Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps the American Civil Rights Movement from the 1940s through the 1960s would have happened without Martin Luther King, Jr., but most certainly he left a distinctive mark on it that is inspiring to many today. His call for equality, unity, and moral integrity are still celebrated because they are timeless and universal. A preacher and student of the Indian political activist Mahatma Gandhi (who had been influenced by American Henry David Thoreau), King fought segregated America with morality. His method of civil disobedience (not obeying unjust laws, as defined by natural law, but demonstrating in a non-violent manner) brought attention to the plight of many blacks in America, especially the South.
Born to a family of ministers, King attended Boston University for his doctorate and became a Baptist church minister upon graduation. Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King pushed the limits of many American institutions. The time was ripe for change, and King led the tide, always advocating a fulfillment of the American Dream for all Americans with no regard for their color, character should be the determining factor, he insisted. A tough argument to defeat and segregationists lost moral ground. However, even as white activists joined King, segregationists were determined to continue the fight.
As we know, racial tension has been a fact of American life. From the arrival of African slaves in 1619 to today, equality and harmony among the races has been an elusive goal. Although the Founders knew of the conflicts between their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of legalized, perpetual servitude, this division proved impossible to overcome at the beginning because of the distinctive cultural differences that had developed between North and South: the United States were disunited from the beginning. So, rather than tear all idealism apart, the country moved forward with slavery as the reality of southern states.
For the next eight decades, the tensions between two very different Americas grew. Of course, the issue ultimately found its resolve in armed combat, brother against brother, in our Civil War. Finally, the North triumphed, preserved the Union, ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Radical Republicans attempted to codify racial equality with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as other legislative actions. However, the South had other ideas.
The Ku Klux Klan quickly formed after the formal hostilities of the Civil War ended, and would become a symbol of oppression beyond, and often ignored by, the law. In 1896, the Supreme Court would reinforce the unworkable notion of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson. World War I brought some change as the Great Migration north took many black workers from the South of no opportunity to a more promising region. However, President Woodrow Wilson would segregate the federal government, and the races remained divided. Again war would spur change as black units of World War II eventually returned to a changing America. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of modern baseball when he took over first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order the following year. In 1954, the Supreme Court would reverse its Plessy position and desegregate schools with its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
King’s public activity began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which brought him to the national spotlight. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Committee in 1957 and served as president. He wrote his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated in Alabama (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html ). He led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he gave his stirring call for racial equality and civility in his most famous oration of all, the “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vDWWy4CMhE ), and saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (designed to bolster the Civil Rights Act of 1957). Of course, although King always advocated non-violence, not everyone agreed with him.
King did join forces with Robert Hayling, who advocated violence in self-defense, but King remained peaceful throughout his lifetime. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League supported the non-violence agenda (the NAACP had disavowed Hayling because he allowed for violence, King supported his group’s resistance in St. Augustine, Florida, but it proved to be a nonviolent encounter although there were several arrests). However, spontaneous riots in urban ghettos and the formation of the openly militant Black Panthers continually pushed the violence button. Unfortunately, violence would always be a mark of this civil rights era, even to the point of murder.
Following many others, King fell to an assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and as a result, urban riots engulfed many American cities. His death marked the end of the Second Civil Rights Movement (the first occurred after the Civil War). The final action of the era would be a few days after King’s death when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act (a strengthening of the 1866 law which lacked enforcement measures). King had left his mark, but the movement had taken another turn, and it would never be the same again.
King’s work was not without controversy; he opposed the war in Vietnam and there have been some issues surrounding his personal life, but his public message certainly remains a clarion call. Whether a Christian such as King, or not, how does someone argue against the proposition that all are “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”?
NOTE: King would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal after his death. His birthday became a federal holiday signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986.