King's brief life left an enduring legacy
January 18, 1998
King was instrumental in organizing the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955
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
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
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
"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 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
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
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
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
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.