Shortly before completing his doctoral dissertation in early 1955, King accepted a position as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a young African American seamstress, refused to yield her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white, thereby breaking the city's segregation ordinance. At the time, nearly all Southern localities—large and small—were strictly segregated according to race. When local African American leaders organized a boycott of the city's buses, King was asked to become the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which coordinated the campaign. During the year-long boycott, King, influenced by veteran pacifist activists, developed a nonviolent protest strategy that closely resembled the tactics of Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1957, after blacks had successfully desegregated Montgomery's buses, King and other civil rights activists formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a platform from which to expand the civil rights struggle. But when African American students initiated a massive sit-in movement to force the desegregation of lunch counters and restaurants that spread across the South in 1960, King and the SCLC remained on the sidelines. Only in 1962 did the SCLC attempt to launch a nonviolent protest campaign in Albany, Georgia, which failed. A year later, King and his supporters used this experience to launch a highly successful protest campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. The violence that white policemen employed to disperse black demonstrators shocked the nation and deeply embarrassed the United States internationally. By then, in fact, it had become clear that America could no longer take the high road in protesting human rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain when it allowed such flagrant civil rights violations on its own soil. The civil rights movement laid bare the hypocrisy of American foreign policy and handed the Soviet Union a perfect propaganda weapon.
In August 1963, 250,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for civil rights legislation and listened to King's deeply moving and memorable "I Have a Dream" speech. The enormity of the event and the attendant emotion that it brought to the movement had deeply impressed President John Kennedy, who until that time had been a rather reluctant partner in the struggle for civil rights. In June 1964, with the full force of President Lyndon Johnson's coercive arm-twisting, Congress finally passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbade discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin in most public venues and in employment. Six months later, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism.
Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sought to smear King's reputation, especially after he denounced America's Vietnam War policies, his nonviolent rhetoric won him both white and black supporters across the nation. Another successful SCLC campaign for voting rights that began in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 further established King's standing as the most prominent spokesman of the African American freedom struggle. The Selma campaign is credited with contributing to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By 1966, however, after dozens of race riots had erupted in American cities, many black activists began to denounce King's nonviolent philosophy. That year, younger activists began to call for Black Power, a militant concept that had been influenced by the slain black separatist Malcolm X. By 1967, the civil rights movement had begun to splinter. King no longer commanded the solitary admiration of most blacks as he had in the past, and his anti–Vietnam War stance alienated many whites.
On 4 April 1968 while organizing a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated. His murderer was James Earl Ray, a career criminal who staunchly opposed racial integration. Ray was apprehended and convicted and spent the rest of his life in prison.
Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.; King, Martin Luther, Jr., and Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1998.; Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Signet, 1991.