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"The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is simply the best civil rights law firm in American history." -- President Obama

A Dream Deferred: Reflecting on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Statue of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The enduring image of Dr. King for most Americans is of the great leader standing before a microphone and speaking soul-shaking, transformational words of truth.  His speeches—whether “Give Us the Ballot” or “I Have a Dream”—powerfully examine the state of American democracy and call this nation to its highest self.  His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is among the most powerful messages of social justice ever delivered from behind bars.

 

"...I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provinvial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country." 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr
Letter From a Birmingham Jail

 

However, Dr. King’s extraordinary oratorical and rhetorical gifts were only part of the reason that he became such a powerful civil rights leader. He also garnered the respect of people from around the country because of his willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs. This meant that Dr. King often allowed himself to be arrested and held in jail.  Indeed, this is how the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) lawyers came to know Dr. King.  LDF lawyers represented him throughout his years of leadership—during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, in Selma in 1965, and in many other places in the South. As Jack Greenberg, who succeeded LDF's founder, Thurgood Marshall as our President and Director-Counsel noted in his acclaimed memoir, Crusaders in the Courts, "When a great leader of the mass movement emerged, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., LDF was his lawyer."

 

LDF lawyer (and later federal judge) Constance Baker Motley recalled visiting Dr. King near Americus, Georgia where he was detained in a rural jail with Ralph Abernathy. Motley’s description of the conditions in the jail, which she visited with two local Black lawyers, is harrowing:

Martin Luther King in Americus, GA jail“...the three of us went in. I instantly ran back out, overcome by the stench... I finally decided that I had to go inside and talk to King. I saw him and Abernathy in their four-by-six-foot cell. It was July or August. The temperature must have been a hundred degrees. We could hear other prisoners in a back room yelling and moaning. Since the prison food was not edible, some women had brought food for King and Abernathy, which their jailers had placed uncovered on a table outside their cell and by then it was covered with hundreds of flies. King and Abernathy usually fasted while in jail. We spent at least an hour there without seeing anyone."


"...Whether anyone could see us, I could not tell. I feared we would be ambushed… My visit to the jail was the most horrendous experience of my life. It was then I realized that we did indeed have a new civil rights leader—a man willing to die for our freedom.” 

 

 

As we celebrate the life and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., LDF encourages Americans to remember not only Dr. King’s words, but also his courage and his sacrifice in the service of justice. His words—powerful, inspiring, devastating in their truth—were drawn from this deep well of courage, from King’s belief in the obligation of every human being to fight for justice, and from his genuine love for humankind. 

LDF was privileged to represent Dr. King—to visit him in the low places, to counsel him and other activists as they prepared for the Selma voting rights march in 1965 and the Poor People’s March in 1968, and to witness the rise of his leadership from Montgomery to Memphis. Civil rights lawyers bear witness to the struggles, sacrifices, and fears of our clients. In so doing, we see first-hand the depth of their courage.

 

MLK and Thurgood Marshall

Above: Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, and LDF's Founder and first Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall. 

Selma Brief

Above: Proposed plan for Selma to Montgomery March filed by LDF in federal court. 

 

In celebrating Dr. King, we also honor all of our clients—from Fayette, Georgia to St. Martin Parish, Louisiana; from Birmingham, Alabama to New York City; and in all of the towns in between, where men and women of courage have chosen to stand up for justice.

 

"The conditions of resistance and protest today may be vastly different from that prison where Dr. King was held in Georgia, but we recognize that to stand up and speak truth to power in your community still takes courage, commitment, and sacrificeIn his or her own way, each and every one of our clients seeks to walk in the tradition of Dr. King. It is our honor to represent them and partner with them in the fight for equality and justice."

Sherrilyn Ifill
President and Director-Counsel
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund 


On the cusp of the 150th Anniversary of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, we can see the threads of liberty woven across the centuries. That pattern we must take up every day, and be present as Dr. King was called to be present: anywhere there is injustice. Undaunted in our pursuit of equal justice for all. 


"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

14 Amendment to the United States Constitution, Section 1

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma March

 

"We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights." 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr
Letter From a Birmingham Jail

 

On April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — at the time, perhaps the country’s most passionate advocate of nonviolent protest in support of civil rights. When Dr. King was struck, he had been standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee, whereafter he was rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. He was only 39 years old.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination; Jack Greenberg; Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (coordinator of the March on Washington), Jack Greenberg (Director-Counsel, LDF), Whitney M. Young (Executive Director, National Urban League), James Farmer (National Director, CORE), Roy Wilkins (Executive Director, NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr. (President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference), John Lewis (Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and A. Philip Randolph (International President, Negro American Labor Council), mid-1960s. 

Remembering Dr. King’s passing, we pay tribute to him and the collaboration he nurtured between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). LDF represented him on numerous occasions: during the infamous Selma marches, when LDF litigated to lift an injunction placed on demonstrators fighting for their right to vote; during Dr. King’s efforts organizing the Chicago Freedom Movement, a major fair housing campaign aimed at fostering an agreement between the Chicago Housing Authority and the real estate and mortgage banking industries; and during his work in Memphis in support of a sanitation workers’ strike, which urged better safety conditions and higher wages for African-American employees, who earned so little that many were on welfare and relied on food stamps to feed their families.

“When a great leader of the mass movement, Martin Luther King. Jr., emerged, LDF was his lawyer.” 

Jack Greenberg, LDF’s 2nd Director-Counsel

Henderson, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.

Butler T. Henderson (LDF’s Director of the Earl Warren Legal Training Program, Inc. and Herbert Lehman Education Fund) , Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Indeed, for Dr. King, economic equality and social justice were intertwined, as evidenced by his last great national effort, the Poor People’s campaign, which emphasized the fundamental need of ending poverty in order to uplift the status of African-American citizens. The campaign, the planning for which began a month before Dr. King’s death, included LDF lawyers Leroy Clark and Jim Finney, who worked to coordinate LDF staff, volunteer attorneys and students, as well as Hispanic and Native-American interpreters in order to outline a series of campaign activities, including marches and sit-ins. Dr. King called upon LDF lawyers to defend protestors against harassment, arrests, prosecution and other forms of legal intimidation, as well to obtain permits for meetings and parades.

 

Sadly, this would be LDF’s final occasion to work with Dr. King. A night before his death, speaking presciently about mortality and his personal longevity, Dr. King noted he may not get to the “Promised Land” of equality with his followers. Yet, in exhorting those that day to continue the pursuit of justice, and in the somber national atmosphere that followed his death, his spirit paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Moreover, in the week following his death, LDF’s board of directors met to rededicate the organization to representing the Poor Campaign marchers and to passing a resolution lauding Dr. King’s life and commitment to civil rights.

“The whole world was stunned. Those of us connected with the movement were shattered. But no one thought for a moment about giving up on the struggle.” 

Jack Greenberg, LDF’s 2nd Director-Counsel, on the passing of Martin Luther King Jr.

See below for the resolution made in honor of Dr. King at that board meeting, held April 11, 1968 — the day the Civil Rights Act was enacted.