Skip to content

8 Leaders Who Carry On Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy

With King's dream only partially achieved, they work to ensure civil and other rights

Martin Luther King Junior leads a march

Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

As his holiday approaches, the shimmering image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appears on one TV screen and then another and another as his impassioned voice wells up.

Those iconic words, “I Have a Dream,” reverberate long after you’ve heard them. It’s an idyllic moment from the 1963 March on Washington and at odds with the gritty reality that King lived. Stabbed, stoned and jailed nearly 30 times, he led the civil rights movement for only a dozen or so years.

And yet those years led to voting rights legislation, desegregated facilities throughout the South and an awareness that, left unattended, America’s deep racial and economic wounds would continue to fester. When his home was bombed in 1956, he put haters on notice: “If anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.”

Since his death in 1968, many have stepped up to carry on his legacy. Here are a few.

9 Civil Rights Activists Who Died in 2020

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 92 on Jan. 15, 2021, if he had not been assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Many other activists for African Americans’ civil rights are reaching the end of their natural lives. These are those we lost last year:

Bruce Boynton, 83, of Selma, Alabama, was arrested in 1958 for visiting a segregated bus station restaurant while traveling home from law school. His successful U.S. Supreme Court legal challenge inspired the Freedom Rides.

• Lucille Bridges, 86, marched past an angry New Orleans mob in 1960 to escort her 6-year-old daughter Ruby to a formerly all-white school, a moment captured in a famous Norman Rockwell painting.

• Fred L. Davis, 86, one of Memphis’ first Black city councilmen, supported the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought King to town. He marched with the leader, and joined him on stage the day before his assassination.

Charles Evers, 97, adopted the mantle of civil rights after the assassination of his brother Medgar, an NAACP field secretary. Evers went on to serve as Mississippi’s first Black mayor since Reconstruction.

The Rev. Robert, 92, and Jeannie, 90, Graetz were among the few whites to support the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, leading to death threats and two home bombings. The couple died three months apart.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, 80, of Atlanta, was brutally attacked by police at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, a protest that led to passage of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. He went on to serve 33 years in Washington, where he was known as the “conscience of Congress.”

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 98, of Atlanta, worked closely with King, and helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for 20 years.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, 95, of Atlanta, helped lead the 1960 Nashville, Tennessee, protests that launched the national sit-in movement. As a top aide to King, he was an unwavering advocate for non-violence.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 15, 2020. It's been updated to include additional leaders.