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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The son and grandson of Baptist preachers, Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up in a middle-class home in Atlanta. He graduated with a B.A. from Morehouse College, completed ministerial studies at Crozer Theological Seminary, and earned a Ph.D. at Boston University.

After King became a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. Her jailing spurred Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council to initiate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a yearlong nonviolent protest in that city. King’s eloquent leadership of that struggle earned him the national spotlight. By outlawing bus segregation in Montgomery, the Supreme Court gave King an important victory.

After others launched the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961, King directed a well-publicized racial protest in Birmingham, Alabama. National television cameras recorded scenes of nonviolent black marchers, including children, being attacked by the fire hoses and police dogs of Birmingham’s city government. Arrested, King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Winning the battle for American public opinion, he successfully pushed business leaders to outlaw segregation in downtown Birmingham.

In August 1963, two hundred fifty thousand protesters heard King deliver “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This electrifying address helped build momentum for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping measure that banned racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in that same year. In 1965 his march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery prompted passage of the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote.

In 1967 King condemned American participation in the Vietnam War. A previously sympathetic press vilified him for this stance, which also earned the contempt of a once-friendly president.

King also railed against poverty. Planning his most ambitious protest, he envisioned thousands of blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and poor whites converging on the nation’s capital. A strike by garbage workers in Memphis diverted him from this effort. After galvanizing supporters with “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he was assassinated the next day.

Unfortunately, King’s fame has obscured the contributions of James Farmer, Ella Baker, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others, who, like King, mastered Gandhian strategy in the quest for racial justice.

But King’s fiery yet magisterial language convinced whites to tear down the walls of legalized segregation. He triumphed by reviving the slaves’ vivid identification with the biblical Hebrews trapped in Egyptian bondage, a strategy especially evident in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Trained by African American folk preachers, he adopted their assumption that language is a shared treasure, not private property. King often borrowed sermons without acknowledgment from Harry Emerson Fosdick and other liberal preachers. This borrowed material appears in scores of King’s published and unpublished addresses and essays, including “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “I Have a Dream,” the Nobel Prize Address, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” By synthesizing black and white pulpit traditions, King persuaded whites to hear the slaves’ cry, “Let my people go!”

Keith D. Miller
Arizona State University

In the Heath Anthology
I Have a Dream (1963)
I've Been to the Mountaintop (1968)

Other Works
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1959)
Strength to Love (1963)
Why We Can't Wait (1965)
Where Do We Go from Here? (1967)
Trumpet of Conscience (1968)

Cultural Objects
Sound fileMartin Luther King delivers the "I Have a Dream" speech

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

Martin Luther King Jr. Web Explication Projects (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)


Seattle Times MLK site
Offers a wide range of King resources, including audio files of his speeches.

A LIFE Tribute
This LIFE Magazine tribute to Dr. King in images.

Capture The Dream
An electronic reproduction of Dr. King's childhood home.

The King Center
Provides information about King, his philosophy, and legacy. Click on "History" to access a biography, chonology, bibliography and many photos.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project
Describes the project (housed at Stanford University) and includes many important speeches.

Secondary Sources

Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire, 1998

James Cone, "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Black Theology--Black Church," Theology Today, 40 (1984): 409-420

Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You, 1999

Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 1987

David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986

Journal of American History 78 (1991)

Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources, 1992

Jo Ann Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, 1987