The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.


By Clayborne Carson

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With knowledge, spirit, good humor, and passion, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. brings to life a remarkable man whose thoughts and actions speak to our most burning contemporary issues and still inspire the desires, hopes, and dreams of us all.

Written in his own words, this history-making autobiography is Martin Luther King: the mild-mannered, inquisitive child and student who chafed under and eventually rebelled against segregation; the dedicated young minister who continually questioned the depths of his faith and the limits of his wisdom; the loving husband and father who sought to balance his family’s needs with those of a growing, nationwide movement; and the reflective, world-famous leader who was fired by a vision of equality for people everywhere.

Relevant and insightful, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. offers King’s seldom disclosed views on some of the world’s greatest and most controversial figures: John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Lyndon B. Johnson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Richard Nixon. It also paints a rich and moving portrait of a people, a time, and a nation in the face of powerful change. Finally, it shows how everyday Americans from all walks of life confronted themselves, each other, and the burden of the past-and how their fears and courage helped shape our future.


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I first 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 listeners 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 opportunity made possible by that movement.

More than two decades later, after I became a historian at Stanford 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, letters, and unpublished manuscripts provide revealing information. Taken together, these materials provide the basis for this approximation of the autobiography that King might have written had his life not suddenly ended.

For the most part, this book consists of autobiographical writings that were published 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 papers provide ample evidence of his active involvement in the editorial 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 incorporated passages from hundreds of documents and recordings, including many statements that were not intended for publication or even intended as autobiography. These passages augment the published accounts and serve as transitions between more extended narratives. 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 writings 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 complete account of his life. Thus, this narrative understates the importance in King's life of his family. Although King often acknowledged the centrality of his wife, Coretta Scott King, in his public and private life, his extant papers rarely noted the degree to which she participated 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 life.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., is, therefore, largely a religious and political autobiography rather than an exploration 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 understanding 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 researchers 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 section). The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one byproduct 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 significance 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 narrative that is compelling and of literary value. Autobiographical editing succeeds when the resulting narrative convinces readers that it accurately 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 methodology 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 life 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 recounting 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 undoubtedly have consulted while preparing an autobiography. These source texts, which constitute the raw materials for this work, include sections and passages taken from the following types of sources:

  • 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 Community? (1967);
  • articles and essays (both published and unpublished) describing specific periods and events;
  • speeches, sermons, and other public statements containing autobiographical passages;
  • autobiographical statements in King's published or recorded interviews;
  • 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 publishers of these materials, but in a few instances this was virtually impossible.

To insure that this narrative accurately reflects King's autobiographical 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 narrative.

King's recollections of episodes in his life, like all autobiographical writings, were distorted by the passage of time and the vagaries of memory. Thus I have not attempted to correct historical inaccuracies 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 chronological 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 interventions 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 regularized; 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.

I was born in the late twenties on the verge of the Great Depression, 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 childhood 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 Auburn 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 public schools of Atlanta for a period, and then I went to what was then known as the Atlanta University Laboratory 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 simplicity. 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, nature 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 circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.

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 Williams King, has been behind the scene setting 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 easygoing. Although possessed of a rather recessive personality, she is warm and easily approachable.

The daughter of A. D. Williams, 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 segregation. 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 colored 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 allow 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 necessary: "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 (weighing about 220 pounds) commands attention. He has always been a very strong and self-confident person. I have rarely ever met a person 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 plantation 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 quiet.

My dad, looking back over that experience, says that at that moment he became determined to leave the farm. He often says humorously, "I ain't going to plough a mule anymore." After a few months he left Stockbridge and went to Atlanta determined to get an education. Although he was then eighteen—a year older than most persons finishing high school—he started out getting a high school education and did not stop until he had finished Atlanta's Morehouse College.

The thing that I admire most about my dad is his genuine Christian character. He is a man of real integrity, deeply committed to moral and ethical principles. He is conscientious in all of his undertakings. Even the person who 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 passengers. He led the fight in Atlanta to equalize teachers' salaries and was instrumental in the elimination of Jim Crow elevators in the courthouse.

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 wonder as we grew up in this tension-packed atmosphere. With this heritage, 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 necessities of life. These things were always provided by a father who always put his family first. My father never made more than an ordinary salary, but the secret was that he knew the art of saving and budgeting. He has always had sense enough not to live beyond his means. So for this reason he was able to provide us with the basic necessities of life with little strain. I went right on through school and never had to drop out to work or anything.

The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. If I had a problem I could always call Daddy. Things were solved. Life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package. This is not to say that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth; far from it. I always had a desire to work, and I would spend my summers working.

"Doubts spring forth unrelentingly"

I joined the church at the age of five. I well remember how this event occurred. Our church was in the midst of the spring revival, and a guest evangelist had come down from Virginia. On Sunday morning the evangelist came into our Sunday school to talk to us about salvation, and after a short talk on this point he extended an invitation to any of us who wanted to join the church. My sister was the first one to join the church that morning, and after seeing her join I decided that I would not let her get ahead of me, so I was the next. I had never given this matter a thought, and even at the time of my baptism I was unaware of what was taking place. From this it seems quite clear that I joined the church not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister.

The church has always been a second home for me. As far back as I can remember I was in church every Sunday. My best friends were in Sunday school, and it was the Sunday school that helped me to build the capacity for getting along with people. I guess this was inevitable since my father was the pastor of my church, but I never regretted going to church until I passed through a state of skepticism in my second year of college.

The lessons which I was taught in Sunday school were quite in the fundamentalist line. None of my teachers ever doubted the infallibility of the Scriptures. Most of them were unlettered and had never heard of biblical criticism. Naturally, I accepted the teachings as they were being given to me. I never felt any need to doubt them—at least at that time I didn't. I guess I accepted biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being. I had always been the questioning and precocious type. At the age of thirteen, I shocked my Sunday school class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.

"How could I love a race of people who hated me?"

Two incidents happened in my late childhood and early adolescence that had a tremendous effect on my development. The first was the death of my grandmother. She was very dear to each of us, but especially to me. I sometimes think I was her favorite grandchild. I was particularly hurt by her death mainly because of the extreme love I had for her. She assisted greatly in raising all of us. It was after this incident that for the first time I talked at any length on the doctrine of immortality. My parents attempted to explain it to me, and I was assured that somehow my grandmother still lived. I guess this is why today I am such a strong believer in personal immortality.

The second incident happened when I was about six years of age. From the age of three I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but he was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school—separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.

We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before. As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it, I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.

My parents would always tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.

I always had a resentment towards the system of segregation and felt that it was a grave injustice. I remember a trip to a downtown shoe store with Father when I was still small. We had sat down in the first empty seats at the front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely:

"I'll be happy to wait on you if you'll just move to those seats in the rear."

Dad immediately retorted, "There's nothing wrong with these seats. We're quite comfortable here."

"Sorry," said the clerk, "but you'll have to move."

"We'll either buy shoes sitting here," my father retorted, "or we won't buy shoes at all."

Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious. That experience revealed to me at a very early age that my father had not adjusted to the system, and he played a great part in shaping my conscience. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, "I don't care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it."

And he never has. I remember riding with him another day when he accidentally drove past a stop sign. A policeman pulled up to the car and said:

"All right, boy, pull over and let me see your license."

My father instantly retorted: "Let me make it clear to you that you aren't talking to a boy. If you persist in referring to me as boy, I will be forced to act as if I don't hear a word you are saying."


On Sale
Jan 1, 2001
Page Count
416 pages

Clayborne Carson

About the Author

Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was a famous leader of the American civil rights movement, a political activist, and a Baptist minister. In 1964, King became the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a peacemaker, promoting nonviolence, and equal treatment for different races. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1977, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. In 1986, Martin Luther King Day was established as a United States holiday. Dr. King often called for personal responsibility in fostering world peace. King’s most influential and well-known public address is the “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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