On November 24, 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The Black community of Ferguson, Missouri, exploded in anger. Large crowds took to the streets as riots broke out ending in violence and destruction of property. Thousands more rallied to protest and rioted in cities across the country from Boston to Los Angeles.
These violent outbursts underscore the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. During the civil rights era, from the mid 1950s to late 1960s, King taught the true meaning of freedom. King preached that nonviolence and peaceful protest are the only way to fight for freedom, leading Blacks in their pursuit of the “unalienable rights” promised by the Founding Fathers.
King, a Baptist minister, first gained prominence in the local civil rights community by organizing a boycott known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1954, King and his family had been living in Montgomery for less than a year when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine established under Plessy v. Ferguson. The doctrine was used to justify racial segregation. The Brown decision involved education but did not address other forms of segregation institutionalized throughout the South. The Brown decision galvanized the growing civil rights movement in the highly segregated City of Montgomery, Alabama.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery bus and was arrested. Civil rights activists organized a bus boycott that continued for 381 days causing significant economic strain on the bus companies and the city’s downtown businesses. They chose King as the protest’s leader and spokesman. The boycott did not end until December 1956, after the Supreme Court weighed in, upholding a lower court decision that the Alabama law requiring racial segregation on city buses was unconstitutional.
In 1957, encouraged by the success of the boycott, King and his fellow ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The conference was committed to full equality for the Black community through nonviolent protest. Further campaigns against segregation soon followed, which led to the March on Washington. As president of the SCLC, King, along with other civil rights leaders, played a significant role in organizing the march.
On August 28, 1963, King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King shared his vision for a future in which America would rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
With his speech King gave a spirited defense for equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric. King understood that America was not free despite the work of the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln. He believed the principles that inspired the Republic were sound. Freedom, King recognized, must include justice for all. He saw segregation as a danger to the Republic and a threat undermining the founding documents. For King, safeguarding freedom required that Americans live up to the promises made in the Declaration of Independence. In order to make America a better nation, King believed we should follow the Founding Fathers’ vision and make freedom a reality.
What King sought for the Black community was access to the public square so that they could enjoy the benefits of political relationships guided by justice, freedom, and equality, and assume the responsibility for maintaining the Republic. Segregation was not consistent with freedom because segregation was a barrier to man’s pursuit of “liberty” and “happiness.”
King concluded his address with these famous words: “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The political momentum created by the march and speech resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in employment and education on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion. This law was another victory in Americans’ pursuit of freedom.
King wasn’t alone in his quest for equality. Other black leaders like Malcolm X, campaigned for minority rights in a more militant fashion. However, King maintained his focus on peaceful protest. King was steadfast in his belief that these demands for freedom must be made without violence. He viewed nonviolence as one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for justice.
On April 3, 1968, King addressed the Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters in what would be a final and prophetic speech. In the address, King spoke of having been to the mountaintop. He said: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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.”
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He was fatally shot while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis.
In his lifetime, King did not make it to the “promised land” but he was a visionary who sacrificed his life in pursuit of justice and freedom. King’s courageous crusade against racial segregation left an indelible mark on America. “We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” he promised. “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
King believed only love could break the cycle that entraps us. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Loving people who oppress you may seem strange, but King believed hate was unproductive and destructive. Love, on the other hand, wins both hearts and minds.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality … I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word,” King affirmed. By preaching both love and peace, King captured the support of Blacks and Whites, and played a pivotal role in ending segregation, improving the lives of all Americans.