Photo: Getty Images
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The best known leader of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of prominent pastor Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. Dr. King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was 25 years old. He received national attention for his role in the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott to end segregated city buses. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and served as its first president.
Dr. King's support for CORE's Freedom Ride campaign was initially limited and cautious. At a reception held for the Freedom Riders in Atlanta, he passed on warnings of planned Klan violence ahead, telling the Riders, "You will never make it through Alabama."
Later, after the Freedom Riders had made their way to Montgomery, Alabama, he spoke eloquently on behalf of their campaign to the national media and from the pulpit at First Baptist Church, just prior to its siege and firebombing. Dr. King was an active participant in strategy sessions over the next three days, as the Riders holed up in the Montgomery mansion of Dr. Richard Harris. However, Dr. King declined to become a Freedom Rider himself, disappointing several of the younger Riders, who mockingly referred to him as "De Lawd."
Later in the decade, Dr. King worked with many of the new leaders who emerged from the Freedom Rides on campaigns such as the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches to achieve important movement victories, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Prior to his assassination in 1968, Dr. King had shifted his efforts on the Poor Peoples Campaign to combat economic injustice and opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1986, Dr. King's birthday became a national holiday.