The autobiography of martin luther

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1 Early Years 1

2 Morehouse College 13

3 Crozer Seminary 17

4 Boston University 30

5 Coretta 34

6 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church 40

7 Montgomery Movement Begins 50

8 The Violence of Desperate Men 63

9 Desegregation at Last 83

10 The Expanding Struggle 100

11 Birth of a New Nation 111

12 Brush with Death 117

13 Pilgrimage to Nonviolence 121

14 The Sit-In Movement 135

15 Atlanta Arrest and Presidential Politics 142

16 The Albany Movement 151

17 The Birmingham Campaign 170


18 Letter from Birmingham Jail 187

19 Freedom Now! 205

20 March on Washington 218

21 Death of Illusions 229

22 St. Augustine 239

23 The Mississippi Challenge 246

24 The Nobel Peace Prize 255

25 Malcolm X 265

26 Selma 270

27 Watts 290

28 Chicago Campaign 297

29 Black Power 314

30 Beyond Vietnam 333

31 The Poor People's Campaign 346

32 Unfulfilled Dreams 356





Ifirst saw Martin Luther King, Jr., from a distance. He was up on

the platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the concluding

speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I

was below in the vast crowd of hsteners around the reflecting pool,

a nineteen-year-old college student attending my first civil rights

demonstration. He would become a Man of the Year, a Nobel Prize

laureate, and a national icon. I would become a foot soldier in the

movement he symbolized and would walk through doors of oppor-

tunity made possible by that movement.

More than two decades later, after I became a historian at Stan-

ford University, Mrs. Coretta Scott King unexpectedly called me to

offer the opportunity to edit the papers of her late husband. Since

accepting her offer to become director of the King Papers Project, I

have immersed myself in the documents recording his life and have

gradually come to know a man I never met. The study of King has

become the central focus of my scholarly life, and this project is the

culmination of my career as a documentary editor. The March on

Washington started me on the path to The Autobiography of Martin

Luther King, Jr. This book is a product of King's intellectual legacy,

just as I am a beneficiary of his social justice legacy.

The following narrative of King's life is based entirely on his

own words. These are his thoughts about the events in his life as he

expressed them at different times in various ways. Although he never

wrote a comprehensive autobiography. King published three major

books as well as numerous articles and essays focusing on specific

periods of his life. In addition, many of his speeches, sermons, let-

ters, and unpublished manuscripts provide revealing information.

Taken together, these materials provide the basis for this approxima-

tion of the autobiography that King might have written had his life

not suddenly ended.

For the most part, this book consists of autobiographical writ-

ings that were pubhshed during King's lifetime and were personally

edited by him. In many instances King was assisted by others, since

he made considerable use of collaborators. Nevertheless, King's pa-

pers provide ample evidence of his active involvement in the edito-

rial processes that resulted in his most significant publications.

Indeed, the preparation for this autobiography involved examining

preliminary drafts (several handwritten) of King's published writings

in order to determine his intentions. I have included passages from

such drafts when they contain revealing or clarifying information

that does not appear in the published version.

Although King's published autobiographical writings provide the

basic structure of this book, they constitute an incomplete narrative.

In order to fill out the narrative and to include King's accounts of

events that are not discussed in his published writings, I have incor-

porated passages from hundreds of documents and recordings, in-

cluding many statements that were not intended for publication or

even intended as autobiography. These passages augment the pub-

lished accounts and serve as transitions between more extended nar-

ratives. In some instances, I have made editorial changes, which are

explained below, in order to construct a narrative that is readable

and comprehensible. This exercise of editorial craft is intended to

provide readers with a readily accessible assemblage of King's writ-

ings and recorded statements that would otherwise be available only

to a handful of King scholars.

I trust that readers will recognize and appreciate the fact that this

narrative can never approach the coherence and comprehensiveness

that would have been possible if King had been able to write a com-

plete account of his life. Thus, this narrative understates the impor-

tance in King's life of his family. Although King often acknowledged

the centrality of his wife, Coretta Scott King, in his public and pri-

vate life, his extant papers rarely noted the degree to which she par-

ticipated in protest activities and other public events. Similarly,

King's close ties to his parents, his children, his sister Christine King

Farris, and his brother A. D. King are insufficiently reflected in his

papers, despite the fact that these relatives played crucial roles in his


The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., is, therefore.

largely a religious and political autobiography rather than an explo-

ration of a private life. It is necessarily limited to those aspects of

King's life that he chose to reveal in his papers, but King was never

garrulous about his private life and was unlikely to have chosen his

autobiography as an opportunity to reveal intimate details of his

life. In his personal papers, however. King sometimes overcame

his reticence to expose his private feelings to public view. He left

behind documents that offer information that has never previously

been published and that collectively defines his character. Although

King may have selected or utilized these materials differently than I

have, he (or researchers and co-authors working with him) would

certainly have recognized them as essential starting points for under-

standing his life.

This book is an extension of my charge from the King estate to

assemble and edit King's papers. I have benefited from the long-

term, collective effort of dozens of staff members and student re-

searchers who assisted in the search for autobiographical passages

amidst the several hundred thousand King-related documents that

the King Papers Project has identified (see Acknowledgments sec-

tion). The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one by-

product of the project's continuing effort to publish a definitive,

annotated fourteen-volume scholarly edition of The Papers of Martin

Luther King, Jr.

The fact that The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been

compiled and edited after King's death warrants an explanation of

how it was constructed. Although many autobiographies are written

with some editorial assistance—from minor copyediting to extensive

rewriting of raw information (often tape-recorded recollections)

supplied by the subject—readers are rarely made aware of the sig-

nificance of such assistance. The role of Alex Haley in the production

of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a well-known demonstration

of the value of behind-the-scenes editorial assistance for a subject

who lacks the time or the ability to write an autobiographical narra-

tive that is compelling and of literary value. Autobiographical editing

succeeds when the resulting narrative convinces readers that it accu-

rately represents the thoughts of the subject.

The authenticity of this autobiography of Martin Luther King,

Jr., derives from the fact that I have followed a consistent methodol-

ogy to preserve the integrity of King's statements and writing while

also merging these texts into a single narrative. Although great care

has been taken to insure that this account of King's Hfe is based on

his own words, it is also the result of many challenging editorial

judgments. Among these was the decision to construct a narrative

that traced King's life to its end by combining source texts of many

different periods in his life. The comprehensiveness of this narrative

implies that King wrote it, with considerable editorial and research

assistance, at the very end of his life. Although many of the source

texts present King's attitudes and perspectives at earlier points in his

life, King's viewpoints on major issues remained quite stable during

his adult years; I feel justified in believing that King's final recount-

ing of his beliefs would not have differed in any significant way from

his earlier recollections.

The materials used to construct this narrative are the types of

documentary materials that King (or those assisting him) would un-

doubtedly have consulted while preparing an autobiography. These

source texts, which constitute the raw materials for this work, in-

clude sections and passages taken from the following types of


• major autobiographical books (and draft manuscripts): Stride

Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), Why We Can't

Wait (1964), and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Com-

munity? (1967);

• articles and essays (both published and unpublished) describ-

ing specific periods and events;

• speeches, sermons, and other public statements containing au-

tobiographical passages;

• autobiographical statements in King's published or recorded


• letters from King;

• comments by King in official documents, meeting transcripts,

and various audiovisual materials.

I have tried whenever possible to track down the original pub-

lishers of these materials, but in a few instances this was virtually


To insure that this narrative accurately reflects King's autobio-

graphical thoughts, editorial interventions have been limited to

those necessary to produce a narrative that is readable, internally

coherent, and lucid. I have preserved the integrity and immediacy of

certain texts by inserting italicized verbatim passages into the edited

narrative. Other quotations from King-authored documents have

been placed in boxes at appropriate places in the autobiographical


King's recollections of episodes in his life, like all autobiographi-

cal writings, were distorted by the passage of time and the vagaries

of memory. Thus I have not attempted to correct historical inaccu-

racies in King's accounts. Rather, when multiple source texts are

available for a particular event, I have sought to determine which

of these represents King's most vivid and reliable recollection. The

resulting narrative balances several considerations in the selection of

source texts, including a preference for accounts that are near to the

time of the event rather than later recollections and a preference for

more precise descriptions over more general, abstract ones.

After source texts were selected and placed in rough chronologi-

cal order, I constructed chapter-long narratives that cover periods in

King's life. In this process, I condensed some of King's source texts

by removing words and details that were redundant or superfluous

in the context of a comprehensive narrative. Additional editorial in-

terventions include the following: tenses have been changed (usually

from present to past or past perfect); words or brief phrases have

been added to indicate or clarify time, location, or name (such as

"In June"); conjunctions and other transitional words have been

provided when necessary; pronouns have been replaced with proper

nouns when referents are unclear ("Ralph Abernathy" rather than

"he"), and vice versa when context requires; spellings have been reg-

ularized; punctuation and sentence construction have been modified

in order to clarify meaning and enhance readability.


Stanford, California

August 1, 1998







Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a

preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was

a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy's brother is a

preacher. So I didn't have much choice.

NOVEMBER 25, 1926

Michael (later Martin) Luther King, Sr., marries Alberta Williams,

daughter of A. D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church


Michael (later Martin) Luther King, Jr., born at Williams/King family

home at 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta

MARCH 21, 1931

A. D. Williams dies and is succeeded as pastor of Ebenezer by King


MAY 18, 1941

King Jr.'s grandmother Jennie Celeste Williams dies and family

moves to 193 Boulevard in Atlanta

APRIL 17. 1944

King Jr. travels to Dublin, Georgia, to deliver "The Negro and the

Constitution" in oratory contest

Iwas born in the late twenties on the verge of the Great Depres-

sion, which was to spread its disastrous arms into every corner of

this nation for over a decade. I was much too young to remember

the beginning of this depression, but I do recall, when I was about

five years of age, how I questioned my parents about the numerous

people standing in breadlines. I can see the effects of this early child-

hood experience on my anticapitalistic feelings.

My birthplace was Atlanta, Georgia, the capital of the state and

the so-called "gateway to the South." Atlanta is home for me. I was

born on Auburn Avenue. Our church, Ebenezer Baptist, is on Au-

burn Avenue. I'm now co-pastor of that church, and my office in the

Southern Christian Leadership Conference is on Auburn Avenue.

I went through the pubhc schools of Atlanta for a period, and

then I went to what was then known as the Atlanta University Labo-

ratory High School for two years. After that school closed, I went to

Booker T. Washington High School.

The community in which I was born was quite ordinary in terms

of social status. No one in our community had attained any great

wealth. Most of the Negroes in my hometown who had attained

wealth lived in a section of town known as "Hunter Hills." The

community was characterized with a sort of unsophisticated sim-

plicity. No one was in the extremely poor class. It is probably fair

to class the people of this community as those of average income.

It was a wholesome community, notwithstanding the fact that

none of us were ever considered members of the "upper-upper

class." Crime was at a minimum, and most of our neighbors were

deeply religious.

From the very beginning I was an extraordinarily healthy child.

It is said that at my birth the doctors pronounced me a one hundred

percent perfect child, from a physical point of view. I hardly know

how an ill moment feels. I guess the same thing would apply to my

mental life. I have always been somewhat precocious, both physically

and mentally. So it seems that from a hereditary point of view, na-

ture was very kind to me.

My home situation was very congenial. I have a marvelous

mother and father. I can hardly remember a time that they ever

argued (my father happens to be the kind who just won't argue) or

had any great falling out. These factors were highly significant in

determining my religious attitudes. It is quite easy for me to think

of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love

was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is

quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly

because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circum-

stances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than

pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood


In my own life and in the life of a person who is seeking to be

strong, you combine in your character antitheses strongly marked.

You are both militant and moderate; you are both idealistic and

realistic. And I think that my strong determination for justice comes

from the very strong, dynamic personality of my father, and I would

hope that the gentle aspect comes from a mother who is very gentle

and sweet.

"Mother Dear"

My mother. Alberta WilHams King, has been behind the scene set-

ting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing

link in life. She is a very devout person with a deep commitment to

the Christian faith. Unlike my father, she is soft-spoken and easy-

going. Although possessed of a rather recessive personality, she is

warm and easily approachable.

The daughter of A. D. WiUiams, a successful minister. Alberta

Williams grew up in comparative comfort. She was sent to the best

available schools and college and was, in general, protected from the

worst blights of discrimination. An only child, she was provided with

all of the conveniences that any high school and college student

could expect. In spite of her relatively comfortable circumstances,

my mother never complacently adjusted herself to the system of seg-

regation. She instilled a sense of self-respect in all of her children

from the very beginning.

My mother confronted the age-old problem of the Negro parent

in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small

child. She taught me that I should feel a sense of "somebodiness"

but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that

stared me in the face every day saying you are "less than," you are

"not equal to." She told me about slavery and how it ended with the

Civil War. She tried to explain the divided system of the South—the

segregated schools, restaurants, theaters, housing; the white and col-

ored signs on drinking fountains, waiting rooms, lavatories—as a

social condition rather than a natural order. She made it clear that

she opposed this system and that I must never aUow it to make me

feel inferior. Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears

before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them neces-

sary: "You are as good as anyone." At this time Mother had no idea

that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a

struggle against the system she was speaking of.


Martin Luther King, Sr., is as strong in his will as he is in his body.

He has a dynamic personality, and his very physical presence (weigh-

ing about 220 pounds) commands attention. He has always been a

very strong and self-confident person. I have rarely ever met a per-

son more fearless and courageous than my father, notwithstanding

the fact that he feared for me. He never feared the autocratic and

brutal person in the white community. If they said something to

him that was insulting, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that

he didn't like it.

A sharecropper's son, he had met brutalities firsthand, and had

begun to strike back at an early age. His family lived in a little town

named Stockbridge, Georgia, about eighteen miles from Atlanta.

One day, while working on the plantation, he keenly observed that

the boss was cheating his father out of some hard-earned money.

He revealed this to his father right in the presence of the planta-

tion owner. When this happened the boss angrily and furiously

shouted, "Jim, if you don't keep this nigger boy of yours in his place,

I am going to slap him down." Grandfather, being almost totally

dependent on the boss for economic security, urged Dad to keep


My dad, looking back over that experience, says that at that mo-

ment he became determined to leave the farm. He often says humor-

ously, "I ain't going to plough a mule anymore." After a few months

he left Stockbridge and went to Atlanta determined to get an educa-

tion. Although he was then eighteen—a year older than most per-

sons finishing high school—he started out getting a high school

education and did not stop until he had finished Atlanta's More-

house College.

The thing that I admire most about my dad is his genuine Chris-


tian character. He is a man of real integrity, deeply committed to

moral and ethical principles. He is conscientious in all of his under-

takings. Even the person vho disagrees with his frankness has to

admit that his motives and actions are sincere. He never hesitates to

tell the truth and speak his mind, however cutting it may be. This

quality of frankness has often caused people to actually fear him. I

have had young and old alike say to me, "I'm scared to death of

your dad." Indeed, he is stern at many points.

My father has always had quite an interest in civil rights. He has

been president of the NAACP in Atlanta, and he always stood out in

social reform. From before I was born, he had refused to ride the

city buses after witnessing a brutal attack on a load of Negro passen-

gers. He led the fight in Atlanta to equalize teachers' salaries and

was instrumental in the elimination of Jim Crow elevators in the


As pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, my father wielded

great influence in the Negro community and perhaps won the

grudging respect of the whites. At any rate, they never attacked him

physically, a fact that filled my brother and sister and me with won-

der as we grew up in this tension-packed atmosphere. With this heri-

tage, it is not surprising that I also learned to abhor segregation,

considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.

I have never experienced the feeling of not having the basic necessi-

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