Nonviolent resistance against segregation

Martin Luther King - Championing the rights of blacks in United States society

Martin Luther King was concerned with social problems as well as spiritual matters. He was impressed by the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas K. Gandhi on nonviolent resistance. King wrote, "I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. In December 1955 he was chosen to head the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed by the black community to lead a boycott of the segregated city buses.

During the tense months of the boycott King's home was bombed. He urged his angered followers to heed the Biblical command to love one's enemies. He persuaded them to remain nonviolent despite the threats to their lives and property. Late in 1956 the United States Supreme Court forced desegregation of the buses. King regarded the boycott as a milestone in the struggle for civil rights. It proved, he said, the "there is a Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny."

Early in 1958 King became president of a group that later became known as Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This conference was formed to carry on civil rights activities in the South. He spent the next few years writing, lecturing, and participating in civil rights demonstrations. He inspired blacks throughout the South to hold peaceful sit-ins and "fredom rides" protesting segregated shopping, eating, and transportation facilities. The SCLC financed many of these efforts.

In 1957 King became the youngest recipient of the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually to an outstanding black person by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A visit to India in 1959 gave him a long-awaited opportunity to study Gandhi's techniques of nonviolent protest. In 1960 King became copastor of his father's church in Atlanta. The following year eh led a "nonviolent army" to protest discrimination in Albany, Georgia. King was jailed in 1963 during a campaign that won desegregation of many public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. In a moving appeal, known as the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he replied to several white clergymen who felt that his efforts were ill-timed.  King argued that Asian and African nations were fast achieving political independence while "we still creep at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."

In December 1964 King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel peace prize. He regarded it not only as a personal honor but also as an international tribute to the nonviolent civil rights movement in the United States.

In 1965 King led a drive to register black voters in Selma, Alabama. The drive met with violent resistance. In protest of this treatment thousands of balck and white demonstrators conducted a five-day march from Selma to the State Capitol at Montgomery.

King was disappointed that the progress of civil rights in the South had not been matched by improvements in the lives of Northern blacks. He was greatly disturbed in 1965 by riots in the poverty-stricken black Watts section of Los Angeles, California. He resolved to focus the nations' attention on the living conditions of blacks in Northern cities.

In 1966 King established a headquarters in a Chicago, Illinois slum apartment. From this base he organized protests against the city's discrimination in housing and employment. He reached an agreement with the city administration, but its provisions were attacked by many blacks as vague and limited.