What was the significance of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the civil rights movement?
The relationship of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the American civil rights movement was such that one could suggest with only minimal fear of hyperbole that Dr. King was the civil rights movement. There were many individuals who were important to the civil rights movement, some of whom gave their lives for that most noble of causes – Medgar Evers, Harry and Harriet Moore, Malcolm X, for example, in addition the three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – but none bore the mantel of leader of the movement to the extent of Martin Luther King. His leading role in advancing the cause of civil rights through nonviolent means set an example to which millions of Americans continue to look to this day. King’s eloquence and nobility – and, yes, he had his critics who accused him of adultery and plagiarism – reached their zenith with his address in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, in which he stood before hundreds of thousands of supporters and declared:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . . When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech remains one of the most important defining moments of the civil rights movement. That he would fall to an assassin’s bullet on April 9, 1968, remains one of this nation’s greatest tragedies, as his vision remains elusive.