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The life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'

Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln Memorial, 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired people throughout the world to strive for the ideals of equality and non-violence - ideals to which he dedicated his life. Born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Dr. King was the son of Alberta Williams King and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., a prominent Baptist preacher. King followed in his father's footsteps, and was himself ordained in the Baptist ministry in 1948. Several years later he married Coretta Scott and in 1955 he was awarded a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University.

Dr. King's commitment to theology was more than just academic. He put his beliefs into action and was passionately devoted to social and political justice. The year he received his doctorate he led the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association in a nonviolent boycott of the city bus system which lasted for over a year, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott ultimately resulted in the desegregation of public transit, and was a major victory in a crucial campaign of protest, education, and economic boycotts aimed at ending racial segregation in the American South.

In 1957, the campaign for civil rights was growing, and a new organization - the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - was founded to provide a unified voice. Dr. King was chosen to be the group's president. In 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King visited India to study the techniques of nonviolence espoused by Gandhi. Dr. King advocated those ideals throughout the civil rights struggles in the south, even in the face of violent opposition. During a non-violent protest of Birmingham, Alabama's segregated public facilities in 1963, Dr. King was arrested - and while in jail wrote one of the most influential treatises in American history outlining his belief in non-violent civil disobedience.

In his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," Dr. King called on all Americans to actively but peacefully oppose laws that were morally wrong. King wrote:

"There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationist would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly... I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law."

Later that year, Dr. King organized one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the nation to advocate for a national Civil Rights Act. As hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered in the nation's capital for the March on Washington, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed the crowd with a short but powerful speech that still resonates in Americans' hearts.

"I have a dream," Dr. King intoned, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood... 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."

The following year, with Dr. King at his side, President Johnson signed into law the historic and sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. King was recognized around the world, receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.

As legislative victories at the federal government brought greater political justice to the south, Dr. King focused his attention on the problems of economic inequality and discrimination, and he increasingly focused on issues in the north and elsewhere. Dr. King organized the Poor People's Campaign, recognizing that political equality and economic justice went hand-in-hand. In an attempt to assist with the struggles of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King addressed a crowd of workers to encourage them in their struggle for economic justice.

"I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would 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 we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy tonight, I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

The following day, April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his Memphis hotel room.

The legacy of Dr. King lives on today in laws, in increased opportunities for all Americans, and in a tradition of peace and non-violence. His legacy and his hope for the future are also remembered throughout the country in celebrations and memorials. In 1986, Congress established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. The same year, the King County Council passed a motion re-designating the namesake of King County to commemorate Dr. King. County councilmembers intended to honor the slain civil rights leader, and provide an educational opportunity for citizens to further consider Dr. King's accomplishments and principles.

According to the motion, "...The King County Council hereby sets forth the historical basis for the 'renaming' of King County in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose contributions are well-documented and celebrated by millions throughout this nation and the world, and embody the attributes for which the citizens of King County can be proud, and claim as their own."

A bronze memorial plaque located in the first floor lobby of the King County Courthouse at Third Avenue and James Street in downtown Seattle commemorates this designation. The plaque contains the following inscription: "The name King County has been redesignated to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A motion introduced and co-sponsored by Councilman Ron Sims and Councilman Bruce Laing honors a man who inspired a nation to strive in a non-violent manner for human rights, civil liberties and economic guarantees rightfully due all people; a man who with fortitude and vision opened doors of opportunity for all to participate fully in the fabric and richness of the American experience."