In 1963, Dr. King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately, the city police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators, some of which consisted of women and children. Dr. King was jailed along with dozens of his supporters. The event drew nationwide attention. As a result, Dr. King received harsh criticism by clergy members for endangering the lives of those who attended the demonstration. While in jail in Birmingham, Dr. King eloquently discussed his theory of non-violence, in which he said, “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”
Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. worked with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices that African Americans faced across the country. The march featured King’s most famous address, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a spirited and eloquent call for peace, equality, and justice. The demonstration also featured performances by Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Marian Anderson just to name a few. The event hosted over 250,000 participants and it is widely regarded as one of the most monumental demonstrations of the American civil rights movement.
Even people from cities that were not experiencing similar racial tension came from far and wide to join in the protest. They began to question the nation’s Jim Crow laws along with the treatment of African-American citizens. This ultimately resulted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. That year, Dr. King was named Man of the Year by Time magazine and he also became the youngest person to be awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1965, Dr. King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that took place in Selma, Alabama. The SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had organized a voter registration campaign. The brutal scene was nationally televised and it outraged many Americans. It also inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery, That day was later referred to as “Bloody Sunday”. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote to all African Americans.
By 1968, after more than a decade of demonstrations and protests, Dr. King was beginning to feel discouraged. He grew tired of marches, going to jail, and living under the constant threat of death. He was especially discouraged at the slow progress of civil rights movement in America and the increasing criticism from other African-American leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive the movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues, such as poverty and the slum living conditions. However, in 1968, a labor strike by Memphis sanitation workers called upon Dr. King to deliver, what would be his final speech. On April 3rd, in what proved to be an eerily prophetic speech, he told the demonstrators, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his of his room at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. He was only 39 years old. The killing sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later died in prison. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill, creating a federal holiday to honor the legacy of Dr. King, on every third Monday in January. However, that too was a battle with congress. It voted down five times and it was not passed by congress until the petition garnered over six million signatures. It was later declared as “the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history”.
In closing, I know that if it were not for the support of his wife and fellow SCLC members, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel, James Orange, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, just to name a few. Dr. King would not have been able to lead an entire nation.