Today, on the fifty-year anniversary, we mourn the assassination of civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Born in 1929 into the family of an Atlanta Baptist minister, young Martin was a gifted child who entered Morehouse College at 15 years old, where he studied theology under the mentorship of Dr. Benjamin Mays, an outspoken advocate for racial equality. In 1955, Martin Luther King earned a doctorate in theology from Boston University. That year, he made his first significant mark on the civil rights movement leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Under Alabama’s segregationist laws of that time, black customers were required to ride in the back of the bus, and to give up their seat for a white passenger. But on December 1, 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks, tired after a hard day’s work, refused to yield her bus seat to a white passenger; she was arrested and fined. Four days later, Dr. King organized a bus boycott, during which African Americans refused to ride city buses to protest segregated seating. The boycott began on December 5, 1955, and ended on December 20, 1956. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system. The bus boycott is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation.
Dr. King was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who utilized non-violent actions to affect change. Until his death in 1968, Dr. King organized and participated in mass-action boycotts, sit-ins, peaceful marches and other non-violent acts of civil disobedience.
On July 2, 1964, the hard work of Dr. King and thousands of civil rights activists was rewarded with the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits segregation in public places, as well as employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin.
For his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice, Dr. King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. At 35 years of age, he was the youngest person ever to receive the award.
On April 4th, 1968, as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was fatally shot by petty thief and virulent racist James Earl Ray.
At the time of his death, Dr. King was 39 years old.
Nonetheless, his life is well summed up in his own words: "The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important."