Who was Martin Luther King Jr. in 500 words.

Martin Luther King Jr, born 15th January 1929, was an American  Baptist  minister and activist who became the most well-known leader of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

Born Michael King Jr, his father later changed his son’s name to honor the memory of the German Protestant leader, Martin Luther.

MLK, as he became known, was a firm believer in nonviolence and  civil disobedience, inspired by his religious beliefs and the nonviolent activism of  Mahatma Gandhi. He participated in and led marches against racial discrimination and segregation for voting rights, labour rights, schooling and other basic civil rights.

MLK first rose to prominence during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott when Rosa Parks an African American woman refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man. The boycott lasted more than a year and finally the United States Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery segregation laws were unconstitutional. MLK later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and he helped organize some of the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. His most successful action was the People’s March in 1963 when he led the march on Washington, where 20,000 people heard him deliver his famous “I Have a Dream”  speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He spoke of his dream in which the sons and daughters of white slave owners and black slaves would be brothers and sisters living in peace.

Through his non-violent methods he gained much public support for the civil rights demands which resulted in the passage of the  Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment. 

On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating  racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize two of the three Selma to Montgomery marches whose aim was to register black voters in the South. The marchers encountered deadly violence from the authorities but  eventually  the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 was passed giving equal rights to all citizens regardless of the colour of their skin.

Although MLK was lauded worldwide for his nonviolent methods to oppression he did face opposition from more radical leaders such as Malcolm X.  

Later in life MLK expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. In 1968, MLK was planning a national occupation of  Washington DC to be called the  Poor People’s Campaign, when he was  assassinated on April 4 in  Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted in many US cities following his death. His presumed assassin, James Earl Ray, insisted he had been framed by the FBI for the murder.

Martin Luther King Jr was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Martin Luther King Jr Day was created a national holiday in 1986 and is celebrated on the 3rd Monday of January.

Only 2 other people have national days in their honor; George Washington (3rd Monday of February)  and Christopher Columbus (2nd Monday of October)….. but that’s another story ! 

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