Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dynamic theology student and pastor who entered the battle for civil rights somewhat reluctantly, thrust into the fray during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. But the young Dr. King’s moral courage, deep understanding and rhetorical abilities made his local and national leadership inevitable. In the face of white supremacist violence, King’s espousal non-violence struck many Black activists as dangerously naïve, King’s most notable critic being Malcolm X. But at the very least, King’s philosophies made his moral authority unquestionable, and irresistible to a generation of young whites who wanted to help the cause.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the assembled protesters at the 1963 March on Washington galvanized a national movement, and his direct negotiations with President Lyndon Baines Johnson led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, enfranchising millions of Black voters. For his efforts, Dr, King was recognized the world over, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War, and was poised to organize a multi-racial “Poor People’s Campaign” when he was gunned down by a white assassin in Memphis in April, 1968.
If there ever was a “Black leader” — someone who held to respect of a large number of African-Americans and had the power to negotiate on their behalf — it was King. In the years after Dr. King’s murder, many African-Americans lamented the lack of a strong leader of King’s stature. It was a void occupied, at times, by figures like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, but never quite filled. But King’s legacy turned out to be just as powerful as his Earthly presence. He left an America transformed: segregation declining, and Black political power increasing. His insistence on an America that lived up to its highest ideals of equality weighed heavily in the successful campaign to create a national holiday in his honor, the first African-American to achieve that near demigod-status.