MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most influential man ever to fight for the rights of African-Americans, was bom into a lineage of preach¬ ers who brought the family from slavery to a prominent social position in Atlanta,Georgia. Knowing that the church was a tool for justice and leadership, King began his career as a reverend imme¬ diately after college, and ended it as a hero.
King led the Montgomery bus boycott, launched after Rosa Parks (see no. 72) refused to yield her bus seat to a white man in 1955. By preaching the “gospel of free¬ dom” and organizing nonviolent protest in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, King maintained the boycott for 381 days, and the US Supreme Court declared bus segre¬ gation unconstitutional. It was the victory the civil rights movement had been waiting for, and King was its chosen leader.
For seven years, King led boycotts, sit- ins and marches designed to demolish seg¬ regationist policies. In 1957, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Confer¬ ence (SCLC), which became one of the dominant organizations of the movement.
In 1963, King ignored an order barring protests and marched through Birmingham with a small number of supporters. He was jailed by Police Commissioner “Bull” Con¬ nor, and during his confinement wrote the eloquent “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”: “You speak of our activity in Birm¬ ingham as extreme.
I wish you had com¬ mended the Negro sit-inners and demon¬ strators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline….One day the South will recognize its real heroes….”
With the support of A. Philip Randolph (see no. 48), Bayard Rustin (see no. 71),Roy Wilkins (see no. 62), President John F. Kennedy,and the nation’s most popu¬ lar black celebrities, King’s zenith came during a speech given to over 250,000 peo¬ ple who gathered in Wash¬ ington to support civil rights.
King stood and defined the hope that had supported generations: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal’….When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing, in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last. ’ ”
King would live to see his efforts rewarded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which removed the poll taxes imposed by some Southern states, promised fair hiring practices and assured equal access to public amenities. He would celebrate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which destroyed all arbitrary barriers to voting, and he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, but he would tragically miss the end of his final campaign: the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968.
As he stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, an assassin’s bullet ended his life, and ripped the heart from a movement at its zenith.Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, far from forgotten, have inspired worldwide support of human rights. His speeches and books are always available, and his biography, Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.