Martin Luther King Jr.: Biography, Quotes, and Facts
Published June 21, 2019. Updated November 10, 2020.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American minister and activist who was one of the most effective and visible activists for the American Civil Rights Movement. He emphasized civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance and protest. In honor of the contributions Martin Luther King made to society, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been an American federal holiday since 1986.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. Theoretically, this should make it easy to answer the question, “When is Martin Luther King Day?”, but it’s not as straightforward as that. Instead of celebrating his life and works on January 15 every year, the American government instead marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, some states resisted fully observing the holiday by renaming it or combining it with other holidays. To this day, some states still honor Martin Luther King on the same day as other celebrations.
King was active in the civil rights movement from a relatively early age; his father, with whom he shared his name, was an activist as well. King was a talented public speaker and a devout Christian who entered the ministry. He was called as a pastor by the age of 25, taking a post at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama while also pursuing his PhD.
It was in 1955 that King began his more visible civil rights activism as a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. He and several other activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was created to organize and direct the power (and moral leadership) of black churches towards civil rights reformation, focusing on civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
Martin Luther King Jr. worked extensively for more than a decade to pursue a path of firm but non-violent civil rights activism. Despite this, the fact that he was working for civil rights at all put a target on his back. In 1958, a mentally ill woman approached him at a book signing and stabbed him in the chest, convinced that he was conspiring against her with communists. He also was surveilled by the FBI, who feared the civil rights movements and were paranoid that communists were using it as a front.
Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and facts
Looking for Martin Luther King quotes for your paper? Wondering how a Martin Luther King Jr. speech is still relevant today? Need to check that you’ve got the right quote from the Martin Luther King I Have a Dream speech? We’ve got you covered, with Martin Luther King Jr. facts plus some important quotes.
Quotes from Dr. King
Among the Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, the most famous is the Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream speech. In fact, many of the Martin Luther King Jr. quotes you know probably come from this speech! We hear quotes from it every Martin Luther King day, so a little background info is probably in order.
The speech I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King was delivered on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington. Many of the most important Martin Luther King quotes come from this speech, which calls for action on civil rights and frames it as a dream of a beautiful, equal, and unified future. On the next Martin Luther King Day, remember the great civil rights leader with his eloquent words. Without further ado: some selected quotes from this iconic Martin Luther King Jr. speech:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
“As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
“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 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 today.”
“When we allow freedom 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 of 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!”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes aren’t just limited to his most famous address. Among the most important Martin Luther King Jr. facts is that he wrote and spoke frequently; his training as a preacher was a cornerstone of his rhetorical style. While it’s not literally a Martin Luther King speech, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a masterpiece of written rhetoric, and it’s home to many famous quotes:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ’I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Other notable quotes came from his other speeches and writings:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – How Long, Not Long speech, 1965.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” — from the book Strength to Love, 1963.
“The time is always right to do what is right.” — Oberlin College commencement speech, 1965.
Martin Luther King facts
Ready for basic facts about Martin Luther King Jr.? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions.
- Where was Martin Luther King born? He was born in Atlanta, Georgia
- What was his profession? He was a preacher and an activist
- Did he have a family? Yes, a wife (Coretta Scott King) and four children
- Where did he die? He died in Memphis, Tennessee, assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at the age of 39.
- What day is his national holiday? The third Monday in January honors Dr. King.
Martin Luther King Jr. information
Dr. King’s beliefs
Throughout his career, King was a strong advocate of dignified, non-violent, civil protests, in contrast to some of the more militant practices advocated by other groups. King was a Baptist pastor, and he drew on his faith, as well as the non-violent protest tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, when advocating for action. This did not necessarily make him a “moderate,” however. King expressed disdain for “moderates” who advocated a both-sides, slow-paced approach.
King publicly held controversial beliefs other than his civil rights activism. He was outspoken on the matters of economic justice – especially, but not limited to, where it intersected with racial justice – and the anti-Vietnam War movement. He supported universal basic income and attempted to create a multi-racial coalition to press for the government to do more to address rising poverty.
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Further biographical information
Let’s start with the basic information: when was Martin Luther King born? He was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. Although January 15 is the actual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, the federal holiday honoring him is a moveable one, sitting on the third Monday of each January.
King’s involvement with the civil rights movement began in a visible, tangible way with the Montgomery bus boycotts, then quickly spread. He and his colleagues at the SCLC mobilized supporters for widespread non-violent actions to protest segregation in the South; their Birmingham campaign in 1963 met with major resistance but was largely successful.
Also, 1963 was the year that King made the speech that would define his legacy. The March on Washington brought over 250,000 people to the nation’s capital to call for civil rights legislation, an end to segregation, minimum wage reform, and more. King made a seventeen-minute speech and, towards the end, went-off script, possibly in reaction to Mahalia Jackson calling out, “Tell them about the dream!” The subsequent remarks gave his speech its name: “I Have a Dream.”
Two years later, in 1965, King again was part of a tense march: this one from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights. After several false starts, the march finally went ahead. The following year, he became involved in the hotbed of Chicago race relations, fighting for the housing movement.
King’s influence was remarkable, but it was cut short. The Martin Luther King Jr. assassination occurred on April 4, 1968.
King made a speech at a rally on April 3. His planned flight back to Memphis had been delayed due to a bomb threat made to his plane, and he incorporated some of that into his address. In the speech, King meditated on the possibility of violence and that he might not get to see “the promised land” of civil rights. Even so, he reassured his people that their goals would be reached, someday, and that he himself was not afraid.
That speech proved to be eerily prescient. The next day, on the evening of April 4, King was standing on the balcony of his usual room at the Lorraine Motel in the early evening, prior to an event he was scheduled to attend. He was shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 pm. Despite undergoing emergency surgery, he was pronounced dead an hour later.
King left behind a legacy of nonviolent but firm protest and a singular influence on the civil rights movement in the United States. Along with his colleagues, he helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of civil rights, and he was unusually progressive overall, at least in private, for his era. When we celebrate the Martin Luther King birthday every year as a national holiday, it’s because he was an ideal example of unwavering beliefs, persuasive rhetoric, and combining insistence with dignity.
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For more information about prominent figures, check out the full EasyBib collection of biographical study guides:
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Carson, Clayborne, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., 1998.
Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference & Martin Luther King Jr. University of Georgia Press, 1987.
“Martin Luther King Jr.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 May 2019, //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.
Lewis, David L. and Clayborne Carson. “Martin Luther King, Jr.: American Religious Leader and Civil-Rights Activist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3 May 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr
A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (1986)
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