By 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. was widely acknowledged as the leader of the American civil rights movement. Since first gaining national attention for his leadership during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott (1955-56), King had co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957) and spearheaded its initiatives.
King's high visibility in the civil rights movement made him a target of those who opposed its objectives. Following his arrest during a sit-in protest in Atlanta in October 1960, he was judged guilty of violating probation for a traffic citation and imprisoned in Georgia's notorious Reidsville Penitentiary.
Fearing for King's safety, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy played an instrumental role in obtaining a reversal of the judge's decision and securing King's release from prison. The following month, King delivered the keynote address to the all-black Virginia Teachers Association in Richmond, where free-lance photographer Jack Hiller captured this image.