During the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement from December 1955 until April 4, 1968, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced.
Drawing inspiration from both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, King led a nonviolent movement in the late 1950s and ‘60s to achieve legal equality for African-Americans in the United States. While others were advocating for freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence, King used the power of words and acts of nonviolent resistance, such as protests, grassroots organizing and civil disobedience to achieve seemingly-impossible goals. He went on to lead similar campaigns against poverty and international conflict, always maintaining fidelity to his principles that men and women everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal members of the human family.
He is the only non-president to have a national holiday dedicated in his honor, and is the only non-president memorialized on the Great Mall in the nation’s capitol. This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday, Jan. 20.
King was recruited in 1955 to serve as spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was a campaign by the African-American population of Montgomery, Alabama to force integration of the city’s bus lines. In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization designed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. He served as head of the SCLC until his assassination in 1968.
In 1963, he led a coalition of numerous civil rights groups in a nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was described as the “most segregated city in America.” Later in 1963, King was one of the driving forces behind the March for Jobs and Freedom, more commonly known as the “March on Washington,” which drew over a quarter-million people to the national mall. It was at this march that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which cemented his status as a social change leader and helped inspire the nation to act on civil rights. King was later named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
In 1964, at 35 years old, King became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in Oslo is thought by many to be among the most powerful remarks ever delivered at the event, climaxing at one point with the oft-quoted phrase “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Also in 1964, partly due to the March on Washington, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, essentially eliminating legalized racial segregation in the United States. The legislation made it illegal to discriminate against blacks or other minorities in hiring, public accommodations, education or transportation, areas which at the time were still very segregated in many places.
King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
Information about King came from www.thekingcenter.org.Around the country, people are encouraged to get out and do community service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For more information or to find volunteer opportunities in the area, go to mlkday.gov.