Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the twentieth century’s best-known advocates for nonviolent social change. (Original name Michael King, Jr., born 15 January 1929, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.—died 4 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee).
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist who led the Black civil rights movement in the United States from the mid 1950’s until his death by assassination in 1968. He inspired both Black and non-Black people in America through his strong belief in nonviolence and his inspirational speeches. King was raised in a family steeped in the tradition of the Southern Black ministry, where both his father and maternal grandmother were Baptist preachers.
In 1955, King was chosen to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association following the Montgomery Bus boycott. He recognised the urgency for momentum following the successful boycott. King then organised the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform from which to speak.
In February 1959, King travelled to India to meet with Gandhi’s followers and learnt about Gandhian concepts of nonviolence (satyagraha). His trip further cemented his belief that nonviolent resistance was the most effective tool for liberating oppressed people. King also turned to Africa for inspiration; “The liberation struggle in Africa has been the greatest single international influence on American Negro students…frequently I hear them say that if their African brothers can break the bonds of colonialism, surely the American Negro can break Jim Crow.”
In the 1960’s King’s influence peaked among both Black and non-Black Americans. Eloquent and determined, King willed the power of television to gather national and international attention to the struggle for Black civil rights. His work was also supported by the administrations of President Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
On 28 August 1963, King worked with other civil rights activists in organizing the historic March on Washington, where over 200,000 gathered peacefully in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. It was there that King delivered his renowned speech, ‘I Have a Dream’, in which he emphasized his faith that all men would someday be brothers. The Black civil rights movement in America was swelling and in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was legislated, resulting in the desegregation of public accommodations, outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilitaties as well as in employment. That same year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
While King helped progress the Black civil rights movement in America, there was a growing body of opposition and questioning of his nonviolent tactics from young Black militants who urged for immediate change. In the rise of mounting criticism, King broadened his activism to address concerns other than racism. He is noted for speaking out against the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
On the night before King was assassinated, he told a crowd at the Mason Temple Church, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The next day, King was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet. The assasination ignited distress and riots in over 100 cities across the country.
King remains the most widely known African American leader of the Black Civil Rights movement. He was an inspirational leader with a strong vision and was deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.