Historical Figures: Martin Luther King

Born into an affluent African American family in 1929, Martin Luther King Junior was brought up in Atlanta, Georgia. His dignified leadership of the civil rights movement and passionate oratory convinced 1960s America that racial inequalities in U.S. society had to be eradicated.

Martin Luther King

I have a dream

In 1955, King finished his doctorate in Systematic Theology at Boston University and became a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama. He helped found the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led a boycott against the city's segregated public transport system. The campaign was successful and Montgomery's buses were desegregated.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

King's successful leadership of the Montgomery campaign spurred him on to spearhead a radical civil rights movement that sought political and economic equality for all races in the United States. He advocated non-violent civil disobedience as the most effective way to get his message across and he inspired sit-ins and demonstrations across the country. The climax came in August 1963, when King addressed an estimated 250,000 people in Washington D.C., delivering the now-famous "I have a dream" speech.

Martin Luther King - Face To Face

Martin Luther King - Face To Face

Crucial legislation

The racial inequalities in American society couldn't be fixed overnight but King's passionate eloquence and commitment to non-violent protest had stirred the nation. His leadership of the civil rights movement paved the way for two crucial pieces of legislation, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His dedication to the civil rights cause won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964.

As the 1960s wore on, some black activists became impatient with King's relatively non-confrontational political style. King refused to adopt violent tactics and began to campaign against the Vietnam War and poverty in general, as well as continuing the fight for civil rights.

On April 4, 1968, King was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. He was standing on a motel balcony when he was shot in neck and killed. James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, was charged with and confessed to the killing. He later retracted his confession, claiming that he had been a bit-player in a larger conspiracy. No hard evidence has emerged to support this claim, although the King family called for the case to be reopened. Ray died in prison in 1998.