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King's brief life left an enduring legacy

King
King was instrumental in organizing the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955   
January 18, 1998
Web posted at: 1:04 p.m. EDT (1304 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- On Monday, Americans will observe a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader whose legacy continues undimmed 35 years after his visionary "I Have a Dream Speech."

King broke onto the national civil rights scene in 1955 as the organizer of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

Seamstress Rosa Parks provided the catalyst for the demonstration when she refused to give her seat up to a white passenger.

Parks' courage, combined with King's leadership, sparked a boycott that would eventually change the nation.

"We have a legitimate protest. And we feel also that one of the great glories of American democracy is that we have the right to protest our rights," King said at the time.

"We will do it in an orderly fashion. This is a non-violent protest and we are depending on moral and spiritual forces, using methods of passive resistance," he said.

During the 13-month boycott, blacks avoided the buses, walking instead or deciding to carpool. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Alabama's laws on racial segregation were illegal.

"This morning, the long-awaited mandate from the United States Supreme Court concerning bus segregation came to Montgomery," King said. "This mandate expresses in terms that are crystal clear that segregation in public transportation is legally and socially invalid."

King's son Dexter reflects on the relevancy of nonviolent social change after his father's death
icon 366K/33 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

Building on the success of the Alabama bus boycott, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and became a follower of India's leader Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence.

By the late 1950s, King had become a national figure with a national platform.

"We have people coming in from all over the country. I suspect we will have representatives from every state in the union and naturally a large number of people from the state of Alabama. And we hope to see and we plan to see the greatest witness for freedom ever taken place on the steps of any capital of the South," King said in a speech at the time.

King's arrest and resulting four-month prison sentence on a minor traffic offense in 1960 may have been a key factor in the presidential race between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy.

King
King in a 1960 mug shot   

President Dwight Eisenhower refused to get involved in the case, calling it a state matter. But Kennedy, apparently seeing a political opening, interceded on King's behalf and won his release from jail.

With the endorsement of King's father, black voters moved into Kennedy's column, helping him to win the presidential race by a mere 100,000 votes several days later.

King's civil rights movement reached its zenith between 1960 and 1965, when legislation was passed to end racial segregation in public facilities and expanding voting rights.

But those victories came at a cost, and many whites still resisted the changes.

In Alabama, police used fire hoses and dogs to try to stop King and his supporters from staging a protest march against segregation.

President Lyndon Johnson called the violence by local officials an outrage, and called in National Guard and Army units to protect the marchers.

"These forces should be adequate to help meet the rights of citizens to walk peaceably and safely without injury or loss of life from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama," Johnson said.

It was also in Alabama that King wrote his eloquent letters from a jail in Birmingham, after one of countless arrests:

"You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path? -- You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue so it can no longer be ignored. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed."

King's finest moment may have come at an inter-racial assembly at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, when he called out, "Let freedom ring."

"From every village and hamlet, every state, every city we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children -- black men, white men, Jews, Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants -- will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I am free at last," King said.

Just one year after this landmark speech, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And with this, he now had an international stage.

Despite his international profile, more strident forces in the civil rights movement claimed King was too willing to compromise, and his insistence on non-violence was increasingly being questioned by younger and more militant leaders.

Whites only sign
King's work helped make signs like this one a thing of the past   

Over time, King expanded his mission to include other issues than racism and he began to speak out against the Vietnam war and poverty.

On his last trip of his life, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the city's striking garbage workers, who were demanding a raise and better working conditions.

And once again he spoke of his vision for a racially colorblind society. "I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anyone I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned with that now. I just want to do God's will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have looked over. And I've seen the promised land."

King died in a Memphis hospital on April 4, 1968, after being shot at the Lorraine Motel by a sniper.

But the work he had begun as a college student would continue and, 30 years later, King's legacy lives on. And SCLC co-founder Rev. Joseph Lowery commented: "Whether or not history in the future will produce another such leader remains to be seen. I doubt it. Because the times have changed. Martin was the right man, with the right talents, at the right time."

King often said he never wanted people to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize and other accomplishments. Rather, he said, he wanted to be remembered as "a drum major" in the struggle for justice, peace and righteousness for all people.

Correspondent Dan Ronan contributed to this report.
 
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