January 12, 2012
On Monday, January 16, Americans will pay tribute to the legacy of slain civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the annual national holiday that celebrates his birthday (January 15). More than 50 years ago, King campaigned across the United States, leading non-violent marches and demonstrations for equal rights for African Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s rise as a civil rights leader began in 1955 when he spearheaded the drive to desegregate public buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
By August 1963, Reverend King's push for equal rights had become a national movement. That month, more than 250,000 people took part in the March on Washington. Led by King, it was designed to pressure lawmakers to pass a civil rights bill that would end racial discrimination. Former civil rights activist Roger Wilkins was there on the day marchers gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
"It was a glorious warm summer day in which people were rejuvenated," Wilkins recalled. "There was just a good feeling of a country coming together. You really felt, I did for the first time in my life, the weight of America's conscience."
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
It was these non-violent protests and his speeches that drove the civil rights movement forward, and kept the nation focused on the issue of equality.
King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and that same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the following year the Voting Rights Act. The measures outlawed racial segregation in public places and discriminatory practices that prevented blacks from voting.
Martin Luther King's final campaign was in Memphis, Tennessee in March and April of 1968. He led a march in support of striking sanitation workers. But the protest turned violent when young militants began looting stores. King was distraught and vowed to return to Memphis to lead a peaceful march. On the night of April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, King was assassinated.
Forty years later, King's life is celebrated with many of his dreams realized, including the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African American president.