1956 January 26

Martin Luther King’s First Arrest


As part of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began on December 5, 1955 as a campaign to desegregate the city’s bus system, Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested on this day for the first time in his civil rights career. (The boycott began four days after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person.) He would be arrested many other times as the most prominent civil rights leader in America in the late 1950s and 1960s.

There were many highlights in Martin Luther King’s long career on behalf of civil rights. He led the massive demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and while in jail there wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963. The Birmingham demonstrations force President John F. Kennedy to introduce a federal civil rights bill, which the following year was signed into law on July 2, 1964 as the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act. On August 28, 1963, King gave his famous I have a Dream speech at the massive March on Washington. And on December 11, 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hovoer, however, conducted a years-long effort to destroy his career as a civil rights leader. On December 23, 1963 it decided on a plan to “neutralize” him as a leader. Hoover had persuaded Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps on King on October 10, 1963, and on January 5, 1964 the FBI placed the first unauthorized “bug” (listening device) in a hotel room where King was staying. And most notoriously, on November 21, 1964, the FBI sent an anonymous letter and tape recording to both Kind and his wife with recordings purporting to show King engaged in extra-marital sexual affairs.

Read: Stewart Burns, Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1997)

Read Taylor Branch’s three-volume history, America in the King YearsParting the Waters (1988); Pillar of Fire (1998); At Canaan’s Edge (2006)

Visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC: http://www.nps.gov/mlkm/index.htm

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