Martin Luther King, Jr.

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Rights
Diverse Communities
Racial Justice
King came of age during a time when Jim Crow laws reigned supreme, a time when "separate but equal" was the accepted doctrine. King was a regular citizen who rose to glory during his career as a minister, seeking to teach Americans that our nation's true identity lay not in color and hate but in diversity and love.

Biographical Highlights

Martin Luther King, Jr. came of age during a time when Jim Crow laws reigned supreme, a time when “separate but equal” was the accepted doctrine (Cornell University Law), a time when things were always separate but never equal for blacks and whites.  This was a time when in partts of America, blacks were not permitted to use the same stores as whites, to stay in the same hotels, or to attend the same schools as whites.  Oppression was practiced throughout America.  It was during this time that the winds of change started to blow. 

King, one of many Civil Rights leaders in the United States, rose to prominence due to his exceptional leadership and oratory skills.  It is true that the Civil Rights Movement would have occurred with or without Martin Luther King, Jr., but it is also true that without King, the Civil Rights Movement would not have had the same impact on society.   It has been said that Martin Luther King, Jr. did not make the Civil Rights Movement, but the Civil Rights Movement made Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dyson 2000).   Author Michael Eric Dyson said, “Martin Luther King, Jr., is the greatest American in our history because in his life the contradictory meanings of American democracy found a perfect and healing embodiment.  King is the great thesaurus of American identity…King’s genius was the willingness to risk everything he was – a preacher, a leader, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a black man – to make America all that it could become...He freed the American soul to love its black self and, hence, to love itself wholly and universally.  He embraced the best of America and made it better.” (Dyson 2000, 306). 

Dr. King’s inspirational career was cut short on April 3, 1968 when he was assassinated on the balcony walkway of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.  The previous day King spoke to protesters in support of local sanitation workers’ demands for higher pay and union recognition.  King said in the speech, “Like anybody, I’d like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  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.” (Dyson 2000, 2).

Historic Roots

On January 15, 1929, Michael L. King Jr. was born to Alberta and Michael L. King Sr., a Southern Baptist minister.   King grew up in the Southern Baptist Church singing hymns and reciting Biblical passages.  Both King’s father and maternal grandfather were very involved in the pre-civil rights movement as members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Michael King Sr., serving as president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and the Atlanta Civic and Political League, taught his children to be proud of their race and to boycott segregated businesses.  In 1934 King’s father took a trip to Europe and spent time at the World Conference of Baptist Ministers in Berlin Germany.  This visit had such a remarkable effect on King’s father that he returned home and changed his and his eldest son’s name to Martin Luther King (Ling 2002). 

King attended Morehouse College with dreams of pursing a career in medicine or law.  During his last years at Morehouse, these dreams were dismissed in favor of following in his father’s footsteps, citing “an inner urge to serve humanity” (Frady 2002, 18).  King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he first studied the principles of Thoreau and Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.  After graduating as valedictorian of his Crozer class, King ventured to Boston University to begin the doctoral program.  It was here that he met his future wife, Ms Coretta Scott, a graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music (Frady 2002). Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. were married in the summer of 1953.  Upon graduating from Boston University, King accepted a position with Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Frady 2002).  It was here in Montgomery in December of 1955, that the American Civil Rights Movement began (Hansen 2003). 

On a December day in 1955, a young woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man.  Mrs. Parks was arrested for her act of defiance and soon the Montgomery bus boycott was underway.  The black citizens of Montgomery decided to show their outrage at the discrimination and segregation that was taking place in their city and across America by boycotting the Montgomery bus system.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen as the leader of this movement, a position he modestly accepted by saying “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will” (Hansen 2003, 7).  King urged the use of nonviolent resistance.  As King preached during his sermons, “We will meet your physical force with soul force.  We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws.  We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” (Frady 2002, 39).  King also informed his congregations, “You are shaming them into decency.” (Frady 2002, 39).  The boycott lasted for over a year, until the U. S. Supreme Court made a ruling to desegregate Montgomery’s bus system. 

Over the course of the next eight years, many advances were made in the fight for equality.  But by 1963, the progress that was initially started in Montgomery was at a standstill.  King decided to focus attention on Birmingham, a city famous for its maintenance of segregation laws.  King knew that a victory in Birmingham would be just the push that the movement needed.  In April of ’63, peaceful protesters in Birmingham were met with high-pressure water hoses and police attack dogs.  Thanks to the national attention drawn by the media coverage, the desegregation of Birmingham was soon in progress (Hansen 2003).  In August of 1963, King participated in the March on Washington.  As the final speaker on the agenda, King gave one of his most memorable speeches.  His famous “I Have a Dream” speech had a powerful and moving effect on the protesters that had amassed around the Lincoln Memorial that August day. 


Unlike other prominent American heroes, such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who made their mark in history through their public office, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a regular citizen who rose to glory during his 13-year career as a minister.  King sought to teach Americans that our nation’s true identity lay not in color and hate but in diversity and love (Dyson 2000).   

King took the reins of the Civil Rights Movement and made some of the most stirring and motivational speeches and sermons that our nation has ever witnessed.   King envisioned a society free from the constraints of racism, a society that was color-blind (Dyson 2000).  During the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, King said, “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the Beloved Community” (Frady 2002, 39).  King envisioned a world in which disputes could be decided peacefully, a world in which all people of the world could share in its wealth (The King Center). 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not only involved in changing the face of American oppression, but also had a hand in relieving oppression worldwide.  In 1960, King was among those urging the United Nations to step in to end apartheid in South Africa after 69 blacks were killed during peaceful protest (Baldwin 2002).  King and the Civil Rights Movement often drew international attention.  In 1963, thanks in part to King’s work in Alabama; the United Nations adopted a policy called the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Baldwin 2002).  

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged our nation’s social ideals.  He brought to the forefront of thought the disparity between the ideals on which the United States of America was founded and those which it practiced.  Wynton Marsalis, a jazz trumpeter, accurately portrayed King when he said, “When I think of King, I think of a man who was the single person in the 20th century who did the most to advance the meaning and feeling of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights.  He is the single most important person in the fight that America has to be itself.” (Dyson 2000, 8).

The Civil Rights Movement, with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set the stage for the modern day philanthropic setting.  People of all social and economic classes, races, and ages came together in support of the cause of racial equality and ending racial discrimination.  One of the most astounding aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, thanks in large part to the sermons and calls to action of Dr. King, was the large amount given by those who had so little to give financially (Friedman and McGarvie 2003).   

King not only shaped American civil society during his short life, but also continues to have an influence on civil rights reforms today.  Many philanthropic groups have formed to carry out the visions inspired and began by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Key Related Ideas

The idea of the Beloved Community was originally coined by Josiah Royce to describe a utopian ideal where everyone and everything got along.  Dr. King utilized the term to explain his vision where people could decide disputes peacefully, share the world’s resources, and maintain a high standard of human decency (The King Center). 

Jim Crow Laws went into effect in the late 1800’s.  Under Jim Crow legislation, racial separation became the law.  Blacks were not allowed to eat at the same restaurants, attend the same schools, or use the same restrooms as whites (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute).   

Nonviolent resistance is a concept that Martin Luther King, Jr. developed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, based on the teachings of Gandhi and Jesus.  In King’s words, “…nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” (Friedman and McGarvie 2003, 349).  Nonviolent resistance to unjust laws and regulations, despite any violence that might be incurred, proved to be a powerful tool for the Civil Rights Movement (Ling 2002). 

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Ralph Abernathy (1926 – 1990):  Abernathy was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  He and Martin Luther King, Jr. worked together to plan the Montgomery bus boycott along with many other peaceful protests during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948):  Mohandas K. Gandhi, often called Mahatma or “great soul”, promoted nonviolent resistance in South Africa, India, and throughout the world.  The ideas and teachings of Gandhi have inspired billions. 
  • Coretta Scott King (1927--2006):  Mrs. King was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.  She and husband Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for basic human rights for all Americans and people across the world.  Mrs. King continues to be a world leader in the fight for social justice (The King Center).
  • Rosa Parks (1913--2005 ):  In Montgomery Alabama, on December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.  This act of defiance sparked the bthe modern era Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  Mrs. Parks devoted her life to fighting for racial equality.  She founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which sponsors programs to teach youth about the Civil Rights Movement.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The King Center was founded in 1968 to protect and promote the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Mrs. King began the institution to educate the world about the teachings of Dr. King and to help organizations promoting Dr. King’s vision (
  • The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 by Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling 2002, Oswald Garrison Villiard, and Henry Moscowitz.  It is one of our nations oldest organizations for civil rights and is still very active in current day political and social spheres.  The mission of the NAACP is to promote racial equality and remove discrimination through political action, education, and social reform (
  • The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Tennessee preserves the history of civil rights movements throughout the world.  The museum exists at what used to be the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The National Civil Rights Museum educates the public about civil rights leaders, events, and its general impact on society (

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Baldwin, Lewis V., and others.  The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.  ISBN:  0-268-03354-4.
  • Clegg, Claude A. III.  Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by Lawrence Friedman and Mark McGarvie, 341-361.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  ISBN:  0-521-81989-X.
  • Cornell University Law.  Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) (USSC+).  
  • Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get There With You.  New York:  The Free Press, 2000.  ISBN:  0-684-86776-1.
  • "Abernathy, Ralph"
  • Frady, Marshall.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  New York:  Penguin Group, 2002.  ISBN:  0-670-88231-3.
  • Hansen, Drew D.  The Dream.  New York:  HarperCollins Publisher, Inc., 2003.  ISBN:  0-06-008476-6.
  • The King Center.  "Welcome to The Beloved Community."
  • Ling, Peter J.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  London:  Routledge, 2002.  ISBN:  0-415-21664-8.
  • M.K. Gandhi Institute For Nonviolence.  About Gandhi. 
  • Yale-New Have Teachers Institute.  An Analysis of Jim Crow Laws and their Effects on Race Relations.  Accessed 20 October 2004.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.