On December 1, 1955, 42 year-old Rosa Parks (1913-2005) refused to give up her seat to a white traveller in the coloured section of a Montgomery bus, the bus driver’s insistence notwithstanding. She was arrested for civil disobedience – and the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, organised by civil rights leader E. D. Nixon (1899-1987) and led by Martin Luther King Jr., followed suit. It lasted over a year, nearly brought the bus company to the brink of bankruptcy, and was crowned with victory in the end:
in December 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a related case Browder vs. Gayle that local and state laws on segregation on public transport were unconstitutional and that such discrimination had to stop. It did. Martin Luther King Jr., who had often appeared as spokesman during this anti-segregation protest, became a national figure overnight.
Born on 15 January 1929, Martin junior eventually followed in his father’s steps, became a Baptist Minister and, at 25, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Driven by his Christian convictions and influenced by his father’s fearless example and Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of non-violent disobedience, King had increasingly become involved in civil rights acitivism. In 1957, he and his fellow activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in order to draw on the collective strength of the black churches for putting into practice massive nonviolent protests.
In the following years, King would organise and lead many civil rights marches, and demand the right of blacks to the vote, to labour rights, to desegregation, to education, to protection against police violence, etc. He would give many speeches, publish articles and books. A great variety of digitalised documents can be found here.
Then, on 28 August 1963, King as leader of the SCLC and the leaders of five other civil rights organisations headed the massive March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington, D.C. At its height, King delivered his famous “I have a dream”-speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
It helped put civil rights issues at the top of political lists and eased the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That same year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Over the next years, Martin Luther King expanded his Civil Rights Movement to other American cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, while at the same time broadening the range of his nonviolent protests to include opposition to the Vietam War and a crusade against poverty in general.
In spring 1968, when in Memphis, Tennessee, giving his support to the strike of the black sanitation workers, King was fatally shot while on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel.
His assassination, allegedly by the recently escaped convict James Earl Ray (1928-1998), triggered a wave of riots in more the 100 cities in the US. Days after his assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, outlawing discrimination in matters of housing. Martin Luther King Jr. had stirred the Civil Rights Movement into action as no one before, and his example has remained an inspiration to civil rights activists all over the world. Over 700 American cities, and many more in other countries have named streets in his honour, and a number of public buildings carry his name, too. The beginning of his “I have a dream” speech is etched into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while its spirit continues to inspire hope where people can still identify with its contents.
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