The Legal Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr.

Quick Facts

  • Dr. King's work was instrumental in bringing about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott resulted in a landmark Supreme Court desegregation decision.
  • Dr. King is the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Prize.

It is fitting that Barack Obama took the oath of office and become the United States' 44th President - and the nation's first African-American president - the day after a federal holiday honoring the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King, who would have celebrated his 80th birthday on January 15, 2009, came to symbolize the civil rights movement of the 1950's and '60's through his speeches, protests and marches. As a result of his leadership and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of activists, the US Congress passed many important laws that helped move America towards the goal of a land based on equality under the law after a past marred by the bondage and segregation of African-Americans.

Now, with the election of Barack Obama, the United States has taken another major step towards Dr. King's vision of an America where each individual has an equal opportunity to succeed based on their character and not their race.

At the culmination of the March on Washington, Dr. King outlined this vision in his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On January 18, Barack Obama delivered a speech from those same steps to commence the activities leading up to his inauguration, marking a major social and political milestone in the long march towards equal civil rights for all Americans.

This February, in honor of Black History Month, FindLaw presents a brief examination of Dr. King's many contributions to United States civil rights law.

Early Civil Rights in America

The quest for civil rights in this country began with the country itself. In 1783 - even before the Constitution was ratified by the states - Massachusetts had banned slavery. The original Constitution's three-fifths compromise, where slaves would count for only three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House, reflected the tension that was already building between the Northern and Southern states over the issue of slavery.

After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves and the conclusion of the Civil War, three amendments to the Constitution were added. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed, among other things, the right to due process of the law and equal protection; and the Fifteenth Amendment granted all male citizens the right to vote, regardless of race or color.

These amendments laid the groundwork for future civil rights advances, but did little to remedy the immediate situation of African-Americans. In 1890, the Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, which approved of "separate but equal" accommodations for different races, ushering in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. Blacks could not use the same restrooms as whites or eat in the same restaurants; poll taxes and literacy tests kept African-Americans disenfranchised; and the use of restrictive covenants to prevent blacks from owning certain property was widespread.

In 1954, the same year that Dr. King became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of public schools violated the Constitution. This decision began a period of racial strife and upheaval in the South, and set the stage for the civil rights movement.

Dr. King's Contribution to Civil Rights Law

Dr. King stepped onto this stage by leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to accommodate a white passenger. The boycott lasted for 381 days, at which time the Supreme Court, in Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903 upheld the judgment of a district court that had declared Alabama's segregation of buses unconstitutional.

Already a respected African-American leader and a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the victory in Montgomery propelled Dr. King to new prominence. In 1957, King was elected president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to give direction to the growing civil rights movement.

Dr. King was a student of Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy, and traveled to India in 1959 to further his knowledge of Gandhi's teachings. His faith in nonviolence was put to the test in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, where displays of civil disobedience in response to the city's segregation laws were met with a brutal police response. The protests remained nonviolent, though, and Dr. King responded to critics of the Birmingham effort with his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail". As a result of the Birmingham campaign, the city's laws segregating stores, restaurants, and schools were removed, which marked a watershed event in the struggle to end Southern segregation.

Later that year, Dr. King led the March on Washington and delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech. That march, along with outrage over the police brutality in Birmingham, was instrumental in assuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, and gender in voting, public places, the workplace and schools.

Dr. King attended the signing of that bill by President Johnson in 1964. Later that year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. At 35, he was the youngest male recipient ever.

Just as the events in Birmingham brought about the Civil Rights Act, the action that Dr. King led in Selma, Alabama in March 1965 inspired the speedy enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Selma march was in honor of an activist who was killed by police while protesting against the literacy tests and slow registration procedures that had effectively disenfranchised African-American voters in the State of Alabama. Police met the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, and coverage of the march provoked national outrage. King and the marchers eventually completed the pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6.

Hope in the Face of Tragedy

Eventually, Dr. King broadened his focus to include work on behalf of other social issues, such as labor and poverty. It was while in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers, that Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In a famous speech delivered the day before the assassination, Dr. King predicted his death, but assured the followers of his movement that they would eventually reach a place of equality and justice for all.

While much of Dr. King's vision still remains to be fulfilled, the work that he did changed the face of the country through the overturning of segregation laws and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voters Rights acts. Now, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States must give many people hope that the United States is finally becoming the promised land that Dr. King dreamt of.

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