“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed” (Martin Luther King Jr)
Martin Luther King Jr is the most well-known pioneer of the non-violent social activist movement for African-Americans. His movements were focused on ending racial discrimination against African-Americans by desegregating public transports, public parks and schools where non-whites were not allowed (Virtanen and Huddy 1998)
His movement had such a strong impact on the people and the country that it led to Civil rights Act 1964 authorizing the federal government to desegregate public transport and areas and also to end the racial discrimination in jobs as well. His struggle resulted in voting rights being granted to African-Americans and later they were given the right to a settlement without facing any discrimination.
His movement was a culmination of previous and future movements for the same purposes. His tireless efforts laid the foundation of non-white rights, which still echo in America’s conscience, it improved their social and financial conditions and helped to advance democracy in the society. His vision changed the course of the country’s history and his struggle continues to inspire many till date.
Born in Atlanta, King’s personal courage and eloquent skills attracted national attention in 1955 when he was arrested along with other activists for boycotting Montgomery bus service which required non-whites to surrender their seats to white people and were made to stand or sit at the back. The incident that ignited the protests were when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white resident. This resulted in Rosa Parks being arrested. To protest against her arrest Black Community Leaders formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) led by Martin Luther King, a role that placed him in the front for future fight for civil rights. The purpose of the peaceful protests was to put an end to the discriminatory behavior and racial biasedness towards African-Americans.
The year 1955-1968
The year 1955 marked the beginning of the great leadership of Martin Luther King. As mentioned above, Rosa Park’s incident led to the peaceful protests by King because he had seen what African-Americans were going through. Despite serving heroically in world wars, despite serving the country in every possible way they could they still were denied rights and status and were being subject to immoral segregations at all places. The success of this boycott gave rise to the peaceful protests and sit-ins by African-Americans and liberal whites. Although it resulted in resistance by white supremacists as well but people were now standing up for their rights.
In 1957, the Little Rock, Arkansas school board voted in favor of integrating the school system. However disputes broke out when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out national guards to prevent the enrollment of nine of the African-American students in to the school. The students were harassed and attacked by the white students that forced the government to deploy their men to provide safety to the students. Although the harassment and racial slurs continued for a year but non-white students were allowed to attend the school.
Civil rights movement received an infusion of energy when students in some states began to sit in in local stores and lunch areas to protest against segregation. These were peaceful sit-ins with no violence but still they were met with brute forces. These sit-ins however led to such protests throughout Southern states.
Later in 1963 mass demonstrations were again carried out by King, which was countered by white police with dogs and fire hoses. This attracted media attention and resulted in more protests. It is where King delivered his “I have a dream speech”, the vision of which was to end discrimination in the world. This march was a huge success with many protestors throughout the country marching with him. It had six official goals, (a) meaningful civil rights laws, (b) massive federal works program (c) full and fair employment to African Americans (d) decent housing for them (e) the right to vote and (e) integrated education system
After the march, King along with his other fellows met President John. F Kennedy was willing to pass the bill but it wasn’t clear whether he had enough votes to do so. But he was assassinated in 1963. The new President Lyndon Johnson decided to assert his power in congress and implement Kennedy’s legislative agenda. (Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement, A Photographic History, 1954-68)
This March and speech earned King fame at home and abroad. Time Magazine named him Man of the year and in the same year he became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, preventing discrimination in employment and to help prevent workplace discrimination.
In 1965, President Johnson signed Voting Rights Act abolishing the literacy test to qualify for voting.
However, after 1965 the protests turned violent resulting in wide spread riots and killings. And finally in 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated when he was shot in the hotel’s balcony. Just days after his assassination, Fair Housing Act 1968 became the law where it was ruled housing facilities shall be provided equally to everyone without any discrimination based on color, race and ethnicity. The year 1968 although marked an end to King’s life but the reforms he intended to bring and changes he wanted to see in the country continued. Many later leaders and reformers followed his footsteps.
Impact it left on the history of the United States and the World
King’s death did not put an end to his civil rights movement. In fact it proliferated many such movements that led people from marginalized groups to fight for their rights.
If we drift back to the time before Martin Luther King started his journey, a violent, discriminatory and supremacist behavior of whites will be seen. Although there were efforts made previously by some to liberate African-Americans from this tyranny but the efforts King has made have left a long-lasting impact on the course of history.
A renowned evolutionary biologist in his famous treatise on human evolution makes the case that the human ability to organize and cooperate beyond of the lines of kinships is what separates humans from hominid species. The greatest leaders of humans are experts at facilitating this. Martin Luther was one of those great leaders and any such activists who are willing to bring a change must look at a page from King’s book.(David Sloan Wilson, 2007).
African-Americans have equal voting rights now. They have equal rights to settlements. Any sort of discrimination is met with dislike and hostility.
Although it took decades for the actual change to happen because change isn’t an overnight phenomenon but the seeds that were sowed by him resulted in a fruitful result where slavery many years later was abolished for once and for all. Segregation was ended.
50 years ago it was prohibited for black people to drink from the same fountain, to, use the same restrooms, stay in same hotels or study in the same school but do the same conditions still persist in the US? The answer is obviously No. it was his efforts that brought people together. African-Americans got their rights. The United States of today is entirely different from what it used to be. Inter-racial marriages are now common.
Today, social movements such as Black Lives matter are built on King’s legacy of pacifism that highlights police brutality against non-violent black men and women. In fact king’s messages reverberate strongly in Black Lives Movement’s literature. This movement began in 1960s and was left unfinished (Alexander 2010). It picked up from where it was left in the twentieth century.
Now in almost every Hollywood movie we can see a non-white character playing different roles that shows that white people have accepted them as their equals.
The most important change we can see in the course of history is when in 2008 USA elected its first African-American President Barrack Obama. Although it happened years late but it shows that the people of USA were willing to accept such a huge change, they were willing to accept a non-white person as the head of their state. This is the change for which Martin Luther King had strived hard.
A survey after the election of President Obama was conducted which showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that black people had reached racial equality (Bobo 2011)
It is his phenomenal efforts and non-violent movement that drove the world and the country towards this change.
- Virtanen, S. V., & Huddy, L(1998). Old fashioned racism and new forms of racial prejudice. The journal of politics, 60(2), 311-332
- Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. Abbeville Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0789201232
- Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
- Alexander, M & West, C. (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colour-blindness. The New Press.
- Bobo, L, D (2011). Somewhere between Jim Crow & Post Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divides in America Today. Daedalus, 140(2), 11-36
- Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In. African American Odyssey.
- Little Rock School Desegregation (1957). The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Stanford.
- Rosa Marie Parks Biography. Rosa and Raymond Parks.
- The Little Rock Nine. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior: Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.