Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Assassinated
To call the year 1968 tumultuous would be to understate things. It was a year when political and cultural divisions and debates across the country (and indeed, around the world) seemed to crescendo after nearly a decade of epic change. Among the most important figures of this period was the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee, traumatized the nation and led to a national soul-searching. Time Magazine declared that his death was “both a symbol and a symptom of the nation’s racial malaise,” but it was what he did in life that has secured his legacy.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, King was from a prominent African-American family. He was an excellent student and gifted orator who went to Morehouse College at age 15 and then went on to seminary and graduate school. Soon after receiving his Ph.D. at Boston University, he became a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, and almost immediately became involved in the city’s burgeoning civil rights movement. In 1955, a small group of committed activists decided to contest segregation in the city’s public bus system and chose King as their leader and spokesman. The Montgomery Bus Boycott he led went on for over a year until the city’s buses were finally desegregated. This was the first real victory over the Jim Crow laws since Reconstruction; it succeeded in capturing the imagination of reformers in the south and throughout the country.
King decided to build on this success by organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and under its auspices, he lectured on and discussed racial issues both here and abroad. He famously advocated for the use of nonviolent tactics to resist oppression and effect positive change. For the next 11 years, as the campaign for civil rights swept the country, King became the most widely recognized face of the struggle and its most eloquent spokesperson.
He supported the lunch counter sit-ins first undertaken in 1960 by black college students; led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama; planned voting registration drives; helped direct the peaceful 1963 March on Washington (during which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech); and conferred with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to strike down segregation laws, pass the Civil Rights Act, and ensure racial progress. His efforts won him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest recipient of the award. During the last years of his life, he broadened his concerns to advocate for social and economic justice for all. He is now considered to be one of the most important figures of the second half of the twentieth century with a national holiday established in his honor.
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