Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and LDF’s Support in the Fight for Civil Rights

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. 

Today, as we remember 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.