Opinion: Nobody tougher than MLK Jr.
Last updated 1/17/2022 at 12:11pm
Enemies of Martin Luther King Jr. fixated on his color. They almost always ignored how thick his skin was.
King became a national figure at 26, the most charismatic and outspoken opponent of segregation in one of America's more dangerous eras.
A Baptist minister, he moved from his pulpit to the streets of Montgomery, Ala., to lead a peaceful boycott of the city's buses.
Drivers showed no Southern hospitality to Black riders. They were ordered to pay their fare, board the bus through the back door and give up their seats to white passengers on demand.
Montgomery's power structure reacted to the boycott by indicting King and 89 other Black residents. They were charged under a 1921 law prohibiting boycotts of businesses.
King stood trial first in 1956. A judge convicted him but delayed other trials pending King's appeal. His conviction eventually was upheld on a technicality, and he paid a $500 fine.
King's side fared better with the U.S. Supreme Court in November 1956. It affirmed a lower court decision outlawing segregated seating on buses.
With the ruling, King became one of the most influential, popular and despised men in America. The last dozen years of his life were just as eventful. These are only a handful of the causes he championed and the risks they brought.
1957 — A segregationist throws 12 sticks of dynamite on the porch of King's home in Montgomery. The dynamite does not explode. King calms crowds with another call for peace.
1958 — A disturbed Black woman in Harlem stabs King in the chest with a steel letter opener, seriously injuring him. He was signing his book Stride Toward Freedom when the woman attacked him in a department store.
1959 — White-owned newspapers in Alabama denounce King for saying Blacks should be accepted as brothers by other Southerners.
1960 — Alabama charges King with lying about his income on tax returns. An all-white jury acquits him. King says the verdict is evidence of progress in race relations.
1961 — King exhorts a crowd in Los Angeles to stamp out segregation. Marcia Rosenbaum, 22, is so inspired she volunteers for dangerous duty as a Freedom Rider in the Deep South.
"I'm humbled that I had the opportunity. I don't understand why everybody didn't do it," she once told me. Rosenbaum settled in Las Vegas, N.M., under the name Chela Lightchild.
1962 — King and 27 other Black people are arrested in Albany, Ga., for demonstrating against segregation. Young people follow his lead. Fifteen Black teenagers are arrested for congregating on the steps of the city library. Albany politicians and police officers said the kids should have gone to the recently opened "colored library."
1963 — King and a biracial citizen committee in Birmingham, Ala., announce a plan to end segregation. It includes nondiscriminatory hiring practices and desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms and drinking fountains. Segregationists bomb a Birmingham church four months later, killing four Black girls.
1964 — White mobs in St. Augustine, Fla., attack peaceful Black marchers in the downtown district. The Tampa Tribune contorts reality to denounce King. "The instigator of the St. Augustine demonstrations is the Rev. King, who has proved himself as much a demagogue as any Southern white racist," the newspaper wrote in an editorial.
1965 — Peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Ala., are beaten by police on what became known as "Bloody Sunday." King, three weeks later, leads thousands of people on a 54-mile march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery. Segregationist Gov. George Wallace might not have been moved by the marchers, but he softened his tone because federal laws had smashed barriers that denied most Black people their right to vote.
1966 — King leads a caravan of vehicles to Philadelphia, Miss., a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. He leads a rally to register Black people to vote. Gov. Paul B. Johnson tells Philadelphia residents to stay away from King's group, a peacekeeping measure.
1967 — King goes north to Chicago and leads a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. He had hesitated to venture to foreign policy. King's worry was alienating President Lyndon Johnson, an ally on civil rights issues.
1968 — A rifleman assassinates King in Memphis, Tenn. King was 39 years old.
He had been plainspoken about risks that came with challenging segregationists: "I may even die. But I want it said even if I die in the struggle that 'He died to make men free.' "
This is King's day. No one was braver — or tougher.
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