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Martin Luther King Jr.

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Michael King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in the Atlanta home of his maternal grandfather, Adam Daniel Williams (1863 -- 1931). He was the second child and the first son of Michael King Sr. (1897 -- 1984) and Alberta Christine Williams King (1903 -- 1974). Michael Jr. had an older sister, Willie Christine (b. 1927), and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams (b. 1930). The father and later the son adopted the name Martin Luther, after the religious figure who founded the Lutheran denomination.

The family background was rooted in rural Georgia. A.D. Williams was already a minister himself when he moved from the country to Atlanta in 1893. There he took over a small struggling church with some 13 members, Ebenezer Baptist. In 1899 Williams married Jennie Celeste Parks (1873 -- 1941). The couple had one child that survived, Alberta Christine, M.L. King Jr.'s mother. A.D. Williams was a forceful preacher who built Ebenezer into a major church.

Michael King Sr. came to Atlanta in 1918. He had known the hard life of a sharecropper in a poor farming country. His father, James Albert King (1864 -- 1933), was irreligious, became an alcoholic, and beat his wife, Delia Linsey King (1873 -- 1924). In the fall of 1926, Michael Sr. married Alberta Williams after a courtship of some eight years. The newlyweds moved into A. D. Williams's home.

When Williams died in 1931, Michael King Sr. followed in his father-in-law's footsteps as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, too, became a very successful minister. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. As King Jr. said in "An Autobiography of Religious Development," an essay written for a class at Crozer Seminary when he was 23: "It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present."

King Sr. was inclined to be a severe disciplinarian, but his wife's firm gentleness -- which was by no means permissive -- generally carried the day. The parents could not, of course, shield the young boy from racism. King Sr. did not endure racism meekly; in showing open impatience with segregation and its effects and in discouraging the development of a sense of class superiority in his children, King Sr. influenced his son profoundly.

King Jr. entered public school when he was five. On May 1, 1936, King joined his father's church, being baptized two days later. His conversion was not dramatic -- he simply followed his sister when she went forward. A period of questioning religion began with adolescence and lasted through his early college years. He felt uncomfortable with overly emotional religion, and this discomfort initially led him to decide against entering the ministry.

Jennie Williams, King Jr.'s grandmother, died of a heart attack on May 18, 1941, during a Woman's Day program at Ebenezer. The death was traumatic for her grandson, especially since it happened while he was watching a parade despite his parents' prohibitions. Distraught, he seems to have attempted suicide by leaping from a second-story window of the family home. He wept on and off for days and had difficulty sleeping.

King studied in the public schools of Atlanta, spent time at the Atlanta Laboratory School until it closed in 1942, and then entered public high school in the tenth grade, skipping a grade. After completing his junior year at Booker T. Washington High School, he entered Morehouse College in the fall of 1944 at the age of 15. Since the war had taken away most young men, Morehouse, a men's college, turned to young entrants in desperation.

Attends Morehouse

The five-foot seven-inch tall King was a ladies' man and loved to dance. He was an indifferent student who completed Morehouse with a grade point average of 2.48 on a four-point scale. At first King was determined not to become a minister, and he majored in sociology. Under the influence of his junior-year Bible class, however, he renewed his faith. Although he did not return to a literal belief in scripture, King began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year he told his father of his decision. King Jr. preached his trial sermon at Ebenezer with great success. On February 25, 1948, he was ordained and became associate pastor at Ebenezer.

King decided to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, a very liberal school. King rose to the challenges of Crozer, earning the respect of both his professors and classmates. In addition to becoming the valedictorian of his class in 1951, he was also elected student body president, won a prize as outstanding student, and earned a fellowship for graduate study. During this time, King also rebelled against his father's conservatism and now made no secret about drinking beer, smoking, and playing pool. He became enamored of a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could bring himself to break off the affair.

During his last year at Crozer, King began to read the iconoclastic theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr and his challenge to liberal theology -- and thus, to King's own ideas at the time -- became the most important single influence on King's intellectual development, far surpassing his later interest in Mahatma Gandhi. After being accepted for doctoral study at Yale University, Boston University, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, he enrolled in graduate school at Boston University in the fall of 1951.

As King pursued his graduate studies, he also sought a wife. Early in 1952 he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer. She was the daughter of Obie and Bernice Scott, born in Heiberger, Alabama, on April 27, 1927. Growing up on her father's farm, she learned to work hard before attending Antioch College. King's parents opposed the marriage at first, but King prevailed and the marriage took place in June of 1953. King Jr. and Coretta had four children: Yolanda (b. November 17, 1955), Martin Luther III (b. October 23, 1957), Dexter (b. January 30, 1961), and Bernice Albertine (b. March 28, 1963).

In September of 1954 while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King completed his Ph.D. dissertation comparing the religious views of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and was awarded the degree in June of 1955. In November of 1990, scholars confirmed that significant parts of King's dissertation had been taken from the work of a fellow student, Jack Boozer, and one of the subjects of his dissertation, Paul Tillich.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott




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