In December 1955 Martin Luther King Jr., a young Baptist minister, only twenty-six at the time, stepped forward to lead a protest committee in Montgomery, Alabama. The arrest of Rosa Parks—a black seamstress who refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man—had sparked a bus boycott by the city’s black population, galvanizing a new Civil Rights movement and launching King’s public mission. The tactics of nonviolent resistance, tested in Montgomery, were later extended throughout the South, and King emerged not only as a brilliant strategist and orator but as a true prophet who proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God.
He faced constant threats. His house was bombed. He was repeatedly jailed. But he was never tempted by despair. In 1963 he delivered his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” in which he envisioned an America redeemed by the transforming power of love and the promise of equality. His popularity was never higher. But rather than cling to recognition, he continued to delve deeper into the roots of American racism and violence and the challenge of his vocation as a minister of God.
When he spoke out against the Vietnam War and tried to forge the bonds of an alliance to overcome poverty, he was denounced by the head of the FBI as “the most dangerous Negro” in America. He was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to lend support to striking sanitation workers, on April 4, 1968.
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.