Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Martin Luther King Jr. | Biography


Early Life and Social Influences

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, to parents Alberta and Michael King Sr. His father and grandfathers were Baptist ministers. After a 1934 trip to Berlin, Germany, the elder King changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther, after the 16th-century German philosopher and theologian who once challenged the Catholic Church. King Jr. grew up in a loving, middle-class, college-educated family that was heavily involved in the southern black Church. Politics and religion were always topics of conversation in the Kings' Atlanta household. King Sr. was a seasoned campaigner for civil rights and taught his children about the "ridiculous nature" of segregation.

It didn't take long for King Jr. to see the ugly side of segregation for himself. When he was six, a white friend told him they could no longer play together because segregation dictated they attend separate schools. At 15 he spent the summer at a Connecticut tobacco farm and was shocked to see how peacefully whites and blacks lived side by side in the North. In Atlanta during the 1940s black people had to attend separate churches and couldn't eat in most restaurants.

Education and Religious and Civic Leadership

Thanks to a special wartime program meant to boost student registration, Martin Luther King Jr. enrolled in Atlanta's Morehouse College and graduated in 1948. He then moved to Chester, Pennsylvania, to attend Crozer Theological Seminary. In a student body of just over 90, King was one of 11 black students. Well liked and known for his speaking skills, he was elected student body president before graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. From there he went to Boston University, where in 1955 he was awarded a doctorate degree in systematic theology.

King and his wife, Coretta Scott, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, where King became the pastor of a local church. In December 1955 Montgomery citizen Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat so a white passenger could sit down. Her action violated the city's segregation laws, and Parks was arrested. Following her arrest a small group of civil rights activists—the Montgomery Improvement Association—called for a boycott of the local bus system. King was selected to lead the boycott because of his personal and professional connections and the respect he had earned in the city. Despite that respect, King's public role as leader of the boycott brought a violent response from some segregationists. King's family and home were threatened and attacked several times during the protest's duration. The boycott lasted just over a year, ending on December 20, 1956, with a Supreme Court decision that declared segregation of the city's buses to be unconstitutional.

Further Civil Rights Progress

The success in Montgomery spurred King to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization devoted to furthering the national conversation about civil rights. This gave him a platform to discuss race relations in the United States and abroad. In 1959 he and his associates traveled to India. There they learned about the late Indian social and political leader Mahatma Gandhi's theory of peaceful noncompliance, or nonviolent protest, as a means of instigating social and political progress. King was inspired by Gandhi's followers and adopted nonviolent resistance as his chosen method of advocating for racial equality.

The Kings moved back to Atlanta in 1960, where King joined his father as copastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He spent most of his time focusing on the civil rights movement. The relatively new medium of television helped him spread his message of peaceful resistance across the world while also providing a face and a voice to the struggle of African Americans in the United States. He wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in April 1963 while incarcerated for violating a city injunction against parading without a permit. The letter addressed the many critiques King received from whites and blacks alike about his unorthodox practices in the battle for civil rights, but it was written specifically in response to an open letter from eight white clergymen berating King for his presence in Alabama and his incendiary motives. Yet it was his insistence on nonviolence that ultimately earned him the respect of many blacks, liberal whites, and government officials all the way up to the White House.

During 1960–65 King was at the zenith of his power and influence as he campaigned to end lunch counter segregation and employment discrimination in the South. Following his release from the Birmingham city jail, he helped organize the August 1963 March on Washington, where over 200,000 people of all races gathered peacefully as King made his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. During 1964–65 King's tireless work contributed significantly to the passage of two crucial pieces of legislation—the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on gender or ethnicity, and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting practices. His nonviolent campaigning for civil rights was recognized internationally when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. He continued to petition for racial equality until his assassination on April 4, 1968, at the hands of segregation supporter James Earl Ray.

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