The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—the federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of each January—marks the civil rights leader’s birthday (which is January 15).

King, only 39 when he was assassinated in 1968, would have been 84 years old in 2013.

The King Years by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Taylor Branch is a clear-eyed look back at historic moments in the civil rights movement (and an apropos read for MLK Day).

Drawing on his own acclaimed America in the King Years trilogy—Parting the Waters; Pillar of Fire; and At Canaan’s EdgeBranch offers 18 crucial markers in the civil rights movement (along with new introductions).

He begins with a 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. giving an impromptu speech on the first night of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott—a moment that turned King into a public figure.

Other historical markers included in The King Years:

  • Minority students filled jails in 1960 sit-ins via the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
  • In 1961, the Freedom Riders seized national attention.
  • King’s famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
  • The Birmingham church bombing.
  • Student leader Bob Moses mobilized college volunteers for Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer.
  • “Crossroads in Selma” describes King’s ordeal to steer the citizen’s movement through hopes and threats.
  • “Crossroads in Vietnam” glimpses the ominous wartime split between King and President Lyndon Johnson.

Perhaps Branch’s most interesting historical observation is the rise of Black Power, which directly challenged King’s nonviolent stance. In fact, the author notes that as the Stokely Charmichaels of the world grew more popular, King grew more marginalized until he “pushed downward into lonelier causes until he wound up among the sanitation workers of Memphis.”

And here is King’s final public proclamation, a stirring, prescient, all-too-brief address given on April 3, 1968, the night before he was gunned down in Memphis:

The following excerpt is Branch’s description of King’s final speech:

King paused. “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he declared in a trembling voice. Cheers and applause erupted. Some people jerked involuntarily to their feet, and others rose slowly like a choir. “And I don’t mind,” he said, trailing off beneath the second and third waves of response. “Like anybody I would like to live–a long life–longevity has its place.” The whole building suddenly hushed, which let sounds of thunder and rain fall from the roof. “But I’m not concerned about that now,” said King. “I just want to do God’s will.” There was a subdued call of “Yes!” in the crowd. “And he’s allowed me to go up the mountain,” King cried, building intensity. “And I’ve looked over. And I have s-e-e-e-e-e-n, the promised land.” His voice searched a long peak over the word “seen,” then hesitated and landed with quick relief on “the promised land,” as though discovering a friend. He stared out over the microphones with brimming eyes and the trace of a smile. “And I may not get there with you,” he shouted, “but I want you to know, tonight [“Yes!”] that we as a people will get to the promised land!” He stared again over the claps and cries, while the preachers closed toward him from behind. “So I’m happy tonight!” rushed King. “I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glo-ry of the coming of the Lord!” He broke off the quotation and stumbled sideways into a hug from Abernathy. The preachers helped him to a chair, some crying, and tumult washed through the Mason Temple.