Martin Luther King, Jr. was an African American preacher and minister who became the country’s most important civil rights icon, leading citizens in nonviolent protests, marches and civil disobedience in the 1960s. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, sparking riots and mourning across the country, and cementing his importance as a leader and hero for all Americans who value freedom, equality and civil rights.
In honor of his legacy, a national holiday was established and is now commemorated on the third Monday in January; January 20 in 2020.
Many people honor King’s legacy by turning the holiday into a day of service. As we honor the civil rights icon, let’s look back on his life and influence.
Birthplace, Atlanta, Georgia
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. His father was a minister, and taught his children about inequality in America, pointing out segregation and discrimination in their daily lives.
It was in his youth that King, Jr. experienced his first discriminatory experiences, including being forced to stand in a bus so white riders could sit.
These moments never felt right to him, and inspired him to advocate for change.
Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
King entered Morehouse College at 15, exhibiting a bright mind and ability to succeed both academically and athletically. It was here, at age 18, that he decided to join the ministry, feeling even at this young age that he would advocate for humanity, even extending to “social protest” if needed. He graduated from Morehouse College at age 19, and then enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary to earn his degree in Divinity.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama
King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953 and then took a job in 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, which was later renamed Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. The church, organized in 1877, has a long history of serving the African American community.
In addition to King, several other prominent civil rights advocates worked at or were affiliated with the church.
Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott
While serving as pastor in Montgomery, King became involved in civil rights activities, and began working on what became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott started in December 1955 and lasted 385 days as nearly all African Americans refused to ride city buses, instead organizing an effective system of carpools and ride sharing to get people to and from work while crippling the city transit system.
Parks’ case worked its way through the courts and eventually went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that forced segregation of the transit system was unconstitutional.
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
As King worked towards equality, his efforts gained national attention and support. On August 28, 1963, he led a March on Washington, where between 200,000-300,000 people marched in support of equal rights and other issues.
At the Lincoln Memorial, the end point of the march, King gave his impassioned “I Have a Dream” speech, which is one of the most memorable and most impactful speeches in American history.
Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, Selma, Alabama
King worked as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had the goal of working to end segregation and racial discrimination in the United States by focusing on efforts in the South. Selma, Alabama, was an important focal point of these efforts, including multiple efforts to hold a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. These marches were organized and started at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, which also held voter registration events and planning meetings in the move for equal rights.
Edmund Pettus Bridge
The first attempt, on March 7, 1965, resulted in violence against the marchers, both by counter protesters and police. By the time marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, mob violence broke out against the marchers and the effort was called off. It was so violent that the event earned the nickname “Bloody Sunday”.
Outrage against the police violence fueled national support of the movement. Two days later, King led a second, symbolic march to the bridge and disbanded the march in fear of repeated attacks.
Later, a march from Selma to Montgomery finally took place, representing the slow but steady progress to remove voting discrimination in the South.
Lorraine Hotel, Memphis
King often traveled throughout the southern United States. In late March 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee for protest marches and other activities. He was standing outside his motel room when he was shot by James Earl Ray. He died later that evening.
The motel has since been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.
Communities across the country were so upset at his assassination that days of protest, riots and violence broke out, including in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore.
Ebenezer Baptist Church
During the 1960s, King continued to work on civil rights issues, and moved his family to Atlanta, Georgia, where he became co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father. He served here until his death. His private funeral was held here on April 9, 1968. His wife Coretta organized a powerful funeral honoring his life and properly pay tribute to his sacrifice.
King Center, Atlanta, Georgia
After his death, Coretta Scott King worked hard to preserve her husband’s memory and legacy. She and others created the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. More than one million visitors come each year to tour sites important to King’s life, learn about the leader, read his papers and gain perspectives they can share with others after they leave.
King and his wife are entombed there, and visitors can pay their respects to the civil rights leaders.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.
On August 22, 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial features a 30 foot statute of King, designed to look like he is emerging from the “mountain of despair” of which he spoke. Many quotes from King’s speeches and sermons are displayed throughout the four acre memorial. It is a must-see for anyone visiting the National Mall.
Today is a great time to learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the efforts he made to ensure social justice. If you are inspired by his life and sacrifice, a great way to honor the hero would be to go out and give service in your community; at a shelter, with children or however your feel will honor Dr. King’s legacy.