Martin Luther King, Jr.
He had a dream, but he never lived to see it come true. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pioneer in the civil rights movement in the U.S. There were many other African-American leaders at the time, but it was King who stood out because of the way in which he motivated the masses and his uncompromising commitment to nonviolent protest [source: Ling].
King was born in Atlanta in 1929. An educated man, he earned numerous degrees, including a doctorate from Boston University. In 1955, he agreed to take a leading role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where blacks in Montgomery, Ala. refused to ride the public buses until they were allowed to sit where they liked instead of just at the back. The success of the boycott (which lasted almost a year) vaulted King to the forefront of the movement.
King was known for his inspirational speeches, which included such memorable oratories as the "I Have a Dream" speech he gave during the March on Washington, D.C. in 1963, spurring folks of all races to band together and push for federal civil rights legislation. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters ever in the U.S. capital (250,000) and the speech is considered one of the greatest in American history [source: Ling]. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, religion or gender.
Of course, King had plenty of detractors, too -- both blacks who disagreed with his nonviolent methods, and also racists who wanted to keep segregation intact. In 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he'd gone to help striking garbage workers [source: Nobel Prize].