Stunning Martin Luther King Jr Stock Photos for MLK Day

Each year in the United States, MLK Day celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This yearly celebration of King’s life happens on the third Monday of January.

Martin Luther King Jr’s work for civil rights and equality is well known, as is his philosophy of nonviolence. 

If you’re planning a news piece, social media campaign, or newsletter about MLK Day or Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, you’ll need historical stock photos that are as stirring and powerful as King’s work.

One of the best places to find MLK Day stock photos is Getty Images. Getty’s archive contains thousands of photos showing every aspect of King’s life, from his early days preaching, to his historic March on Washington, to his tragic death.

Here are some of the best historical stock photos of Martin Luther King Jr, all of which you can license for your MLK Day coverage.

Portraits of MLK

Martin Luther King Jr was known as a fiery and inspirational orator. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was only one among many speeches and sermons that King delivered during his lifetime.

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Some of the best portraits of MLK show him in the midst of speaking to crowds. This iconic image of King at Soldier Field in Chicago, from the Afro-American Newspapers, is especially moving.

You can browse many other portraits of MLK here.

MLK’s Early Civil Rights Work

From early in his career, Martin Luther King Jr. focused on the plight of African-Americans in the United States, and quickly became a major figure in the second-wave of the civil rights movement. This movement began in the late 1950s.

One of King’s first civil rights actions was the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest against racially segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama.

This work continued with the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights group that King help to lead. The archives of the Afro-American Newspapers contain a variety of stock photos of the SCLC and its early civil rights work.

MLK and Dick Gregory at an SCLC event. Credit: Afro American Newspapers

By the end of the 1950s, Martin Luther King Jr was well-established as one of America’s most prominent civil rights leaders. At the time, mainstream media rarely covered civil rights stories. However, some specialty media outlets do have early photographic coverage of King's life.

License photos of the SCLC and King’s early work.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Birmingham Campaign

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr continued to lead nonviolent protests against racial inequality, Jim Crow laws, and other injustices.

One of King’s most famous protests of this time period was the Birmingham Campaign. This campaign sought to fight racial injustice and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.

One protest resulted in King’s arrest. His mug shot from this arrest is one of the most iconic photos of King. You can license a colorized version from Getty Images.

MLK's iconic mug shot. Credit: Colorized version via Gado Images

While in prison following this arrest, MLK penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which would become one of the most influential civil rights documents of the time.

License a colorized version of King’s iconic mug shot.

March on Washington

One of the pinnacles of King’s career–and one of his most iconic moments–was the March on Washington in 1963.

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Officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, this event brought hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall to demand equality, integrated schools, minimum wages, and other civil rights.

Organizers of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. Via Gado Images.

The March on Washington produced some of the most iconic visual depictions of King and his movement. This gallery contains a wide variety of stock photos of the March on Washington for your MLK Day coverage.

During this event, King delivered his 17-minute I Have a Dream speech, now considered one of the most important pieces of American oratory.

License historical stock photos of the March on Washington.

MLK’s Assassination and Aftermath

Martin Luther King Jr. continued his nonviolent work for civil rights with additional marches, protests and legal actions. He took stances against the Vietnam War, and launched the Poor People’s Campaign.

Tragically, King’s life and work was cut short on April 4, 1968 when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. King’s death led to nationwide riots and unrest.

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Powerful photographs of the aftermath of King’s death help to underscore his importance to the civil rights movement and the world.

Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy

Although MLK’s life was tragically cut short, his work for civil rights continues to live on.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, his family and colleagues–including his wife Coretta Scott King–continued his civil rights work.

King’s name is honored in many cities today by naming public buildings, schools, and streets after King. Photos of these road signs can be a terrific way to illustrate King’s legacy visually.

Many streets in American cities honor MLK's legacy. Credit: Gado Images.

MLK’s legacy is also present in many aspects of the modern Civil Rights movement. Photos of today’s civil rights struggles often depict King, and his work has become a powerful symbol of the impact of nonviolent protest.

Ultimately, King’s legacy lives on in the powerful social changes his movement helped to accomplish, and in his successful fight for many civil rights and liberties.

As you tell the story of MLK Day and Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, stock photos of MLK can be a powerful tool to help readers and viewers understand King’s life and work.

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Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a professional news, travel and food photographer, and CEO of the historical photo agency Gado Images. Smith's work routinely appears in publications including Time Magazine, People Magazine and Food + Wine, and Gado Images' historical photos appear in thousands of publications worldwide. The New York Times called Smith a "veteran programmer".

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