This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


In the early evening of 4 April 1968, Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, getting ready to attend supper at the home of a local minister. As usual, he was running late. King’s aides were waiting for him in the courtyard below. When he finally emerged onto the second floor balcony, they shouted up to him to put on an overcoat since it was getting cold. As he turned back to his room, a shot rang out, and King fell to the floor with blood gushing from his cheek. The aides rushed to King’s side to see his life slipping away before them. “Oh, my God, my God, it’s all over,” one cried. King was rushed to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. He was just 39 years old.

King’s death marked the end of a remarkable 13 years. His leadership role in the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott catapulted him into the national spotlight at the age of 26. By 1957, he was being hailed in the black press as “the number one leader of 16 million Negroes in the United States”. As president of the clergy-based organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in conjunction with other civil rights organisations, King contributed to a dramatic transformation in the racial practices of the southern states. Coordinated demonstrations led to the passage of landmark legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public facilities and accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which assisted many southern blacks to gain the franchise they had long been denied.

King became the most celebrated figurehead of the civil rights movement. In 1964, he was named Time magazine's 'Man of the Year' and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the final years of his life, he took an increasingly strident stance against wider injustice in American society. His attention began to shift from civil rights to human rights as he criticised American foreign policy in Vietnam, labelling his country the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". He also sought to form a coalition of the poor and marginalised to march on Washington DC, declaring "there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism". It was while mobilising a Poor People's Campaign that King went to Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers. He would not return alive.

King’s legacy since his 1968 assassination has been endlessly debated. It recently surfaced in the Democratic Party presidential primaries when New York senator Hillary Clinton questioned the significance of his work, suggesting that “It took a president to get it done”, a reference to Lyndon Johnson’s success in forcing civil rights legislation through Congress. This was an indirect attack on Clinton’s main rival, Illinois senator Barack Obama, who as a charismatic black candidate inevitably drew comparisons with King.

How important was King?

As both candidates quickly backed away from debating King’s legacy, the point raised by Clinton remained unanswered: how important was he to the civil rights campaign? The idea of a federally-driven civil rights movement is a common misconception. It derives from changes that took place in a period of Democratic domination of the presidency from 1932 to 1968. In the 1930s, during President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, black voters switched allegiances to the Democratic Party, hoping that its more liberal policies would deliver racial change. In 1948, President Harry S Truman desegregated the US armed forces. In the 1960s, President John F Kennedy gradually became a convert to the civil rights movement and President Lyndon B Johnson delivered key pieces of legislation. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the US Supreme Court undercut the legal aspects of racial discrimination in the South, culminating in its landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education school desegregation ruling.

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But as a former slave and 19th-century campaigner for racial justice, Frederick Douglass, once pointed out, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will”. The civil rights movement was not won through ‘top down’ federal action but through ‘bottom up’ black grass roots agitation for change.

Through political and civil rights organisations, professional and civic associations, labour unions and religious groups, black Americans pressed for justice. In 1941, labour leader A Philip Randolph’s threatened 100,000-man march on Washington forced Roosevelt to sign fair employment legislation. During the Second World War, the black press constantly reminded the nation of the hypocrisy of fighting a racist enemy while segregating its own soldiers. Growing black voter strength in northern cities played a vital role in the 1948 election of President Truman and became increasingly integral to the Democratic Party’s electoral success. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fought long and hard in the courts to challenge discriminatory practices.

In the 1950s and 1960s, King became the most visible leader of intensifying black protest centred on direct action. But he was well aware that he was just one leader in a much larger movement, and not the movement itself. Rather, he viewed himself as a servant of the people.

Just two months to the day before his assassination, King delivered his own eulogy from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He told the congregation that he did not want to be aggrandised as a great leader at his funeral. All he wanted, he said, was to be remembered as someone who tried to love somebody, who tried to be right on the war question, who tried to feed the hungry, who tried to clothe the naked, who tried to serve humanity, and who gave his life trying to serve others. King said that he wanted to be remembered as a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. It seems as fitting a description of his life today as it did 40 years ago.

5 civil rights leaders


Frederick Douglass

An escaped slave from the South, Douglass eloquently advocated the abolition of slavery in the United States and abroad. He related the brutality of slavery in his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, anAmerican Slave.


A Philip Randolph

Founder of the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, his threatened 1941 march on Washington led to Franklin D Roosevelt signing fair employment practice legislation and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.


Thurgood Marshall

A pioneering lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, Marshall spearheaded the battle for black civil rights in the courts. He was appointed the first black US Supreme Court justice in 1967.


Rosa Parks

Parks’s refusal to surrender her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, set in motion the bus boycott which launched King’s civil rights leadership. Women’s grass roots activism played a crucial, though often unheralded, role in the movement.


Malcolm X

A product of the northern ghettos, Malcolm X represented black urban youths who felt that the largely southern-based civil rights movement had overlooked them. Assassinated in 1965, his views influenced the emergence of the black power movement in 1966.

John A Kirk is professor of US history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is editor of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement: Controversies and Debates (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)


BOOKS Martin Luther King, Jr by John A Kirk (Pearson Longman, 2005); Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1968 by Steven Lawson and Charles Payne (Rowan and Littlefield, 1998)