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The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

29 March 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality and social justice in the United States. On the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Day in the United States, Americans honor King’s life and legacy through service and action.


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Alt: Martin Luther King Jr., under arrest in Atlanta, and woman picketing for civil rights, on October 9, 1960 (AP Images)

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States. January 17, 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Day (see MLK Day of Service website), a federal holiday that honors King’s legacy and challenges citizens to engage in volunteer service in their communities. It is observed on the third Monday of January.

See also: Presidential Proclamation on Martin Luther King Day


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Alt: White policeman placing sign reading ‘WAITING ROOM FOR WHITE ONLY’ near railroad depot in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1956 (AP Images)

Beginning the Journey

Born on January 15, 1929, to a long line of Baptist ministers, King grew up in Atlanta at a time when Jim Crow laws made segregation and discrimination a daily reality for blacks in the South.

King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he came to view religion as a powerful catalyst for social change. He received his doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology before returning to the South, where he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Today, King’s Atlanta birthplace is registered as a National Historical Site with the National Park Service.

See also: “Americans Celebrate Achievements of Martin Luther King Jr.


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Alt: Interior of bus with whites sitting in front and blacks sitting in back, Atlanta, 1956 (AP Images)

Civil Rights Struggle in the 1950s

King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After the Supreme Court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws in 1956, King cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promoted nonviolent action for civil rights throughout the South. He was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and traveled to India in 1959.

See also: “The U.S. Civil Rights Movement” (photo gallery)


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Alt: Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King walking arm-in-arm with other marchers in 1965 (AP Images)

An Iconic Figure of the 1960s

Joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King continued to use his oratorical gifts to urge an end to segregation and legal inequality. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested during nonviolent protests in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. King led the 54-mile-long Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights (pictured) and many other protests.

While incarcerated in 1963, King penned the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, outlining the moral and philosophical basis for the civil rights movement. That August, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington.

Listen to an excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech | Transcript


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Alt: President Johnson handing Martin Luther King Jr. pen used to sign Civil Rights Act of 1964 (AP Images)

Civil Rights Victories

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations and other aspects of life. King attended the signing of the act into federal law (pictured). He continued to press for a law to ensure that blacks could not be denied the right to vote by discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, and in 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1964 (list of 1964 winners at Nobel Prize website), which he accepted on behalf of everyone who was part of the civil rights movement.


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Alt: Coretta Scott King and others walking behind wagon carrying Martin Luther King Jr.’s coffin (AP Images)

In the Wake of Assassination

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony outside his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room. At his funeral, thousands of mourners marched through Atlanta behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing his coffin.

In a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” King urged black Americans to continue their commitment to nonviolence, but also cautioned that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” Numerous organizations and individuals have taken up the mantel of nonviolent change and carried King’s legacy forward in the United States and around the world.

See also: “Martin Luther King’s Dream Lives on 40 Years After His Death


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Alt: Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling in prayer with other civil rights marchers after they are arrested in Selma, Alabama (AP Images)

King’s Legacy: Nonviolent Protest

In a 1959 radio address during his visit to India, King said: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence, or non-existence.” His philosophy was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent action to end British rule in India. In turn, King has inspired countless others to change their societies through nonviolent means, from the Solidarity movement’s cracking of Soviet occupation in Poland, to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

See the photo gallery “Nonviolent Protest: Following Martin Luther King Jr.” and the feature “Alternatives to Violence.”

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Alt: Martin Luther King Jr. delivering “I Have a Dream” speech to marchers on National Mall, August 28, 1963 (AP Images)

King’s Legacy: Fighting Prejudice

During the 1963 March on Washington, King declared that all people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” The King Center in Atlanta (King Center website) is a living memorial to King’s vision of a free and equal world dedicated to expanding opportunity, fighting racism and ending all forms of discrimination.

See the features “Talking About Prejudice” and “Can Tolerance be Taught?


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Alt: Martin Luther King giving speech at church in Albany, Georgia, about legal fights ahead for integration, July 22, 1962 (AP Images)

King’s Legacy: Pursuing Social Justice

The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University (institute website) is home to the King Papers Project, a comprehensive collection of all of King’s speeches, correspondence and other writings to preserve his lifelong commitment to building the “beloved community” for future generations. The institute is also involved with the Liberation Curriculum Initiative and the Gandhi-King Community, both of which use King’s life and ideas to connect social activists around the world working to promote human rights and justice through nonviolent means.

See also: “Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement


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Alt: Volunteer workers packing emergency preparedness kits for the Red Cross on Martin Luther King Day 2007 in Philadelphia (AP Images)

King’s Legacy: Service to Others

Martin Luther King Day has been designated a national day of service (United We Serve website) since 1994; Americans are urged to celebrate “a day on, not a day off” in honor of King’s commitment to improving the lives of others. President Obama has promoted service and volunteerism as a critical way to help meet the challenges facing our world in the 21st century.

See also: “Americans Urged to Do Volunteer Work on Martin Luther King Day


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Alt: Sculpture of new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on National Mall, surrounded by scaffolding (AP Images)

Keeping the Dream Alive

A national memorial to King is tentatively scheduled to be dedicated in August 2011 on the National Mall in Washington. Built near the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the MLK Memorial will invite thousands of visitors to reflect on the life and legacy of King for years to come.

See also: “Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African-American Achievement