Today the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., universally regarded as the pivotal leader of the American civil rights movement.
King’s eloquence, personal charisma and assassination in 1968 all contributed to his unique status among civil rights advocates. But it’s important to remember that he was one of many whose efforts led to significant improvements for people of color — from greater job and educational opportunities to equal status in the armed forces.
On this day, let’s honor King but not forget the many others to whom much is owed. The following are but a few of them.
• Thurgood Marshall: He’s best known as the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, but before that he was a remarkably successful civil rights lawyer for the NAACP. His greatest victory was the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools.
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• Harry S. Truman: As president at the end of World War II, he was enraged to hear about abusive, often violent, treatment of black veterans. In July 1948, by executive order, he gave black soldiers the respect they deserved by ending segregation in the armed forces. Truman also created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which was charged with proposing measures to strengthen and protect the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
• Rosa Parks: She refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger in 1955, earning her a trip to jail and into history as a symbol of passive resistance in the civil rights movement. Her defiance sparked a 381-day bus boycott that focused attention on the South’s Jim Crow laws mandating separate but rarely equal treatment of minorities.
• The Freedom Riders: They were black and white, male and female. Many were college students and their teachers. What they shared was a commitment to changing how black Americans were treated — even at the risk to their own lives. By riding in mixed-race groups on interstate buses in the ’60s, forbidden by local and state laws, they challenged official discrimination. Often they were jailed or attacked by angry mobs.
• James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner: The three young men were working to register black voters in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 when they were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen. Outrage over their deaths helped President Lyndon Johnson win passage in Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There are many others — so many others — who contributed, sometimes with their lives, to making the United States a more equitable nation. There’s still work to do, but today we honor those who, along with King, did the heavy lifting in a dangerous time.