Tuesday, January 18, 2011
It is the spring of 1961, and in the kitchen of a safe house in Montgomery, Alabama, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looks tense, perhaps worried. As a volunteer bends his ear, the 32-year-old civil rights leader glances toward one of the 17 students hunkered down with him -- fresh-faced college kids who, moved by King's message of racial equality, have risked their very lives. The past two weeks have been harrowing for these young people -- the "Freedom Riders," they are called -- as they inch across the state on integrated buses, their numbers diminished at every stop in the face of arrests, bloody mob beatings, fire-bombings. There to capture the mood in the room as the group plans its next brave move -- a ride into Jackson, Mississippi -- is LIFE photographer Paul Schutzer, who covered the "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom" four years earlier and had seen firsthand the kind of courage and determination King could inspire in his followers. Now, nearly 50 years after these Freedom Rides and in celebration of King's birthday, LIFE.com presents never-seen photos taken by Schutzer, tracking King and the nation-changing movement he led, from the monuments of Washington to the streets of the Deep South.
Check it out here.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
"No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they'd die for."