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Was Martin Luther King Jr. The Most Influential Factor On The American Civil Rights Movement?

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Since the Declaration of Independence was issued July 4th, 1776, the United States of America has had multiple issues with Civil Rights and its recognition and protection of minorities across the country. Even in the 21st century, the world’s 11th most developed nation (as per the HDI) , with the world’s largest economy , has faced multiple claims against its treatment of minorities, showing the glaring issue of its centuries old struggle between races in America. This has including many eras with extremely high tensions, such as the pre-civil war ante-bellum era and the 1950s and 1960s. This struggle is still seen today across the United States of America, in multiple protests and riots across the USA, many of which are frequented by members of the Black Lives Matter organization. They say they are a ‘member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes’ according to their website , which shows the current state on tension between different ethnicities across America.

This current racial tension can be seen to go back to the very start of the nation. Despite the USA being created from under the oppression of their own colonial overlords, and being a nation stating ‘all men are created equal’ and granting its citizens ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in its Constitution , the USA was created a slave trading nation, and while many states slowly began succeeding their rights to slavery, however it was not until the 13th amendment was published in 1865 after the American Civil War that slavery was finally abolished for all states , 91 years after the initial declaration of independence was signed.

However, this was not before years of slavery endured by millions of African-Americans and oppression by both slaveholders and the US Government. Despite slavery being abolished in many states, black people were still targeted for their race, and this can be seen in a decision by the US Government which shows a clear discrimination. This ruling by the US Supreme Court is now often referred to as the Dred Scott decision. It ruled that Scott, an African-American slave, who was being forced to work as a slave in the free state of Illinois, was to remain a slave as black people ‘are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.’ , as per the ruling of then Chief Justice Roger Taney. Historian David Thomas Konig referred to the ruling as ‘unquestionably, our court’s worst decision ever.’

Despite the victory of the Union in the civil war, the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment5, the granting of citizenship to all people born in America, regardless of race, with the 14th Amendment and the power to vote without consideration of previous servitude and race with the 15th Amendment , the African-Americans were still discriminated against, especially in the southern, former slave holding states that had fought against the rest of the nation in the civil war.

This discrimination then leads to the 1950’s and 1960’s, two decades in which the USA saw mass changes towards it African-American population, but this was not without mass struggle. These two decades saw the rise of many prominent African-Americans to popularity in the US, but many of them for their support and championing of African-American rights. In this essay, I will look at which multiple people who were involved in this civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s and assess the claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was the most influential factor on the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Firstly, I will be looking at Martin Luther King Jr., the most well-known activist of this era, he campaigned for peaceful protests against the laws and discrimination by the Government and people, inspired by work of Mohandas Gandhi in India . Secondly, I will look at Malcolm X, to consider if he was more influential than King. By character, he was a complete contrast, and believed that black people should rise up and fight the US Government and their white oppressors for their power, rather than peacefully protest . Finally, I will be looking at the claim that there is not one significant figure, but rather the acts of everyone involved allowed the movement to be a success and cause national change. In this section, I will be looking at multiple people involved and their individual impact, to show that although these people aren’t considered as important, there impact is potentially just as important as others like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These people are Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus , Jackie Robinson, Professional Baseball’s first African-American player , E.D. Nixon, who was instrumental in organising the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Thurgood Marshall, who was the first black person on the US Supreme Court .

Martin Luther King was born Michael King Jr. on January 15th, 1929, to Reverend Michael King Sr. and Alberta King. His father was prominent minister in Atlanta and in 1934 was sent to Berlin to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. Here, Michael King Sr. saw Wittenberg Castle Church, where German monk and theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517. Seeing this, and the rise of hatred and discrimination in Germany due to Hitler’s rising power, is what Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute, believes is the main reason for giving Michael King Sr. the idea of changing the name of him and his son .

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he was on the receiving end of many Jim Crow laws, including being forced into a ‘Negro’ school. He was also stopped from playing with a white friend as the child’s father no longer wanted his son playing with a black child . He had a very religious upbringing due to his father’s religious roots, and after studying sociology at the historically black Morehouse College and graduating in 1948, he became ordained as a minister after giving sermons at his father’s church at 17 before graduating Boston College with a PhD in Theology in 1955 . It was during this time frame where he was first introduced to the work of both Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were strong advocates for civil disobedience, which King campaigned with for is entire time as an activist.

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In ‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.’, this is significant influence is shown in the second chapter, where he says During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.… Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice ’

As shown in the extract, Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in multiple different peaceful protests against the institutional racism that was being suffered by African-American’s in their everyday lives, ranging from small scale sit-ins to large scale events such as the March on Washington, which had an estimated 250,000 attendees, with approximately 75% of those who attended bring black . It was also during this event that he gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, which is viewed by many as one of the greatest speeches of all time, ranking 1st of the greatest American speeches in the 20th in a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University, from opinions of 137 leading scholars of American public address .

King first major campaign was 8 years prior to the March on Washington, in 1955, where he was one of the key leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where, in protest of the bus laws which stated black people must give up their bus seat for a white person at the bus drivers discretion, even if their seat wasn’t in the designated ‘white person’ area of the bus, King and other activists did not use the bus services for 381 days, which was extremely detrimental for the bus service for which 75% of all passengers were African-Americans . This first major attempt at activism for Martin Luther King resulted in a ruling that Alabama’s bus segregation laws are unconstitutional and were outlawed. However, during the boycott, King’s house was firebombed, and this gave him a chance to preach his peaceful rhetoric, saying to angry people who had gathered outside his house: ‘If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword’.’

King also began to gain national fame at this time, and then spent the next few years using his support and fame to protest other acts of segregation across southern cities, he organised sit-ins where he and other black men would sit at ‘white’ lunch counters and would refuse to leave till they got served. They also began going on what became known as ‘freedom rides’, where groups would ride buses across the south, stopping at bus stations and using the white-only lunch counters, waiting rooms, and rest rooms, towards Birmingham, Alabama, which was arguably regarded as the most racist city in America .

In Birmingham, the Police Chief, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor would often boast about his ability to keep black people ‘in their place’. The city also had large scale segregation and King believed that defeating segregation here would be a large defeat for all segregation. In 1963, in Birmingham he led many protests. King and his supporters also refused to buy at downtown stores with segregated lunch counters and washrooms. The numbers protesting grew daily and resulted in many protesters being arrested, including King, where his release was organised by President Kennedy. In response, Police Chief Conner got tougher on the protesters, using clubs, dogs and fire hoses to protesters. However, when these images surfaced in mainstream media across America there was widespread outcry and this widespread attention led to King getting most of his demands met, including desegregated lunch counters and rest rooms in stores, more jobs available for blacks and a group of various races to work out a plan for desegregating Birmingham even further .

This success in Birmingham is what then led to the aforemented March on Washington, which, due to the increased support for the African-Americans, led President Kennedy to pressure Congress to begin creating a new civils rights bill. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, his former Vice-President, Lyndon B. Johnson, called for ‘The earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he [Kennedy] fought so long’ in his address to the Joint Session of Congress. This finally resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law’s provisions created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address race and sex discrimination in employment and a Community Relations Service to help local communities solve racial disputes; authorized federal intervention to ensure the desegregation of schools, parks, swimming pools, and other public facilities; and restricted the use of literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration, according to Stanford University’s King Institute , King was present alongside other Civil Rights Leaders to sign the Bill. King’s involvement in this, and his now global influence now resulted in him winning the Nobel Peace Prize that year, further showing the widespread of his success .

Though legally King had been successful in his battle, he continued to fight against social equality for others. He led voting drives in Alabama, which led to violence and police brutality, but eventually resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which further strengthened the rights of African-American’s given to them from the 15th Amendment . After this victory, King turned his attention to poverty for African-Americans as 1968 began, King had become influential within ‘The Poor People’s Campaign’, who were planning a second March on Washington . However, before King was able to see this happen, he was murdered while attending a sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis . After his death, the US Government did pass bills relating to poverty, but were based around Affirmative Action as opposed to King’s recommendation of race-blind guaranteed basic income for all, which he wrote in his final book, ‘Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?’ . This shows that despite all his successes, he still wasn’t always able to the get laws he believed in passed.

Approximately 200,000 people attended his funeral, according to the Daily Mail , and he was buried in Georgia. President Johnson made April 7th a national day of mourning, three days after his death on April 4th. In a 2005 poll, King was voted the 3rd greatest American of all time , and left behind a legacy of peace and inspiration, and his nonviolent protest and interracial cooperation enabled him to fight effectively against the Southern system of legalized racial segregation and discrimination, according to Clayborne Carson .

On the other hand, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, in Omaha, Nebraska, is a member of the Civil Rights Movement most known for his more controversial beliefs; he preached not for racial integration, like King, but for racial separation, due to his thought that black people should be allowed to manage their own lives without white people getting involved, which he spoke about in a speech in 1963, which as become knowns as ‘The Race Problem’ . His ideals of black superiority can be traced back to his childhood, where is father, who was murdered when Malcolm was 6, was a strong supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey . Like King however, X’s father was also a Baptist minister. Malcolm X himself rose to fame as a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), an Islamic based African-American group believing in the creation of black-only schools, churches, and support networks .

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Was Martin Luther King Jr. The Most Influential Factor On The American Civil Rights Movement? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/was-martin-luther-king-jr-the-most-influential-factor-on-the-american-civil-rights-movement/
“Was Martin Luther King Jr. The Most Influential Factor On The American Civil Rights Movement?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/was-martin-luther-king-jr-the-most-influential-factor-on-the-american-civil-rights-movement/
Was Martin Luther King Jr. The Most Influential Factor On The American Civil Rights Movement? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/was-martin-luther-king-jr-the-most-influential-factor-on-the-american-civil-rights-movement/> [Accessed 4 Oct. 2022].
Was Martin Luther King Jr. The Most Influential Factor On The American Civil Rights Movement? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2022 Oct 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/was-martin-luther-king-jr-the-most-influential-factor-on-the-american-civil-rights-movement/
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