Civil Rights-Era Leaders: Martin Luther King Jr.

January 21, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Martin Luther King Jr. was undeniably the most significant individual of the civil rights movement. An iconic and tireless leader, he was also a uniter, steadfastly committed to humanity, community, and justice.

Stanford’s King Institute is the Web’s best resource for researching the life and work of Dr. King. Find text and audio of his speeches, sermons, and papers in the King Papers Project or learn about his life in the King Encyclopedia.

The Early Years of the Civil Rights Movement

In 1955, King was elected to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Following Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, blacks in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the bus system for over a year, until a federal court ordered the buses to be desegregated. The boycott was one of the first victories for the civil rights movement and it established a model for nonviolent protest.

Following the success of the boycott, King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, a group dedicated to achieving equal rights through nonviolent resistance.

King made this appearance on the talk show Open Mind in 1957. He is introduced as a “new negro,” one who is willing to stand up and demand his rights, rather than act submissively like a “happy, acquiescent slave.”

Birmingham and “I Have a Dream”

In the spring of 1963, the SCLC launched a series of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, King was arrested and put in jail, where he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it, King defended the use of direct action and stated that, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

On August 28 more than 200,000 demonstrators marched on Washington in support of a civil rights bill. That day, King delivered his “I have a dream” speech that would become the defining moment of the civil rights movement and provide its most enduring images.

King was named Time’s Man of the Year for 1963.

The Voting Rights Act and the Nobel Peace Prize

On July 2, 1964, the work of King and the civil rights movement was finally rewarded, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and forbid racial discrimination by private employers. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which outlawed disenfranchisement through literacy tests and poll taxes, and allowed the federal government to intervene in areas with apparent discrimination. King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  In October 1964, at the age of 35.


In spring of 1968, King was campaigning for the rights of black workers in Memphis. On April 3, he delivered a speech now called “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” in which he stated, “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.”

The following day, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, King was shot by James Earl Ray. He died just over an hour later. Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at a campaign rally that night, echoed the ideals that King had lived and died for: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy

Coretta Scott King’s “Meaning of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday” is available at Web site of the King Center, the official memorial of Dr. King.

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