Famous leaders

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King in 1964Martin Luther King in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister who became a leader of the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. He used methods of non-violent civil disobedience to fight for equal rights for African Americans. His powerful speeches spurred millions of people to protest against racial discrimination and poverty. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968. Martin Luther King changed the course of history in the USA. He showed that non-violence was an extremely powerful weapon. Every year, his birthday, 15th January, is remembered in the USA by a national holiday, and his example still inspires people all over the world to stand up for justice and equality.

King's boyhood home in Atlanta, GeorgiaKing's boyhood home in Atlanta, Georgia

Early life

Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15th January 1929. His father was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in a fairly prosperous Atlanta neighbourhood. His mother, Alberta Williams King, was a schoolteacher. But despite these comfortable surroundings, Martin Jr. was aware of racial discrimination from an early age. When he was a small child, parents of white playmates cut short their sons’ friendship with Martin because of his skin colour.

As he grew older, King became more and more aware of discrimination against African Americans in all public places in his home town—buses, shops, theatres and restaurants. Working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut one summer, he was struck by how different race relations were in the northern states of the USA, where there was no segregation.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

Thoreau and Gandhi

King decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Baptist minister. In his studies, he came across the works of the American thinker Henry David Thoreau, particularly his essay On Civil Disobedience, which advanced the idea that people needed to act according to their own personal beliefs of right or wrong. He also became aware of the non-violent protest used by the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi. King was fascinated and inspired by Gandhi’s example.


King and his wife Coretta Scott King in 1964King and his wife Coretta Scott King in 1964

The bus boycott

King could have pursued an academic career in the northern states, but he chose to move back to the south to be pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1953, he married Coretta Scott, who had been studying at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Rosa Parks (1912–2005)Rosa Parks (1912–2005) It was in Alabama, in 1955, that an African American woman called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She was arrested for violating the city’s segregation laws. In response, the African American community decided to boycott the city’s buses. An organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with King as its leader.

The King family received threats, their home was bombed, and King himself was arrested, but late in 1956 the US Supreme Court ruled that the buses must be desegregated. King’s tactics of non-violent civil disobedience had triumphed.


March on Washington, 1963March on Washington, 1963Click to play video

"I have a dream"

In 1960, King and his family moved back to Atlanta, where he became a pastor in his father’s church. The civil rights movement was now beginning to gather pace. In 1963, King travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, to fight segregation. The police in Birmingham arrested hundreds of protesters, including King, and locked them in the city’s jails. It was a bitter fight, but it ended with desegregation in the city.

On 28th August 1963, King joined with thousands of other protesters in the historic March on Washington. Around 200,000 people of all races came together at the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal rights for all US citizens. It was here that King gave one of his most famous speeches of all, "I have a dream", in which he spoke of his belief that all people would be equal one day. A few weeks earlier the US president, John F. Kennedy, had proposed a Civil Rights Act that would end discrimination based on race or colour. In 1964, this act finally came into law.

Police arrest, Watts Riots, Los Angeles, 1965Police arrest, Watts Riots, Los Angeles, 1965

Voting rights

The right of all US citizens to vote is enshrined in the US constitution, but many southern states had unjust systems of registration and tests that made it almost impossible for most African Americans to be eligible to vote. In 1965, King turned his attention once again to this problem and together with other members of the civil rights movement organized Project Alabama. This campaign focused on the town of Selma, Alabama. Attempts to organize peaceful marches in the town led to King’s imprisonment once more. Then, on 7th March 1965, marchers were met by state troopers equipped with whips, clubs and tear gas. The violence that followed was caught by TV cameras and shocked people across the USA. In August, the campaign came to a successful conclusion when the Voting Rights Act was passed, making it illegal to prevent African Americans from voting.


The civil rights movement had been successful in tackling segregation and voting rights in the southern states, but in 1964, rioting broke out in several cities in the northern states. Many poor African Americans who lived in slums in the cities began to question King’s tactics of non-violence.Civil rights march, Alabama, 1965Civil rights march, Alabama, 1965To try to address the issues of poverty, in 1966 King established his headquarters in a slum apartment in Chicago, from where he led marches and protests. But he had begun to lose the support of younger people, who turned to violence in their fight for civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr. Monument in Washington, D.C.Martin Luther King Jr. Monument in Washington, D.C.


In April 1968 King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. While he was standing on the balcony of his motel, he was shot. He died soon afterward.

King’s assassination sparked grief, anger and violence in more than 100 US cities. An escaped white convict named James Earl Ray was accused of his murder. Ray pleaded guilty and was imprisoned for 99 years. King’s funeral was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he had been a pastor with his father. On his gravestone are words taken from an old slave song: "Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last."

Consultant: Philip Parker

King had not been intending to give the “I have a dream” portion of his history-making 1963 speech in Washington, as he felt he had used it too many times. He was winding up his prepared speech when his friend, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, called out, twice: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

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