The American civil rights movement describes the decades-long protest which aimed to highlight and overturn the systematic discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s and 1960s. Deep inequalities in society impacted on every aspect of civilian life, from segregated education, transportation, eateries and interracial marriage was prohibited. Discrimination and the treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens inevitably impacted on the economic opportunities and employment available, which entrenched rates of poverty. Despite segregation in the armed forces, African American soldiers had played a full role in fighting for the liberation of Europe in WWII and in defeating the Axis powers. Asked to make sacrifices equal to those of white US soldiers, yet denied equal treatment, a movement seeking to erase pernicious inequalities gathered ground. Yet it can be argued that resistance and the drive for civil rights had been in evidence for far longer. Abolitionists an activists such as Frederick Douglas not only campaigned for the abolition of slavery in 1865 but campaigned for the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. As the struggle for equal rights in America has a long history and was the focus of many politicians, activists and organisations, whether the success of the civil rights movement can be credited to the leadership of Martin Luther King deserves closer analysis.
Historians are divided when it comes to crediting a leader or a set of specific circumstances which led to success of the civil rights movement, during a time of often bitter social divisions that were evident in 1950s and 1960s. There are historians that argue that it took the inspirational leadership of Dr Martin Luther King to galvanise discontent and channel it into a movement with the moral authority able to unite people of all colours. By spearheading and leading a mass protest movement, it is argued that Dr King must be credited with creating the conditions that led to the success of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement employed a variety of methods to organise and had numerous leaders. From the NAACP who took a constitutional approach, fighting for the legal end to segregation, to the black power movement of the 1960s which no longer saw non-violent protests as a viable method to promote radical change. However, the approach taken by Martin Luther King has long been identified as the most influential as a non-violent philosophy created a groundswell of support for the civil rights movement.
Within this source, Martin Luther King highlights his stance on violence within the civil rights movement and the problems that would be exacerbated by its use. He discusses the benefits of loving your enemies to the extent of allowing them to understand your view and further the development of their own. The source also includes Robert Penn Warren discussing the strong appeal of Martin Luther King to white Americans due to the non-violent approach he had pioneered throughout the civil rights movement. As such, one can begin to comprehend reasons for Martin Luther King’s mass support across races, and his strong influence on the ultimate success on the civil rights movement.
This source can be seen to illustrate that the leadership of Martin Luther King was the main reason for the success of the civil rights movements as his non-violent approach is widely noted as a turning point in the civil rights movement. King’s theologically-based belief in non-violence was powerfully argued and enacted throughout his own life. True progress, he argued, could only be made when the cycle of violence and hate was broken. This can be said to have set the agenda for the next ten years of civil rights protests.
King’s persistent encouragement of a non-violent approach can be seen to be the only realistic strategy open to African Americans if they wished to achieve civil rights. Any other approach would have resulted in a more violent backlash. King’s strategy elevated the civil rights cause to a spiritual and religious level. It can be said that as baptist minister, who skilfully utilised the leadership potential of a minister of religion subsequent to having the respect of his community, King turned the civil rights cause into a religious movement.
King can furthermore be seen as the main reason for the success of the civil rights movement because of his non-violent strategy. African Americans, in theory at least, already had civil and political rights – both of which being secured by the civil war amendments of 1865-70. By utilising peaceful protest, King and his supporters were able to shame America into recognising this fact. Through the use of the media and highlighting the direct link between the civil rights cause and the declaration of independence and the constitution – King was able to guarantee the high moral and political ground.
It was not only the contextual impact that King’s non-violent approach had but also its knock on effect. King’s methods inspired the lunch counter protests in 1960 – which in turn led to the formation of the SNCC. Alongside this, the non-violent agenda also galvanised white liberals to participate. The moral, non-violent stance was able to act as a link between a fragile coalition of interests.
Many historians believe that the civil rights movement began to reach its climax in the mid 1960s, and as this source is from 1964, it provides an insight into the movement as it gathered critical pace. 1964 also saw one of the one of the most important developments – the introduction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Essentially, this act saw the end of segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national origin at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels – allowing for an end to blacks or other minorities being denied service based on the colour of their skin. As such, this was deemed the ‘second emancipation’ by Dr King. This source allows an historian to view him at the peak of his influence, and his position at such a critical point in the movement.
Despite decades of activism, civil rights leaders had to accept that segregationists would not relinquish their privileges and the social and economic power they held over African Americans. In the South, violence against people of colour was endemic and civil rights activists believed that if this was witnessed by citizens who lives outside the former Confederate states, there would be greater pressure for change.
Activists such as Bob Moses wanted their struggles and the violent oppression they faced to be documented by newspaper journalists and television stations. With the physical suppression and brutality clearly in evidence, it would underline the limitations of a passive and peaceful movement. One such example was the 1955 case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was savagely beaten and murdered by white men who accused him of flirting or whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The men were arrested but acquitted by a white jury. Emmett’s mother decided to allow the casket of her son to be open so everyone could witness how brutally her son had been disfigured. The wider public were shocked and appalled. It caused some to wonder if violence would inevitably promote other acts of violence.
Dr King remained resolute and refused to consider the use of violence as part of the campaign for equal rights. Many white people recognised that the unjust and unpunished violent acts African Americans faced in the South could trigger a backlash and even an armed uprising. By continually emphasising his Christian beliefs that violence is wrong, he was able to calm the fears of white communities and encourage them to support the civil rights movement’s push for peaceful reform. Dr King was a Baptist minister but also recognised that the Indian civil rights movement had enjoyed success by following the non violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
This source can be seen to illustrate that the leadership of Martin Luther King was the main reason for the success of the civil rights movements as it
King used charisma as a tool for mobilizing black communities, but he always used it in the context of other forms of intellectual and political leadership reflecting his academic training and suited to a movement containing many strong leaders. King undoubtedly recognized that charisma was one of many leadership qualities at his disposal, but he also recognized that charisma was not a sufficient basis for leadership in a modern political movement enlisting numerous self-reliant leaders. Moreover, he rejected aspects of the charismatic model that conflicted with his sense of his own limitations.
Recent scholarship of King’s leadership has displayed a growing understanding of the interplay between King’s exceptional oratorical abilities and the expectations and understandings of his various audiences. The King myth emphasizes his supposedly charismatic qualities as an explanation for his unique role in the struggle.