(For Part 1 of this post, go here.)
The Civil Rights Movement emerged in the mid- and late-1940s, after the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s and the Jim Crow segregation laws that combated it. Initial opposition to segregation took place in court, with such turning point cases as Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955), which declared the segregation of schools unconstitutional. Despite court orders, many whites in the South resisted integration. A particularly radical white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan would go so far as to physically injure and in some cases kill black and white activists.
The philosophy of nonviolent protest seeped into the Civil Rights Movement beginning most notably with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. A lifelong activist named Rosa Parks initiated this protest when she refused to concede her seat to a white passenger after the bus driver demanded her to do so. Many cite this as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, although one may argue that it began as far back as America’s founding.
When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on December 1, 1955, Dr. King was a new father to a two-week-old Yolanda Denise. Despite this new responsibility, he, a man passionate about civil rights since boyhood, spearheaded the bus boycott, which lasted from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956. It represented the first large-scale anti-segregation demonstration in America. At the end of the boycott, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of buses.
From this demonstration, King emerged as a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement. With other activists he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, the same year that his first son Martin Luther III was born. In the spirit of Thoreau and Gandhi, King spoke at and organized nonviolent protests and demonstrations to advocate for discriminated African-Americans.
King and his family returned to his hometown Atlanta in 1960 to join his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Not long after, his second son, Dexter Scott, was born.
King continued organizing lectures and demonstrations to break segregation in America’s most hostile cities, including Birmingham, AL. In 1963 the SCLC launched the Birmingham Campaign to shed light on the choked integration efforts there. The police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, described as the “manifestation of the perversity upon which segregation depended for its life” by journalist Howell Raines, responded to the peaceful protests with dogs and firehoses – unnecessary force that shocked Americans viewing footage on the television.
On April 12, 1963, authorities arrested King for his involvement in the Birmingham protests. Just a couple of weeks before, his second daughter and fourth child, Bernice Albertine, was born. From jail, he wrote a letter to white congressman, now called “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, in response to their criticism of his actions. To their insistence that the activists need only wait, he responds, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” In this letter, we also see a change in King’s view of whites from his childhood with his encouragement that they all be “extremist[s] for love.”
King spent eleven days in Birmingham jail. Later that year, in August, he led, alongside elder statesman A. Philip Randolph, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought over 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. When President Kennedy expressed to the men his concerns of its ill-timedness, King replied, “Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct-action movement which did not seem ill-timed.”
At the rally, Randolph gave the opening speech; King, the closing. He delivered his most famous speech and perhaps the most famous of the entire Civil Rights Movement – “I Have a Dream.” He described his dreams of unity, peace, and cooperation among people, with no divisions based on race. “I have a dream,” he said, “that my four little children will will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This demonstration and speech gained Dr. King national recognition. TIME Magazine deemed him Man of the Year for 1963, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, at age 35 the youngest recipient of the award. That same year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
The next major march King took to Selma, AL, where the peaceful demonstrators met with brutality from the police force in their efforts to stimulate voting by blacks in the South. Federal-ordered protection by the National Guard allowed the demonstrators to complete the march, and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
A divide, however, was slowly growing between Dr. King and young activists. Though his lectures and demonstrations had resulted in some change, many felt that the present time demanded more direct, less politically-bound methods. A new approach called Black Power arose, headed by the outspoken activist Malcolm X and advanced after his assassination by Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael. “Black Power” aimed not for integration, but for black self-reliance, and responded to discontent towards the growing influence of white activists in the Civil Rights Movement.
In the last couple years of his civil rights work, King focused his attention on the controversial Vietnam War and the struggle of poverty. In spring of 1968, King and others in the SCLC traveled to Memphis, TN, to support the sanitation workers’ strike. On April 4 he delivered a speech before the strikers; that night, standing on the balcony of the hotel where we was staying with his friends, a bullet struck his neck. Rushed to the hospital, he died an hour later. On June 8, small-time criminal James Earl Ray emerged as the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After his death, King’s wife Coretta continued his civil rights efforts, both in the United States and out. She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in her basement a year after his death, established to train the public in the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King.
Honored even after his death, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, and in 1983 President Reagan dedicated his birthday as the federal holiday which we still celebrate over three decades later.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.