King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968)

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KING, MARTIN LUTHER, JR. (1929–1968)

Martin Luther King, Jr., preeminent leader of the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, repeatedly challenged America to live up to the egalitarian principles set forth in the three reconstruction era amendments. "If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong," King told his Alabama colleagues in an unpublished speech on December 5, 1955, the day that Montgomery's black citizens began a year-long campaign against discriminatory seating practices on city buses. Victory in that struggle catapulted King to national prominence as an exponent of nonviolent protest against racial oppression, and throughout the twelve remaining years of his life King pursued and expanded his challenge to injustice and exploitation internationally as well as domestically.

Pointing out in his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, that the United States was "a society where the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, is rendered inoperative in vast areas of the nation" because of explicit racial discrimination, King described the civil rights struggle as a resumption "of that noble journey toward the goals reflected in the preamble to the Constitution, the Constitution itself, the bill of rights and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments." Protest campaigns in segregationist strongholds such as Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, stimulated national support for landmark legislative achievements such as the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965, and produced an all-but-complete victory over de jure segregation by the middle of that decade.

Recognizing that other evils more subtle than segregation also tangibly afflicted the daily lives of millions of black people, King broadened his attack to include all forms of poverty and economic injustice, saying that the movement had to go beyond civil rights to human rights. That progression, coupled with King's outspoken condemnations of America's militaristic foreign policy, particularly its participation in the vietnam war, led King to advocate basic changes in American society reaching far beyond his previous attacks on racial discrimination.

Identified as a prominent advocate of civil disobedience against immoral segregation statutes even before his influential 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King defended his position by reference to the long tradition of natural rights thinking. In his early years of civil rights activism King said that peaceful, willing violation of such statutes forced courts to void unconstitutional provisions, but toward the end of his life King expanded his argument, contending that the weightier moral demands of social justice sometimes required that nondiscriminatory laws also be violated. If any laws blocked the oppressed from confronting the nation with moral issues of human rights and economic justice, then such laws rightfully could be breached. Although King until 1966 had believed that depicting the brutalities of racism best attracted national support for civil rights, in his final years King repeatedly suggested that protesters might have to coerce concessions from unwilling federal officials by obstructing the orderly functioning of society until the desired policy changes were made.

King's challenge to American racism helped to close the gap between constitutional principles and discriminatory practices; his broader struggle against other forms of human injustice left a legacy that will stimulate future generations for years to come.

David J. Garrow


Garrow, David J. 1986 Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955–1968. New York: William Morrow.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1964 Why We Can't Wait. New York: New American Library.

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968)

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