The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spent his life fighting American injustice, was born Jan. 15, 1929, and his birthday, which was made a federal holiday late in 1983, is celebrated every year on the third Monday in January.
From King’s opposition to war and dedication to eradicating poverty to the relentless fight against segregation, his influence echoes through history, inspiring generations toward justice, equality and social change.
Explore King’s profound journey as we unravel the lesser-known facets of his legacy.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: THE LIFE AND THE LEGACY
The idealization of King and the years following his assassination have obscured the radical nature of his vision. Toward the end of his life, the civil rights leader criticized the Vietnam War and the disparities in the American economy.
King had come to the conclusion that both militarism and poverty were hindering the U.S. from fulfilling its ideals.
“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America,” King told an audience at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967. “I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.”
During the spring of 1968, King achieved successes in the realms of desegregation and voting rights. While strategizing his Poor People’s Campaign, he shifted his focus to Memphis, the rugged city in Tennessee along the Mississippi River. Advocating for the rights of striking sanitation workers, King aimed to organize marches, illustrating the effectiveness of nonviolent protest.
At the age of 39, the pioneer of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement met his tragic end on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Memphis. He was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, who was later captured in the UK. By then, King had already emerged as one of the most globally recognized figures.
The next day, King’s closest confidant, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, said, “Tighten your belts and dry your tears. If you love Martin Luther King as you say you do, help me carry on his work.”
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR’S ‘DREAM’ FOR A BETTER AMERICA HAD ROOTS IN THE HEBREW BIBLE
The members of King’s tight circle barely paused to grieve. They plunged into carrying out his unfinished work and turned it into a lifelong vow.
Several entered the political arena while a handful persisted in contributing to the organization King spearheaded or initiated their own ventures. Others returned to the pulpit, advocating a gospel of racial liberation.
King fought for many progressive issues throughout his life as a monist er and the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking out against various systemic barriers holding back Blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans.
He famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, calling for equality among the races.
King played a pivotal role in orchestrating the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks’ arrest for declining to surrender her seat on a city bus.
Just four days after Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, King passionately encouraged a gathering at Holt Street Baptist Church to initiate a bus boycott.
“Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end,” he told the thousands gathered at the church that day in 1955.
ALVEDA KING SAYS OF MLK’S ICONIC SPEECH, 57 YEARS LATER: ‘WE STILL HAVE A DREAM’
A federal court ended racial segregation on Montgomery public buses, elevating King into the national spotlight.
Years later, he stood behind President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places and employment discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
King advocated for the passage of federal civil rights laws, which were ultimately implemented, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his impactful contributions.
King’s involvement in the 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery raised awareness about the challenges faced by Black individuals in their efforts to register to vote.
Following attacks on marchers by White mobs and police, Johnson delivered a compelling address in a special session of Congress, effectively persuading lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act.
King left a lasting impact. In the 1970s and 1980s, the American South witnessed the election of thousands of Black individuals to various offices, a stark contrast to the nearly nonexistent representation in the 1950s.
Coalitions of Black and Latino communities emerged in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston, working together to elect individuals of color to both local and federal offices. Eventually, these efforts played a role in the election of the nation’s first Black president.
As King approached the end of his life, his progressivism took on a more radical stance, leading to an intensification of backlash against him.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR DAY MUST BE FOR ALL OF US
“We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house,” King said. “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had. …. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
In a Gallup poll from 1966, 63% of the American public held a negative opinion of King. According to an early Harris Poll from 1968, the iconic leader died with a public disapproval rating reaching nearly 75%. Following King’s assassination, 31% of Americans told Gallup that they believed he “brought it on himself.”
While the leader favored the influence of morality over the allure of popularity, the latter has grown throughout the years, giving credence to his statement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
King’s example, and his insistence on nonviolent protest, continues to influence many activists pushing for civil rights and social change.
The legacy of service and political empowerment left by King has inspired generations to advocate for political and social reforms aligned with his principles of pacifism and unity.