Persecution of Civil Rights Activists


Martin Luther King Jr. being booked at the Montgomery Jail in 1958 for civil rights activism. (Charles Moore / Black Star.)

From his December 1955 election as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association to his April 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, at age 39, civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly faced violent resistance from those opposed to racial equality. Private citizens called his home with threats, physically attacked him at speaking events, burned crosses on his lawn, and even bombed his home while his wife and infant daughter were inside.

Rather than protect Dr. King from these attacks, Southern law enforcement routinely targeted him and other civil rights activists. More than 25 times, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 and 1958; Atlanta in 1960; Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and 1962; Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and 1967; St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964; and Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Dr. King was arrested, jailed, and fined for participating in boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other protests. And he was not alone.

Over 100 church leaders were indicted with Dr. King for “illegally” boycotting Montgomery’s segregated bus system in 1956. More than 750 people were arrested in Selma in 1965 after police violently broke up their peaceful voting rights march to Montgomery. And 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned at Mississippi’s Parchman Farm Penitentiary in 1961 for protesting segregated interstate bus transportation. Southern politicians denounced activists as “criminals” and “law breakers” and wielded the criminal justice system as a weapon to resist racial equality.