Martin Luther King’s legacy goes beyond MLK Day. Monday (January 21st) marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an occasion to celebrate the life of one of the most prominent activists in the Civil Rights Movement.
King was assassinated in 1968, after a lifetime of accomplishments and sacrifice. His efforts in the 1960s and the actions he inspired in others led to much of the progress around equality Americans enjoy today. His legacy is one of utilizing peaceful (non-violent) protest and civil disobedience to create change.
King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the site is home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement from the 17th century and the early days of slavery, to present day.
While the Civil Rights Movement was a multi-century struggle for equality and justice for all, King was involved in the movement at its height from 1954 to his death in 1968. Here’s a look at his actions and accomplishments during those years, as a result of his compassion, persistence, and struggle for justice.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. In response to the incident, King and his fellow activist leaders organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system that lasted for 385 days.
While many worked tirelessly to sustain the boycott, the effort came at a great cost to King personally. His house was bombed and he was also arrested during the campaign. However, as a result of the boycott, a district court ended segregation in the Montgomery public bus system.
In 1961, King and others travelled to Albany, Georgia to work with a desegregation coalition already organizing there. During his time there, King was part of a mass arrest of peaceful protestors. As a form of civil disobedience, he declined bail, demanding that local leaders takes steps to desegregate the city. Ultimately, his efforts in Albany were fruitless, but they contributed toward the overall momentum sweeping the country at the time.
By April 1963, King took his efforts to Birmingham, Alabama to protest the system of racial segregation and economic injustice in the city. Organizers occupied public spaces with marches and sit-ins, in an effort to bring the city’s activity to a grinding halt.
During demonstrations, the Birmingham Police Department, regularly confronted protestors with high-pressure water jets and police dogs. King, himself was arrested during the campaign, in what would be just one of the 29 arrests he faced during the movement. As a result of national attention and outrage around the way the protestors were treated and King’s now-famous letter from the Birmingham Jail, the city became more open to African Americans.
March on Washington
That same year, King was among the organizers of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As part of the march, organizers made specific demands, including, an end to racial segregation in public schools, a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, a law protecting civil rights workers from police brutality, and a $2 minimum wage for all workers.
More than 250,000 attended the march and at the time, it marked the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history. It also marked King’s now famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1965, King helped organize a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Now known as Bloody Sunday, the organizer’s first attempt on March 7 was canceled because of mob and police violence against protesters.
King was not present, but on March 9, he was there when organizers tried again. A judge had issued an order blocking the march, but that day King led a group to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for a short prayer session before dispersing. A full march was finally held on March 25.
Voting Rights Act
As a result of the efforts of King and many others in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The act outlawed state and local practices that prevented African Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. It abolished literacy tests and poll taxes designed to disenfranchise African American voters and gave the federal government the power to oversee voter registration in counties with a pattern of persistent discrimination. King was present at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Many of the policies and laws we see today are a direct result of King’s efforts, struggle and sacrifice. Federal agencies like the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission work to enforce civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. These organizations ensure King’s legacy is not forgotten.