Today, our country honors the legacy of American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remembering his struggles and accomplishments as he campaigned for racial equality in the United States. Widely regarded as one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in history, Dr. King was at the forefront of the civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968.
During his time as a civil rights leader, King was the driving force behind a number of major historical moments. In March 1956, King led the Montgomery bus boycott as part of an effort to desegregate the Alabama bus system. The boycott had begun in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. King’s efforts toward transportation desegregation were effective: in November 1956, the Supreme Court struck down Alabama laws requiring racial segregation on public buses.
On August 28, 1963, King helped organize the March on Washington and delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Over 250,000 people showed up that day to march on the National Mall and hear King speak. In 1964, at only 35 years old, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent civil rights and social justice advocacy. King often cited Mohandas Gandhi as a direct influence in shaping his ideals on the revolutionary power of nonviolence, calling Gandhian philosophy “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
In August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, aimed at overcoming barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment. The law came just seven months after Dr. King launched a campaign in Alabama encouraging Congress to pass such legislation. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were present at the August 6 ceremony as Johnson signed the historical act into law.
On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. That evening, President Johnson made a personal call to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and declared April 7 a national day of mourning on which the American flag would be flown at half-staff.
Today, we remember King’s legacy and his fight for racial justice, as well as the effect his activism had in shaping American civil rights laws. Dr. Bernice A. King, the civil rights leader’s daughter, said, “My father’s ultimate dream was to have people from all backgrounds come together and celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. … There are many ways to give back and honor the spirit of my father not only on this King holiday, but every day, and make this time of commemoration meaningful.”