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Sharing a Dream


By Jim Haskins, Cricket Media

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young Baptist minister in 1955. He was thrust into the headlines as a result of the 1955–56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The boycott had resulted after civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. Black city leaders saw it as an opportunity to test laws that enforced the racial segregation of public facilities. They called on black residents to refuse to use the city’s bus system.

King had been reluctant at first to accept election as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA was formed to publicize and raise money to support the bus boycott. But King was excited to practice the principles of nonviolent protest that Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi had used to help win India’s independence from Great Britain in the 1940s. King had dreamed about the possibility of using Gandhi’s peaceful “soul force” to attack the problem of racial segregation in the United States.

At the time, the church was the center of the African American community. It was no accident that black ministers led the way in the civil rights movement. They offered moral and spiritual support. King stood out for his brilliance as an orator. He also believed that Americans had a basic sense of decency. He was convinced that Americans would respond to nonviolent protests and the sheer force of moral right. He had the ability to inspire others to follow him.

When the civil rights movement became more confrontational, King grew as a leader. But even a leader as special as King benefited from the timing of certain events. King was the right man at the right time. During the 1950s and 1960s, a combination of events made American society open to greater change.

Change had begun in the late 1940s. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981. It banned segregation in the armed forces. Change continued in the early 1950s. Attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a landmark case against segregated education. In its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated education unconstitutional. White and black Americans realized that the decision extended into every area of society.

In 1957, King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy gathered more than 60 black ministers from all over the South to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC took charge of the “spiritual strategy” for civil rights protests.

Advances in technology spread the scenes of nonviolent protest. When southern whites responded to civil rights protests with violence, television broadcast the ugly images across the nation and around the world. It was impossible for Americans to ignore what was going on. And it was impossible for local officials to portray the scenes as isolated events. King could speak to a television camera as effectively as he could to a church congregation.

King traveled widely to spread his message. Thousands of people—black and white, and young and old, educated and uneducated—responded to his call. They risked losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives in the struggle for civil rights. They looked to him as a beacon of hope and inspiration.

On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They were participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation’s capital. It was a well-organized, well-run massive civil rights protest. A number of African American leaders addressed the crowd. Then, King came to the podium. He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech shared King’s hope for the next generation of Americans to be free of racial prejudice. He shared his dream that people would not judge one another based on the color of their skin.

In the name of the civil rights movement, King was arrested, jailed, and stabbed. He survived a bombing at his home. He was killed by an assassin in 1968. But his words touched the nation. And his message of nonviolence inspired people around the world.

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