History of Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Life, Dream, and Legacy


Born on January 15, 1929, we celebrate a holiday in honor of a man who was not a president, an explorer, or a saint. Instead, he was a Baptist minister and an American leader of the 1960s civil rights movement named after the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther after his father was inspired to change their name following a trip to Luther’s Wittenberg.

Though President Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1977, it was not until 1986 that a day was established as a federal holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The only other American federal holidays that honored individuals were for Jesus, President Washington, and Christopher Columbus.


Martin Luther King Jr as Pastor

Though King earned a doctorate, he was also an ordained minister, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers. From his biblical roots came many of the metaphors of his talks, the text of his presentations, and the cadence of his speech. He served as a minister starting in 1954 in Alabama, where afterward, he led the boycott against segregation on buses that lasted 382 days. He was arrested, his house was bombed, and he suffered personal abuse during this time.


Martin Luther King Jr as Activist


Washington D.C.

His involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement gave him his greatest visibility, as he began in 1957 non-violent civil disobedience, not unlike Gandhi‘s in India. Marches and protests were an effective means of accomplishing many of his goals.

This culminated in 1963 with the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream,” which he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.

The following year, in 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient. Though initially successful in the South, King also brought his movement to the North, specifically Chicago, in 1966, out of which grew equal opportunity programs.


Martin Luther King Jr as Speaker

King Beyond VietnamIn 1967, King delivered a comprehensive statement against the Vietnam War in his speech in New York City’s Riverside Church entitled “Beyond Vietnam.”

This was met with criticism from many activists and newspapers, though he argued that he was not merging the civil rights and peace movements.


Martin Luther King Jr at U.C. Berkeley


Even so, he continued to speak out against the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1967, a Spring day of 76 degrees just a month before the Summer of Love, he spoke at Sproul Plaza at the school I would later attend, the University of California at Berkeley.

The Interfraternity Council had invited him to speak. While it did not get much press coverage, even the local San Francisco Chronicle only gave it a few paragraphs on Page 8; there were 7,000 people present. It was his last large-scale public address in the Bay Area.

Sproul Plaza

Berkeley: Sproul Plaza and the Student Union

Students sat on roofs and balconies to hear his speech. There were placards encouraging King to run for President the following year with running mate Spock. That’s Dr. Benjamin Spock, not Mr. Spock.

He told students:

You, in a real sense, have been the conscience of the academic community and our nation.

In 1968, King gave a prescient speech called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he said about God:

He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!

MLK WitnessesThe next day, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.

The hotel has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, and his room has a wreath placed before it.

Nationwide riots followed until five days later, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning for King. Classes at Berkeley were suspended. Three hundred thousand people attended his funeral.


Martin Luther King’s hotel room today, Memphis. Author’s photo


Since his death, King has become a symbol of protest in the pursuit of racial justice, as he said in his seminal speech “I Have A Dream,” using majestic spiritual “soul force” rather than physical force.

As I write this from Colorado Springs amidst snow on the ground, I am reminded of his charge at the end of that same speech:

…from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… let freedom ring.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. jeni on January 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I forgot about his speech at Cal. We were there last night for a basketball game. Cal’s team includes a student from Mexico and a Sudanese athlete who left during the turmoil in his country as an infant. – love our Berkeley – it is wonderful to think that Dr. King was on our campus.

    • Bill Petro on January 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm


      How exciting. Thanks for sharing that.


  2. Joel Schuster on January 18, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Outstanding post again, Bill. Good job.

  3. margarito rodriguez on March 2, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Very interesting,I have learned more about this history..Thanks

  4. jafari yusufu kakwaya on August 27, 2011 at 9:21 am

    i like this

  5. jafari yusufu kakwaya on August 27, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I like and I’m happy to know more information about martin luther king, I’m a young boy from DAR ES SALAAM -TANZANIA. Thanks for prepared this…………….

  6. Rosalind on April 2, 2014 at 4:39 am

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!!

    Finally I have found something which helped me. Thank

  7. Hans Wayman on January 15, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    I think he was a saint. In both protestant and catholic sense of that word.

  8. Teresa on June 8, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    A very interesting “history”, Bill. I don’t know if you have ever seen Richard John Neuhaus’s article about him, which you might like. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/remembering-martin-luther-king-jr

    I wrote a short bio on King in 2006, which touches on a few of the same points you mention, and some others. I don’t think I ever knew about his words at Berkeley. Glad you mentioned that. http://blog-by-the-sea.typepad.com/blog_bythesea/2006/03/about_dr_martin.html

    • Bill Petro on June 12, 2016 at 5:34 pm

      The article by Richard John Neuhaus is very insightful and addresses the issues of those days. Your article is much more thorough than mine. I resisted for years writing an article on this, protesting to my readers that it’s not “history.” I came to the conclusion that just because it happened during my life, does not mean it’s not history to those who are younger.

      When I started at Berkeley 4 years after MLK spoke there, he was honored on campus, but in the ensuing years his memory has become much more venerated: the Cal Student Union has been renamed, as well as Grove Street.

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