The nation’s attention began to focus on the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s when a young black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., led the successful drive to desegregate public buses in Montgomery, Ala. King organized non-violent protests against southern segregation, the struggle for black equality and voting rights.
Televised footage of violence against civil rights demonstrators sparked a wave of sympathetic public opinion.
“He taught us that our job was to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights activist who was a close friend of King.
By August 1963 the push for equality had grown significantly and 250,000 participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“When we arrived at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial there were just hundreds and thousands of people,” said Rep. John Lewis who was at the March. “There were many young people, young men up in the trees, trying to get a better view of the crowd.
"He transformed those marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit,” said Lewis. “I remember him saying ‘I would dream today a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.’ "
“This was the single most important demonstration for black people and their white supporters who wanted a change in civil rights,” he said. “There’s never been anything like it before and I was so happy to have been a part of it.”
King’s speech launched what had been a mostly black southern movement into a nationwide civil rights campaign.
In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation in public places. The following year, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that were used to keep blacks from participating in elections.
King’s final campaign came in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. While supporting striking sanitation workers, he was assassinated at a local hotel. King was 39 years old when he died.
Civil rights activist and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson was there when King died.
“And even in his death he became bigger,” said Jackson. “He was crucified in Memphis, but his resurrection has affected the whole world.”
King gave a speech the night before his death that foreshadowed his assassination.
“And I have 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 there,” King said in a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
Thirty five years after his death, some of King’s dreams were realized, including the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.