TIME 100: Leaders & Revolutionaries - Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

He led a mass struggle for racial equality that doomed segregation and changed America forever


[an error occurred while processing this directive] It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighborhoods.

Three decades after King was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., he is still regarded mainly as the black leader of a movement for black equality. That assessment, while accurate, is far too restrictive. For all King did to free blacks from the yoke of segregation, whites may owe him the greatest debt, for liberating them from the burden of America's centuries-old hypocrisy about race. It is only because of King and the movement that he led that the U.S. can claim to be the leader of the "fr ee world" without inviting smirks of disdain and disbelief. Had he and the blacks and whites who marched beside him failed, vast regions of the U.S. would have remained morally indistinguishable from South Africa under apartheid, with terrible consequence s for America's standing among nations. How could America have convincingly inveighed against the Iron Curtain while an equally oppressive Cotton Curtain remained draped across the South?

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SIDEBAR: What If King Had Lived?

BORN Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta

1957 Founds Southern Christian Leadership Conference advocating nonviolent struggle against racism

1963 Organizes March on Washington supporting proposed civil rights legislation

1964 Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

1968 Assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

1983 Birthday declared a national holiday

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