Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday just passed. During this time we celebrate “The King Years.” Of course we’re proud when we hear the “I Have a Dream” speech and teary-eyed when Dr. King announces “he’s been to the mountaintop,” but there’s one speech in between those two that’s just as intriguing.
The term “The King Years” is actually the subtitle of historian Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the civil rights movement. King’s career, as a civil rights leader, began in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
But what’s significant about the year 1955?
It was one year after the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Dr. King was born in 1929 in segregated Georgia. As a child, Dr. King hoped for desegregation, but thought it would never occur in his lifetime. His generation grew up during the depression and World War II. They sensed America was too preoccupied with world affairs to be concerned with its own democratic inconsistencies.
But history finally favored them in the 1954 Brown decision.
Today, we view Dr. King as a larger-than-life figure that transformed society, but we overlook the fact that Dr. King, who was 25 in 1954, and his generation was transformed by the landmark historical event of their time, because the Brown decision was a parting of the waters. (That was title of Branch’s first book.)
Unlike their predecessors, Dr. King’s generation had a precedent established by the Supreme Court to desegregate and dismantle all other forms of discrimination. This eventually led to the historic March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous Dream speech, and to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.