Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.?

by Sally Tusa
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For many school children, Martin Luther King Jr. day is just another day off of school. While it does indeed provide that extra day of the weekend on the third Monday of January, it also serves a much greater purpose: to honor the great civil rights who spent his life changing the landscape of American politics and culture. And, just because the kids aren’t in school doesn’t mean that can’t learn something. On Today’s agenda: the story man behind the federal holiday: Martin Luther King Jr.

Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.?

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 into a  long line of pastors family of pastors--both his father and his grandfather served as pastors for many years. King came of age in a time where blacks and whites were separated in much of the U.S. The two groups were unable to attend the same schools, drink from the same water fountains, or eat in the same restaurants. King himself attended segregated public elementary and high schools. He also went to an all-black college in Atlanta, Morehouse, from which he graduated in 1948.

King saw his calling in the family business, going on to attain graduate degrees at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University, where he received a doctorate in Systematic Theology in 1955. This schooling set him up to lead a church, but his beliefs and determination--and, certainly, his circumstances--propelled him to do even more.

After marrying a woman named Coretta Scott, whom he met while in graduate school in Boston, King moved to the South, where racial segregation and prejudice was deep-seated and rampant. The situation was especially marked in towns like Montgomery, Alabama, where, in 1955, as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King started fighting for change. Spurred on by Rosa Parks’ refusal--and subsequent arrest--to sit in the rear, “colored” section of the bus, King advocated a boycott of public buses that lasted more than a year. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation on public buses, and a movement fueled by nonviolent protest began.

For more than ten years, King’s inspiring speeches (he gave more than 2,500 in his lifetime) earned him followers across the United States and internationally. He travelled millions of miles; led protest marches, sit-ins and boycotts (which often led to his arrest) everywhere he saw racial disparity; published five books, numerous articles and essays, including the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” now famously known as the call to action for the civil rights movement; and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Yet King is perhaps best remembered for delivering his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a quarter of a million people in the Mall in Washington, DC. His famous line, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," still resonate today.

Five years later, he was killed in Memphis, where he was to lead a protest march--shot by an assassin while standing on the balcony outside his motel room.

Today we celebrate not only Dr. King's life and accomplishments, but also the movement he was part of, and the continuing struggle to extend rights and dignity to all Americans.

For the Classroom: 12 Ways to Celebrate Diversity on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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