“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” proclaimed Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the pivotal 1963 March on Washington. A year later, at the age of thirty-five, he got the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population. But what exactly did Martin Luther King do in his groundbreaking contributions to the battle for equal rights? What was his role, and what legacy did he leave to his fellow Americans and the world? Here’s a brief overview of his life and work.
Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.?
He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, as Michael King, Jr.; at one point in his life, he became impressed with the German church reformer, Martin Luther, and decided to adopt his name to honor him. His father was a Baptist minister; Martin Luther King attended segregated public schools and then went on to study at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary. King married Coretta Scott in 1953, and they became the parents of four children. What Martin Luther King did later is well-known to the public. In 1955, he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and, in the same year, received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from the University in Boston.
In December 1955, an event that changed King’s life, and the life of all Black people in America, occurred: Rosa Parks, a Black woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. This sparked a city-wide boycott of the Montgomery bus system that put King on the map. Two years later, he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization formed to provide new leadership for the Black civil rights movement. He borrowed the ideals for this organization from Christianity, while its methods came from Gandhi.
As president of the SCLC, Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to organize protests and marches for civil rights all over the country continued. His activism in the 60s included the March on Washington, Albany Movement, Birmingham Campaign, Selma voting rights movement, Bloody Sunday, and opposition to the Vietnam War. As mentioned, in 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the civil rights movement. King was murdered in 1968, which led to a nationwide wave of anti-racism riots.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
What did Martin Luther King do in 1955? He played a crucial role in making the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success. After Rosa Parks’ arrest, over the course of the following year, Black people stopped riding Montgomery’s busses. Since they represented 75% of the city’s bus ridership, this caused the local government significant financial losses.
During this time, King emerged as a leader, delivering powerful speeches and organizing marches and rallies. His leadership helped sustain the boycott until December 20, 1956, when the US Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's segregation laws were unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a significant victory for the civil rights movement, and made King a national figure.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
What did Martin Luther King do to stop segregation after the boycott? Trying to capitalize on the Montgomery campaign, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in 1957 to bring about social change through nonviolent means. Martin Luther King became the organization's president in 1960 and sparked several protest campaigns, most notably the Birmingham Campaign of 1963.
The SCLC's philosophy was inspired by Gandhi's doctrine of civil disobedience, and its methods helped bring about significant changes in American society. Part of the answer to the question: “What is Dr. King Known for?” is his work as part of the SCLC. The organization managed to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which brought Black Americans a step closer to equality. King continued to play a leading role in the SCLC until his assassination in 1968. In the years since, the organization has remained committed to its founding principles and has continued to fight for social justice.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
During the Birmingham campaign of 1963, activists used a boycott, sit-ins, and marches to fight racial segregation and injustice. Due to the SCLC’s religious roots, on April 16, eight Alabama priests published an open letter in a Birmingham newspaper calling for an end to the "unjust" and "untimely" demonstrations led by Reverend Martin Luther King.
This is not the entirety of why Martin Luther King was important for this campaign: He responded with a letter of his own, published under the title “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In his letter, King refuted the priests’ claims point by point, making a clear case for the need for nonviolent direct action to achieve civil rights. He argued that the time for waiting had passed and that now was the time for action. King's letter is widely regarded as one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement.
Let Freedom Ring
On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington DC for the March on Washington—one of the most significant civil rights demonstrations in American history. The march was organized to pressure the government to pass legislation guaranteeing racial equality and protest the recent string of violence against Black people. Among the marchers were some of the most prominent figures in the civil rights movement.
You probably already know what Martin Luther King led the protesters to: As one of the main speakers at the event, King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech itself is considered one of the greatest rhetorical pieces in American history, ending with the words “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
In the years following the March, King continued to lead the civil rights movement, and he played a pivotal role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the motel he was staying at in Memphis.
The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King is one of the most prominent figures in American history. Born in 1929, he grew up during a time when racial segregation was still legal in many parts of the country. What did Martin Luther King do to change the world? Despite the harsh circumstances, King became a powerful voice for change, using his words and actions to fight for civil rights and inspire others to do the same.
His work culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is now celebrated every year as a national holiday in honor of his legacy. Every day, we continue to benefit from his vision of a society where people are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Although he was only 39 years old when he was assassinated, Dr. King left a lasting legacy that continues to shape our world today.