Martin Luther King Jr.: 8 peaceful protests that bolstered civil rights

From 1955 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was the dominant leader of the US civil rights movement. Following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. King believed that nonviolent protest is the most effective weapon against a racist and unjust society. But it required rallying people to his cause. Here are some of the most revolutionary peaceful protests King led.

1.Montgomery bus boycott, 1955-56

A driver in an empty bus moves through downtown Montgomery, Ala., on April 26, 1956. African-Americans in the city continued to boycott the buses even after the bus company ordered an end to its segregation policy. City police, however, threatened arrest if black passengers sat in seats formerly reserved for whites. The 'Ease that Squeeze' sign refers to traffic problems, not seating on the bus. (AP/File)

Lasting just over a year, the Montgomery bus boycott was a protest campaign against racial segregation on the public transit system in Montgomery, Ala. The protest began, on Dec. 1, 1955, after African-American Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. The next day, Dr. King proposed a citywide boycott of public transportation at a church meeting.

The boycott proved to be effective, causing the transit system to run a huge deficit. After all, Montgomery’s black residents not only were the principal boycotters, but also the bulk of the transit system’s paying customers. The situation became so tense that members of the White Citizens' Council, a group that opposed racial integration, firebombed King's house. 

In June 1956, a federal court found that the laws in Alabama and Montgomery requiring segregated buses were unconstitutional. However, an appeal kept segregation intact until Dec. 20, 1956, when the US Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling. The boycott's official end signaled one of the civil rights movement's first victories and made King one of its central figures.

The Albany movement, 1961

The Albany movement was a coalition formed in November 1961 in Albany, Ga., to protest city segregation policies. Dr. King joined in December, planning only to counsel the protesters for one day. Instead, he was jailed during a mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators, and he declined bail until the city changed its segregation policies.

The city made several concessions, and King left jail and then Albany. But he returned the next year to find that little had actually changed. Upon his return, he was convicted of leading the prior year's protest and sentenced to 45 days in jail or a $178 fine. He chose jail. Three days into King's sentence, an Albany police chief arranged for his release. The movement eventually dissolved, with few substantial results after nearly a year of continued peaceful protests, but the campaign tested tactics that would shape future protests in the national civil rights movement. 

The Birmingham campaign, 1963

Lasting about two months in 1963, the Birmingham campaign was a strategic effort started by Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference to end discriminatory economic policies in the Alabama city. Some of the protests included boycotting certain businesses that hired only white people or that had segregated restrooms.

When businesses refused to change their policies, protesters held sit-ins and marches, with the aim of getting arrested. King encouraged these nonviolent tactics so that the city’s jails would overflow. Police used high-pressure water hoses and dogs to control protesters, some of whom were children. By the end of the campaign, many segregation signs at Birmingham businesses came down, and public places became more open to all races.

Of the tactic used in the Birmingham campaign, King said, “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his 'I Have a Dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963. Monday, Jan. 16, marks the observance of King's birthday. (AP/File)

Perhaps Dr. King’s most famous act as a civil rights leader came during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on Aug. 28, 1963. The largest political rally ever seen in the US, it drew between 200,000 and 300,000 police and participants, to whom King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Among other things, the speech advocated racial harmony and economic rights for African-Americans. Observers estimated that nearly 80 percent of the marchers were black. 

Bloody Sunday, 1965

Marchers cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma, Ala., on March 21, 1965. The civil rights marchers, eight abreast, were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was the start of their five day, 50-mile march to the state capital of Montgomery. They were fighting for voter registration rights for blacks, who were discouraged from registering to vote, particularly in small towns in the South. (AP/File)

Dr. King and several other civil rights leaders organized three marches from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery, in a bid for voting rights for all.

The first, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, involved nearly 600 protesters who marched east from Selma on US Highway 80, led by Jon Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was not present because he had church duties. But days before, King had met with government officials to try to ensure the marchers would not be impeded. Even so, mob and police violence caused the march to be aborted on that "bloody Sunday." When film footage of the police brutality was broadcast around the country, it sparked widespread public outrage and helped to boost support for the civil rights movement.

Of the event, King later wrote, “If I had any idea that the state troopers would use the kind of brutality they did, I would have felt compelled to give up my church duties altogether to lead the line.”

King tried to organize another march, but protesters did not succeed in getting to Montgomery until March 25. The speech he delivered that day, on the steps of the state capitol, has since become known as “How Long, Not Long.”

Bloody Sunday was a turning point for the civil rights movement, building public support and clearly demonstrating King’s strategy of nonviolence. 

Chicago, 1966

Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at the Chicago peace march on March 25, 1967, seven months after 30 protesters were injured while demonstrating against housing segregation in the city. (Chick Harrity/AP/File)

After successful demonstrations in the South, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders sought to spread the movement north. They chose Chicago as their next destination to take on black urban problems, especially segregation.

To show his commitment to the northern campaign, King rented an apartment in the slums of North Lawndale on the city's West Side. One Friday afternoon in August, King led about 700 people on a march in Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a white enclave, to protest housing segregation. Thousands of white people gathered, taunting King and the other protesters. At one point, a brick hit King in the head, but he continued the march as onlookers hurled rocks, bottles, and firecrackers at the marchers. Thirty people, including King, were injured.

Of the Chicago protest, King later said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.” He continued, “I have to do this – to expose myself – to bring this hate into the open.” 

Vietnam War opposition, 1967

Against a backdrop of the United Nations headquarters in New York, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an estimated 125,000 peace marchers on April 18, 1967, that the US should end the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. He also urged students to organize against the war. (John Littlewood/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Dr. King, an opponent of the Vietnam War, denounced America's involvement in a series of speeches at rallies and demonstrations. His first speech on the war itself, in 1967, was called “Beyond Vietnam” and was delivered exactly one year before his assassination. In it, he criticized the US government, insisting it was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” 

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ ”

Later that year, King commented on the “cruel irony” of black Americans dying for a country that treats them as second-class citizens.

“We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties, which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” he said. “We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them in the same schools.”

King’s opposition to the Vietnam War cost him many white allies, including President Lyndon Johnson and many members of the media. Criticizing one of his speeches, Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post also said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

In January 1968, the day after President Johnson’s State of the Union address, King called for a march on Washington to protest what he called “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.”

'Poor people’s campaign,' 1968

Organized by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968, the so-called "poor people’s campaign" sought to address issues of economic justice and housing for the poor. King traveled the country to assemble a diverse group of protesters representing the poor who would march on Washington until Congress created a bill of rights for poor Americans.

After King's assassination in April 1968, SCLC members continued the campaign, organizing protests in Washington, D.C. Joined by D.C.'s poor and homeless, the protesters effectively shut down the city that summer. The bill of rights they envisioned never became law.