Today’s blog was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
America celebrates another year of remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and legacy. Many of us remember him as a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. By using the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolence activism in India, King was able to make advancements in civil rights for African-Americans through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King came to stardom when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. In 1957, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its first president. Through SCLC, King led many struggles for civil rights throughout the South. King gained even more national attention when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Through his devotion to nonviolence and racial equality, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (National Archives Identifier 299891).
In the spring of 1965, King and the SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. The first march took place on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers were attacked by state police with beatings and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of those 600 marchers was Representative John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was beaten severely during the attack. The events of “Bloody Sunday” resulted in a class action suit against Governor George Wallace and the State of Alabama brought up by Lewis, Hosea Williams, and Amelia Boynton. All three testified at the hearing and described the horrific events that took place at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. King also testified at the hearing. On page 29 of the testimony, King answered questions on how they planned the march from Selma. In one answer he stated, “Well, we started having mass meetings; we felt that we had to do something to arouse people all over the community…” After an objection from one of the lawyers, King continued to describe how they held mass and ward meetings in Dallas County.
In the end, the court approved a plan and guarded the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On March 21, 1965, around 8,000 people began the march from Selma arriving at the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25th. The publicity of the lawsuit and the second march inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (National Archives Identifier 299909).
The file of Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Amelia Boynton v. Governor George Wallace (National Archives Identifier 643802) is part of the series Civil Cases, 09/1938 – 11/26/1968 (RG 21 Records of District Courts of the United States), at the National Archives of Atlanta in Morrow, GA. The Southeast Region Archives holds many U.S. District Court files pertaining to civil rights cases from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina. For more information, please visit the National Archives at Atlanta website The National Archives at Atlanta.
In the final years of his life, King focused on poverty, the Vietnam War, as well as the rights of African American workers. He was planning the Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated in April 1968. His legacy continues to be inspirational in the United States and around the world. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor him; it was first observed on January 20, 1986 and continues to be observed on the third Monday of January every year.