Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in an era of racial prejudices and legalized segregation that would influence his life's work. As a religious minister and activist, he rose to become a national leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. King sought to maintain an "abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind." Although most widely known for his leading role in the African American civil rights movement, Dr. King was a tireless advocate for the nation's working class and the oppressed around the world. His life tragically ended when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but his legacy continues to inspire Americans today.

Black and white photograph of people marching holding holding signs

Library of Congress

The Stride Towards Freedom

A greater nation… A finer world.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial honors a man of conscience; the freedom movement of which he was a beacon; and his message of freedom, equality, justice and love. It is the first on the National Mall devoted, not to a United States President or war hero, but a citizen activist for civil rights and peace. Dr. King, an African-American, brings "the image of America… the melting pot of the world" to the National Mall, but his message was universal. His non-violent philosophy pushed insistently towards the goal of the American Experiment—universal freedom and equality. His principled rhetoric illuminated the nation's journey. With his life under constant threat, his last public talk left us this inspiration: "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."

Men dressed in suits some wearing buttons with signs in the background

National Archives

The Measure of a Man

Michael (later Martin) Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born in the segregated south of Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating Morehouse College (B.A. Sociology), Crozer Theological Seminary (B. Divinity) and Boston University (D. Systematic Theology, 1955) he entered the Christian ministry. He married the perfect partner, Coretta Scott, in 1953 and took a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, where he joined the leadership of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Montgomery Improvement Association, and served in the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was architect of the non-violent strategy for a "Negro" bus boycott protesting the city's arrest of Rosa Parks for sitting in a seat reserved for "Whites." He asked his people, "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating…to endure the ordeals of jail?" The answer was yes. The "Montgomery Movement" led to the integration of the city's buses and lit a contagious interracial fight for rights that spread to Washington, DC, and across the world. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, but he didn't rest on his laurels.

Man speaking into microphone with man wearing a uniform and hat next to him

National Archives

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s followed southern-state defiance of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) ruling that segregation was unconstitutional. Dr. King dove in and supported it without reserve: He assumed leading roles in Montgomery (1955); the Crusade for Voting Rights (his first speech at Lincoln Memorial, 1957); the Atlanta restaurant sit-in (1960); the intercity Freedom Riders and Albany (Georgia) Movement (1961); Birmingham Campaign (1963); the Children's Crusade for "freedom now" so their parents could see freedom before they died (1963); the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, from which his "I Have a Dream" still resounds (1963); St. Augustine, Florida, and Mississippi (1964); the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery (1965); the Chicago drive against slums and poverty (1965); the "Meredith Mississippi March against Fear" (1966); and more. Frivolous arrests repeatedly landed him in jail and attracted Federal-authority attention to injustices to African Americans. Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Dr. King was present to see President Johnson sign; Selma, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1967, expanding his message of peace, Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam conflict (1959-1975), then at its height in casualties.

People smiling as some of them wear buttons while marching and holding signs

National Archives

The Message

An inescapable network of mutuality.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message was both American and universal. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) he cut to the quick of the freedom fighter’s disappointment in an America defying its ideals: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is no deep love.” However, he looked to an entire world in peace and a universal brotherhood: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He saw the wide swath of the “arc of the moral universe:” Ancient-world forgers of self government, Augustus of a Republican Pax Romana, enlightened philosophers who imagined Utopia, nonconformists of the 16th and 17th centuries who defied religious intolerance, Mahatma Gandhi, allies of WWII, Eastern Block dissidents of the Velvet Revolutions of 1989. He saw with crystal clarity the role of America within that arc: American Revolutionary-War heroes, 600,000 Civil-War dead, Civil Rights Movement Freedom Fighters, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and others in a journey still in progress. He saw Henry David Thoreau’s civil disobedience and Gandhi’s non-violent resistance as the best ways to achieve the goal of the American Experiment, and do-nothings as the greatest obstacle. His example compels us to pull our pound.


In Dr. King's Footsteps

  • Visitors gathered outside of a two-story yellow house on a neighborhood street
    Martin Luther King, Jr. NHP

    Walk through Dr. King's neighborhood in Atlanta that influenced his life and visit his birthplace, home, church, and burial site.

  • Crowd watching a school group behind a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
    Lincoln Memorial

    Stand where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech alongside other civil rights leaders.

  • Statue of attack does snarling at each other across a sidewalk
    Birmingham Civil Rights NM

    Visit the places in Birmingham where Dr. King and his fellow civil rights activists coordinated a nonviolent campaign to end segregation.

  • Man talking to a child holding a US flag as they march in the street
    Selma to Montgomery NHT

    Retrace the steps of the 1965 Voting Rights March to Alabama's state capital led by Dr. King on this 45-mile long trail.

  • African American Civil Rights Network logo
    African American Civil Rights Network

    The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is part of a new national network of places commemorating the Civil Right Movement.

  • Crowd in chairs on a street in front of a brick church
    National Register of Historic Places

    Find historic places in communities across the country related to Dr. King's life or the Civil Rights Movement.

View of Jefferson Memorial between two stone walls of a memorial
History & Culture

Learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and the memorial.

Crane lifting part of the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. during construction
Building the Memorial

Discover how the memorial took shape and its place among the iconic monuments in the heart of the nation's capital.

Visitor reading inscriptions within memorial
Plan Your Visit

Find basic information and tips about visiting the memorial, including directions, hours, and ranger programs.

Last updated: March 29, 2021

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