“It is our common tragedy that we have lost [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] prophetic voice but it would compound the tragedy if the lessons he did articulate are now ignored.” So wrote Coretta Scott King in the forward of Dr. King’s final book Where Do We Go from Here, his analysis of American race relations and the state of the movement after a decade of civil rights efforts. Each year, we honor his life and his legacy on his birthday. 2018 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death—a time for us to take account of our troubled times and truly pay attention to the message of his lessons.
Dr. King gave his life to voice and fight for his prophetic and radical vision of liberation for America. His vision of justice extended beyond our nation’s borders and addressed the racism, poverty, war, and intolerance present in other countries. Through his words and demonstrations of direct nonviolent resistance, he articulated timeless lessons on how to achieve social justice. With this in mind, we put together a timeline of key moments from his life which highlight his commitment to the vision he had for America and the world.
On December 1, Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking city-wide boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the spokesperson of boycott which continues for over a year and results in desegregation on city buses and the hiring of black bus drivers.
On the evening of January 30, while Dr. King speaks at a mass meeting, his home is bombed. King addresses an angry crowd that gathers outside his house, pleading for nonviolence.
Dr. King forms the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight segregation and achieve civil rights, and on February 14 becomes its first president.
In September, Dr. King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, is published. In it, he gives a comprehensive, revelatory, and intimate account of the first successful large-scale application of nonviolent resistance in America—the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
—from Stride Toward Freedom
In February, Dr. King travels to India, where he meets with Indian political leaders and activists, deepening his understanding of Gandhian principles of nonviolence. In July he publishes “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi” in which he draws parallels between Indian caste discrimination and US racial discrimination.
On February 1,, four black students sit at a “whites only” lunch counter at Woolworth’s and refuse to leave until they are served, launching a sit-in movement that spread through the country. In his article, “The Burning Truth in the South,” Dr. King commends the young activists involved in the lunch counter sit-ins and frames their protests within a historical context of nonviolent direct action.
“A generation of young people has come out of decades of shadows to face naked state power; it has lost its fears, and experienced the majestic dignity of a direct struggle for its own liberation. These young people have connected up with their own history—the slave revolts, the incomplete revolution of the Civil War, the brotherhood of colonial colored men in Africa and Asia. They are an integral part of the history which is reshaping the world, replacing a dying order with modern democracy.”
—from “A Burning Truth in the South”
On May 14, the first group of Freedom Riders was assaulted in Alabama. Recognizing the work of young Black Americans pushing for social change and justice, Dr. King writes “The Time for Freedom Has Come,” in which he cites young people as one of the most significant catalysts in the freedom struggle.
Relying on nonviolent direct action, the SCLC organizes the Birmingham campaign, which sought to desegregate the downtown shopping and government centers in Birmingham, Alabama, including public schools. On April 3, Dr. King is arrested for violating a city order against public protest during his participation in the Birmingham campaign. In his cell, King writes his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
—from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
On August 28, more than 250,000 people gather at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in US history. Dr. King delivers one of his most famous speeches, “I Have a Dream.”
On September 15, four young girls are killed in Birmingham, Alabama, when their church is bombed in retaliation for the nonviolent protest of the summer. Three days later, Dr. King delivers his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.”
On January 3, Dr. King appears on the cover of Time magazine as its Man of the Year for 1963.
In July, Why We Can’t Wait, his best-selling account of the civil rights movement in Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963, is published.
On December 10, at age thirty-five, Dr. King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The honor reflects the global awareness and support for his commitment to human rights in the United States.
In March, Dr. King leads thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on a five-day, fifty-four-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, to join a campaign for voting rights.
On July 9, Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting the states from using literacy tests and other methods of excluding African Americans from voting.
On April 4, Dr. King delivers “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City.
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
—from “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”
In June, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, a collection of Dr. King’s final reflections after a decade of civil rights struggles, is published.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
—from “Where Do We Go from Here”
On October 26, Dr. King delivers “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. In his speech, he challenges students to the best one can be, regardless of one’s status in life.
“[I]n your life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice....However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle of freedom and justice.”
—from “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
In November and December, Dr. King delivered five lectures for the renowned Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The collection was immediately released as a book under the title Conscience for Change.
On December 4, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announce the Poor People’s Campaign focusing on jobs and freedom for the poor of all races.
On February 4, Dr. King delivers one of his most famous sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct”, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
“[I]f you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
—from “The Drum Major Instinct”
On April 3, Dr. King delivers his final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.
“And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”
—from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
On April 3, Dr. King returned to Memphis, Tennessee to support black public sanitation workers who striking for better wages. On April 4, he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
In May, after Dr. King’s assassination, Conscience for Change is rereleased as Trumpet of Conscience and includes a foreword by Coretta Scott King in which she reflects on her husband’s legacy.
Find Dr. King’s books in The King Legacy Series.
Some additional reading:
- Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” Still Prophetic 50 Years Later
- The 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Where Do We Go from Here?” Sermon, 50 Years Later
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaks Out on the Limits of Northern Liberalism
- Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks on the Dangers They Faced in the Civil Rights Movement
- The Radical King We Don’t Know
- To the Mountaintop: The Last Speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- MLK Was an Interfaith Visionary