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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Childhood and Family Background

Timeline

Education

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on 15 January 1929 in his maternal grandparents' large Victorian house on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second of three children, and was first named Michael, after his father. Both changed their names to Martin when the boy was still young.

King's paternal grandfather, James Albert King, had been a sharecropper near the small town of Stockbridge, Georgia, outside Atlanta. Like most sharecroppers, he had worked hard and earned little. King, Sr. was the second of ten children. He had left Stockbridge for Atlanta at the age of sixteen, with nothing but a sixth-grade education and a pair of shoes.

In Atlanta he worked odd jobs and studied, and slowly developed a reputation as a preacher. While preaching at two small churches outside of Atlanta, he met Alberta Christine Williams, his future wife, and King, Jr.'s mother. She was a graduate of Atlanta's Spelman College, had attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and had returned to Atlanta to teach. Her father, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, presided over Atlanta's well-established Ebenezer Baptist Church.

When King, Sr. and Williams married, they moved into the Williams home on Auburn Avenue, the main street of Atlanta's African American business district. After some time had passed, her father asked King, Sr. to serve as assistant pastor at Ebenezer, which he did. When the senior pastor died of a heart attack in 1931, King, Sr. took over his duties.

King, Jr. and his siblings were born into a financially secure middle-class family, and thus they received better educations than the average child of their race; King's recognition of this undoubtedly influenced him in his decision to live a life of social protest, extending the opportunities he had enjoyed to all blacks. In his father, King had a model of courage: King, Sr. was involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and had led a successful campaign to equalize the salaries of white and black teachers in Atlanta.

As a child, King's encounters with racial discrimination were mild but formative. The first significant one came when he began school. White playmates of his were to attend a different elementary school from his, and, once the year began, their parents no longer allowed King to come over and play. It was this instance of injustice that first led his mother to explain to him the history of slavery and segregation.

When King was in high school, he attended an oratory contest in Valdosta, Georgia, where he took second prize. His victory was soured, however, by the long bus ride back to Atlanta: the bus was segregated, and the black people had to stand so that the white people could sit.

Thus King grew up in a family that encouraged him to notice and respond to injustices. Later in life, his father and mother would always continue to support King's choices, though they were forced at times to witness the tragic consequences of those choices, including their son's premature death.

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