Widely regarded for his work in leading marches and parades throughout the segregated south in the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King worked to end racial segregation on public transportation, in public schools and workplaces and calling for racial equality on the national level.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929.
He followed his calling to become a Christian minister, with his sermons then coming in handy as he was called to the national stage to deliver fervent speeches.
He would soon become the most influential speaker and leader during the civil rights movement given his passionate speeches and willingness to get arrested to move his campaign forward.
King was known for advancing civil rights through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, which was rooted through his Christian beliefs.
He participated in and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic human civil rights.
His peaceful struggle against racial discrimination garnered national attention in 1955 when he led a boycott protesting segregation on buses.
He was then jailed and physically attacked for his vocalness on the issue, and his house was even bombed as he began receiving threats on his and his family's lives.
It wasn't until 1956 when the Supreme Court deemed such segregationist laws unconstitutional.
In 1963, King delivered the famous "I have a Dream" speech to a crowd of over 250,000 on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
In October 1964, he became the youngest man, at age 35, to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his continued fighting on achieving racial equality.
In the last years of his life, Dr. King faced mounting criticism from young African American activists who favored a more confrontational approach to seeking change. These young radicals stuck closer to the ideals of the black nationalist leader Malcolm X (himself assassinated in 1965), who had condemned King’s advocacy of nonviolence as “criminal” in the face of the continuing repression suffered by African Americans.
As a result of this opposition, King sought to widen his appeal beyond his own race, speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War and working to form a coalition of poor Americans—black and white alike—to address such issues as poverty and unemployment.
In the spring of 1968, while preparing for a planned march to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of the poor, King and other SCLC members were called to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers’ strike. On the night of April 3, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis.
In his speech, King seemed to foreshadow his own untimely passing, or at least to strike a particularly reflective note, ending with these now-historic words: “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. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
At 6:05 p.m. the following day, King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he and his associates were staying, when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later, at the age of 39.
Shock and distress over the news of King’s death sparked rioting in more than 100 cities around the country, including burning and looting. Amid a wave of national mourning, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Americans to “reject the blind violence” that had killed King, whom he called the “apostle of nonviolence.”
He also called on Congress to speedily pass the civil rights legislation then entering the House of Representatives for debate, calling it a fitting legacy to King and his life’s work. On April 11, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. It is considered an important follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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