He was a smart kid, skipping 9th grade, and then forgoing 12th grade to go straight to college. He graduated with a BA degree in 1948 at the age of 20.
The southerner moved north to attend divinity school in Pennsylvania, receiving a B Div. degree in 1951. At school he was influenced by thinkers ranging from Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy to Reinhold Neibuhr and Paul Tillich.
He moved back to Atlanta where he got married (and eventually had four children), and then in 1954 -- at the tender age of 25 -- he was appointed pastor of a Baptist church in Alabama. Meantime, he was studying for a Ph.D. degree in theology out of Boston University.
He believed strongly in the Biblical commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and made this a central theme in both his preaching and his activities. He took seriously the notion of turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, praying for your oppressors.
In 1958 he wrote his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, offering his version of events in Montgomery, Alabama. In September, while signing copies of the book in a New York City department store, he narrowly escaped death when a woman stabbed him with a letter opener.
In 1959, with the help of a group of Quakers, he made a trip to India where he was influenced by the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (who'd been assassinated in 1948). As he left India he made a radio address, saying, "Since being in India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity."
Throughout the 1950s he was involved in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959 he was one of several leaders who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization designed to help black churches conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights. He led the SCLC until his death in 1968.
And by now you must remember him as Martin Luther King, the pre-eminent civil rights leader who organized a series of protest marches throughout the south to support desegregation as well as voting rights, labor rights and other civil rights. He relied on the Christian principle of nonviolent protest, sometimes criticized by more radical members of his own community, sometimes subjected to violence by the targets of his protests.
His most famous march took place 50 years ago, in August 1963. As head of SCLC he was one of several black leaders -- along with Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, James Farmer -- to organize the great March on Washington to dramatize the condition of blacks in the South and denounce the federal government for not protecting civil rights and securing the safety of blacks and civil rights workers.
The Kennedy administration ultimately supported the march, looking to bolster the civil rights bill it was trying to push through Congress. As a result, the march took on a less confrontational tone than originally envisioned, while inviting criticism from more radical black leaders like Malcolm X who ridiculed it as the "farce on Washington."
Nonetheless, by all accounts the march was a resounding success. It brought an estimated quarter million people to the National Mall, the largest protest march ever seen in Washington up to that time, and it commanded national attention as it dominated the news.
The march itself, on August 28, 1963, started at the Washington Monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where black leaders, labor leaders and religious luminaries gave speeches, while Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Odetta, as well as Marion Anderson and Mahalia Jackson performed several songs.
The most memorable moment of the march came as Martin Luther King, who spoke last, gave his "I Have a Dream Speech" which was carried live on TV and later judged one of the most important speeches in American history:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream 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 the 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.
I have a dream that one day ... right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today ...
Of course, we all know what happened to Martin Luther King. He went on to lead more protest events, including the infamous 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. He set up a freedom movement in Chicago to oppose racial profiling in housing; he vigorously opposed the Vietnam War; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was also subjected to surveillance and wiretapping by the FBI which suspected him (falsely) of being a communist and (accurately) of carrying on extramarital affairs.
And on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, where he was supporting striking garbage workers, he was assassinated.
Just days after King's assassination, the U. S. Congress fulfilled one Martin Luther King dream by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which among other things prohibited discrimination in housing.
But you can judge for yourself now, 50 years later, if or how well any of the other King dreams have come true.