In December 1999, the Gallup Organization compiled its data and named its Most Widely Admired People of the twentieth century. At number two on the list, ahead of Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, ahead of Billy Graham and behind only Mother Teresa, was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anyone who lived through the 1950s and 60s knows that King was the central figure in the major American issue of our time. He burst on the scene as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, following the refusal of Rosa Parks (Great American Things, Sept. 23, 2009) to give up her seat to a white man. King was arrested and his house was bombed, but a U.S. District Court’s ruling overturning the policy was a major breakthrough in the struggle for civil rights.
King was influenced by the civil disobedience practices of Gandhi. He recognized how incendiary the pursuit of freedom was to the majority white public, and believed that nonviolent protest would help him achieve his goals more quickly. He used sit-ins and demonstrations, knowing that he would be arrested and that the resulting publicity worked in his favor.
His fight was not just against segregation, but against all forms of discrimination, so his campaign included voting rights and labor rights. He led marches on Birmingham, St. Augustine, and Selma. But his most famous crusade was the March on Washington that was, at its time, the largest protest ever in the nation’s capital.
Any discussion of Martin Luther King has to include not just his actions, but the inspiration he was to his people during their great struggle for equality. When he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, his place in American history was assured, and a national holiday was established in his honor in 1983.
King was a Baptist preacher and an exciting orator. Undeniably, his most famous speech – and one of the most famous in U.S. history – was his “I have a dream” message delivered during the March on Washington: