Growing up in a staunchly middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) had a pleasant and carefree childhood. His father, Martin Sr., was the pastor of the large and thriving Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, so the Kings were relatively well off. His parents were loving and devoted to their children. Home life was stable and comfortable and included Grandmother King, who doted on young Martin Jr. He had a wide circle of friends. The few encounters he had with racism outside the neighborhood marred this idyllic childhood but left him relatively unscathed. Martin Jr., however, was exceptionally sensitive to the feelings of those around him. And as he got older, he sensed something from his father that began to trigger some inner tension and discomfort.
His father was a strict disciplinarian who set solid boundaries of behavior for the three King children. When Martin Jr. misbehaved in any way, his father whipped him, telling the boy this was the only way to turn him into a real man. The whippings continued until he was fifteen. Once his father caught Martin Jr. at a church social dancing with a girl, and his scolding of the boy in front of his friends was so vehement, Martin Jr. strove to never repeat the experience by causing his father’s displeasure. But none of this discipline came with the slightest hint of hostility. Martin Sr.’s affection for his son was too real and palpable for the boy to feel anything but guilt for disappointing him.
And such feelings of guilt were all the more stressful for Martin Jr. because of the high hopes the father placed on his son. As a boy, Martin Jr. displayed an unusual way with words; he could talk his friends into almost anything, and his eloquence was quite precocious. He was certainly bright. A plan formed in Martin Sr.’s mind that his elder son would follow in his father’s footsteps—attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, becoming ordained as a minister, serving as copastor at Ebenezer, and then eventually inheriting the father’s position, just as Martin Sr. had inherited it from his father-in-law.
Sometimes the father shared this plan, but more than anything else the boy could feel the weight of his father’s expectations in the prideful way he looked at him and treated him. And it made him anxious. He deeply admired his father—he was a man of very high principle. But Martin Jr. could not avoid sensing the growing differences between them in taste and temperament. The son was more easygoing. He loved attending parties, wearing nice clothes, dating girls, and dancing. As he got older, he developed a pronounced serious and introspective side and was drawn to books and learning. It was almost as if there were two people inside of him—one social, the other solitary and reflective. His father, on the other hand, was not complicated at all
When it came to religion, Martin Jr. had his doubts. His father’s faith was strong but simple. He was a fundamentalist who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. His sermons were aimed at the emotions of his parishioners, and they responded in kind. Martin Jr., on the other hand, had a cool temperament. He was rational and practical. His father seemed more concerned with helping people in the afterlife, whereas the son was more interested in life on earth and how it could be improved and enjoyed.
The thought of becoming a minister intensified these inner conflicts. At times he could imagine himself following his father’s career path. As someone deeply sensitive to any form of suffering or injustice, serving as a minister could be the perfect way to channel his desire to help people. But could he be a minister with such tenuous religious faith? He hated any kind of confrontation with his father, with whom it was impossible to argue. He developed the strategy of always saying yes to whatever his father said. His way of dealing with the tension inside him was to postpone any decision that might cause a rift. And so, when he graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, he decided to attend Morehouse, delighting his father. But in his mind he had a plan—he would study everything that interested him and decide on his own the path he would take.
In the first few months he thought of a career in medicine, then sociology, then law. He kept changing his mind about a major, excited by all the subjects now open to him. He took a class in Bible studies, and he was pleasantly surprised at the profound, earthy wisdom in the book. There were professors at Morehouse who approached Christianity from a very intellectual angle, and he found this quite appealing. By his last year at Morehouse he had changed his mind yet again: he would become ordained as a minister, and he would enroll at Crozer Theological Seminary, located in Pennsylvania, for a divinity degree. Now his father was quite ecstatic. He understood it was best to let Martin Jr. explore religion on his own, as long as he ended up at Ebenezer.
At Crozer, Martin Jr. discovered a whole other side to Christianity, one that emphasized social commitment and political activism. He read all of the major philosophers, devoured the works of Karl Marx, and became fascinated with the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Finding the life of an academic a pleasant one, he decided to continue his studies at Boston University, where he gained a reputation among his professors as a brilliant scholar in the making. But as he prepared to graduate in 1954 from Boston University with a PhD in systematic theology, he could no longer postpone the inevitable. His father had lined up for him an irresistible offer—a position as copastor at Ebenezer and a part- time teaching position at Morehouse, where he could continue the academic studies he loved.
Martin had recently married, and his wife, Coretta, wanted them to stay in the North, where life would be easier than in the troubled South. He could get a teaching job at almost any university he wanted. It was tempting to fall for either option—Ebenezer or teaching at a northern university. They would certainly lead to a comfortable life.
In the past few months, however, he had had a different vision of his future. He could not rationally explain where this came from, but it was clear to him: He would return to the South, where he felt a primal connection to his roots. He would become the minister of a large congregation in a good-sized city, a place where he could help people, serve the community, and make a practical difference. But it would not be in Atlanta, as his father had planned. He was not destined to be a professor or merely a preacher molded by his father. He would have to resist the easy path. And this vision had become too strong for him to deny it any longer—he would have to displease his father, breaking the news as gently as possible.
Several months before graduating, he heard of an opening at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He visited the church and gave a sermon there, impressing the church’s leaders. He found the congregation at Dexter more solemn and thoughtful than at Ebenezer, which suited his own temperament. Coretta tried to dissuade him from such a choice. She had grown up not far from Montgomery, and she knew how fiercely segregated the city was, and the many ugly tensions below the surface. Martin would encounter there a virulent racism he had never experienced in his relatively sheltered life. To Martin Sr., Dexter and Montgomery spelled trouble. He added his voice to Coretta’s. But when Dexter offered Martin Jr. the job, he did not experience his usual ambivalence and need to think things over. For some reason, he felt certain about the choice; it seemed fateful and right.
Established at Dexter, Martin Jr. worked hard at imposing his authority (he knew he looked a bit too young for the position). He devoted a great deal of time and effort to his sermons. Preaching became his passion, and he soon gained a reputation as the most formidable preacher in the area. But unlike many other pastors, his sermons were full of ideas, inspired by all of the books he had read. He managed to make these ideas relevant to the day-to-day lives of his congregation. The key theme he had begun to develop was the power of love to transform people, a power that was desperately underused in the world and that blacks would have to adopt in relation to their white oppressors in order to change things.
He became active in the local chapter of the NAACP, but when he was offered the position of president of the chapter, he turned it down. Coretta had just given birth to their first child, and his responsibilities as a father and as a minister were great enough. He would remain very active in local politics, but his duty was to his church and family. He reveled in the simple and satisfying life he was now leading. His congregation adored him.
In early December of 1955, Dr. King (as he was now known) watched with great interest as a protest movement began to take shape in Montgomery. An older black woman named Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, as prescribed by the local law for segregated buses. Parks, an active member of the local NAACP chapter, had spent years fuming at this treatment of black people and at the abusive behavior of bus drivers. Finally she had had enough. For her defiance of the law she was arrested. This served as a catalyst for activists in Montgomery, and they decided upon a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses to show their solidarity. Soon the boycott stretched into a week, then several weeks as organizers managed to create a substitute system of transportation. One of the organizers of the boycott, E. D. Nixon, asked King to take a leading role in the movement, but he was reluctant. He had so little time to spare from his congregation work. He would do what he could to lend his support.
As the boycott gained momentum, it became clear to its leaders that the local chapter of the NAACP was not big enough to handle it. They decided they would form a new organization, to be called the Montgomery Improvement Association. Because of his youth, his eloquence, and what seemed to be his natural leadership skills, at a local town meeting those who had formed the MIA nominated King to be its president. It was an offer they half expected him to refuse—they knew of his past hesitations. King, however, could feel the energy in the room and their faith in him. Without his usual careful premeditation, he suddenly decided to accept.
As the boycott continued, the white administrators who controlled the city became increasingly adamant in their refusal to end the segregated practices on the city’s buses. The tension was escalating— several blacks involved in the boycott movement had been shot at and assaulted. In the speeches he now delivered to large crowds at the MIA meetings, King developed his theme of nonviolent resistance, invoking the name of Gandhi. They would defeat the other side through peaceful protests and justified boycotts; they would take the campaign further, aiming at complete integration in Montgomery’s public places. Now the local authorities saw King as a dangerous man, an interloper from outside the state. They initiated a whispering campaign, inventing all sorts of rumors to be spread about King’s youthful indiscretions, insinuating he was a communist.
Almost every night he received phone calls threatening his life and that of his family, and such threats were not to be taken lightly in Montgomery. A normally reserved man, he did not like all of the attention from the press, which had now become national. There was so much bickering within the MIA leadership, and the whites in power were so devilishly tricky. It was all so much more than he had bargained for when he had decided to become the MIA leader.
Several weeks after assuming the leadership position, King was arrested while driving, ostensibly for speeding, and placed in a cell full of the most hardened criminals. Once bail was posted, a trial was set for two days later, and who could guess what trumped up charges they might come up with? The night before his trial he received yet another phone call: “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” Something in the tone of the caller’s voice sent chills down his spine—this seemed more than just a threat.
He tried to sleep that night but couldn’t, the man’s voice on the phone call replaying in his mind. He went into the kitchen to make some coffee and calm himself down. He was shaking. He was losing his nerve and his confidence. Couldn’t he just find a way to gracefully bow out of his leadership position and return to the comfortable life of being just a minister? As he examined himself and contemplated his past, he realized that up until these weeks he had never really known true adversity. His life had been relatively easy and happy. His parents had given him everything. He had not known what it was like to feel such intense anxiety.
And as he went deeper with these thoughts, he realized that he had simply inherited religion from his father. He had never personally communicated with God or felt His presence from within. He thought of his newborn daughter and the wife he loved. He couldn’t take much more of this. He couldn’t call his father for advice or solace—it was well past midnight. He felt a wave of panic.
Suddenly it came to him—there was only one way out of this crisis. He bowed over the cup of coffee and prayed with a sense of urgency he had never felt before: “Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this, because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” At that moment, clear as could be, he heard a voice from within: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” The voice—that of the Lord, he felt sure—promised to never leave him, to come back to him when he needed it. Almost immediately he felt a sense of tremendous relief, the burden of his doubts and anxiety lifted from his shoulders. He could not help but cry.
Several nights later, while King was attending an MIA meeting, his house was bombed. By sheer luck, his wife and daughter were unharmed. When informed of what had happened, he remained calm. He felt that nothing could rattle him now. Addressing an angry crowd of black supporters who had congregated outside his home, he said, “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.” After the bombing, his father pleaded with him to return with his family to Atlanta, but with Coretta’s support, he refused to leave .
Over the following months there would be many challenges as he struggled to keep the boycott alive and maintain the pressure on the local government. Finally, toward the end of 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision ending bus segregation in Montgomery. On the morning of December 18, King was the first passenger to board the bus and sit wherever he liked. It was a great victory.
Now came national attention and fame, and with it endless new problems and headaches. The death threats continued. The older black leaders in the MIA and the NAACP came to resent the attention he now received. The infighting and the clash of egos became almost intolerable. King decided to start a new organization, to be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, its purpose to take the movement beyond Montgomery. For King, however, the infighting and envy only followed him.
In 1959 he returned to his hometown to serve as copastor at Ebenezer and to lead various SCLC campaigns from the headquarters in Atlanta. For some in the movement he was too charismatic, too domineering, and his campaigns too ambitious; for others he was too weak, too willing to compromise with white authorities. The criticism from both sides was relentless. But what added most of all to King’s burdens was the slippery and infuriating tactics of the whites in power, who had no intention of accepting any substantial changes in segregation laws or in practices that discouraged blacks from registering to vote. They negotiated with King and agreed to compromises, then as soon as the boycotts and sit-ins stopped, they found all kinds of loopholes in the agreements and backtracked.
In one campaign King led in Albany, Georgia, to desegregate the city, the mayor and police chief made a show of exaggerated calmness, making it seem as if King and the SCLC were the unreasonable group, just stirring up trouble from the outside.
The campaign in Albany was largely a failure, and it left King depressed and exhausted. It was now the pattern in his life that in such moments he yearned for the simpler, easier days of the past—his happy childhood, his pleasant years at the university, the first year and a half at Dexter. Perhaps he should retire from the leadership role and devote his time to preaching, writing, and lecturing. Such thoughts tugged him at him with greater frequency.
Then, toward the end of 1962, he received yet another request for his services: Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the leading black activists in Birmingham, Alabama, begged King and the SCLC to help him in his efforts to desegregate stores in the downtown area. Birmingham was one of the most fiercely segregated cities in the country. Rather than comply with federal laws to desegregate public places, such as swimming pools, they merely closed them down. Any form of protest against the segregation practices was met with powerful violence and terrorism. The city had come to be known as “Bombingham.” And overseeing this bastion of the segregated South was the police chief, Bull Connor, who seemed to relish the chance to use force—whips, attack dogs, high-pressure fire hoses, billy clubs.
This would certainly be the most dangerous campaign so far. Everything inside King leaned toward turning it down. The old doubts and fears returned to him. What if people were killed, and the violence touched him and his family? What if he failed? He suffered more sleepless nights as he agonized over this.
Then the voice from seven years before returned to him, as loud and clear as ever: he had been tasked to stand up for justice, not to think of himself but to think of the mission. How foolish to be afraid again. Yes, it was his mission to go to Birmingham. But as he mulled this over, he could not help thinking more deeply about what the voice had told him. Standing up for justice meant bringing it about in some real and practical way, not talking or settling for useless compromises. His fears of disappointing people and failing had made him too cautious. He would have to be more strategic and more courageous this time. He would have to raise the stakes and he would have to win. No more fears or doubts.
He accepted Shuttlesworth’s offer, and as he planned the campaign with his team, he made it clear to them they would need to learn from past mistakes. King laid out to them the nature of the predicament they faced. The Kennedy administration had proven to be incredibly cautious when it came to civil rights. The president feared alienating congressional southern Democrats, upon whom he depended. He would make great promises but keep dragging his feet.
What they needed to do in Birmingham was to provoke a national crisis, one that was bloody and ugly. The racism and segregation in the South were largely invisible to moderate whites. Birmingham seemed like just another sleepy southern town. Their goal must be to make the racism so visible to the whites watching television that it would strike their consciences, and with a growing sense of outrage, pressure would be placed on the Kennedy administration that it could no longer resist. Most of all, King was counting on the cooperation of Bull Connor in his plans—his overreaction to the intensity of their campaign would be the key to the whole drama they were hoping to enact.
In April 1963 King and his team put their plan into action. They attacked on multiple fronts with sit-ins and demonstrations. Although reluctant because of his fear of jails, King got himself arrested. This would garner more publicity and stir the local population to emulate him. But the campaign had a fatal weakness that became apparent only as it evolved: local black support for the movement was tepid. Many blacks in Birmingham resented Shuttlesworth’s autocratic style; others reasonably feared the violence Connor would unleash. King depended on large and boisterous crowds, but what he got was far from that. The national press, not smelling a story, started to leave.
Then one of the leaders on his team, James Bevel, had an idea—they would enlist the participation of students in local schools. King had his fears and argued they should not bring in anyone under the age of fourteen, but Bevel reminded him of the high stakes and the need for numbers, and King relented. Many of those inside the organization and sympathizers were shocked that King could be so pragmatic and strategic in using such young people, but the campaign had a higher purpose, and it was no time to be so delicate.
The students responded with great enthusiasm. It was just what the movement needed. They filled the streets of Birmingham, more daring and boisterous than their parents. Soon they were filling up the jails. The press returned en masse. Out came the high-pressure fire hoses, the attack dogs, and the night sticks, striking teenagers and even children. Soon television screens around America were broadcasting the tense, dramatic, and bloody scenes that ensued. Enormous crowds now showed up for King’s speeches, drumming up support for the cause. Federal authorities were forced to intervene to lessen the tension.
King had learned his lesson from before—he had to keep up the pressure to the very end. Representatives of the white power structure reluctantly opened negotiations with King. At the same time, he sanctioned the demonstrators to continue their downtown marches, coming from all directions and stretching Connor’s police force to the breaking point. Frightened local merchants had had enough and asked the white negotiators to work on a comprehensive settlement with the black leaders, essentially desegregating the downtown stores and agreeing to the hiring of black employees.
It was his greatest triumph so far; he had realized his ambitious goal. It did not matter now if the white authorities backtracked, as they inevitably would; Kennedy was caught in the trap, his own conscience pricked by what he had seen in Birmingham. Shortly after the settlement, he addressed the nation on television, explaining the need for immediate progress in civil rights and proposing some ambitious new laws. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It made King the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement, and soon a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Money now poured into the SCLC, and the movement seemed to have ineluctable momentum. But as before, the troubles and burdens for King only seemed to increase with each new victory.
In the years following Birmingham he sensed a powerful reaction forming among conservatives and Republicans against the gains of the movement. They would work to halt further progress. He learned that the FBI had placed listening devices in his hotel rooms and had spied on him for years; they were now leaking stories and rumors to various newspapers. He watched as America descended into cycles of violence, starting with the assassination of Kennedy.
He saw a new generation of black activists emerge under the banner of Black Power, and they criticized his adherence to nonviolence as weak and antiquated. When King moved the campaign to Chicago to try to stop discriminatory housing practices there, he brokered a settlement with local authorities, but black activists around the country harshly criticized him—he had settled for far too little. Shortly after this, an audience at a Chicago Baptist church loudly booed him, drowning out his talk with chants of “Black Power.”
He grew depressed and despondent. In early 1965, he saw images of the Vietnam War in a magazine, and it sickened him. Something was deeply wrong with America. That summer he toured the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles after the violent riots that had scorched the area. The sight of so much poverty and devastation overwhelmed him. Here in the heart of one of the most affluent cities in America, the center of the fantasy industry, was an enormous neighborhood where large numbers of people lived in poverty and felt no hope for the future. And they were largely invisible. America had a cancer in its system—extreme inequalities in wealth, and the willingness to spend vast sums of money on an absurd war, while blacks in inner cities were left to rot and riot.
His depression now mixed with growing anger. In his conversations with friends, people noticed a new edge to him. In one retreat with his staff, he said, “All too many people have seen power and love as polar opposites. . . . [But] the two fulfill each other. Power without love is reckless, and love without power is sentimental.” At another retreat, he talked of new tactics. He would never abandon nonviolence as the means, but the civil disobedience campaign would have to be altered and intensified. “Nonviolence must mature to a new level . . . mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.” The movement was not about integrating blacks into the values of American society but about actively altering those values at their root.
He would add to the civil rights movement the need to address poverty in inner cities and to protest the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967, he expressed this widening of the struggle in a speech that got lots of attention, almost all negative. Even his most ardent supporters criticized it. Including the Vietnam War would only alienate the public from the cause of civil rights, they said. It would anger the Johnson administration, whose support they depended upon. It was not part of his mandate to speak so broadly.
He had never felt so alone, so attacked by his many critics. By early 1968 his depression had become deeper than ever. He felt the end was near—some among his many enemies were going to kill him for all that he had said and done. He was exhausted by the tension and felt spiritually at a loss. In March of that year, a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, invited King to his city, hoping he could help support a strike by black sanitation workers, who had been treated horribly. There had been marches, boycotts, and protests, and the police had responded brutally. The situation was explosive. King put them off—he felt depleted. But as so often happened in these circumstances, he realized it was his duty to do what he could, and so he agreed. On March 18 he addressed an enormous crowd in Memphis, and their enthusiastic response cheered him up. He heard that voice once again supporting and urging him forward. Memphis would have to be a key part of his mission.
For the next few weeks he kept returning to Memphis to lend his support and assistance, against the fierce resistance of the local authorities. On Wednesday evening, April 4, he addressed another crowd: “We got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. . . . But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
The speech left him revitalized and in a good mood. The next day he expressed some concern about an upcoming march that could turn violent but said fear should not stop them from proceeding. “I’d rather be dead than afraid,” he told an aide. That evening, he dressed and prepared for a dinner at a restaurant with his aides, and running late, he finally appeared on the balcony outside his motel room when a rifle shot rang out and a single bullet pierced his neck. He died within an hour.