The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr: More than a Day, A Way of Life

This blog post was written by undergraduate assistant Kayla Thompson.

MLK the Man

Born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was destined to enter the family business — church ministry. From the start, King was a bright student, graduating at the age of fifteen. He attended and graduated from Morehouse College, a distinguished African American institution at the time. After Morehouse, King went to Crozer Theological Seminary and was awarded a fellowship that funded his graduate studies at Boston University where he earned his doctorate. While King was attending Boston University, he met and married Coretta Scott. Together, they had two sons and two daughters. Soon thereafter, King began pastoring Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here that his advocacy for civil rights gained national attention.

In December 1955, King’s leadership skills were put to the test when he led the first African American non-violent demonstration in the United States – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – which lasted 382 days. During these tumultuous times, King was subjected to waves of abuse, from being arrested by the police and thrown in jail to having his house bombed. King’s work finally paid off on December 21, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court passed legislation that required segregation on buses to cease due to its unconstitutionality.

MLK during the “I Have a Dream Speech”
(Photo courtesy of Seattle YMCA)

King was affiliated with both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He sat on the NAACP’s Executive Committee and was elected President of the SCLC. SCLC provided new leadership for the growing Civil Rights Movement, applying nonviolent techniques used several years earlier by Mahatma Gandhi. During his tenure at SCLC, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times; he also published five books and wrote numerous articles. Two of his more famous works include King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have a Dream” speech. His letter was a manifesto as he spoke to the need for African Americans to vote. King’s iconic speech cast hope for a future of equality, following the peaceful march on Washington, D.C. in which 250,000 people were in attendance.  

Garnering significant support from the Black community, King became an icon and global figure. During his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, King was awarded five honorary degrees and was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963. When he was just thirty-five years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest man to earn the award. After winning, King donated his prize money to the furtherance of civil rights. His life was cut short when King was assassinated, standing on his motel room’s balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. King died advocating for his people, and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement will not be forgotten.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (MLK Global). This is King’s legacy!

MLK the Writer/Teacher

Drawing attention to some of King’s essential writings and speeches, he illuminated the importance of nonviolent techniques and showing love to one’s enemies. King’s foundation for the nonviolent struggle was love. He spoke about the love of Jesus Christ and how Jesus went beyond liking a person. King described love as “understanding, redemptive, creative, goodwill for all men” (King, 1986, p. 47). When it came to his nonviolent strategy, King thought it would “dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of goodwill in the community and change is produced” (King, 1986, p. 58). King advocated for love and nonviolence as means of utilizing political and moral power to bring about meaningful change that encouraged everyone in the nation to get involved. He also spoke to the importance of organization from voter leagues to tenant unions, people from different walks of life coming together as units of power. Ultimately, King’s vision to end racism, materialism, and violence in Western civilization was furthered through the goodwill of both black and white Americans, those people who had the courage to put an end to suffering by suffering themselves. King’s dream was a world of “brotherhood, cooperation, and peace” (King, 1986, p. 61).  

Representative Chet Edwards standing above painting of MLK (Poage digital archives)

Despite King’s writings being published decades ago, they remain relevant to today’s struggle as they draw attention to the ills of oppression still present in America. King insisted upon a sense of urgency that America must have when solving the issue of Black people being second-class citizens. King wrote, “The racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. It is a problem that meets every man at his front door” (King, 1986, pp. 147-148). King stresses the fact that in order to eradicate the second-class status of Blacks, nonviolence is crucial to re-establishing broken communities as it appeals “to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep” (King, 1986, pp. 148-149). King took this message with him wherever he went, and his writings are still being used to progress racial justice today.  

One of the questions being asked currently is “How far have we come?” Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to this perfectly when he wrote, “Millions of people have fought thousands of battles to enlarge my freedom; restricted as it still is, progress has been made” (King, 1986, p. 314) Although true equality has yet to be reached, progress has been made, and that is what celebrating the life of Dr. King is all about. He was a revolutionary for his time who sought to bring out the good in people; he was secure in the knowledge of God’s love for him and others. He knew that people had the capacity for both good and evil, but history showed a path of progress nevertheless. King realized, “Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest, and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms” (King, 1986, p. 314). As we embrace 2021, we must not forget the man who helped lead this country into realizing the full potential of all humanity, who tirelessly fought for equality of all men and women and was willing to sacrifice himself for the cause.

MLK the Day

Wreath Laying Ceremony at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in Waco
(Photo courtesy of Baylor Photography)

The making of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into an official federal holiday was no small feat. Eleven years after King’s death, a bill was introduced in Congress— by Representative John Conyers and U.S. Senator Edward Brooks— to celebrate King’s birthday as a national holiday. Unfortunately, the bill was five votes short of passing. Some argued that King never held public office, and that making King’s birthday a paid holiday would be too expensive. After failing to pass the bill in Congress, the public took matters into their own hands. Regular American citizens garnered six million signatures to get Congress to pass the “King” bill into law — the largest petition gathered in favor of an issue in American history. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to create a federal holiday honoring King, after it passed in the House and Senate. Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed on January 20, 1986. Every year since then, the holiday has been observed on the third Monday of January. This year, we celebrate MLK Day on Monday, January 18, 2021.

With social distancing guidelines and altered school schedules, celebrating MLK Day will look different this year. However, King’s contributions to the fight for racial equality will still be remembered and celebrated. To honor this day, one can get involved by educating oneself on King’s legacy, taking part in the daily fight against racial injustice, or simply be willing to have an uncomfortable conversation about race. The important thing is that you find a way to give back, honoring a man who dedicated his whole life towards creating a just society. Incorporating Poage’s Word of the Month for January, EMPATHY requires us to not only understand but share in the feeling of others. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to empathy; he carried out this virtue everyday. When commemorating this day, don’t forget these potent words of Dr. King — “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” (King, 1986, p. 247). Now is our time to go out and be the light, continuing the legacy of Dr. King, a man who united the nation. 


Evangelist. Empathy Is About Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes. Klique, 27 December 2019, Accessed 06 January 2021. 

King Jr., Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope. HarperCollins Publishers, 1986. 

MLK Global. “Home.” MLK Global, 2021, Accessed 06 January 2021. 

National Today. “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – January 18, 2021.” National Today, 2021, Accessed 06 January 2021. 

The Nobel Prize. “Martin Luther King Jr. – Biography.” NobelPrize, 1964, Accessed 06 January 2021. 

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