During the Montgomery bus boycott and the subsequent events in the years to follow, King’s inspiring involvement elevated him to becoming the most recognized and beloved leader of the Civil Rights movement in America. This was primarily due to his superb oratory skill and his ability to reach out to audiences of both black and white skin. His continued message of non-violent protest and appeals to common human needs shared by all races was of major significance in the social equality gains for blacks during these years. His ability to make complex ideas understandable made it apparent that non-violent strategies were defensible in court according to the U.S. Constitution. This gave additional credence to the protests, which inevitably led to the awakening of the black plight to many unwary whites who then joined the cause and helped to eradicate racist Jim Crow type laws forever. People, both black and white, were now willing to violate absurd, archaic local segregationist laws because they believed they were abiding and defending a ‘higher law,’ the Constitution (Garrow, 1987: 45-46). Martin Luther King Jr. provided this movement with a focus, both in his physical presence and in his oratory skills, yet he did experience many failures throughout his career. By investigating the pulse of the Civil Rights movement, one can begin to gain a sense of how King’s strengths and weaknesses served to set the course for decades to come.
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King’s selection as head of the MIA was not an accident. From early in his career, it was recognized that King was a born speaker, intuitively seeking the knowledge and experience he would need to make an educated argument and carefully cultivating his contacts to place him in a position to take a leadership role. He had already considered possible structural changes that could be made in America while he was in school. He had studied the work of Mahatma Gandhi and took a degree in sociology, helping him to formulate his own ideas of peaceful co-existence and non-violent protest (Zimmerman, 1995: 55ff). Undoubtedly, his insights and knowledge in these areas contributed greatly not only to his own speeches, but also to the strategy sessions held by the various groups of which he was part when organizing protests.
His non-violent stance and expertise also held weight with his fellow ministers, who recognized a need for change and were seeking a means of channeling the growing energy they were feeling within the community into a positive and effective direction. His oratory ability had been demonstrated even before he graduated from school as well. “Samuel DuBois Cook recalled that King delivered a ‘Senior Sermon’ in the Morehouse Chapel a week before graduation. ‘He knew almost intuitively how to move an audience,’ Cook remembered.
‘He asserted that there are moral laws in the universe that we cannot violate with impunity, anymore than we can violate the physical laws of the university with impunity’” (Carson, 1997: 168). In addition to his involvement in the MIA, King also helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which linked churches across the South in the common cause for all black people.
The original objective of the SCLC was to build upon the success of the Montgomery bus demonstration by launching similar boycotts in other cities, but this effort had few successes. King followed the end of the bus boycott by making speeches, preaching everywhere, and attending various demonstrations in an untiring way, constantly promoting the concept of non-violent protest. It was King who first identified the source of the black people’s power:
I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our support from the bus company. The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil. We were simply saying to the white community: We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system. From that moment on, I conceived of our movement as an act of massive non-cooperation. (Rockwell, 2005).
However, at this time in Montgomery, the MIA was fundamentally unproductive in rebelling against other manners of discrimination. It would take the examples set by other organizations and student groups throughout the South to show King and his supporters the way.
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This is evident in the way in which the movement stalled, despite King’s best efforts, until 1960 when a ‘sit-in’ movement initiated a novel and more aggressive yet still non-violent chapter of the civil rights battle. The now-famous first sit-in occurred at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black students sat down at a ‘whites only’ establishment and requested service. The strategy quickly spread to ‘wade-ins’ at segregated city swimming pools and beaches, ‘pray-ins’ at segregated churches and ‘stand-ins’ at all-white theatres. These activists that braved the threat of being beaten and jailed in order to advance their cause of racial justice were inspired by the illustration of courage by those who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott; however, the SCLC had no part in organizing the original sit-in protests that gave rise to these further actions (Brunner, Borgna & Haney, 2006). The examples set in these somewhat spontaneous demonstrations helped inspire King and others for further efforts. A youth activist group was founded by student leaders after consultation with King and SCLC leaders in April 1960 (Colaiaco, 1988: 38). The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee added another dimension to the movement and appeared to embrace King’s pacifist methodology for social change.
The SCLC was also not party or privy to the succession of ‘Freedom Rides’ into the South in 1961. The Congress of Racial Equality sponsored and directed these rides designed to ensure that the Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which further defined and extended its earlier ruling that abolished segregation laws regarding interstate transportation, was being complied with at the state level. The Freedom Riders clashed with whites in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, which prompted President John Kennedy to send 600 U.S. marshals to safeguard the protestors. Yet, these, too, taught King and others many lessons regarding the most effective means of bringing about social change. “The Freedom Rides supplied an important strategic lesson for King and the SCLC: in order to arouse public sympathy sufficient to pressure the federal government to enforce civil rights in the states and localities, white racists had to be provoked to use violence against non-violent protestors” (Colaiaco, 1988: 39). With this knowledge, King helped to organize the March on Washington in August of 1963, during which he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King took part in the activities of other groups as well, joining their efforts mid-stride to support what they were doing or to warn against potential problems associated with a particular approach. These efforts were not always successful. In 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, but only after President Kennedy used 600 U.S. Marshals and 15,000 federal national guardsmen to restore order (Viorst, 1979: 373). The rioting on the campus upon Meredith’s decision to attend the then all-white university resulted in the deaths of two people and the injury of 375 more including 160 Marshals. In 1966, Meredith decided to walk alone from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in his ‘March Against Fear’ during a primary election week to establish that, if he could walk this distance without being harmed, then blacks should not fear walking shorter distances to the polling booths. Soon after beginning the walk, Meredith was shot and wounded by a white sniper. Upon hearing the news, King joined with Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Carmichael gave his famous ‘Black Power’ speech. He used Meredith’s example of empowering himself to apply, attend and graduate from school under the harshest of circumstances to characterize the importance of independent political action (Viorst, 1979: 374). Yet the catchy slogan ‘Black Power’ would live on through the efforts of Malcolm X is much different means than that envisioned by King.
In contrast to Martin Luther King’s methods and teachings of nonviolent protest, the Black Panther Party founded by Malcolm X claimed that they needed to equip themselves with weapons for use as self-defense against police brutality (Hollaway, 1998).
Arming the group did provide the intended protection but, predictably, led to confrontations with the police that often times concluded with a bloody altercation. The Panthers helped the black community in other ways though.
The group made the rounds throughout neighborhoods in Oakland carrying arms, recorders, and various books so as to teach black history, counsel welfare recipients, and effectively protest rent evictions through the legal court system. In 1967, Eldridge Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party. “Cleaver served as the Panthers’ minister of information. In this position, he was in charge of the publication of the Black Panther newspaper … The party began to grow and other chapter locations were opened throughout the United States” (McElrath, 2006). The growth of the Black Panther Party worked to spread the movement of civil rights, but also worked against the goals of Martin Luther King in that it re-introduced a high level of violence into the equation.
Other events that contributed to the rapid rise of the Black Panther Party can be directly attributed to King’s weaknesses in organization. One of the earliest of these was a planned march on Selma, Alabama, which was planned as a means of highlighting the need for federal voting-rights laws in the South. Although King organized the initial march, he did not accompany the marchers and they were turned back by nightsticks and tear gas. Following this disappointment, King began organizing a second march, but again stopped just short of the goal. “Heading a procession of 1,500 marchers, black and white, he set out across Pettus Bridge outside Selma until the group came to a barricade of state troopers.
But, instead of going on and forcing a confrontation, he led his followers in kneeling in prayer and then unexpectedly turned back” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 2002). This seeming failure to follow through, as well as a general perception, especially among the young people, that King had made some kind of bargain with the federal government, led many to seek more aggressive means of addressing the problems they were still facing. Although King was ultimately successful in gaining the bill the march was intended to bring about, little credit was given him for the accomplishment, and the Black Panther Party grew.
Martin Luther King undoubtedly contributed much to the civil rights movement. It becomes clear through this analysis that his primary contribution was to provide ideas and be a spokesperson for the movement. He had a great deal of knowledge regarding how to bring about change through peaceful means as well as a plan for beneficial social change, but his lack of follow-through on many projects led some of his followers to seek more obvious and faster means of forcing equal rights. Most of the events in which he took a major role were collaborative efforts with several other ministers, making him the figurehead for the great support of a community more than hungry for change and introduced into a culture already primed for change. The great orator indeed provided a great voice in which the people of an entire race could gain recognition.
Brunner, Borgna & Haney, Elissa. “Civil Rights Timeline: Milestones in the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Fact Monster. Pearson Education, 2006. Web.
Carson, Clayborne. “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel.” African-American Christianity. Paul E. Johnson (Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, pp. 159-177.
Colorado, James A. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Daniel, Pete. (1990). “Going Among Strangers: Southern Reactions to World War II.” Journal of Southern History. Vol. 77.
Garrow, David J. (1987). The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.
Hollaway, Kevin. “The Legacy of Malcolm.” Documents for the Study of American History. (1998).
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“Martin Luther King Jr.” African American World. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002. McElrath, Jessica.
“The Black Panthers.” About African American History. (2006). Web.
Rockwell, Paul. “Beyond Elections: Dr. King’s Teachings on Strategy and Tactics.” Motion Magazine. (2005).
Sowell, Thomas. “Rosa Parks and History.” The Washington Times. (2005).
Viorst, Milton. Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Woodward, C. Vann. Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
Zimmermann, Gerhard. “Victory Using Nonviolence – Martin Luther King, 1929-1968.” Sie widerstanden. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1995.