Martin Luther King Jr.

     In 1955, black leaders in Montgomery, Ala., launched a boycott of city buses because the bus company’s management and its drivers treated black passengers harshly. Black people always had to sit in the back of the bus and were not even allowed to sit if white people needed their seats.
      The leaders of the bus boycott picked a young newcomer as their spokesman. Martin Luther King Jr. was the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the son of a prominent Atlanta preacher and a scholar.
King’s preaching could set a congregation on fire. The first night of the boycott, he told the boycotters they had truth on their side and made them believe they could win the battle for equality. “One of the great glories of democracy is the right to protest for right,” he said.
King’s calm under pressure sustained the Montgomery bus boycotters through 13 months and made King the most influential figure of the entire civil rights era. Through the next 13 years, he would not only lead a major social revolution but would inspire a transformation of conscience in America.
Martin Luther King’s life was in danger from the moment his enemies recognized the power he held. His home was bombed. He was attacked and even stabbed. He spent many nights alone in jail. He received countless death threats.
      In spite of the danger, he continued to lead campaigns for equal rights for black people. He led with imagination and strength.

In protests in Birmingham, Ala., in April 1963, King was arrested because the demonstrations he led did not have the proper permits.

     In Birmingham, he wrote a letter from his jail cell answering the criticism of moderate clergy who thought he was demanding too much too soon. “For years now I have heard the words ‘Wait!’ … This ‘wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never!’… We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. … There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.”
Through him, the doctrine of nonviolence became the civil rights movement’s philosophy. Over and over, King preached the difficult message of peaceful confrontation. Demand your rights, he urged, but love your enemies.
It was King who brought the civil rights movement to its highest emotional peak, during the march on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. “I have a dream,” he told the crowd of 250,000 who gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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.”
Martin Luther King Jr. also addressed issues of world peace and poverty in the years before his death. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and launched anti-poverty campaigns in Chicago and Cleveland. He went to Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike for fair wages.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

Excerpted from “Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle,” by Sara Bullard, (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 100-103. Copyright © 1993 by The Southern Poverty Law Center. Reprinted by permission.