15 Breathtaking Photos from the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Explore the most historic moments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s storied career with this image tour from Shutterstock’s archives.

Martin Luther King Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement for fewer than thirteen years, but in that time, he transformed a nation. “I’ve been to a hundred and fifty-two countries,” the civil rights activist Jesse Jackson told CNN in a 2018 interview commemorating what would have been King’s 90th birthday. “I’ve never been anywhere where people haven’t wanted to ask me about Martin Luther King.”

As we continue to contend with our country’s painful past and uncertain future, his memory serves as a beacon of hope that someday people of all races will find equal treatment under the law. More than that, it’s a reminder not to give up the fight. Looking back on the assassination a half-century ago, Jackson reaffirmed what we already know by saying, “His spirit is alive.”

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we pulled together this collection of unforgettable photographs and quotations from the Reverend’s lifetime.

January 1st, 1948

Martin Luther King, third from left, listens to a speaker during an assembly at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, GA, in 1948. King subsequently graduated from the college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. Image via AP/Shutterstock.

Martin Luther King was fifteen years when old entered Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. There, he studied some of the ideas that would inform much of his life, including the works of Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau’s text on civil disobedience. In this photo from January 1st, 1948, we see a young King at Morehouse, just two weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday.

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from The Maroon Tiger at Morehouse College, 1947.

March 22, 1956

Martin Luther King Jr. being kissed by his wife Coretta
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is welcomed with a kiss by his wife Coretta after leaving court in Montgomery, AL. King was found guilty of conspiracy to boycott city buses in a campaign to desegregate the bus system, but a judge suspended his $500 fine pending appeal. Image via Gene Herrick/AP/Shutterstock.

On the first day of December 1955, police arrested a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger. That’s when Martin Luther King Jr., then at the helm of the Montgomery Improvement Association, stepped in to help orchestrate a historic boycott.

Initially planned as a one-off, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ultimately lasted 381 days, with Black citizens staying off of city buses. Participating came at a cost. Individuals who boycotted faced threats of arrest and violence. This included King, whose family home was bombed.

On February 21st, 1956, nearly three months into the boycott, the Montgomery County Grand Jury indicted King. The jury cited a law from the early 1920s that prohibited the boycotting of businesses. Although the court found him guilty, the minister didn’t lose faith. “This will not mar or diminish in any way my interest in the protest,” he said at the time. “We will continue to protest in the same spirit of nonviolence and passive resistance, using the weapon of love.”

Hundreds of people greeted King outside the courthouse, including his wife, Coretta Scott King, who kisses him in this photo taken on March 22, 1956. Despite intimidation from white residents as well as the authorities, King and his colleagues persisted. In the end, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of city buses was unconstitutional.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from a 1957 sermon, and later, Strength to Love (1963).

May 24, 1961

Martin Luther King shaking hands with a male student who's on the Freedom Riders bus
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shakes hands with Paul Dietrich, a ministerial student from Virginia, just before a bus of Freedom Riders leave Montgomery, Alabama. Image via Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock.

The Supreme Court ruled against the segregation of buses, terminals, and restaurants. But, the decision wasn’t enforced throughout the country. So, in 1961, volunteers both white and Black joined to form the Freedom Riders. Together they boarded integrated buses and embarked on a tour through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida, where they faced threats of arrest and violence. However the activists practiced nonviolence, and stood their ground peacefully.

Here he is on May 24, 1961, with a bus of Freedom Riders in Montgomery. “These courageous freedom riders have faced ugly and howling mobs in order to arouse the dozing conscience of the nation,” King explained. “They have accepted blows without retaliation. One day all of America will be proud of their achievements.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from the Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

August 28th, 1963

On August 28th, 1963, King joined prominent leaders from organizations like the NAACP, the Congress On Racial Equality, the NUL, and more to put together the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. An estimated 250,000 people of all backgrounds showed up for that historic moment, expressing their support for desegregation and fair wages and employment policies. It was during this march that King delivered his powerful speech I Have a Dream, which still resonates today.

“I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will he able to join hands with little white boy’s and white girls as sisters and brothers.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from I Have a Dream, August 28th, 1963.

March 26th, 1964

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X talking inside a building
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference on March 26, 1964. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.

On March 26th, 1964, King met Malcolm X for the first and only time. In the lead-up to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, both activists had come to Washington for a senate debate. Though they shared common goals, the two differed. King advocated for non-violence, while Malcolm encouraged self-defense. Though Malcolm reached out in hopes of organizing a debate, King declined. The fact that they came together in the Senate hall, if only for one minute, was still momentous. Malcolm was assassinated the next year, and more than half a century later, we continue to wonder what progress the two might have made had they lived.

“I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity … This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’”—Martin Luther King Jr., from The Good Samaritan, 1966.

June 10th, 1964

Martin Luther King patting the back in support of a young protester holding a sign
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives support to group of young protestors in St. Augustine, Florida, 1964. Image via Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock.

A decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the city of St. Augustine in Florida still had not fully desegregated. The fight against discrimination had been an uphill battle. Activists faced significant roadblocks along the way, including violence at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members and arrests by the police. Hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and participants in sit-ins were taken to jail.

In the spring of 1964, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) provided assistance to local activists. The Reverend himself arrived in St. Augustine in May, and in this moving photo, taken June 10th, 1964, we can see him with young demonstrators from the city.

The next day, King was arrested, along with his colleague Ralph Abernathy and others, for attempting to eat in a segregated restaurant. “Everyone in town had known for 24 hours that Dr. King would be arrested,” The New York Times reported at the time. “He had announced yesterday that he would go to jail to dramatize discrimination against Negroes in the nation’s oldest city.”

July 2nd, 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act with Martin Luther Kind standing behind him
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, with Martin Luther King Jr. standing directly behind the President. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.

On July 2nd, 1964, King was among those supporters present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The law prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, or religion. Today, it protects everything from our right to vote to our right to access public places.

“The purpose of this law is simple; it does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others,” Johnson told the country that day. “It does not give special treatment to any citizen. It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness and for the future of his children shall be his own ability.”

The President used seventy-five pens to sign it into law. He gave one of the pens to King, who described the new law as a “second emancipation.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” —Martin Luther King Jr., from Strength to Love (1963).

October 14th, 1964

Martin Luther King Jr. lying in a hospital bed taking a phone call
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. receives word by phone that he’s been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as he lies in a hospital bed in Atlanta, Georgia, where he went for a checkup. Image via Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock.

On October 14th, 1964, the Reverend became the youngest person in history to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was thirty-five years old. When news broke, he happened to be getting a checkup at St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Atlanta. As The New York Times reported that day, “Dr. King said that ‘every penny’ of the prize money, which amounts to about $54,000, would be given to the civil rights movement.”

It was a triumphant moment, signifying that people around the world were listening to what was going on in the United States. “For many years we have had to contend with the other side,” Coretta told The New York Times. “For something like this to happen makes it all worthwhile.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” —Martin Luther King Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1964.

March 21st-25th, 1965

From March 21st-25th, 1965, thousands came together to march from Selma to Montgomery. The campaign for voting rights by the SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other activists began earlier that year, as Black residents faced an uphill battle in registering to vote. By the time of the march, nonviolent demonstrators had faced brutal loses, including the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young deacon shot by a state trooper in Marion, Alabama.

An initial pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, organized earlier in March, turned violent when troopers attacked marchers with tear gas and beatings on March 7th, also called “Bloody Sunday.” But this time, King, accompanied by religious leaders of all faiths, had the protection of the federal government. The marchers’ numbers reached 30,000 by the close of the journey. There were still more tragedies ahead. But, national outrage over the treatment of these peaceful demonstrators helped usher in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed in August of that year.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Conscience for Change, November, 1967.

April 3rd, 1968

Martin Luther King giving a speech at a podium
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN. The following day, King is assassinated on his motel balcony. Image via Charles Kelly/AP/Shutterstock.

In February of 1968, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, forced sanitation workers to work despite serious rain and floods. Two of these Black men, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, were riding in the back of their truck to avoid the downpour when a switch malfunctioned. The truck’s compactor killed them both.

In the wake of the tragedy, Memphis public works denied compensation to the families. More than a thousand sanitation workers came together to organize a strike. They called attention to horrific working conditions and low wages, and their voices reached King, who then made his way to Memphis to show his support. He delivered the speech I’ve Been to the Mountaintop on April 3rd, 1968, the day before his assassination.

“Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, Memphis, April 2, 1968.

April 4th, 1968

Martin Luther King walking across his hotel balcony with a friend
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. walking across the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where he was shot on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison in 1998. Image via Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock.

On the evening of April 4th, 1968, James Earl Ray fatally shot King just outside his second-floor room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. To some nearby, the sound was like that of a firecracker; to others, it was more like a bomb. He survived the trip to the hospital, but following emergency surgery, he died at 7:05 PM.

April 5th, 1968

A woman weeping after the death of Martin Luther King
A woman weeps after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Image via Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock.

The country—and the world—mourned. “It was like the breaking of a dream,” the activist Heather Booth told CNN last spring. “The breaking of our hopes.”

Over 100 million citizens tuned in to witness the Reverend’s funeral on TV on April 5th. Federal buildings set the American flag at half-staff. This particular image comes from a campus rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The woman pictured here had just addressed the crowd.

Coretta Scott King seen at the entryway of a plane being comforted by loved ones
Coretta Scott King (center), widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is comforted in the doorway of an airliner in Memphis, TN, as her husband’s body is brought up the ramp. Image via Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock.

The New York Times obituary for King, penned by the reporter Murray Schumach and published on April 5th, described the Reverend as “a battle cry for human dignity.” Coretta continued to raise her own voice in that same cry for civil rights, appearing in Memphis soon after the assassination. 40,000 joined her for a march. As her friend Xernona Clayton later remembered, “She said ‘I think I need to go to finish his work.’”

Here she waits in the airliner doorway in Memphis as King’s casket is loaded up the ramp. She, along with friends and colleagues, carried on what they started together, even after he was gone.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”—Martin Luther King Jr., from A Proper Sense of Priorities, February, 1968.

Cover image via Arnie Sachs/Mediapunch/Shutterstock.

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