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A look at the life and influence of Dr. King

1/19/2015, 6 a.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played a pivotal role in race relations in the United States for nearly a decade. ...
An inscription on the side of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, which paraphrased a speech King delivered in 1968 in Atlanta, is being removed. Courtesy photo

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played a pivotal role in race relations in the United States for nearly a decade. He helped secure the end of legal segregation of African-American citizens, created the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and served as a source of inspiration for black individuals across the globe.

Dr. King did not begin his life as a crusader or public figure. He had much more modest beginnings in rural Atlanta. Born Michael King, Jr., he was the middle child of Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Michael King, Sr. served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law, who was the church's prior pastor. At this point, the elder king decided to change his name to Martin Luther to honor the famed Protestant religious leader. His son soon decided to adopt the name as well.

A religious family, the Kings tried to shield their children from the realities of racism that were alive and well in the country. They believed racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will, and Martin, Sr. discouraged separation of class and taught these lessons to his children. Those lessons resonated with Martin, Jr.

Dr. King attended Booker T. Washington High School and was so advanced he was able to skip both the 9th and 11th grades. He went on to college at the age of 15, graduating from Morehouse College in 1948 with a degree in sociology. In his junior year of college, King enrolled in a Bible class that sparked a renewed enthusiasm for the ministry. He later enrolled in the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he received a Bachelor's of Divinity. Later he attended Boston University and earned a Ph.D. at the age of 25. It was during his time in Boston that he met his future wife, Coretta Scott. While he was completing his dissertation work, Dr. King became the pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama.

Martin Luther King, Jr. became directly involved in the civil rights movement after the head of the local NAACP chapter in Montgomery met with him on the night that Rosa Parks was arrested for failure to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Dr. King helped institute the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During this time, African-Americans refused to ride the public bus system in Montgomery. The boycott lasted 382 days. During that time, Dr. King's home was bombed due to his involvement in the boycott, and he was arrested for conspiracy. His work paid off on December 21, 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on public transportation was illegal.

Dr. King promoted nonviolent protests against unfairness to the African-American community, urging civil disobedience and peaceful protests, tenets that formed the basis for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, which he led. He participated in numerous nonviolent protests and was arrested several times. During one stint in jail, he penned his famous, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."