Martin Luther King, Jr.

Clergyman, Civil Rights Leader : 1929 - 1968
Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon ... which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.


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, King led the boycott that resulted in the desegregation of that city's bus system. Along with Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, and others, he went on to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) - commonly described as a group created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of Black churches to conduct nonviolent protest in the service of civil rights. King led SCLC until his death. 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.

King 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, over the objections of many people in the civil rights movement, to oppose the war in Vietnam; he understood the connections between racism, militarism, and materialism. 

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 "Letter 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 free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive." Martin Luther King's own redemptive sacrifice was exacted by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.