Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. entered public school at age 5. In May 1936 he was baptized, but the event made little impression on him. In May 1941, Martin was 12 years old when his grandmother, Jennie, died of a heart attack. The event was traumatic for Martin, more so because he was out watching a parade against his parents’ wishes when she died. Distraught at the news, young Martin jumped from a second story window at the family home, allegedly attempting suicide.
King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was said to be a precocious student. He skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades, and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, in 1944. He was a popular student, especially with his female classmates, but an unmotivated student who floated through his first two years. Although his family was deeply involved in the church and worship, young Martin questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship. This discomfort continued through much of his adolescence, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, much to his father’s dismay. But in his junior year, Martin took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision.
On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. Claudette Colvin was arrested and taken to jail. At first, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case to challenge Montgomery’s segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that she was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group’s efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic whites. On December 1, 1955, they got another chance to make their case. That evening, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home after an exhausting day at work. She sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats in the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The bus driver noted that there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. Parks was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee the night that Rosa Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with Martin Luther King Jr. and other local civil rights leaders to plan a citywide bus boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the black community.
“I have a dream that my four 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.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. / “I Have A Dream” speech, August 28, 1963
The rising tide of civil rights agitation produced a strong effect on public opinion. Many people in cities not experiencing racial tension began to question the nation’s Jim Crow laws and the near century second-class treatment of African-American citizens. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King’s struggle continued throughout the 1960s. Often, it seemed as though the pattern of progress was two steps forward and one step back. On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march, planned from Selma to Alabama’s capital in Montgomery, turned violent as police with nightsticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however, the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers being bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen demonstrators were hospitalized in a day that would be called “Bloody Sunday.” A second march was canceled due to a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place. A third march was planned and this time King made sure he was part of it. Not wanting to alienate southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different approach was taken. On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and they then turned back. Alabama governor George Wallace continued to try to prevent another march, however, President Lyndon Johnson pledged his support and ordered U.S. Army troops and the Alabama National Guard to protect the protestors. On March 21, approximately 2,000 people began a march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery. On March 25, the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the state capitol where Dr. King delivered a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
From late 1965 through 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. expanded his civil rights efforts into other larger American cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young black power leaders. King’s patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants who considered his methods too weak, too late and ineffective. To address this criticism, King began making a link between discrimination and poverty, and he began to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that America’s involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government’s conduct in the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-race coalition to address the economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people.