At this point in time, it is with undeniable truth that many attribute Martin Luther King, Jr. to have been one of the most influential activists of the twentieth century. His contributions were not only pivotal in furthering the Civil Rights Movement of the time, but were also crucial in developing and identifying race relations. King's continual push for equality for African Americans began as small protests that would later captivate the eyes of many across the globe. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unique promotion of civil rights coupled with his unwavering passion, authenticity, and rhetoric truly makes him a leader worth celebrating.
King experienced first hand the complications and deep segregation that resulted from the Jim Crow ordinances. At the time, African Americans were subject to “separate but equal” treatment in nearly all aspects of life. This affected housing, public utilities, transportation, and even education. King attended largely segregated schools and was separated from his Caucasian friends and counterparts. After graduating high school at the young age of fifteen, he later pursued his sociology degree at Morehouse College, the same African American school his father and grandfather attended. He would then attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for three years and earn his doctoral degree from Boston University. Concurrent to completing his doctorate studies, King became a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama. The entirety of his education was completed by the mere age of 25.
While in Alabama, King quickly became recognized as a distinguished civil rights activist and nuanced speaker. Following Rosa Parks’ arrest on a Montgomery bus, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter appointed him as the protest leader for the city bus boycott. The boycott, which lasted 381 days, led to the Supreme Court’s decision that declared segregation on buses unconstitutional. However, their momentous win did not come without its losses. Throughout the boycott, many protestors were arrested and harassed, including King himself, who even had his home vandalized. As a result of the eventual success, he would serve as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization he founded with over 60 other ministers to further promote civil rights reform. It is through his participation in this organization that allowed him to speak over 2,500 times, write several books, meet with world leaders, and deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the keynote address at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As approximately a quarter of a million individuals gathered on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial, he not only emphasized a call for equality, but also expressed his optimism and desire that all humans could be treated as brothers. His masterful use of repetition bolsters the many simplistic themes of freedom and justice in hopes they actually reach fruition. Interestingly, the “I Have a Dream” refrain and other elements of the second half of King’s speech were largely improvised. Although King did not end up delivering portions of his speech that he prepared in advance, he instead relied on his extensive background as a pastor and knowledge from previous sermons to complete the speech extemporaneously. These rather impromptu elements all illustrate what a nuanced speaker he was. Following the March on Washington, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reflect a nationwide desegregation of all public accommodations – facilities, schools, and workplaces – and outlawed discrimination of any kind.
Just four years later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on his motel balcony. His killer, James Earl Ray, was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Although King was only 39 at the time, he was able to accomplish so many things that other leaders and activists could only dream about. King was successful in receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, playing a pivotal role in desegregation legislation, and being a skilled orator everyone yearned to hear from. It is for all these reasons that we recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the best leaders of all time.
Article by Kenneth Go