Taking his marching orders directly from Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became the public face — and the eloquent voice — of the movement for black civil rights in the U.S. The son of a Georgia preacher, he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming pastor of a congregation in Montgomery, Ala. It was there, in the mid-1950s, that he emerged as a leader in the struggle for black equality, as he led the 385-day long strike against the city bus company’s segregationist policies. By the time of his assassination in 1968, King’s crusade to win equal rights for U.S. blacks had largely been won, legislated into law by two historic civil rights acts. Yet he did more, helping free whites from the burden of their dishonorable prejudices.
How did he do it? As a preacher, he spoke in biblical cadences ideally suited to leading a stride toward freedom that found inspiration in Old Testament tales of the Israelites. His ministry put him in touch with the black masses in their churches, strongest of America’s black institutions. He was a man of physical courage whose belief in nonviolence never wavered — even when his home was bombed, with his wife and children inside. His eloquence equalled Lincoln’s as he urged Americans to embrace his dream of a land where all are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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