This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement, and whose life and legacy are now celebrated in a national holiday each January.
King is best remembered for his role in the advancement of civil rights by employing the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience inspired by the activism of Mahatma Gandhi. In October 1964, King received the Nobel Peace prize for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in America. When his nomination was announced the previous July, an editorial in The Lutheran Magazine claimed that “it would be difficult in today’s situation to find a more deserving candidate.” At 35 years old, the Georgia-born minister became the youngest person ever to receive this award. King donated his $26,155 prize money (valued at $219,166 in 2017 dollars) to the civil rights movement.
Later, King faced criticism from young African-American activists who favored more confrontational approaches to social change. Malcolm X condemned King’s advocacy of nonviolence as “criminal” in the face of continued repression. As a result of this opposition, King began to widen his appeal beyond his own race, addressing issues such as poverty and unemployment. King gave a speech at the Temple Church in Memphis, Tenn. that ironically seemed to foreshadow his death in these historic words: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The next evening, a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck while he stood on the second-floor balcony of his motel room. King was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later. He was 39.
In 1983, President Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King, which was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” is now observed on the third Monday in January, closest to King’s Jan. 15 birthday.
To learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr., we recommend the following titles from our collection: