Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. His legal name at birth was "Michael King", also his father's given name. King Sr. "changed" both names during a 1934 trip to Nazi Germany to attend the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. He chose to be called Martin Luther King in honor of the great German reformer Martin Luther. Martin Jr. had his name legally changed on July 23, 1959.
Martin, Jr., was a middle child, between an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. Martin and his sisters attended segregated schools in Atlanta. He graduated at age 15. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts degree, the same college his father and grandfather had attended. He earned a Bachelors of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951, and was president of his class. He received his doctorate from Boston University in 1955. It was in Boston that he met his wife, Coretta Scott.
Martin's family had a legacy of serving as pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which Martin continued. In 1954, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for being an iconic figure in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world, using nonviolent methods following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King is often presented as a heroic leader in the history of modern American liberalism.
A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. By 1954, he was a member of the executive committee of the NAACP. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the United States Supreme Court declaring bus seat segregation unconstitutional. King and his family were persecuted for his persistence.
He helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. From 1957 to 1964, Dr. King traveled extensively, speaking for civil rights and equality, all the while writing five books and numerous articles. During one of his engagements in Birmingham, Alabama, a city noted at the time as one of the most segregated, he was arrested, and wrote his stirring "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
King's efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he expanded American values to include the vision of a color-blind society, and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history. He was named Time magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1963.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means. He turned the prize money over to organizations to further the fight for civil rights.
By 1968, King had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, on the balcony of his Lorraine Motel room. His funeral was held in Atlanta, where it was widely attended. His body is interred at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center.
He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
King's efforts are memorialized in many ways, with statues, streets, schools, as well as geographical places. King County, Washington used to be named in honor of William Rufus Devane King, Vice President of the United States under President Franklin Pierce. In 1986, the King County Council voted to change it to be in honor Martin Luther King, Jr. This did not become official until passed by the state legislature in 2005. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. national holiday in 1986. He is the only non-president to have a national holiday named in his honor.
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