Martin Luther King, Jr., America's foremost civil rights leader, was the son and grandson of African American Baptist clergymen. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, he graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. Although he initially resisted the idea of the ministry, King was ordained during his final semester at Morehouse and pursued theological studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. While still a doctoral student, King was appointed pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955 he was named head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a local organization founded in the wake of NAACP official Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. During the year-long bus boycott that followed, King forged the distinctive strategy that would characterize the rest of his career, combining non-violent protest based on the principles of Indian leader Mohandas Ghandi with mobilization of black congregations and media-oriented appeals for white support.
Following the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott, King founded and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the South. In 1960, he moved to Atlanta to co-pastor the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father and devote more time to the movement and its student supporters. That same year, after being arrested during a sit-in at Rich's lunch counter, King, who unknowingly had violated the terms of his parole for driving with an expired license, was sentenced to four months in the federal prison. John Kennedy's sympathetic telephone call to Coretta Scott King and his supporters' subsequent efforts to secure King's release greatly enhanced Kennedy's support in the African American community and contributed to his subsequent victory.
King's next defining moment came during the Birmingham protests of April 1963, which spearheaded the city's desegregation. Five months later, King and other civil rights leaders led 200,000 people in a March to Washington, which dramatized the need for additional civil rights legislation. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
King also played a key role in the 1965 March on Selma, Alabama, and in securing passage of the Voting Rights Act. However, his efforts to secure African American rights in northern urban areas failed and his lack of success, coupled with the increasing militancy of other black groups, undermined his leadership of the civil rights movement. As the 1960s progressed, he broadened his political critique to include opposition to the Vietnam War and a call for effective, widespread anti-poverty programs. King was in the midst of plans for a Poor People's March on Washington when he became involved in a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tennessee. He was assassinated there on April 4, 1968.
Source: David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Quill Books, 1983), passim.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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