King is America’s most famous civil rights leader. He is best known for his oratory, especially the “I Have a Dream Speech”, and his advocacy of non-violent techniques of achieving equal rights for African-Americans. He campaigned for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Despite controversies surrounding his personal life, and disputed authorship of academic work and speeches attributed to King, he remains an important symbol of minorities’ quest to achieve equal rights in the United States. As such, his birthday is celebrated as a federal holiday each January.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, both King’s father and grandfather were ministers. King studied theology at several colleges before becoming pastor of a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. He began his civil rights leadership during an attempt by Montgomery blacks to end the city’s policy that segregated seating on buses. King’s house was bombed, but the buses were desegregated after the Supreme Court declared Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional. King continued his leadership as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but radicals who sought faster progress, such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, challenged his strategy in the mid-1960s. In 1966 and 1967 King focused on improving economic conditions for blacks : his final speech was on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He was assassinated the day following the speech; his death led to massive riots by blacks across the United States.