list of essential facts about the influential activist and the people and events that made him who he was.
He did not always want to be a pastor.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, to Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta King. He would grow up to be the third generation of his family to serve as a pastor. His maternal grandfather, Adam Daniel Williams, had served as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1894 to 1931. Following his death that year, his son-in-law Martin Luther King Sr. took over the position.
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As a high school junior, King passed the entrance exam to take classes at Morehouse College, a historically Black college that King Sr. and Williams had also attended. He would ultimately graduate with a Bachelor's degree in sociology at the age of 19. During his time at Morehouse, King was mentored by its president Dr. Benjamin Mays, a Baptist minister and civil rights advocate. Mays convinced King that ministry was the best way to satisfy King’s “inner urge to serve humanity.”
King realized that he could use the pulpit to further his commitment to social justice and perhaps to encourage protest. He graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 and received his PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. Years later, he would join his father as co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He was only 26 when he began his career as an activist.
In 1954, before even finishing his doctorate, King was called to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The next year, Montgomery became the epicenter of the first major protest event in the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus. News of her arrest spread fast, and African-American leaders across Montgomery discussed the idea of boycotting city buses. On Sunday, December 4, a coalition of Black ministers including King announced in their churches that the boycott would begin the next day. On the morning of December 5, approximately 40,000 African-American bus riders, who made up 75% of the total bus riders in Montgomery, began their boycott by refusing to ride the city buses.
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That afternoon, leaders from around the city met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the continued boycott. They elected King to serve as its president, making him the face of the movement. Montgomery’s Black community worked together to sustain the boycott for over a year until December 20, 1956, when the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation on city buses violated the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional.
He survived an early assassination attempt.
The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott thrust King into the national spotlight. The increased attention rallied many people around the cause of civil rights, but it inspired violent hatred in others. In January 1956, less than two months into the boycott, King’s house was bombed by a white supremacist. Fortunately, no one was harmed. He continued to face violent threats for the rest of his life, and in 1968 he was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.
What many people don't know is that another attempt on King’s life was made over a decade before his assassination. On September 20, 1958, King was in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem signing copies of his memoir about the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom. Izola Curry, a 42-year-old Black woman, approached him and asked, “Are you Martin Luther King?” When he said yes, she stabbed him in the chest with a steel letter opener.
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Bystanders quickly restrained Curry while King, who remained conscious, tried to keep everyone calm. The knife was still lodged in his sternum as he was taken to Harlem Hospital. The tip of the knife was dangerously close to his aorta and the surgeon who treated him said that if King had just sneezed, the blade would have punctured it and killed him. He recovered in the hospital for several weeks.
It was later discovered that Curry, who had a history of mentally illness, was convinced that King and the NAACP were secretly working with the communists to keep her from holding a steady job. In a press release he issued from his hospital bed, King forgave Curry and reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolence. As he stated, “The experience of these last few days has deepened my faith in the relevance of the spirit of nonviolence, if necessary social change is, peacefully, to take place. Through experience, I have now come to see more clearly the redemptive power of nonviolence.”
His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became an iconic text of the Civil Rights Movement.
On April 12, 1963, King and several others were arrested after a Good Friday protest in Birmingham, Alabama. The demonstration was part of the larger Birmingham Campaign, an extended protest movement that was meant to draw attention to the abhorrent treatment Black residents faced in what was known as "the most segregated city in America." King knew the demonstration would get him arrested as the city had recently passed an ordinance that prohibited public gatherings without an official permit, but he also knew that his arrest would bring the public and media attention he wanted.
King was immediately thrown into solitary confinement, without access to his lawyer and unable to contact his wife. During his isolation, he was smuggled a copy of a local newspaper that contained an open letter from eight white clergymen that criticized the demonstration and King himself, saying that he was an outsider in Birmingham that should not get involved. While in jail, King wrote a response that defended himself and his tactics and turned the tables on his critics. This response would become the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
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The letter is a 7,000-word manifesto for the Civil Rights Movement. In it, King criticized the argument that African Americans should wait for the civil rights battle to be fought in the courts instead of taking to the streets. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Without consulting any notes or research, King also supported his argument by quoting thinkers from across history, including St. Augustine, Socrates, and Thomas Jefferson. Concerning the assertion that he was an outside agitator that had no business in Birmingham, King wrote one of his most famous quotes, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King was released from jail on April 20 and continued his work in Birmingham. His arrest, as well as the violence and brutality he and other activists continually faced, drew national attention to the city. National publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Century published the letter, and King’s words began to resonate throughout the country.
One of his most important advisors was nearly written out of history.
One of the key components of King’s activism was his commitment to nonviolence. He was first exposed to the concept through studying the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi at the seminary, but it took years for him to fully embrace it. King’s first regular advisor on nonviolence, and the man who helped him understand how it could be used as a method of activism, was Bayard Rustin.
Rustin grew up surrounded by Quaker influences in Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to pacifism at a young age. In the early 1940s, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation—an interfaith organization that supported human rights—where he met A. Philip Randolph. Randolph had been fighting for civil rights since the early 20th century and became Rustin’s mentor. As early as 1941, they proposed a large-scale march on Washington, D.C. to protest discrimination against Black workers in the US Defense Department. It was Randolph who encouraged Rustin to meet with King in 1956 to lend his support to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
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King immediately recognized the value of Rustin’s insights as well as his skill as a strategist and organizer and invited him into his inner circle. Other leaders urged him to take caution, though. Rustin had been a member of the Young Communist League while he was in college and it was no secret that he was gay. A few years before he met King, Rustin had been arrested in California for “sex perversion” and soon thereafter resigned from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Despite the value of his ideas, Rustin could make for bad publicity.
King distanced himself from Rustin for several years until 1963. He was worried that the Civil Rights Movement was losing steam, and he knew that Rustin’s organizing skills could help. King quietly invited Rustin to join the Birmingham Campaign and helm the movement’s next big project, the same March on Washington he and Randolph had conceptualized over 20 years prior.
King’s other advisors were still worried that Rustin’s leadership would draw scrutiny about his political affiliations and his sexuality. Knowing this was true, King and John Lewis, a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, held a caucus that nominated Randolph to lead the march. Randolph chose Rustin as his deputy. With Rustin mostly operating behind the scenes, they planned one of the most important protests in American history.
On August 28, 1963, somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to demand civil rights for Black Americans. The march, and King’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech, were a watershed moment for the Civil Rights Movement. And none of it would have been possible without Bayard Rustin.
When he won the Nobel Peace Prize, King was the youngest person to have ever received the award.
The Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington cemented King’s status as the face of the Civil Rights Movement and led to worldwide recognition as well as important legislative victories. In 1963, He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, the first Black recipient of the honor.
In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance,” according to the Nobel Foundation. He was 35 at the time, then the youngest recipient of the award. That record is currently held by Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she won the award in 2014. When notified of his selection, King announced that he would donate his prize money—a sum of $54,123—to the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement.
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That same year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. King's actions in 1963, and the March on Washington in particular, were essential to its passage in Congress. The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
King continued to advocate for legislation to support civil rights and won another victory the next year. His efforts to encourage voting rights in Selma, Alabama and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery marches awakened more Americans to the oppression and violence that white segregationists regularly inflicted on African-Americans. This led Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
At the end of his life, King's activism was expanding into new areas.
In the mid-to-late 60s, a rift began to grow between King and younger, more militant activists. Leaders like Stokely Charmichael and members of the Black Panther Party criticized King’s nonviolent tactics and commitment to operating within the existing political framework in America. They argued that despite all King had done in the 50s and early 60s, African-Americans still suffered tremendous oppression, making it clear to them that his strategies were ineffective. This criticism, coupled with the failures of several campaigns he had launched in the north, led King to broaden his scope of activism.
King began to focus his activism on combating poverty, which he saw as a root cause of the suffering of Black Americans. He had been a strong supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty but found that the government was not doing enough to aid poor Americans of all races. He argued that the war in Vietnam was unnecessarily diverting funds and attention from domestic programs.
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King had always been personally opposed to the Vietnam War, but he had never addressed the issue in public because he worried it would jeopardize his relationship with the Johnson administration. As opposition to the war grew among the American public, King became more outspoken on the subject. In 1967, he gave a scathing speech that accused the United States of being in Vietnam in order to turn it into an American colony and called the US government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. He also criticized the government for sending Black soldiers to fight for freedoms they could not enjoy at home.
In 1968, King was hard at work planning the Poor People’s Campaign, which he hoped would culminate in a mass demonstration in Washington, D.C. He was still planning the protest on April 4, 1968, while he was in Memphis to support local sanitation workers who were on strike. That evening, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist. It is impossible to know what other causes King may have taken up had he lived, but he left behind a legacy that continues to inspire people across the world to fight for justice and equality.