April 4th 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. killed

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Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

 

On this day in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee aged just 39. The Baptist minister from Georgia first came to national attention for his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This event is considered by many the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which saw a national fight against discrimination suffered by African-Americans. King was one of many leaders, but became the face of the movement for his nonviolent tactics and powerful oratory. In 1963, during the March on Washington, King delivered the crowning speech of the struggle – the ‘I have a dream’ speech.

 

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Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963

 

Beyond his role in combating racial inequality, King also focused on tackling poverty and advocating peace, especially during the Vietnam War. On April 4th 1968, King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. His death was followed by riots across America – the man who peacefully called for America to be true to its founding principles, was brutally killed. In the same year the brother of the late President, Bobby Kennedy, was also assassinated. Abroad, the Vietnam War took a turn with the Tet Offensive. 1968 was thus a year of chaos, and King’s assassination was one of the gruesome events that gave this year a special place in the history books. King lived to see the legislative achievements of the Movement – the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act – but tragically was unable to continue the push for full equality.

 

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James Earl Ray (right) escorted in a Memphis jail

The movement King set in motion continues to be fought today; the United States is still not a completely equal society and systemic discrimination persists. The election of an African-American as President of the United States was a huge symbolic step, and surely one which would have pleased King. However, the Civil Rights Movement should not be considered a chapter in history; it is a living movement. The push for civil equality for racial minorities continues to be fought, but the movement has also expanded  and is continued by other groups. The LGBT community and women’s rights advocates have all taken up the principles of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the movement can never end – its ultimate goal is a completely free and equal society and depending on one’s penchant for optimism and pessimism that goal may never be achieved. However modern America has come a long way since King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott, and vital steps have been made to help America live up to its creed that “all men are created equal”. We have Martin Luther King to thank, as due to his courageous struggle for freedom America is closer to fulfilling his dream of a truly free and equal society.

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