Martin Luther King Jr. had an extraordinary ability to mentor and motivate young Americans to join together in a campaign for racial equality. He also capitalized on the experience and wisdom of men and women who had been fighting for racial justice for decades. Below are profiles of some of the leading civil rights activists of King's era. (*Asterisks indicate members of the so-called Big Six — activists, including King, who were in particularly prominent positions in the civil rights movement.)
MEDGAR EVERS (Born 1925 in Decatur, Miss., slain by gunman June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Miss.) Evers became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after seeing the dismal living conditions of blacks while working as an insurance salesman in rural Mississippi in the early 1950s. He became a recruiter for the NAACP and was named the group's field secretary for Mississippi in 1954. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Evers led campaigns to register black voters and organized boycotts of firms that practiced racial discrimination. He was killed by Ku Klux Klan member Byron de La Beckwith. Evers' murder became a major rallying point in the civil rights movement, prompting greater and more strident grass-roots activism. Beckwith was tried for his murder twice in 1964 but all-white juries deadlocked in their decision and he escaped conviction. In 1994, Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
*JAMES FARMER — (Born Jan. 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas; died July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Va.) Farmer worked closely with Martin Luther King, and had been a prominent civil rights activist since co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization that was the first in the United States to use nonviolent tactics to protest racial discrimination. In the early 1960s he was a chief organizer of the "Freedom Rides" in which white volunteers traveled on interstate buses with blacks. The black Freedom Riders used restaurants, restrooms, and waiting areas reserved for whites, while the whites used colored facilities. The Freedom Riders, who frequently confronted violent mobs, challenged the federal government to enforce anti-segregation legislation that had recently been passed. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York in 1968, and served in the Nixon administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Farmer wrote about the civil rights struggle in his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (Texas Christian University Press, 1998). President Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.