One of the greatest public speakers in history, Martin Luther King Jr (15/01/1929 – 04/04/1968) is known throughout the world for his role in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and for the speech he made on August 28th 1963. This speech, which took place during the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ in front of over 200,000 people, contained the immortal “I have a dream” line and went on to inspire a change in the attitude of many people to racial inequality in the USA.

Brought up in Atlanta, Georgia, King became interested in civil rights at an early stage in his career as a Baptist minister. King became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 on completing his education. He became known on a national level when a local woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man; on hearing the news, King helped to organise a boycott of buses within the area by African Americans.

Following this, King became increasingly involved in African American civil rights campaigns.   Alongside C.K. Steele, Fred Shuttleworth and T.J. Jemison, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The organisation sought to unify civil rights programs within the Southern US and after an uncertain start, began to rise in influence in the early 1960s. King was becoming increasingly known for his non-violent approach to protest. Inspired by Gandhi, he had even travelled to India to learn more about non-violent resistance in 1959. He was impressed by what he saw and returned to the US determined to continue with a peaceful approach to social change.

In 1963, King was a major figure in the Birmingham campaign for equality. Publicity concerning the treatment of Birmingham civil rights protesters by police garnered international support for their cause, and although King was imprisoned for his role, he continued to campaign, writing from his cell. On his release, further protests and heavy-handed law enforcement responses only served to increase global support for African American civil rights in the US. It was in Birmingham, at a demonstration, that King was to make his famous speech. 

Just a year after the stirring speech, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and the Civil Rights Act was passed, followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, both of which were crucial in attempts to establish equality. King then decided to move to Chicago in order to work with disadvantaged communities (although he predominantly worked with African American groups, King was determined for all to be treated fairly) and to spread the message of non-violent protest. Discontentment and slow realisation of any improvements saw a lot of people become impatient with King’s methodology, however, and he lacked support from many on his on side.

It was whilst working for The Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee that King was assassinated whilst preparing for a speech on his hotel balcony. The president (then Lyndon B. Johnson) declared a national day of mourning and the hotel at which King was shot has since been converted into the US National Civil Rights Museum. Still regarded as one of the most prominent figures in American history, Martin Luther King Jr was one of the most passionate and effective public speakers of all time.

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Aug 28, 2014 By Lucy Thorpe