How important was Martin Luther King to the success of the civil rights movement? ‘Nothing mattered more to king than being an outstanding preacher. Martin Luther King had an exceptional personal some state. He was a very proud and an outspoken man. He had been ‘conditioned’ from the mere age of nine and ordained in a black church for later life purposes (1). At a young age racism surrounded him and was affected first hand. He was abused by a white mill owner purely on the colour of his skin. He also witnessed other black people suffering from violence when he saw a white mob attack and barbarically murder a black man.
King was a very opinionated person and became a lead figure head publicly known on a national scale. This came to be evident from 1955 onwards when he represented the Montgomery bus boycott. However prior to this boycott in 1955, in 1954 he began to work as a pastor in Montgomery. King had a very likeable personality and rarely missed the opportunity to publicly speak in front of large crowds. He even flagged a marathon from Selma to Montgomery just to address a crowd regarding the civil rights movement and his feelings representative of many others.
It is clear to see that Martin Luther King’s aims were to gain equality for black people. He wanted to draw attention to the racial inequality on a national level and more importantly challenge the status quo with ruthless determination that a majority of black people had accepted but the questions remains how pivotal was his presence to the success of the movement. This determination can be portrayed in some of his actions for example he would rather have faced a jail sentence rather than a ten dollar fine not due to money but with regards to principle.
Martin Luther King is key to the civil rights movement as he could be seen by some as a role model and setting the principles for the early stage of the movement while there was little progress. Many have commonly noticed his methods in tackling issues are similar to that of other people such as Gandhi who used peaceful non-violent protests to oppose British Rule in India and achieved his aims this way. John White the historian argues that possibly his methods and beliefs derived from much earlier in his life and from his undergraduate reading of Henry David Thoreau’s essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’(2).
He also argues that some of his morals and principles were innate and derived from his African-American Baptist Heritage which strong held beliefs that through ‘collective and redemptive suffering blacks would demonstrate morality of their cause and convert their oppressors’. His upbringing is more likely to be an effect as to the way he went about the civil rights movement as these values were held close to him and his family. His principles, values and morals were always constantly outlined and drawn attention to throughout his life especially in speeches.
In his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in 1963 he yet again mentions that ‘we’ referring to all black people must remain strong in refraining from use of violence to achieve their aims. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is said to be one of the most important parts of the civil rights movement as it marked the events in which King came to have an increasing role in representing the people and where he started to gain national attention. On an evening in December 1955 after a long day at work Rosa Parks boarded a bus to reach home.
She was sitting on the fifth row which was the first row in the ‘coloured section’. Due to Jim Crow segregation laws, this prevented black and white people sitting together on the bus or on the same row. Jim Crow laws were passed after the American Civil war to discriminate black people and segregate them from the rest of society. White passengers were to sit at the front of the bus and black people had their designated section at the back of the bus. They were also to stand up if any white passengers came on the bus regardless of the section in which they sat.
James Blake was the driver of the bus whom Rosa Parks had already had previous encounters with in the instance that she had paid for the bus, as black people were to board from the back entrance, whilst walking to the back the bus driver drove off so tensions and a form of hatred was present prior to this day. As a few white passengers boarded the bus and the white sections were already full so the driver shouted back at four black people including Rosa Parks “Move y’all, I want those two seats”.
As this demand was made by the driver 3 of the bus riders obeyed to what was shouted back, however Rosa Parks remained in her seat and was determined not to move. She was arrested following the bus drivers order and fined ten dollars. This, however small incited a great wave of bus boycotts which in Montgomery black people chose not to ride the bus for a period of 381 days. This still to date is known as the moment in which the civil rights movement started to gain headway.
It was the will of one woman who decided it was time for black people to take a stand and from this point on Martin Luther King was assigned to take this boycott on. Although he was assigned to take this on people also felt as he was young, fresh and people had not formulated enough of an opinion of him, there was little room for him to be hated yet so he posed as the right figure to lead this. After the many days of boycotting the case of this transport issue in Alabama went to the Supreme Court.
Here it was decided that segregation was declared as unconstitutional so segregation by law was no longer to be suffered however people’s attitudes toward this took slightly longer to adapt to. This initially was denounced as a success for the civil rights movement in general and was the key point to which historians look back and believe the movement really took off. Aside from this Martin Luther King also set up the Southern Leadership Christian Conference in 1957.
With the advice of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison who was a white attorney in New York, the institution was set up to tackle discrimination via the method of non-violent protests mainly across the south. The institutions beliefs were rooted firmly in the black church and the idea of non-violent protesting as mentioned earlier came from his principles learnt from Gandhi. The SLCC became had taken advantage of its media expose and this was what led to its fame and its great expansion. “The SLCC is church orientated because of the very structure of the Negro community in the south.
By adding the word Christian into the name of the SLCC the religious aspect outlined that violence would not be used and as the church at that time had played a major role in the lives of many African American people, it was the right name to choose in getting black people to back the institution. The main idea of the SLCC was to bring together all the different movements that were trying to gain civil rights for black people in America and those trying to fight segregation all under one umbrella so it could be challenged head on.
The SLCC was successful in many areas from aiding in getting black people the vote to its national coverage from the events in Birmingham in 1963. In 1965 the SLCC launched the campaign to register black voters across the United States. At first he attempted to just register 400 people in Selma and as a result of this many people were chucked into jail. Prior to congress passing the voting act enabling black people to vote King made a statement in the New York Times which said ‘there are more black people in Selma jails than there are registered to vote’.
The voting rights act also made it illegal to use literacy tests and poll taxes to judge whether people were allowed to vote especially in the south. The protests and the events in Birmingham are regarded as another breakthrough for the civil rights movement. On the 23rd January the head staff of the SLCC met up to discuss Birmingham and its issues in vigorous detail. There was to be an election held on the 5th march and the black leaders for Birmingham had insisted that they did not want any mass action occurring prior to this date so the protest was to occur in the months after.
The five week long protest was the same as any other protest which would have been conducted in another city however this one was to be different. This protest had led mass media coverage to be undergone and to expose the problem further of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Although this protest was to be a non-violent one and a firm belief of the SLCC, some demonstrators had lashed out towards the police and bystanders and so the police had responded with great force. As Glenn T.
Eskew the historian writes in the book ‘But For Birmingham he describes how the fire hoses and use of dogs had failed to control the thousands of African America Activists. He refers to May 7th, the day before the protests stop and Kennedy does anything about the problem how for black people it was regarded as ‘Jubilee Day’. The reason Birmingham was chosen was the wave and advantage of already having a strong local foundation for the movement so there was room for King to build on this (4).
Birmingham commonly referred to as ‘Bombimgham’ by historians, had been on the right end of success and some say paved the way for Kennedy to pass the Civil Rights Act just a year later. Although Martin Luther King had been pivotal to the success of the civil rights movement in America, it can be argued that it was not only him alone that contributed to gaining the civil rights act and there were other people and other situations which had been leading up to this for a while.
It could also be argued that although there were places in which King had been successful, were there also places in which he failed to capitalise on or things he could have done better. ‘The Civil Rights Movement historians commonly use to describe the wave of black protest that swept the southern states between 1955 ;amp; 1965. This was also the era where white supremacy was to be challenged head on to gain momentum for a change towards black people’ (5).
Although most of the achievements were made throughout those times there had been previous breakthroughs unmentioned when the civil rights movement is talked about. Louisiana is deep southern state where there was heavy discrimination and segregation towards black people and breakthroughs came faster and earlier than any other southern state. After a campaign starting in 1940, in 1948 black teachers won their struggle and fight for equal pay with 8 years of hard work and challenging the status quo.
In 1949 New Orleans had appointed its first black police officer since before the 1900’s with Jim Crow laws still in place. Louisiana state university also in 1950 had admitted its first black student and this however small was still a success for the state in moving towards equality. These breakthroughs seem to lean towards the fact that the federal court had aided in this although they had, it also portrayed the strong will and determination of the black people in the southern state to which they were making progress.
The Montgomery bus boycott is referred to as the only boycott but it was the only one that had gained the national coverage and right force behind it. In 1953 just two years prior to the Rosa Parks incident, blacks boycotted the city Baton Rouge to protest the Jim Crow laws. The boycott was led by a young Baptist minister by the name of Theodore J. Jamison. He stated ‘we are not going to pay 15 cents and stand up’. The protest had only lasted a week and did not gain the national attention and press for it to have a strong enough force to get anywhere. The reason it was not successful was due to its area.
The boycott was rooted in the Deep South and so it was immensely insignificant for the USA and people were not prepared to get behind this enough as they believed it would fail as it did. Attempts the change and move the civil rights to new horizons were made before 1955 however it was the 1955 one that gained the attention it needed for it to become an issue that the government needed to tackle. Although the bus boycott was initially headed up by Martin Luther King and he was the one that gained recognition was the success, it is important to not forget Rosa Parks as a separate figure to aiding in civil rights success.
It was her determination and the fact a black African American had decided to stand up and make a change was a reason as to why the boycott was successful in gaining media coverage and successful in changing laws. She was an irrelevant figure prior to the bus incident but became ever so important in actually starting the wave for a change to the system in Alabama. Therefore from this Rosa Parks was another woman who aided in the success of the civil rights movement not just King.