History Bits: Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an African-American Baptist minister, orator, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. King dedicated his life to fight for the end of segregation and discrimination, the protection of black people's right to vote, and the pursue of racial and economic equality. His leadership was characterized by a non-violent approach, which he adopted from his idol, Mahatma Gandhi. King's legacy continues to inspire people around the world. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated the third Monday in January every year because it falls near his birthdate, January 15. Below is kid-friendly information about King's life followed by a book list.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Early Life

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His parents were Martin Luther King Sr., a minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta Williams, who was involved with the church's affairs. 

As a little kid, King used to play with a little white boy. When they started school, they were sent to segregated schools. His friend went to a school for white children and he went to a school for black children. His friend's dad also decided they could not play together anymore. He began to understand the meaning of prejudice with this sad situation. 

King's parents taught him to forgive people despite of their racism. They also taught him about the importance of education and hard work. As a result, he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School when he was just 15 years old. He went on to attend the famous all-black Morehouse College. 

Afterwards, he attended the Crozer Theological Seminary, where he was introduced to Mahatma's Gandhi's theory of non-violence. He graduated at top of his class and earned a scholarship to complete his Ph.D. at Boston University School of Theology.  


King started working as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954.  He and his wife, Coretta, thought they could make a difference in the segregated South. 

In 1955, Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights Movement by refusing to move to the back of the bus. Parks was arrested. King started a movement against Park's treatment, racism, and segregation by peacefully boycotting Montgomery's buses. Black people refused to ride the buses and opted to walk everywhere. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in buses was unconstitutional. 


Even though segregation was illegal since 1954, it was not enforced. A civil rights bill needed to be put in place. In 1963, King decided to fight segregation where it was worse: Birmingham, Alabama. Martin led a march to the city's hall, where everyone was arrested. 

Eight white ministers published a letter in the Birmingham News making an argument against the protests. According to them, the problem of social injustice was for the courts to resolve. King responded with his well-known Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he argued that people don’t have to obey unjust laws. 

A four-hour long march took place on May 2, 1963. More than 1,000 children participated. Eugene "Bull" Connor, who was in charge of the police and opposed integration, arrested everyone, including the children. He also authorized the use of dogs and fire hoses on the children. American families watched with outrage the events on TV. As a result, the country began supporting the Civil Rights Movement. 

King's Speech: "I Have a Dream"
The country was moving toward integration, but some people still refused to accept the positive change that was coming. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, was one of those people. Wallace refused to let two black students enter the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy sent the Alabama National Guard to let the students in.

Furthermore, President Kennedy decided it was time for Congress to pass a civil rights bill. King supported the president by leading a march to Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. It was one of the greatest marches in American history. At its end, King gave his most acclaimed speech, "I Have a Dream."

Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous speech "I Have a Dream" (1963).

 The Civil Rights Act

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. King was right there by his side. The act determined that discrimination and the Jim Crow laws were unlawful. However, it did not protect black people's voting rights. 

Selma, Alabama

Selma, Alabama was one of the worst places in the country for black people to exercise their right to vote because it was not respected. King decided to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest this injustice. Governor George Wallace completely disapproved of the march and banned it.

Either way, people began marching on March 7, 1965 only to be confronted violently by state troopers. King organized another march for March 9, but this time he would led it. The state troopers attacked the marchers again. 

President Johnson decided to send troops to protect the protesters during the next march on March 21, 1965. The march from Selma to Montgomery raised awareness about black people's voting rights and led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. 

Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act (1965). Public Domain.

The Nobel Peace Prize

Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. He donated all the money from the prize to the cause of the civil rights. 


1. The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore

2. I am Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ordinary People Change the World) by Brad Meltzer

3. Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rapport

4. My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King III

5. I Am 4: Martin Luther King Jr. by Grace Norwich

6. ¿QuiĆ©n fue Martin Luther King, Jr.? (Who Was...?) (Spanish Edition) by Bonnie Bader

7. All About Martin Luther King, Jr. by Todd Outcalt

8. M.L.K.: The Journey of a King by Tonya Bolden

9. I Have a Dream (Book & CD) by Martin Luther King, Jr.

10. As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March toward Freedom by Richard Michelson

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