Describe the Role of Martin Luther King in Civil Rights Activity in the USA during the years up until 1968
Martin Luther King was one of the leading civil rights campaigners in America during the civil rights movement. Many historians would feel that the role of King during the years 1956 to 1968 was a significant one, and that he played an important part in leading the civil rights campaign. However, there have been disagreements over whether King contributed to a great extent to the movement, and also whether his role was significant to the campaign. In this essay, I will be describing Martin Luther King’s role in civil rights during the years 1956 to 1968.
King was brought up in a well-educated, middle class home, where both his father and grandfather were National Association for the advancement of coloured people (NAACP) activists in Montgomery. Originally King had not wanted to become a minister like his father and grandfather, but when he became minister he urged his congregation to register with the NAACP. He involved himself in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1953), where he became known as the leader of the boycott. However the Boycott had been organised at first by the NAACP, and some people felt King took the whole of the credit. His role however was important as was the Boycott which caused the Supreme Court to declare segregation on buses unconstitutional in 1956. However, it also brought King to the forefront of the movement, and in 1957 he helped establish The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and became the president of the group.
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Through the SCLC, King was recognised as one of black America’s leading and popular spokesmen. He began to have meetings at the white house, and began to protest through marches to gain national attention. Marches were moderately easy to arrange, but sustained campaigns for specific gains proved much more difficult for the SCLC. The group seemed poorly organised, and lack of fully salaried staff and organisation hampered the encouragement towards southern blacks to vote. Martin Luther King was a poor organiser, and evidence of this is how the SCLC gained little in the first 36 months through lack of inspiration and organisation.
Kings speeches on non-violent techniques to achieve equality could have been inspirational. The civil rights movement started again in February 1960. Sit-ins began to occur after it transpired in Greensboro in North Carolina, started by young black students. Martin Luther King gave support, but it was not him who started or led this campaign. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) disliked the SCLC, and relations between the two groups were as bad a NAACP/SCLC relations. However, in 1961, when The Freedom Rides movement started, which was initiated by CORE, it was used by King to create some unity between the three groups CORE, SCLC, and SNCC, and help them work together. This helped to end segregation in interstate travel in November 1961.
In November 1961, the SNCC with black students protested against segregation in Albany. They received little support from NAACP and local blacks who believed SNCC members were trouble makers. Martin Luther King was invited to join them which angered some SNCC members who felt it was ‘by and for local Negroes’. He had led a march and found himself arrested, but later was released when protestors and local authorities agreed that if the marches stopped, then prisoners would be released and an agreement would be made. However the authorities reneged on their agreement. King learned that it was not wise to Intervene with SCLC in an area without a strong SCLC presence. Also he believed it was more important to concentrate on one aspect of segregation as it resulted in becoming more effective.
In 1963, King concentrated on segregation in Birmingham. He chose Birmingham because it was expected to create the kind of propaganda needed for the Civil Rights campaign. It was better organised than Albany, but black resistance was a problem. Bull Connor however seemed to help. His cruel ways to push back demonstrators (police, dogs, using water hoses) grabbed national attention. King enlisted black school children to help with the march which also made good propaganda. 500 young marchers were taken into custody. Connors attitudes towards black Americans reached national press with quotes from him such as ‘I want to see the dogs work. Look at the niggers run.’ Birmingham was in chaos and so a deal was made to desegregate stores, improve black job opportunities and have biracial talks. Although the white extremists tried to sabotage the agreement, Bobby Kennedy urged his brother to keep the agreement. Through Birmingham King had showed he could lead, and he became a great deal more inspiring towards Black Americans.
King led a mach on Washington in 1963 which was a huge success. Kings inspirational speech, ‘I have a dream,’ was probably one of the reasons the civil rights legislation came to be passed due to its emotional impact.
In Selma only 23 blacks were registered to vote. King led blacks to Selma Country Court house to vote, and although they weren’t able to vote, incidents such as a young black man being shot made headline. Another march was organised, where King was going to led marchers from Selma to Montgomery. However King got the marchers to approach the state troopers then back off. Selma helped achieve the Voting rights Act. Black diversions had become bad by this time, but they became worse during the Meredith March.
James Meredith planned a non violent march from Memphis to Mississippi’s capital, Jackson to encourage blacks to vote in 1966. He was shot so the march was taken up again by King and at first only 20 others. Soon the march added others, including Stokely Carmichael who was a member of the SNCC. King tried to encourage chants such as ‘freedom now’. Core and SNCC were becoming increasingly militant and used phrases such as ‘black power.’ The march made King realise how he could no longer co-operate with SNCC, while NAACP wished not to be involved with both SCLC and SNCC.
King tried to help American blacks in Chicago, but he gained little success. Chicago was one of Kings major failures. Daley, the major agreed to promote integrated housing in Chicago but it was a mere ‘paper victory.’ He was unrealistic in thinking he could create a social and economic revolution in months. King didn’t really know what to do anymore, and didn’t know where to go from Chicago.
Martin Luther King involved himself thoroughly in civil rights, and through his efforts, his actions gained national publicity. His tactics were sometimes criticized, and occasionally not admired, but his role was important as he inspired millions, and he was able to contribute much to the black cause and help gain black civil rights.