Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Christine Williams King: Dr. King’s mother was extremely involved in the church as well as the lives of her children. Because his dad was a preacher and a civil rights activist who even headed Atlanta’s NAACP chapter, Dr. King was regularly surrounded by men of faith who were also socially conscious and politically active.
Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi: It’s no secret that Dr. King admired Indian leader Gandhi, one of the world’s greatest human rights activists, and adopted his strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, particularly the concept of satyagraha (“satya” is truth and equates to love while “agraha” stands for force).
Benjamin E. Mays: Dr. King described the legendary Morehouse president under whom he studied as a “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.” A noted civil rights activist, Mays lectured and wrote extensively against the evils of Jim Crow. His 1954 sermon to the 2nd Assembly of the World Council of Churches is often credited as internationalizing the Civil Rights Movement.
Andrew Young: Before officially joining SCLC and Dr. King, the New Orleans native, Howard University alum and pastor was already organizing voter registration drives. At SCLC, the trusted King aide oversaw the important citizenship schools and nonviolence workshops as well as lent critical assistance to pivotal civil rights campaigns in Albany, Birmingham and Selma.
Coretta Scott King: While a student at Antioch in Ohio, Scott King was active in the school’s NAACP chapter and consistently spoke out against injustice. As Dr. King’s wife, she was a partner in his civil rights activities, supporting him in Montgomery and beyond. After his death, she carried on their work, leading a major march just four days after his assassination.
Rev. Joseph Lowery: Known as the “dean of the civil rights movement.” Inspired by Dr. King’s work with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Lowery, who pastored a church in Mobile, took similar action. That work brought him and Dr. King together, with Lowery serving as co-founder and vice-president of SCLC and eventually president from 1977 to 1997.
Bayard Rustin: Rustin’s experiences working on the first proposed March on Washington in 1941 and his key participation in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation from CORE (which he co-founded) declaring segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional were instrumental to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.
Whitney M. Young, Jr.: Even before he became the Executive Director of the National Urban League in 1961, Dr. King sought the advice and counsel of Whitney M. Young, Jr., who once served as the dean of social work at Atlanta University, on matters such as his 1958 meeting with President Eisenhower at the White House.
Vernon Johns: When Dr. King took over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, it was commonly believed that he would be less fiery that the previous minister, Johns who regularly involved himself and his congregation in civil rights issues. King wrote of Johns “A fearless man, he never allowed an injustice to come to his attention without speaking out against it.”
Charles Hamilton Houston: Lesser known than his protégé Thurgood Marshall, Houston, the son of a lawyer who served as dean of the Howard University School of Law, was the premier architect of the NAACP litigation strategy, playing “a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954),” according to the NAACP.
Thurgood Marshall: Marshall argued his first successful Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida, in 1940 at the age of 32. As NAACP chief counsel, Marshall successfully argued 29 of 32 Supreme Court cases, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that officially overturned the policy of “separate but equal”. Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
Emmett Till: Pictures of the vicious murder of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till for allegedly flirting with a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi in late August, 1955 sent shock waves throughout the world. Able to get her son’s body out of Mississippi, Mamie Till Bradley made the brazen decision to open her son’s casket, placing Jim Crow’s pure evil on display for thousands.
Medgar Evers: After filing a lawsuit challenging his rejection from the University of Mississippi School of Law, Evers became the NAACP’s first field secretary in the state and even advised James Meredith in desegregating the institution. Evers became a martyr for the movement, when he was murdered in his driveway in 1963.
Malcolm X: “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King,” Malcolm X reportedly told Coretta Scott King in Selma while King was jailed. His fiery rhetoric as a member of the National of Islam certainly raised concerns about massive bloodshed. But he and Dr. King did share common ground. “Dr. King wants the same thing I want – freedom!” he said.
Rosa Parks: Parks was not the first person to challenge Jim Crow laws mandating that African-Americans sit at the back of the bus but, yet, her act of defiance on December 1, 1955 became the knock-out blow. As the critical spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott that brought Dr. King to national and international prominence, Parks became the “mother of the civil rights movement.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson: After JFK’s assassination, LBJ, who led the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, shepherded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proposed by JFK in 1963, as well as facilitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included the Fair Housing Act prohibiting discrimination in selling or renting property.
Roy Wilkins: As the NAACP executive secretary starting in 1955 and executive director beginning in 1964, Roy Wilkins provided critical leadership to the iconic civil rights organization at a pivotal time in American history, helping to organize the March on Washington as well as lend key NAACP support to the Selma to Montgomery marches as well as historic civil rights legislation.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Following the Brown v. Board decision, Eisenhower vowed “to uphold the constitutional processes in this country” and, in 1957, sent federal troops to Little Rock to do just that. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, addressing voting rights, was the first such legislation since Reconstruction.
President Harry S. Truman: Prompted by a horrific South Carolina incident where a black veteran’s eyes were gouged out within hours of his army discharge, Truman used his executive power to established a civil rights committee to investigate violence against African-Americans that resulted in the key 1947 report, “To Secure This Rights” as well as an end to segregated armed forces in 1948.
President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy: As president, JFK appointed many African-Americans to important positions and strengthened the Civil Rights Commission. His brother, whom he supported, regularly committed federal marshals to protect freedom riders or to escort James Meredith as he integrated the University of Mississippi.
Ralph Abernathy:“Ralph Abernathy is the best friend I have in the world,” Dr. King said in his last public address. A gifted theologian from Alabama, Abernathy stood tall with King beginning in Montgomery, strategizing and journeying with him every step of the way as they faced down Jim Crow all over the South. He was with King at the Lorraine Motel, even holding him in his arms as he died.
Ella Baker: When she arrived in Atlanta in 1957, Ella Baker brought her many years of experience as a NAACP field secretary and director of several branches to SCLC, the fledgling organization co-founded by Dr. King. Impressed by the student sit-ins in 1960, Baker called a meeting for student leaders at her alma mater Shaw University, which served as a critical catalyst to the birth of SNCC.
Fred Shuttlesworth: A key link to Dr. King’s and SCLC’s history-altering campaigns in Birmingham, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, counted among the Civil Rights’ Big Three, which also included Ralph David Abernathy, was a fearless warrior. “Involved in more bodily attacks, arrests, jail sentences and Supreme Court test cases than any other member of the SCLC,” according to the New York Times.
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“From the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1964. “Every time I take flight I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible, the known pilots and unknown ground crew.”
theGrio: Stevie Wonder, black radio, and the fight for a MLK holiday
In this list of 25 people who paved the way for MLK there are familiar and unfamiliar names but all contributed in great and small ways to the creation of a better nation and world. Even as our country seems marred in dissension, the King Holiday should serve as a powerful reminder that we all count.