The Voice of Engagement – Civil Rights in America
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister, civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. Through his activism and inspirational speeches, he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
In the 1950s and in his first speech as a member of the executive committee of the NAACP Montgomery Branch, King declared, “We have no alternative, but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience… But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient, with anything less than freedom and justice.”
King’s skillful rhetoric energized the civil rights struggle in Alabama and highlighted the segregated public transportation issue. The African American community lead a 382-day bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, and legal action was taken against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s “separate is never equal” decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.
On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It was there that King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that emphasized his belief that someday all men could be brothers.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final and what proved to be a profoundly, prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told supporters in Memphis, “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 next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, visionary leadership and commitment to achieving social justice through nonviolent means had a seismic impact on race and social relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is the most widely know African-American leader of his era. His life and work have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C.