Luther King Jr.
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.
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.
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,”
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.
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
spite of the danger, he continued to lead campaigns for equal rights
for black people. He led with imagination and strength.
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
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
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.”
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
Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4,
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.