Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. Dr. King grew up as the son of a leading
minister in Atlanta, Georgia, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. His mother, Mrs. Alberta Williams King,
assisted her husband in the care of his congregation. Because of their efforts and interest in behalf of
the congregation and the community, his parents were known as 'Momma' and 'Daddy' King. His
community, centered on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta also influenced him. By the 1930s when he was a
child, it was the center of business and social life in Black Atlanta and the major center for the Black
Southeast. The community was so successful that nationwide, it was known as "Sweet Auburn". The
residential neighborhoods of the community, and especially the one where Dr. King was born were
known for the diversity of the backgrounds of the residents. Though all Black, the neighborhoods
had business people, laborers, college-educated, uneducated, rich, poor and successful all living close
to each other.
As a boy, Dr. King experienced many of the same things most children do. He helped and played
games with his older sister Christine and his younger brother A. D. He played baseball on vacant lots
and rode his bicycle in the streets. He went to school at David T. Howard Elementary, three blocks
from his home. He attended the Butler Street YMCA down Auburn Avenue. When the family moved
to the house on Boulevard, he was attending Booker T. Washington High School, working a
newspaper route, attending his first dances, and planning to attend college. But, Dr. King's primary
memories of his childhood were of the sting of segregation.
In 1941 Daddy King moved the family to a brick home. Here King continued his development and
education until he graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. Dr. King still lived in this home when
he attended College here in Atlanta, starting at the age of fifteen. After graduation he left for
graduate work at Crozer Theological Seminary, then in Chester, Pennsylvania (now Colgate
Rochester divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York), and at
Boston University. He became pastor at The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama
in 1954 and served there until 1960. From 1960 until 1968 he was co-pastor, with his father, of
Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, where his grandfather, Rev. A. D. Williams had also been
Starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956, Dr. King was also the foremost leader of the
Civil Rights Movement. His dedication to the tactics of non-violent resistance led to successful
campaigns in Montgomery, AL, Birmingham, AL, and Selma,AL as well as encouraging African-
Americans throughout the South to campaign for their own freedom. After 1965, He expanded his
work to include actions in the North, opposition to the War in Vietnam, and planning for a campaign
to aid poor people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, 2012
On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or
rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured
the true equality of all our people. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.
At a time when our Nation was sharply divided, Dr. King called on a generation of Americans to be
"voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion." His
example stirred men and women of all backgrounds to become foot soldiers for justice, and his
leadership gave them the courage to refuse the limitations of the day and fight for the prospect of
tomorrow. Because these individuals showed the resilience to stand firm in the face of the fiercest
resistance, we are the benefactors of an extraordinary legacy of progress.
Today, Dr. King is memorialized on the National Mall where he once spoke, a symbol of how far our
Nation has come and a testament to the quiet heroes whose names may never appear in history
books, but whose selflessness brought about change few thought possible. Dr. King's memorial
reminds us that while the work of realizing his remarkable dream is unending, with persistence,
progress is within our reach.
On the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, we celebrate the man who fought for the America he
knew was possible. Dr. King's faith in a God who loves all His children and a Nation grounded in the
promise of equality would not let him rest until victory was won. As we work to meet the challenges
of our time from fixing our schools so every child gets a world class education to ensuring all
Americans have access to strong and secure economic opportunity let us draw strength from Dr.
King's stirring affirmation that "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." In his
memory, let us continue climbing toward that Promised Land, one more fair and more just for all
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the
authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim
January 16, 2012, as the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday. I encourage all Americans to observe
this day with appropriate civic, community, and service projects in honor of Dr. King, and to visit
www.MLKDay.gov to find Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service projects across our country.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirteenth day of January, in the year of our
Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two
hundred and thirty-sixth.
The Power of Nonviolent Action
01 March 2009
By Stephen Zunes
Armed insurgencies impose great human costs. Nonviolent “people power” movements succeed by calling attention to
official repression and winning support from the undecided. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San
Francisco. He is the principal co-editor of Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999) and chairs the committee of
academic advisers for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (PDF,
Nonviolent action campaigns have been a part of political life for millennia, challenging abuses by
authorities, spearheading social reforms, demanding an end to colonial rule, and protesting
militarism and discrimination.
India’s Mohandas Gandhi and the United States’ Martin Luther King
Jr., who were both brilliant strategic thinkers as well as great moral
leaders, are perhaps the best-known leaders of such movements. Not
only were they committed to nonviolent action as the most effective
means of waging their respective struggles; they also held to a deep
faith-based commitment to nonviolence as a personal ethic. In many
People-power movements, such as this
one in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, have respects, however, Gandhi and King were unusual in their personal
helped bring down scores of
commitment to principled nonviolence, as the vast majority of
nonviolent movements and their leaders have not been pacifists but
embraced nonviolent action as the best strategic means to advance their struggles.
Indeed, primarily nonviolent struggles in recent decades have not only led to significant political and
social reforms advancing the cause of human rights, but have also even toppled repressive regimes
from power and forced leaders to change the very nature of their governance. As a result, nonviolent
resistance has been evolving from an ad hoc strategy associated with religious or ethical principles
into a reflective, even institutionalized, method of struggle.
Indeed, the past 30 years have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in nonviolent insurrections against
autocratic rulers. Primarily nonviolent “people power” movements have been responsible for
advancing democratic change in nearly 60 countries during this period, forcing substantial reforms in
many countries. Other struggles, while eventually suppressed, have nevertheless posed serious
challenges to other despots.
In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular
resistance to government authority that, either consciously or by necessity, eschew the use of
weapons of modern warfare.
Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the
mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. Tactics may include strikes, boycotts,
mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, refusal to pay taxes, destruction of
symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders
(such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and
Why Nonviolence Works
For many years there was an assumption that autocratic regimes could be overthrown only through
popular armed struggle or foreign military intervention. Yet there is an increasing awareness that
nonviolent action can actually be more powerful than violence. A recent academic study of 323 major
insurrections in support of self-determination and freedom from autocratic rule over the past
century revealed that major nonviolent campaigns were successful 53 percent of the time, whereas
primarily violent resistance campaigns were successful only 26 percent of the time. (Maria J. Stephan
and Eric Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International
Security, vol. 33, no. 1, Summer 2008.)
There are several reasons why insurgents have turned away from armed struggle to embrace
nonviolent action. One reason is a growing awareness of the increasing costs of insurgency warfare.
Technology has given status quo powers an increasing advantage in recent years in defeating or at
least neutralizing armed insurgencies. Even when an armed revolutionary movement is victorious,
large segments of the population are displaced, farms and villages are destroyed, cities and much of
the country’s infrastructure are severely damaged, the economy is wrecked, and there is widespread
environmental devastation. The net result is an increasing realization that the benefits of waging an
armed insurrection may not be worth the costs.
Another factor endorsing nonviolence is the tendency, once in power, for victorious armed
movements against dictatorships to fail in establishing pluralistic, democratic, and independent
political systems capable of supporting social and economic development and promoting human
rights. These shortcomings often result in part from counterrevolution, natural disasters, foreign
intervention, trade embargoes, and other circumstances beyond a victorious popular movement’s
However, the choice of armed struggle as a means of securing power tends to exacerbate these
problems and creates troubles of its own. For one, armed struggle often promotes the ethos of a
secret elite vanguard, downplaying democracy and showing less tolerance for pluralism. Often,
disagreements that could be resolved peaceably in non-militarized institutions lead to bloody
factional fighting. Some countries experienced military coups or civil wars not long after armed
revolutionary movements ousted colonialists or indigenous dictators. Others became overly
dependent on foreign powers for weapons to keep them in power.
There is also an increasing awareness that armed resistance tends to upset undecided elements of
the population, who then seek security in the government. When facing a violent insurgency, a
government can easily justify its repression. But force used against unarmed resistance movements
usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. Some have compared this
phenomenon with the martial art of aikido, in that the opposition movement leverages the power of
state repression to advance the movement’s ends.
In addition, unarmed campaigns involve far more participants beyond the young able-bodied men
normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas, taking advantage of a popular movement’s majority
support. Unarmed resistance also encourages the creation of
alternative institutions, which further undermine the repressive
status quo and form the basis for a new independent and
Armed resistance often backfires by legitimizing the use of
repressive tactics. Violence from the opposition is often
welcomed by authoritarian governments and even encouraged
through the use of agents provocateurs, because it then justifies
state repression. But state violence unleashed on unarmed
dissidents often triggers a turning point in nonviolent struggles. A
government attack against peaceful demonstrators can be the
spark that transforms periodic protests into a full-scale
King and Gandhi embraced nonviolence
both in principle and as strategy.
Unarmed resistance movements also tend to sow divisions within pro-government circles. There are
often disagreements regarding how to deal effectively with the resistance, since few governments
are as prepared to deal with unarmed revolts as they are to quash armed ones. Violent repression of
a peaceful movement can often alter popular and elite perceptions of the legitimacy of power, which
is why state officials usually use less repression against nonviolent movements. In addition, some
pro-government elements become less concerned about the consequences of a compromise with
insurgents if their resistance is nonviolent.
Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and noncooperation by unmotivated
police and military personnel, whereas armed revolts legitimize the role of the government’s
coercive apparatus, enhancing its self-perception as the protector of civil society. The moral power
of nonviolence is crucial in the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of key
parties: the public, political elites, and the military, most of whom have no difficulty supporting the
use of violence against violent insurrections.
The efficacy of nonviolent resistance in dividing supporters of the status quo is apparent not only in
rendering government troops less effective, but also in challenging the attitudes of an entire nation
and even foreign actors, as in the South African struggle against apartheid. Pictures of peaceful
protesters — including whites, members of the clergy, and other “upstanding citizens” — broadcast
on television worldwide lent legitimacy to antiapartheid forces and undermined the South African
government in a way that the armed rebellion was unable to do. As nonviolent resistance within the
country escalated, external pressure in the form of economic sanctions and other solidarity tactics by
the international community raised the costs of maintaining the apartheid system.
Due to increased global interdependence, the nonlocal audience for a conflict may be just as
important as the immediate community. Just as Gandhi played to British citizens in Manchester and
London, organizers of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South were communicating to the entire
nation, and especially to the administration of President John Kennedy.
Insurgency within the Soviet bloc was disseminated by television broadcasts that spread the news
from country to country, legitimating local protests that no longer seemed like isolated events
organized by unstable dissidents. The prominent role of the global media during the anti-Marcos
people power movement in 1986 was instrumental in forcing the U.S. government to scale back its
support of the Philippine dictator. Israeli repression of nonviolent protests by Palestinians during the
first intifada of the late 1980s brought unprecedented international sympathy to their struggle
against foreign military occupation. As Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi observed, the
Palestinians had “succeeded at last in conveying the reality of their victimization to world public
As a proactive ingredient in nonviolent resistance, the creation of alternative structures provides
both a moral and a practical underpinning for efforts aimed at bringing about fundamental social
change. Parallel structures in civil society may render state control increasingly impotent, as they did
throughout Eastern Europe leading up to the events of 1989.
In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos lost power in 1986 not through the defeat of his troops and the
storming of the Malacañang Palace, but from the withdrawal of sufficient support for his authority,
so that the palace became the only part of the country he could effectively control. On the same day
that Marcos was officially sworn in for another term as president in a state ceremony, his opponent
— Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated Marcos critic — was symbolically sworn in as the
people’s president. Given that most Filipinos saw Marcos’s election as fraudulent, the vast majority
offered its allegiance to President Aquino rather than to President Marcos. The transfer of allegiance
from one source of authority and legitimacy to another is a key element of a successful nonviolent
In the course of a successful nonviolent revolution, and with adequate popular participation, political
authority may be wrested from the state and invested in institutions of civil society as these parallel
institutions grow in effectiveness and legitimacy. The state may become increasingly impotent and
irrelevant as parallel nongovernmental institutions take over an increasing portion of the tasks of
governing a society, providing services to the populace, and creating functional equivalents to the
institutions of the state.
Citing the financial support provided by some outside foundations funded by Western governments
to some opposition groups that later took part in the so-called color revolutions among nations of
Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some authoritarian regimes have denied the popular
legitimacy of these pro-democracy movements by claiming they were simply “soft coups” plotted by
the United States or other Western powers. Such outside funding cannot cause a nonviolent liberal
democratic revolution to take place, however, any more than Soviet financial and material support
for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place.
One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular
resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to
engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching a grandma to peel onions.”
Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are the result of certain objective
conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their
jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies
on the line unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.
Foreign powers have historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats,
and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent people
power movements, by contrast, make regime change possible through empowering pro-democratic
There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign
nongovernmental organization could put together, because the history, culture, and political
alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the
large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging
the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.
As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy among oppressed nations of the
world comes not from armed struggle and not from the intervention of foreign powers, but from
democratic civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent action.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S.
Nonviolent Thought Through U.S. History
01 March 2009
By Ira Chernus
Rooted in 16th century Europe, the intellectual traditions of nonviolent thought and action were developed in the United
States in the 19th and 20th centuries and traveled abroad to Asia and Africa. Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at
the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.
This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change
(http://www.america.gov/media/pdf/ejs/0309ej.pdf PDF, 783 KB).
When people set out to create social change, they have to decide
whether to use violence to achieve their aims. Some who opt for
nonviolence may have no objection to violence in principle. They just
believe that violence will not succeed in gaining their goals, or they
are afraid of getting hurt, or they can’t persuade others to join them
in violence. Theirs is the nonviolence of convenience, or pragmatic
Nonviolent Vietnam War protests in the
1960s followed the example of the civil
rights movement. But over the centuries there have been many who might have gained
their goals through violence — who had the means, the courage, and
the strength to do violence — yet freely decided not to do violence under any circumstances. They
followed the way of principled nonviolence. Though many have been inspired to adopt principled
nonviolence for emotional and cultural reasons, they have also been moved by the rich intellectual
tradition that offers logical arguments on behalf of nonviolence.
That intellectual tradition runs like an underground stream through U.S. history. Its roots go back to
the Anabaptist Christians of Europe in the 16th century, the era when Protestant Christianity began.
The Anabaptists rejected violence because they were committed to staying separated from the
mainstream society and its many conflicts. Some of their descendants came to the United States,
where they established what are known as the historic peace churches.
The distinctive American contribution came when other Christians, who were deeply involved in the
conflicts of society, decided on principle to pursue political and social change using only nonviolent
means. The process began in colonial times, before the United States declared its independence
from Britain, among members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Their strict commitment
to nonviolence led some of them to oppose the payment of taxes for war, the enslavement of
African Americans, and the persecution and displacement of Native American peoples. But the
Quakers were primarily a religious group, whose beliefs led them to nonviolence.
The great turning point came in the 1820s and 1830s, when a group of people from different religious
backgrounds began to demand the abolition of slavery in the United States. These abolitionists were
nearly all Christians, and not all of them were committed to pursuing their goal nonviolently. Those
who were, however, created the first group that formed around a goal of political-social change and
then chose nonviolence as their means. They believed in God as the supreme ruler of the universe.
Therefore, they said, no human should ever exercise authority over another human. On that basis
they denounced slavery. But since violence is always a way of exercising authority, they were led
logically to renounce violence, too.
The same line of thinking influenced the great essayist Henry David Thoreau to go to jail rather than
pay taxes to a government that supported war and slavery. In his famous 1849 essay “Civil
Disobedience,” Thoreau explained that he would never obey an unjust law, regardless of what
punishment he received, because people should follow their own conscience rather than passively
follow the government’s demands. Thoreau’s main goal was to maintain his own moral virtue and his
freedom to act on the truth as he saw it. But he did point out that if enough people refused to obey
unjust laws, they could “clog the machinery” of the state.
Tolstoy and Gandhi
The writings of the abolitionists and Thoreau inspired the great
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to become an ardent exponent of
Christian nonviolence. His writings, in turn, helped to shape the
ideas of the greatest of all nonviolent activists, the leader of India’s
independence movement, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. In the
20th century, the ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi came back to the
United States and inspired many Americans, who often did not know
that so much of the theory of nonviolence had originated in their
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivers an
own country. antislavery speech on Boston Common
in April 1851.
For Gandhi, nonviolence was more a matter of intention than actual behavior. He defined “violence”
as the intention to coerce another person to do something the other person does not want to do.
Nonviolent actions such as boycotts, blockades, and disobedience to laws may look coercive, but if
done in a true spirit of nonviolence, they are merely ways of following the moral truth as one sees it.
They leave others free to respond in any way they choose. A follower of Gandhian nonviolence says,
in the spirit of Thoreau, “I am doing what I feel I must do. Now you do whatever you feel you must
do. You may jail me, beat me, or even kill me. But you cannot take away my freedom to be true to my
Gandhi recognized that he was calling all people to act on their subjective view of truth. No one can
know the whole truth, he said, and we must be open to the possibility that we will later see that we
were wrong. That is why we must never aim to impose our own views on others. But we must take a
firm stand — even unto death — on the truth as we see it now. Only then can we discover for
ourselves what the truth is in any given situation.
Since principled nonviolence means non-coercion, people committed to nonviolence believe they are
never trying to make a situation turn out the way they want it. They are working not for selfish
purposes but for the good of the whole world as they see it. In fact, according to Gandhi, they should
never be concerned about the outcome of their actions at all. They should only be sure that they are
doing the morally right thing at every moment. Following the moral truth is both the means and the
end of nonviolence; a right process is the goal. Therefore, nonviolence should not be judged by its
ability to produce results.
The most famous exponent of nonviolence in the United States was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the
great spokesman for the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. King agreed with
Gandhi that nonviolent actions must always be taken out of concern for the well-being of all people,
even those who are unjust and oppressive. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,”
he proclaimed, “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all
Unlike Gandhi, though, King was concerned about the results of his actions. He judged the strategies
of the civil rights movement not only by their intrinsic moral virtue, but also by their effectiveness in
ending discrimination against black people. He wanted to provoke conflict and win political victories.
But as long as one is working nonviolently for justice and equality, King argued, the conflict will yield
greater justice and peace for everyone. So in his view, there is no conflict between success for
oneself and benefit for society: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of
morality coalesce with our self-interest.” Even when our acts involve unyielding confrontation and
pressure, he said, as long as we are motivated by selfless love offered equally to both sides in the
conflict, we are working to harmonize the opposing sides and improve life for all. On that point,
Gandhi certainly would have agreed.
Results From Nonviolence
The civil rights movement demonstrated that nonviolence can produce results, if one chooses to
judge by that standard. In the 1960s, the nonviolent movement to end the Vietnam War — largely
inspired by the successes of civil rights activists — played a significant role in persuading the U.S.
government to remove its troops from Vietnam.
Up to the 1960s, most Americans who committed themselves to principled nonviolence were moved
by Christian religious beliefs. But the protest movement against the Vietnam War brought in many
who were not Christian. The Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) grew significantly. An
emerging Buddhist peace movement was guided by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn and, later, the
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