Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1929-1969) African American clergyman and one of the most important leaders of the civil rights movement, born in Atlanta, the son of the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. After graduating from Morehouse College (1948), he was ordained to the Baptist ministry; he subsequently studied at Crozer Theological Seminary (B.D., 1951) and Boston University (Ph.D., 1955). While at BU, he became acquainted with the work of Mohandas Gandhi, whose ideas about nonviolent protest King would embrace and apply to the struggle for racial justice in the United States.

His involvement in the civil rights movement commenced after King accepted the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As part of an effort throughout the South to end segregation in public accommodations, the bus company was targeted in Montgomery, beginning with the legendary refusal of Rosa Parks to take a seat in the back of the bus in 1955. King spearheaded the ad hoc committee that was formed to boycott the bus company. The result of this boycott was the end of segregated public transportation in the city, and the process of this victory catapulted King into national prominence.

He became involved in discussions between influential northern blacks such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker as well as southern clergy that resulted in the creation, in 1957, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King soon became the leader of this organization, which Aldon Morris (1984:77) has described as "the decentralized political arm of the black church." The SCLC became the main vehicle for promoting King's strategy of nonviolent protest. As such, it was more militant than such organizations as the NAACP, which preferred to work through the courts and the legislative system. On the other hand, its commitment to nonviolence was challenged over time by more militant groups associated with the Black Power phase of the civil rights movement.

King led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, where, jailed, he penned his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." This campaign was followed by campaigns focusing on housing, education, and voter registration. He also turned his attention away from a singular focus on the South and initiated campaigns in several northern cities. One of the high points of his career occurred during the 1963 March on Washington, which he led, when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

During King's career as a civil rights activist, he fought for a number of causes that some movement activists viewed as being outside the purview of black civil rights. Most notably, he became increasingly involved in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. His stature was enhanced when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1964, but at the same time, his life was often in jeopardy. His home was bombed, and he received numerous death threats. In addition, he had to endure a protracted effort on the part of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to destroy his career. While standing on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee (where he had gone to add his support to striking municipal workers), on April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed. In the years after his death, a symbolic crusade led by his widow, Coretta Scott King, urged the passage of legislation to make his birthday a federal holiday. This became a reality in 1986.

Aaron Kivisto and Peter Kivisto


T. Branch, Parting the Waters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988)

D. J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr . (New York: Penguin, 1981)

D. J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (New York: Morrow, 1986)

D. L. Lewis, King (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978)

A. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 1984).

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