Identification and evaluation of sources
The aim of this investigation is to answer the research question “to what extent did Martin Luther King Jr successfully achieve the civil rights movement between the years 1963-1968?”, and I will be assessing how far he accomplished his aims, where he hoped to achieve three things: an improvement of the African American economic system, African American right to vote freely, and racial desegregation.
Source A is a primary source as it originates from Martin Luther King himself. He made this speech on August 28th 1963 during the Washington March for job equality and freedom. The purpose of this speech was to address the goals for the Civil Rights Movements and it included demands for public schools, desegregations of public accommodations, and the violations of constitutional rights. The speech mentioned reasons why they should gain equality, and a description of the country King dreamed America would become by using repetition of the line ‘I have a dream’. King’s ‘dream’ resonated amongst the crowd gave people hope that one day the world would be a better place. This source can be deemed accurate as it came straight from King’s lips, and it is relevant because it highlights his goals. Moreover, the second half of King’s speech was improvised, meaning he spoke from the heart. However, there are limitations to this speech as it is only from one point of view, and that the original speech was disrupted by his emotions, we will never know what the rest of the contents were.
Source B is a primary source, also originating from Martin Luther King himself, written while he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama for pretesting the treatment of black people. The letter explains his actions and addresses the main questions that were asked by critics and is now a classic example of civil disobedience. In this letter he argues on social, legal, historical and political grounds, saying that black people have waited for equality long enough. This was shown to be a great success as Andrew Young from the justice department acknowledged King’s doings and said that he had done ‘tremendous’ job in bringing the two sides together for the future changes in segregation. This source has value because it shows how far King will go to achieve the Civil Rights Movement, it shows that he is the voice of black people, he speaks for their actions, and his non-violent beliefs persuades the government to change their actions. Nevertheless, this source does have some limitations because of the conditions that he wrote this under; he could have written what people wanted to hear whilst he was under pressure and people were starting to lose faith in him.
Martin Luther King (King), was a civil rights activist that influenced thousands of people. His non-violent protests, boycotts, and marches helped set the course of the civil rights movement. This was an important movement because at the time, over 70% of African-Americans were being discriminated and segregated. It is important today because the movement was so influential, that it changed history to where blacks and whites worked together instead of against each other. If this movement did not occur, maybe the relationship between the two races would not be as it is today. In this essay, I will use different events from the time period 1963-1968 to decipher how far King actually managed to achieve his goal.
The Washington March
The Washington March of August 1963 was a successful milestone in achieving the Civil Rights by showing a united demonstration from the Civil rights leaders. According to national history, it was the biggest peace gathering, followed by a series of speeches by different Civil Rights activists. It aimed to alter the Civil Rights Bill in order to decrease black unemployment and gain freedom. After King’s renown speech ‘I have a dream’, more than 200,000 people joined to support the movement, both blacks and whites. There was also a lot of pressure put upon King because he wanted to maintain his non-violent quota, but this idea was becoming more unpopular amongst supporters due to the slow change, as well as the fact that President Kennedy and Roy Wilkins was initially unsupportive. In the end, it was considered a great success amongst the federal government, it was well organized, peaceful, and showed a substantial amount of white support. This was the final push for President Kennedy to give more support for the Civil rights legislation reform, which he was already considering after the conflicts in Birmingham. However, there was still a large amount of resistance from the South.
Segregation in Birmingham, Alabama
In the spring of 1963, King tried to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, where segregation was very rigid. It was a big city with around 350,000 inhabitants, 140,000 of which were black. King tried to desegregate by using sit-in demonstrators to demand desegregation. On top of that, they demanded an end to job discrimination by boycotting ‘whites only’ shops. Then King started using children as demonstrators. ‘Bull’ Connor, the police chief got frustrated and ordered fire hoses to be used against them. This led to great results; the Civil Rights Movement gained more support, many inhabitants of Birmingham started to move towards desegregation, the outside world showed more sympathy as it did not look good to use fire hoses on children. The most important result was that the high use of media caught the attention of the federal government, President Kennedy in particular. The government decided to take the Civil Rights Movement more seriously and started planning the Civil Rights Bill to take to Congress. During this protest, King got arrested for protesting against the treatment of African-Americans. While he was in jail, he wrote one of “the most important documents in modern history”, a letter to the clergymen in response to their local newspaper called ‘a call for unity’, where he justified his actions and his willingness to break laws as a response to criticism around the country. The whites seemed to be afraid that the movement was moving forwards too fast. In this letter, he addressed the fact that the suffering put upon the blacks made it difficult to move slower. He outlines 12 of his most prominent beliefs, uses biblical references and repeatedly mentions that all people should have equal rights, no matter what skin colour. He also uses emotive language to appeal to the audience and the media coverage let people see the injustice happening, making them very sympathetic. This letter reached President Kennedy and was an important milestone in the movement.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act was signed off by President Johnson, which prohibited discrimination based upon race, religion, colour, sex and national origin. One factor that pushed for this act was the struggle that blacks had to put up with, especially considering their large population. Another factor was the ‘I have a dream’ speech, which gained widespread support with his moving words. Moreover, Johnson changed his views when appointed president and started believing that discrimination was morally wrong and had a vision for a ‘Great Society’ where he wanted to put ‘an end to poverty and racial injustice’ in America.
Selma March, also known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ was a march headed to Montgomery on March 7th 1965, with 54 miles and 500-600 supporters. The situation in Selma was bad, everything was segregated, their white’s incomes were 4 times that of blacks and only 23 blacks were registered to vote, and faced with brutality when they tried to register. So, King decided to jail himself with hopes of publicising this fact. He wrote to New York Times with a key quote “this is Selma, Alabama. There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on voting rolls.”, however, the media did not explode like King had hoped. Thereafter, King, Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC) and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organised the Selma March, which was a protest to publicise the need for a Voting Rights Act. It is known as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ because state troopers were waiting for them and attacked them with clubs and tear gas, which resulted in King calling off the SCLC to retreat and stay non-violent. The SNCC did not take this very well as they wanted to retaliate with violence. The significance of this is that President Johnson and Congress would not delivered the Voting Rights Act without the event of Selma, however, the act of King and trying to keep his conscious clean by retreating, left the black divisions worsening as they were now against each other. Despite the obstacles, King still managed to achieve the right for African American to vote.
By this time, the Fair Housing Act was placed, prohibiting discrimination on renting or selling. King found it much harder to control the course of the movement and violence was becoming more apparent. King’s protest in Memphis for equal treatment with white dustmen turned violent, and he then promised to return and lead another peacefully, but was assassinated during the planning. After his death, there were riots all over the nation, King’s beliefs were ignored, 46 people died and 3000 injured. This proved to be a year that damaged progress made in the Movement.
To conclude, the Civil Rights Movement progressed a long way in just a few years. Segregation was gone from most areas; transport facilities were now integrated. Black people could register to vote. Racial mix in schools and housing areas were being suggested for the first time. Most importantly, equality was now accepted by the majority. However, some parts in the South were still segregated, economic and social problems still remain in both the North and South. I would say that during these years, King has shown tremendous achievements in his aims, and made progress towards it for as long as he lived. His peaceful mindset was what brought the nation closer as a whole. If he were not assassinated, his reign would have had an even bigger impact despite the growing violence, as he still had great support and many towns still wished for him to help with protests.
This investigation enabled me to use a variety of different research techniques that allowed me to understand the challenges faced by historians when they do their own research. My primary source, specifically the ‘I have a dream’ speech, made me more aware of a source’s reliability. We must think about the circumstance that King was in when he wrote and voiced it, and think about how things functioned at the time, making me think about the reliability of the historical knowledge. I faced this challenge when examining the speech, as it feels biased, especially when King was overpowered by his emotions and strayed from the original speech halfway through, potentially making it more sympathetic and saying what the audience wanted to hear, so we do not and will never know the original story, thus misguiding the historian’s accuracy of their knowledge.
There was a substantial amount of research that went into the different events during the Civil Rights Movement, which both helps and challenges a historian as they have to decipher which events are true. Some facts seem more reliable than others and this challenged me when finding out which facts were the least biased. I used a range of different sources and based them on each other to confirm the reliability to create an accurate account of how far King achieved his aims. This was difficult because it is not as straight forward as math or science where there is one definite answer, but rather years of different accounts, constantly being interpreted by different people, trying not to deviate from the actual account of events.
However, the historical knowledge of the events in the Civil Rights Movement between these years seem to be quite accurate because there were multiple sources that stated the same thing, meaning that the possible interpretations are not very far from the true events.
- Erlich-Møller, Bianca. Black Voices. Gyldendal, 2016
- Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. Penguin, 2002.
- Paterson, David, et al. Civil Rights in the USA, 1863-1980. Heinemann, 2001.
- Sanders, Vivienne. Civil Rights in the USA 1945-68. Hodder Education, 2008.
- Sanders, Vivienne. Race relations in the USA 1863-1980. Hodder Education, 2006.
- Wright, Kai. The African-American experience. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009.
- “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” Edited by Ali B, Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.], University of Pennsylvania www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. Accessed 27. Jan 2019
- Bass, Jonathan. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, Samford University, 2007, www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1389. Accessed 27. Jan 2019