American Literature Martin Luther King
Cedric Burrows
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0049


Martin Luther King Jr. (b. 1929–d. 1968) was born Michael King in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Michael King Sr., was a Baptist preacher. After attending a Baptist World Alliance in Berlin during the early 1930s, the elder King changed his name and his son’s to Martin Luther King in recognition of the German priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, he earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary and a doctor of philosophy degree from Boston University. During his pastorship in Montgomery, Alabama, King was elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization that led a 385-day boycott that successfully desegregated the Montgomery bus system. After the success of the boycott, King and sixty ministers and leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to end all forms of segregation. Following his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King became recognized by the press as the leader of the Black Freedom movement, a grassroots movement that demanded racial and economic equality for African Americans. By the mid- to late 1960s, King became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States. While developing the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial coalition that would dramatize poverty in the United States, King assisted striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, for better working conditions and a higher living wage. While in Memphis, King was assassinated on 4 April 1968. Considered controversial and unpopular during the last years of his life, King’s status has grown considerably after his death. The federal government now observes the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day.

General Overviews

Carson, et al. 2008 serves as a good beginner’s guide to King’s works. Kirk 2007 provides a detailed overview of the controversies and debates surrounding King and his legacy.

  • Carson, Clayborne, Tenisha Armstrong, Susan Carson, Erin Cook, and Susan Englander, eds. The Martin Luther King Jr. Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

    Highlights King’s works, people associated with him, and important aspects of the civil rights movement.

  • Kirk, John, ed. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement: Controversies and Debates. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    A sourcebook introducing key debates and topics about King.

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