In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Photograph of White House meeting with civil rights leaders, June 22, 1963
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Go to the Lincoln memorial in Washington, D.C., and there, on the landing at the foot of the monument, you'll see the words of a true humanitarian. These are not the words of Abraham Lincoln, but rather those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chiseled into a section of granite measuring just over 2 feet wide is an inscription that reads:


I Have A Dream

Martin Luther King Jr.

The March On Washington

For Jobs And Freedom

August 28, 1963

This message marks the very spot where Dr. King gave his most recognized speech -- one that addressed more than a quarter of a million people, of many races, who marched on Washington in favor of civil rights. Unveiled on August 22, 2003 -- the 40th anniversary of the Washington march -- this inscription commemorates a man, his work, and a living legacy. Assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most prominent figures in the American civil rights movement.

Like ripples through a pond in the aftermath of one cast stone, King's work as a humanitarian and within the civil rights movement continues to resonate today. In honor of his life's work, we'll use these echoes as a starting point to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

*Permission granted by Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia, as manager of the King Estate.


The Dream

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Before we embark on our journey back through time, let's consider what King was dreaming about in his speech:

... I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ...

While many people commonly associate Dr. King solely with the civil rights movement, his platform was broader than that. His was not a struggle for black Americans, but for all Americans. His was not a call of action against racism alone. King was also disturbed by poverty, a societal disease that affects people of every racial, ethnic and religious background. His concern for human welfare and peace did not stop along the borders of America, but instead spread to countries around the world.


One who heartily opposed classism and colonialism, King admired the work of other social and political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Kwame Nkrumah. In a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on April 7, 1957, in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King had this to say:

If there had not been a Gandhi in India with all of his noble followers, India would have never been free. If there had not been an Nkrumah and his followers in Ghana, Ghana would still be a British colony. If there had not been abolitionists in America, both Negro and white, we might still stand today in the dungeons of slavery.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people dedicated their personal and professional resources and time to the cause. But when the topic of civil rights is at hand, none are quite as recognizable as Dr. King. For many of us, King was and continues to be the face and voice of the civil rights movement. Even those who have little knowledge of the actual events still know his name: Countless schools, libraries and roadways bear the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Let's take a closer look at why that is.


Resonant Events

The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, is an incredible echo of King's legacy. Originally founded in 1968 by Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, the center is a living memorial to both Dr. King and his vision. By educating the world about Dr. King's "philosophy and methods of nonviolence, human relations, service to mankind, and related teachings," the King Center promotes social awareness and carries King's dreams forward.

On June 23, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in higher education when it affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, et al. In a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court found the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action policy to be in line with the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment.


Justice O'Connor, in charge of preparing the majority opinion, stated, "We find that the Law School's admissions program bears the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan. As Justice Powell made clear in Bakke [Prominent Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the general principle of affirmative action], truly individualized consideration demands that race be used in a flexible, non-mechanical way." She wrote that universities can "consider race or ethnicity more flexibly as a 'plus' factor in the context of individualized consideration of each and every applicant." And, in summary, she pointed out, "the Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

The state of Michigan passed a new law in 2006 -- one that said race could not be used as a preferential factor in publicly funded college admissions, along with sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. And in 2014, the Supreme Court upheld this ban. This time, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote in a dissent, "For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government" [source: Mears].

At this point, you may be wondering, "How does this relate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly?" The practice of affirmative action is inherently tied to the civil rights movement. Affirmative action is basically a strategic governmental safety net used to uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its many amendments. The tireless efforts of Dr. King and many others helped encourage government to pass this landmark legislation in the first place. And in another piece of her dissent, Sotomayor expressed why the 2006 law and 2014 Supreme Court decision worried many civil rights activists: "This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

On the next few pages, we'll look at other resonant events in the decades since King's death.


The 1990s

The 1990s were peppered with resonant events of Dr. King's work and the civil rights movement. Some of these are:

  • In 1996, the Supreme Court finds the consideration of race in creating congressional districts to be unconstitutional.
  • In 1995, the Supreme Court rules that in order for federal programs to use racial classifications, they "must serve a compelling governmental interest, and must be narrowly tailored to further that interest."
  • On November 22, 1991, in a surprising turn of events, President Bush reverses his stance and signs the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This act strengthens existing civil rights laws that ban discrimination in employment and allows compensation for victims of intentional discrimination.
  • In 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opens at the site of Dr. King's assassination, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The non-profit organization serves to explain and promote the history of the civil rights movement.


The 1980s: MLK Gets a Holiday

Hands-down, during the 1980s, the most noteworthy event related to the King legacy was the establishment of the King holiday. This milestone was not easily accomplished; it took 15 years to bring to fruition. Work began only four days after Dr. King's assassination, when Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation providing for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday.

By 1975, several states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, had enacted statewide holidays in honor of King. However, according to the King Center, it wasn't until four years later, in 1979, that the King Holiday bill finally began to move through congressional committees. This was in large part due to the urgings of President Jimmy Carter.


Through the years, Coretta Scott King worked tirelessly in support of the King holiday. Her efforts finally garnered much-earned success: In August of 1983, the House of Representatives passed the King Holiday Bill. A few months later, on October 19th, the bill was also passed by the U.S. Senate. On November 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill, thereby establishing the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.

The first national Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was observed on January 20, 1986. At that time, only 17 states had official King holidays. Within three years, that number grew to 44. But it wasn't until June 7, 1999, when Governor Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire signed legislation for the King Holiday, that every U.S. state was on board.


The 1970s

Politically and socially speaking, the 1970s were an interesting period. In the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination, the fervor and intensity of the civil rights movement waned, but it didn't disappear entirely. It continued in some respects, in that activists and legislators fought to maintain what had been accomplished by the struggle thus far. However, those that had fought together for one united cause were now dividing to address other social issues. During the late '60s, the Vietnam War attracted many activists' attention. Also, another civil rights movement was taking shape in the form of the modern feminist movement.

Three key events of the '70s mark the reverberation of Dr. King's legacy and the civil rights movement:


  • The Bakke decision - After he had been turned down by the medical school at University of California, Davis, Allan Bakke, a white man, files a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Bakke, stating that medical school admission programs that set aside positions based on race are unconstitutional. In a way, the Supreme Court also rules in favor of affirmative action by maintaining that medical schools are entitled to consider race as a factor during the admissions process. (More information: FindLaw: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA REGENTS v. BAKKE)
  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education - On April 20, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a previous ruling that considers busing a legitimate means for achieving integration of public schools. As a result of the ruling, court-ordered busing plans are put into action in cities across the United States. Many of these plans remain in effect through the later part of the 1990s. (More information: Touro Law: SWANN V. CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG BOARD OF EDUC.) Because the struggle was most visible in the southern United States, civil rights issues in the north, midwest and west are often left without mention. It's important to note that for some states outside the southern region, civil rights issues that were addressed in the 1950s and 1960s in the south continued to demand attention well into the 1970s. For example, desegregation in schools was still underway as late as 1975 in Boston and Chicago.
  • Renewal of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 - The provisos of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, scheduled to expire in 1970, are extended in 1970, and again in 1975 and 1982. Due to the nature of this Act and the surrounding climate during its initial creation, certain provisos were made to ensure non-discriminatory practices. For example, Section 8, 42 U.S.C. § 1973f grants the U.S. Attorney General authorization to send federal observers to monitor elections, to guarantee that eligible black voters are actually permitted to vote and that their votes are indeed counted. If not extended again, the provisos (not the Act) are due to expire in 2007. (More information: U.S. Department of Justice: Voting Rights Act Clarification)

Initial Echoes

Held only one month after his assassination, in May of 1968 the Poor People's Campaign March on Washington proceeded as planned by Dr. King. For approximately six months, King had worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planning a nonviolent movement focused on poverty.

A mere seven days after King's assassination, on April 11, 1968, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Often referred to as the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of this legislation was created to ensure non-discriminatory practices in the sale and rental of residential real estate.


Now that we've looked at the resonant effects of the King legacy, let's look at some key elements of his life's work.

The Movement

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto

A Right by Any Other Name ...

In order to understand the importance of the civil rights movement, you must first consider what civil rights are, exactly. You hear about certain civil rights all the time, such as freedom of speech. Some other civil rights are:

  • Freedom from involuntary servitude
  • Freedom of assembly
  • The right to vote
  • The right to fair and equal treatment in public places

When an individual is denied any of these civil rights based on his or her gender, race, religious beliefs or even age, it is considered discrimination. The government has created several statutes to counteract discriminatory practices. For example, Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 252, 42 U.S.C. 2000d, states:


No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

This particular law affects many areas of life, but to give you a concrete example: This law ensures that students, no matter their gender, race, or religious creed, wanting to attend a public university (an institution that receives Federal financial assistance) are given fair consideration for admittance during the application process.

An Eddy of Change The 1950s and 1960s are considered the decades of the civil rights movement. It was during these decades that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated himself completely to the civil rights movement, human welfare, world peace and the struggle against poverty. In doing so, he faced countless arrests and unwarranted acts of violence, including bombs, a stoning and a stabbing.

The latter part of the 1960s saw a shift in King's focus, from civil rights to socioeconomic issues and peace. Though originally conceived in 1962, it was during the late 60s that "Operation Breadbasket" truly took flight, becoming a nationwide program. The goal of Operation Breadbasket, much like the Poor People's Campaign mentioned earlier, was improved economic conditions. In 1966, King asked his aide Jesse Jackson to head a Chicago division of Operation Breadbasket. Jackson soon found success when he garnered cooperation with various national companies that agreed to employ black workers and sell black-owned product lines.

King's philosophy on peace and his open opposition to the Vietnam War is clearly evident in this excerpt from his speech "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," given March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral just days before his death:

Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind -- and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam ... It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

For King, the early part of this decade was filled with activity, all of it culminating in two landmark events -- the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On July 2nd, King stood nearby as President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King and scores of civil rights activists and supporters heard an answer to their collective call for justice in the new Act:

To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That this Act may be cited as the 'Civil Rights Act of 1964'."

Some of the precipitating events of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are:

  • June 1964 - Three young civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, are murdered in Mississippi. The three young men were in Mississippi to help with the registration of black voters.
  • May 3, 1963 - A group of approximately 2,500 young, non-violent protestors are besieged by powerful fire hoses, dogs and club-carrying police. The turmoil that ensues makes national and international headlines complete with startling photos.
  • April 16, 1963 - In response to a plea by white clergymen to stop protesting, Dr. King responds from his 11-day jail sentence in "Letter from Birmingham Jail": You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
  • 1962 - President Kennedy orders federal marshals to escort James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, to campus. A riot breaks out and two students are killed before the National Guard arrives to assist the marshals.
  • King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launch the Birmingham campaign. During a series of meetings, Dr. King explains his belief in nonviolent resistance and submits a general call to action for volunteers for this campaign. His methods of resistance include marches on City Hall, a boycott of Birmingham merchants and sit-ins at local lunch counters.

In 1960, Dr. King resigned from his post as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and moved to Atlanta to devote himself fully to the civil rights movement. At this time, King had already been working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for three years. The SCLC was founded after the success of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in desegregating the Montgomery bus system.

In December of 1955, Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old black seamstress and secretary for the local NAACP chapter, refused to vacate her seat on a bus so that a white man could sit down. Subsequently, she was arrested. Responding to Parks' arrest, several community leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott continued, and in December of 1956, a little over one year after the boycott started, the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional. The Montgomery buses were desegregated. Dr. King's leadership of the boycott garnered him national attention.



The March

The program from the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, August 28, 1963; Dr. King is the 16th speaker.
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Although Dr. King is recognized as the face and voice of the civil rights movement, there were a number of other civil rights leaders that were as dedicated and integral to the movement.

Even though you probably cannot call up the sound of his voice or the image of his face, A. Phillip Randolph is considered to be one of the forefathers -- or perhaps the forefather -- of the modern civil rights movement. His work undoubtedly had great influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, the two often worked together on many direct-action protests, including the famous "March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom."


The idea for the 1963 March On Washington originated with A. Phillip Randolph. Reminiscent of the first march he planned in 1941, Randolph proposed the march to various civil rights leaders in late 1962. At first, his idea was given little, if any, consideration.

Randolph needed the cooperation and involvement of each of "The Big Six." The Big Six consisted of Randolph and the five leaders of the major civil rights organizations:

  • Roy Wilkins of the NAACP
  • Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. of the SCLC
  • James Farmer of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE)
  • John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

Eventually, everyone signed on. With the help of Bayard Rustin, civil rights organizer and trusted advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., the March On Washington became one of the most successful protests of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights March On Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

For more information on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and related topics, visit the links on the following page.


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  • From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Volume Two, Eighth Edition, John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr.
  • From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition, August Meier and Elliot Rudwick
  • The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris
  • Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition, V.P. Franklin