Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father and his maternal grandfather were both Baptist ministers. Martin proved to be a brilliant student, and entered college at the age of 15 under a special program for gifted students at Morehouse College in Atlanta. During his senior year, he decided to become a minister.
For the next 6 years, he lived in Philadelphia and Boston, cities which offered far more equal treatment and more opportunities to black people than were available in the south during the late 1940's and early 1950's. He obtained his bachelor of divinity in 1951 from Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia), where he was elected president of the student body and graduated with the highest academic average in his class at the age of 22.
Martin then began doctoral studies at Boston University. He married Coretta Scott in 1953. She was a student from Alabama at the New England Conservatory of Music.
He was offered jobs in the northeast, where he could have lived a life somewhat free from the segregation that still affected much of the United States. However, he became minister at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama on October 31, 1954, believing that he could accomplish something more significant by returning to the south. A few months later, he obtained his Ph.D in systematic theology.
Slightly more than one year after Martin began his work in Montgomery, a 42 year old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She was arrested. Black activists who wanted to boycott the transit system had chosen Martin as their leader, partly because he was sophisticated and too new in town to have made many enemies. Thus, the civil rights movement began with the 26 year old pastor at the forefront.
For the next 13 years, Martin led civil rights marches, made speeches, and led a peaceful movement to stop prejudice against black people in the United States. He and Coretta had four children. They both went to India to study Gandhi's methods of peaceful protest, and superimposed Gandhi's methods on top of his own combination of black Baptist roots and the liberal, intellectual theology he had learned in graduate school.
Although the combination of beliefs must have led to inner spiritual struggles, and despite publicized moral lapses, Martin did not waiver from his goal of peaceful transformation, giving eloquent speeches, drawing from scripture references in the style of his black Baptist roots. Even when his civil rights work required him to leave his church in Montgomery, he became a co-pastor with his father in Atlanta, never ceasing to be the Baptist "Reverend Martin King." However, when he addressed educated white people, he generally used a liberal, intellectual style which had undoubtedly gained the respect of northeastern white students in the past.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to the white Birmingham clergy, written April 16, 1963 on scraps of paper in a jail cell, he referenced from memory the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and Martin Luther. He tried to explain to white clergymen that he was the middle ground, seeking justice and freedom for black people by peaceful means. He explained that on one side of him were people who wanted to avoid change, and on the other side were people who wanted militancy. The latter group he called "a force of bitterness . . . which comes perilously close to advocating violence," primarily the black Muslim movement. Of that movement, he said, "It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable 'devil'." He tried to stand between the two forces, giving in to neither complacency nor to hatred and despair.
In 1958, he was stabbed by a deranged black woman in Harlem. In 1964, he was stoned by Black Muslims in Harlem. His home was bombed in 1956, with no one hurt. An unexploded bomb was found on his front porch in 1957.
He was arrested in 1960, 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1967.
He was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year on January 3, 1964. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964, at 35, the youngest man to ever receive that award. Coretta wanted to set aside the prize money for their children’s education, but Martin donated half of it to the civil rights movement.
On April 4, 1968, he was fatally shot while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. His assailant was a white man. He left behind Coretta and four children born during those turbulent years.