Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. He completed his formal education with degrees from Morehouse College, Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University (Ph. D. in Systematic Theology, 1955). While serving as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he led the boycott which resulted in the desegregation of that city’s bus system. His resolve in the face of threats to his safety as well as that of his family, his conviction that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and his ability to write and speak with extraordinary power and clarity brought him to national prominence as a leader of the movement to achieve racial justice in America.
He studied the writings and example of Mohandas K. Gandhi in India who powerfully influenced his philosophy of non-violence. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said: “Non-violence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” Like Gandhi, King also understood the strategic value of non-violence: “We have neither the techniques nor the numbers to win a violent campaign.” His commitment to non-violence led him to oppose the American war in Viet Nam.
Like Henry David Thoreau, Dr. King believed in the necessity of resisting unjust laws with civil disobedience. As a leader of many demonstrations in support of the rights of African-Americans, he was subject to frequent arrest and imprisonment. His Letters from a Birmingham Jail (1963) was a call to conscience directed primarily at American religious leaders.
When a fellow civil rights worker was killed after the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, King said: “If physical death is the price that some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit then no sacrifice could be more redemptive.” Martin Luther King’s own redemptive sacrifice was exacted by an assassin’s bullets on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.