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British Association for American Studies


John White, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement in America


John White, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement in America

BAAS Pamphlet No. 21 (First Published 1991)

ISBN: 0 946488 11 8
  1. Chronology
  2. The Civil Rights Impulse, 1932-1954
  3. Martin Luther King And Civil Rights In The South 1955-1965
    i. King and “Non-Violence”ii. Sit-Ins and Freedom Ridesiii. Albany and Birminghamiv. St. Augustine and Selma
  4. Beyond Civil Rights, 1966-1968
    i. Civil Rights and Civil Disordersii. Chicago and Black Poweriii. Vietnam and Poor People
  5. The Man And The Movement
  6. Guide to Further Reading
  7. Notes
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1. Chronology

Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia, 15 January.

Inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Implementation of the New Deal.

A. Philip Randolph calls for a March on Washington.
Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defence industries. Japanese attack U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour. U.S. Congress declares war on Japan. Germany and Italy declare war on U.S. Congress adopts war resolutions.

James Farmer, secretary of the Quaker/Pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation initiates the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Creation by Harry Truman of the Presidential Committee on Civil Rights.

Truman addresses NAACP rally in Washington, D.C.

Martin Luther King ordained as a Baptist minister.
King graduates with a BA in sociology from Morehouse College.
Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
Formation of the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party, pledged to uphold racial segregation, with Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential candidate.

Blacks boycott buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
King marries Coretta Scott in Marion, Alabama.
Supreme Court in Terry v. Adams, rules that segregated primary elections violate the fourteenth amendment.

Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Organization of white “Citizens Council” in Mississippi to oppose desegregation.
King takes up pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery.

Supreme Court orders “prompt and reasonable start” toward school desegregation.
King receives Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University.
Mrs Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, is arrested on 1 December in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refuses to relinquish her seat to a white passenger.
Montgomery boycott begins. King elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

Bombing of King’s home in Montgomery.
King arrested on speeding charge.
MIA files suit against city’s bus segregation laws. Boycott leaders indicted by grand jury. 100 senators and congressmen issue the “Southern Manifesto” pledging to use “all lawful means” to overturn the Brown decision.
King convicted of leading an illegal boycott.
Federal district court rules in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s bus segregation laws are unconstitutional; decision upheld by Supreme Court in November.
End of Montgomery boycott, 20 December.

Founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as president.
Eisenhower uses paratroops during Little Rock school desegregation crisis.
1957 Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote.

King arrested in Montgomery.
Publication of King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom.
King survives a stabbing in New York City.

King visits India.

Beginning of the “sit-in” movement, Greensboro, N.C.
Founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina, addressed by King.
Civil Rights Act of 1960 provides for court enforcement of voting rights.
King arrested and jailed after a sit-in at an Atlanta store; freed after intervention by the Kennedy brothers.
Election of John F. Kennedy.

CORE-sponsored “Freedom Rides” met with white violence in the South.
Arrest of King in Albany, Georgia.

Federal troops sent to University of Mississippi after riots over admission of James Meredith.
FBI begins “Communist infiltration” surveillance of SCLC.

SCLC demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.
King writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
The march on Washington and King’s “I have a Dream” oration.
Voter registration drives in the South.
Assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.
Bomb kills four black girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama.

Three civil rights workers-James Chaney (black), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (white)-abducted and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
SCLC campaign in St. Augustine, Florida.
Passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act.
King receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.
J. Edgar Hoover publicly condemns King.
Riots in Harlem, Jersey City and Philadelphia.

Assassination of Malcolm X.
SCLC voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.
“Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus bridge, 7 March.
Lyndon Johnson addresses the nation and declares “We Shall Overcome”.
Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Passage of 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Racial riot in Watts, Los Angeles.

SNCC condemns U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
SCLC and King in Chicago.
Shooting of James Meredith on his “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.
Emergence of the “Black Power” slogan during SCLC, SNCC and CORE continuation of the Meredith march.
Major “civil disorders” in Cleveland and Chicago.

King opposes the Vietnam war and joins the peace demonstrations.
Further “civil disorders” in Newark and Detroit.
King’s announcement of the projected “Poor People’s Campaign”.

Lyndon Johnson declares that he will not seek re-election.
King leads sanitation workers march in Memphis, Tennessee. King returns to Memphis and is assassinated by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, 4 April.
Ralph D. Abernathy succeeds him as SCLC president.
Riots across America, resulting in thirty-nine deaths and 14,000 arrests.
Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in housing. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders reports “white racism” as the cause of urban riots.
“Resurrection City” erected and dismantled in Washington, D.C. End of Poor People’s Campaign.

Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously to Dr. King.

Martin Luther King’s birthday observed as an American national holiday.

2. The Civil Rights Impulse, 1932-1954

The civil rights movement—the concerted effort to gain greater social, political and economic equality for black Americans—was one of the greatest reform impulses of the twentieth century.[1] Among its seminal victories were the Supreme Court decision of 1954, which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56, subsequent demonstrations throughout the South against persisting racial discrimination, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The civil rights coalition included the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Operating at the local and national levels, these organizations (and their affiliates) employed various strategies-litigation and lobbying, the registration and mobilization of black voters, and various forms of direct action-aimed at effecting social change. During the 1960s, as civil rights strategy shifted from the legalism and pressure group tactics of the NAACP and the NUL to the direct action campaign of CORE, SCLC and SNCC, serious rivalries developed among what were, in effect, competing elements of an uneasy alliance of disparate groups, united only in their concern for racial advancement. The movement had its greatest impact in the South, where under the inspirational and unifying leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African-Americans (and their white allies) employed the tactics of “non-violent” confrontation against the enforcers of racial segregation and white supremacy. Initially concerned to achieve civil (and constitutionally sanctioned) rights for Negroes that were regarded as legitimate by many white Americans, some elements of the movement came to demand less readily attainable (and more resolutely resisted) measures involving housing, welfare and employment policies. Black militants also began to formulate incisive-and un­popular-critiques of American capitalism and militarism.

The career of Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplifies this shift from reformism to radicalism in the dynamic of a crusade which directly and indirectly inspired other notable protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s: the campaigns for Indian, Chicano, Gay and Womens’ rights; the anti-poverty and anti-war movements. The civil rights movement, often dated from the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56, was, in fact, a consequence of the New Deal administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and events during and immediately after World War II.

New Deal legislation and the proliferation of relief and welfare agencies—improvised but innovative federal responses to the crisis of the Great Depression—brought tangible benefits to blacks in the North and the South, secured their future loyalties to the Democratic party, and prompted them to demand such additional measures as improved recreational and educational facilities, federal legislation to outlaw lynching, the elimination of discrimination in the civil service and armed forces, and the unrestricted use of the suffrage. On the eve of American involvement in World War II, black protest organizations united in demanding full and equal participation in the military, and an end to discriminatory practices in the defence industries. Early in 1941, the black socialist leader and labour organizer, A. Philip Randolph, called for an all-black march to Washington, D.C., to exert mass pressure on the administration for an end to all forms of racial discrimination. Roosevelt, faced by this prospect, issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, which only stipulated that there should be no discrimination in the defence industries “because of race, creed, or national origin”. But the March on Washington Movement, an index of black militancy during the war years, anticipated later forms of black protest, as did the Detroit race riot of 1943, a portent of the urban “civil disorders” of the 1960s. Again, CORE, an interracial pacifist organization, founded in 1942, pioneered later forms of non-violent direct action when in 1943 it staged a “sit-in” at a Chicago restaurant which had refused to serve blacks. In 1947, CORE sponsored a “Journey of Reconciliation”—a forerunner of the 1961 Freedom Rides-through the Upper South, to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia, prohibiting segregated interstate bus transportation.

Within the South itself there were also signs of black assertiveness during the war years. A report by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics observed that in one Mississippi county, there was “a feeling of discontent and a growing consciousness of exclusion from social, economic, and political participation.” Black preachers were taking the lead and their churches had “become the means here and there for encouraging Negroes to resist the controls which the land lord has held over them. Ideas about ‘rights’ are being introduced in a few instances to Negro sharecroppers through Negro preachers and their educated white and Negro friends.”[2] Demographic shifts of the New Deal and World War II years underwrote and intensified African-American demands for change. The migration of blacks out of the rural South to the urbanized-industrialized Northern states increased their economic opportunities, and strengthened the more progressive wing of the Democratic party in sympathy with Negro aspirations. During the war, the black press in America adopted the “Double V” slogan-calling for victory abroad over the Axis powers, and victory at home over racial discrimination.[3] Most importantly, after 1945, demobilized black veterans (over 1 million served in the segregated armed forces between 1941 and 1945), were not prepared to return to the racial status quo, and took full advantage of the educational and welfare provisions of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944-the “G.I. Bill of Rights”. But in the South, schools and most educational facilities were rigidly segregated. As Constance Baker Motley, an attorney for the NAACP Defence and Educational Fund, recalled:

The issue of segregation loomed large during the war and the war effort. Here we were as a nation involved in a war to make the world safe for democracy, and one of the embarrassing features was that blacks were segregated in our armed forces, and they resented it . . . After World War II, as a result of the activity of black servicemen, really, the whole attitude in the country about the race relations problem changed. The NAACP’s strategy for attacking segregation through the Legal Defense Fund was revitalized and extended after World War II. . . Eventually it led to the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case in 1954.[4]

World War II created a climate in which blacks (and some whites) perceived possibilities for decisive changes in the pattern of American race relations that had remained virtually frozen since the late nineteenth century. From the 1890s until the 1940s, southern blacks were, for all practical purposes, power less and frighteningly vulnerable to white aggression. Excluded from decision-making positions in all institutions and agencies which served the white community, they were segregated in all public facilities, deprived of the franchise by intimidation and fraud, and became the victims of lynch mobs. (Between 1882 and 1953, at least 3,275 blacks were lynched in the South). Whatever influence black spokesmen and women exercised was channeled through white intermediaries, who offered only minimal concessions to requests for better facilities and services. After 1945, black aspirations—which had risen higher and faster than actual black advances—began to embrace goals which ran directly counter to accepted southern white mores and customs.

Increasingly, southern blacks (and their northern allies) protested against segregation and the grosser forms of racial etiquette which relegated all blacks (regardless of age, sex or occupation) to a permanently subordinate position within a rigidly defined caste system. Returning veterans supported voting campaigns in the South, and between 1940 and 1947 the number of blacks registered to vote increased from 2% to 12% (although black voting was primarily an urban phenomenon). Outside the South, the black vote had become an important factor in national elections, and in 1940, the Democratic party platform contained a plank which addressed the issues of due process and equal protection under the law for Negroes. Postwar executive leadership was provided by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman who, out of expediency rather than personal conviction, supported measures to abolish the poll tax, the passage of anti-lynching legislation and the creation of a Committee on Civil Rights. In its report, the Committee dennounced all forms of segregation and discrimination, and proposed laws to protect the rights of qualified voters and the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission. Truman—the first president to address the NAACP—endorsed these proposals but in the 1948 Presidential Election tried to appease southern white Democrats on racial issues. He also campaigned in Harlem, and won his (surprise) election with decisive black support in California, Illinois and Ohio.[5]

Truman’s commitment to civil rights was actually very thin. Despite his issuance of two executive orders in 1948—calling for an end to segregation in the military, and creating a fair employment board to eliminate segregation in the civil service-little was achieved in the short term. Despite southern influence in Congress (due to the seniority system, southern congressmen were regularly returned by their white constituents and chaired the most important committees), more could have been done under Truman to bring about the rapid desegregation of the armed forces and, through the use of justice Department attorneys, to prosecute violators of black civil rights in the South.

But, during the same period, the United States Supreme Court was beginning to take steps on behalf of blacks. In 1938, the Court had made an intitial move against the doctrine of “separate but equal” (enshrined in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision), when it ruled that, in failing to provide a law school for blacks, the state of Missouri was in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution; in a 1950 decision, the Court ordered the state of Texas to admit blacks to the university law school. NAACP attorneys, together with sympathetic (black and white) historians and sociologists, pushed the Court increasingly on the “separate but equal” principle. In 1954, Earl Warren, appointed as Supreme Court justice by President Eisenhower, handed down the historic Brown decision which held that separate educational facilities for white and blacks were “inherently unequal” and, in the following year, ordered school desegregation to proceed with “all deliberate speed”. These rulings provoked determined and well­organized opposition in the South, where Virginia took the lead in devising a programme of “massive resistance” to school desegregation. Southern conservatives opposed to racial change correctly saw the significance of Brown, a decision more sweeping in its implications than earlier Court rulings on desegregation in higher education. As the southern white historian C. Vann Woodward—who assisted the NAACP attorneys in the case—comments, Brown “appeared to remove the constitutional underpinnings of the whole segregation system and strike at the foundations of Jim Crow law. It was the most momentous and far-reaching decision of the century in civil rights.”[6]

Unfortunately, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was himself largely indifferent if not actively hostile to civil rights for blacks. In 1956, he campaigned in the South in an attempt to win segregationist votes in his (successful) bid for re-election. Ironically, given his lack of enthusiasm for the Brown decision, Eisenhower was compelled to use executive power to implement the ruling when, in September 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas carried defiance of the Court to the point of using state militia to halt token integration at Little Rock High School. Faubus withdrew the troops on court order, but when hysterical white mobs forced the removal of nine black children, Eisenhower ordered in federal troops to enforce the law. Yet, despite the use of force, Little Rock high schools were closed in 1958-59, and blacks were never actually admitted until August 1959. During the last three years of Eisenhower’s administration, the number of southern school districts desegregating even in token ways fell sharply, as state governors employed a variety of means-providing state funds to enable any white student “threatened” with integration to attend a private school, allowing any school district to close its doors if integration occurred against community wishes—to circumvent and effectively nullify the Brown rulings.[7]

In contrast, blacks welcomed Brown and were encouraged to press not only for its full implementation but for other civil rights demands. Bayard Rustin, the first field secretary of CORE, and later adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that:

when the Supreme Court came out with the Brown decision in ’54, things began rapidly to move . . . What made ’54 so unusual was that the Supreme Court . . . decision established black people as being citizens with the rights of all other citizens. Once that happened, then it was very easy for the militancy, which had been building up, to express itself in the Montgomery bus boycott of ’55-’56 [8]

During the early 1950s, public opinion polls revealed that blacks were generally optimistic that their condition would improve markedly within a short time. From 1947 to 1954, according to a United States Census study, the median income of black families more than doubled, while increasing numbers of blacks attended college. Yet those gains were largely confined to the black middle class, who were also the main supporters of such established and “traditional” civil rights organizations as the NUL and the NAACP (Some critics remarked that the second acronym stood for the “National Association for the Advancement of Certain people”). Within the South, however, there were signs that a more militant black leadership was emerging that was also beginning to attract mass support.

Sociologists, historians and political scientists have offered differing interpretations of the underlying impulse behind the civil rights movement which accelerated (and became increasingly visible) after 1954. Richard King, for example, accepts the conventional explanations for the emergence of the civil rights movement after Brown: continuing out-migration of southern blacks, increasing prosperity and growing urbanization within the South itself, the greater involvement of black churches and colleges in civil rights issues, the militancy of a younger generation of student activists, the continuing pressures of the NAACP and CORE. However, he has argued persuasively that “what was unique about the civil rights movement was not just that it sought to destroy segregation and disfranchisement in the South. Rather, the uniqueness of the movement lay in its attempt to establish a new sense of individual and collective self among Southern black people through political mobilization and participation.” Psychological “freedom”—from fear, oppression and release from the “invisibility” forced on African­Americans by their separate but decidedly unequal status in the eyes of most whites—was “the animating impulse behind and within the actions of the movement.”[9] Other commentators have suggested that because of its ability to mobilize external resources—those of philanthropic foundations, organized labour, existing black organizations (particularly churches and colleges), political elites, the courts and, utimately the federal government—a civil rights coalition, employing a variety of strategies, emerged during the mid-1950s. Another view, premised on classical theories of collective behaviour, asserts that the civil rights movement was the consequence of strains and tensions within the existing socio-political system, which produced relatively spontaneous and disorganized action in response to particular situations.[10]

None of these explanations are mutually exclusive, and need to be applied to particular situations. Other scholars have demonstrated that at the local level, black movements developed and operated independently of the national civil rights organizations, producing their own self-reliant, indigenous leaders who pursued goals and formulated strategies often at variance with those of the nationally—known black leadership.[11] Again, the inception of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which brought Martin Luther King to international attention, has frequently been credited entirely to his initiative. In fact, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, the assertive and active head of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, together with E. D. Nixon, president of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, were the prime movers in calling for a one-day boycott of the city’s bus lines following the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks (herself a civil rights activist) on 1 December, 1955, when she refused the driver’s order to vacate her seat to a white man. A group of local ministers then formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to direct and coordinate what became a 382-day boycott of the City Lines bus company, owned by the Chicago-based National City Lines. Robinson and Nixon shrewdly recognized that Montgomery’s blacks could be more effectively organized for mass protest through the indigenous black church-which bridged social classes and political factions, and provided meeting places and fund-raising facilities-than through a purely secular movement. But, in effect, Montgomery’s black clergy were presented with a fait accompli—a mimeographed leaflet calling for a boycott of the bus company had been distributed among the black community—and as Mrs. Robinson later reflected after her circular was made public:

It was then that the ministers decided it was time for them, the leaders, to catch up with the masses . . . Had they not done so, they might have alienated themselves from their cong­regations.[12]

After some discussion, Martin Luther King, Jr., a twenty-six-year-old minister of the black middle-class Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, who had arrived in Montgomery only a year before, was unanimously elected to preside over the MIA. A month before this momentous nomination, King (who was anxious to complete his doctoral dissertation at Boston University) had refused the presidency of the city chapter of the NAACP, had not engaged in any civil rights activity, and had not even met Mrs. Parks. Yet on several counts, as E. D. Nixon recognized, the young minister was an ideal choice: as a relative newcomer, he was not involved in the factionalism of local black politics, and had therefore not been compromised by any dealings with the white community. Again, he was seen to possess personal and educational qualities essential in a leader who would have to conduct negotiations with the white establishment. In other respects, however, King was an unknown quantity, and was certainly surprised to be chosen as the MIA’s chief officer. As he later wrote, the election “caught me unawares. It happened so quickly I did not even have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination”.[13]

King’s inspirational direction of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the events which followed from it, made him the most famous-and increasingly controversial-black leader of the civil rights movement in America.

3. Martin Luther King and Civil Rights in the South, 1955-1965

King and “Non-Violence”
Throughout the Montgomery bus boycott, King, as leader of the MIA—whose initial requests, reflecting those of the boycott two years earlier by blacks in Baton Rouge, were for the improvement rather than the abolition of segregated seating arrangements on the city’s buses—stressed that the protest, whatever the provocations, must be peaceful. Many commentators have observed that King fashioned his concept of non-violent resistence to unjust laws from his undergraduate reading of Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay Civil Disobedience and his later awareness of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s campaigns against British rule in India. These ideas and examples, it is suggested, were grafted on to King’s fundamental belief-partly based on the writings of the Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch and the teachings of Benjamin E. Mays at Morehouse College in Atlanta-that the church should concern itself with social conditions, as well as with the salvation of souls. Other authorities argue that King’s philosophy of non-violent resistance derived essentially from his African-American Baptist heritage and belief that, through collective and redemptive suffering, blacks would demonstrate the morality of their cause and convert their oppressors.[14] Although non-violence was to prove effective as a strategy in limiting white violence against civil rights demonstrators, King’s insistence on the need to love one’s oppressor was misunderstood—or rejected—by many blacks. In the event, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated by the Supreme Court’s affirmation of a decision by the United States District Court that Alabama’s local and state laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional. King viewed the decision as a victory for the strategy of non-violent protest, and in 1957, along with other black clergymen and with the advice of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison (a white New York attorney), formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to spread and coordinate nonviolent civil rights protest across the South.[15] Rooted firmly in the black church, the SCLC was the institutional embodiment of King’s belief in non-violent protest, while the organization itself deliberately capitalized on his growing fame and prestige.

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
The SCLC’s original aim of spreading the Mongomery example by supporting similar boycotts in other cities met with little success, while in Montgomery itself, the MIA was largely ineffective in challenging other forms of discrimination. It was the “sit-in” movement, pioneered at Greensboro, North Carolina in Februrary 1960, when four black students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and demanded service, that inaugurated a new (and more aggressive) phase of civil rights struggle. The Greensboro strategy quickly spread, and there were “wade-ins” at municipal swimming pools and segregated beaches, “pray-ins” at segregated churches and “stand-ins” at theatres which refused admission to blacks. Many of the young activists had been inspired by the example of Montgomery’s blacks in sustaining their 382-day boycott, and had read King’s account of the protest, Stride Toward Freedom. The SCLC itself was unprepared for the sit-in protests, but their attendant publicity convinced King that other forms of direct action could be used to defeat segregation in the South. The founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed by leaders of the student protest after consultation with King and SCLC leaders in April 1960, added another element to the movement and, for a time, appeared to indicate that his pacifist approach was endorsed by the younger generation of activists. The SCLC was again taken by surprise when in 1961 CORE sponsored and directed a series of “Freedom Rides” into the South—to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which extended its earlier ruling against segregation on interstate transportation to cover terminal accommodations and facilities. The Freedom Riders met with white violence in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and, in the last instance, prompted a reluctant Kennedy administration to mobilize 600 U.S. marshals to protect the demonstrators. James Colaiaco observes that:

The Freedom Rides supplied an important strategic lesson for King and the SCLC: in order to arouse public sympathy sufficient to pressure the federal govenment to enforce civil rights in the states and localities, white racists had to be provoked to use violence against non-violent protestors.[16]

The Freedom Rides also exacerbated growing tensions between SCLC and SNCC concerning the viability and efficacy of non-violent resistance in the face of white aggression.

Albany and Birmingham
During 1961-62, SCLC (already engaged in an ineffective voter registration drive under the leadership of its temporary executive director, Ella Baker), was invited to Albany, Georgia by Dr. William G. Anderson, the leader of the “Albany Movement”, to assist a local protest campaign aimed at ending segregation in all the city’s public facilities and securing fair employment opportunities for blacks. SNCC field workers, already active in Albany, did not welcome the SCLC presence and were openly critical of King’s “charismatic” leadership style. Uninformed about the situation in Albany, King and the SCLC were shrewdly outmanoeuvered by police chief Laurie Prichett, who exercised restraint against the protectors and, on several occasions, arranged for King’s release from jail, thus depriving the protest of vital publicity, and precluding any prospect of federal intervention. David Lewis notes that: “In Laurie Pritchett, King met a travestied image of himself-a nonviolent segregationist law officer.” As Andrew Young, who had recently joined the SCLC staff, later conceded:

The weakness of the Albany Movement was that it was totally unplanned and [SCLC] were totally unprepared. It was a miscalculation on the part of a number of people that a spontaneous appearance by Martin Luther King could bring change . . . It was the planning, the organizing, the strategy that he brought with him that brought change.[17]

The lessons of Albany were well-learned, and carefully implemented during the SCLC’s 1962-63 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the most rigidly segregated city in the South (and its largest industrial centre). When the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, invited King to the city, the SCLC leadership, now under the able direction of Wyatt T. Walker, planned to create a crisis that would compel the city fathers to negotiate four basic demands: desegregation of lunch counters and store facilities, amnesty for protestors already jailed, the hiring of blacks in local government and businesses, and the formation of a biracial committee to devise a timetable for the complete desegregation of remaining segregated facilities. Boycotts and sit-ins of downtown stores were to be combined with disruptive marches, and Walker collected the names and addresses of over 300  Birmingham residents prepared to go to jail. A. G. Gaston, a local black entrepreneur, provided the campaign with rent-free accommodation at his hotel, nightly mass meetings were held in the city’s black churches, and outside support was organized by the actor Harry Belafonte. What the Birmingham campaign needed, however, was publicity and media attention. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the commissioner of police-who had earlier closed the city’s parks to blacks in order to prevent their integration-obliged with arrests of hundreds of demonstrators (including King) and vicious attacks with police dogs and fire hoses on the black schoolchildren recruited by SCLC’s James Bevel. American public opinion was outraged by the events in Birmingham depicted on television and, with the arrival of Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, a compromise settlement (opposed by Shuttlesworth but endorsed by King) was reached. The agreement fell short of the original SCLC demands; but there is strong evidence to suggest that Birmingham businessmen, fearful of the disruptive effects of continuing demonstrations, persuaded city leaders to agree to the gradual desegregation of facilities in shops and stores. Again, the SCLC’s campaign persuaded the Kennedy administration of the need for civil rights legislation. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, ultimately secured passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, provisions of which gave the executive powers to withdraw federal funds from state and local governments practicing discrimination.

It was during the Birmingham demonstrations that King, in his famous “Letter from Birmingham jail”, castigated eight of the city’s white clergymen who had published a statement attacking the SCLC’s campaign as unnecessary and ill-timed. A classic explication of civil rights and nonviolence, King’s “Letter” reiterated his belief in resistance to unjust laws, denied that non-violence was synonymous with extremism, and warned that black disaffection had already produced such separatist groups as the Black Muslims [the Nation of Islam], composed “of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable ‘devil”‘. In contrast, King presented himself as a responsible moderate, standing between “these two forces saying that we need not follow the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.”[18] The Birmingham campaign increased King’s stature as perceived by whites and blacks. A Newsweek opinion poll revealed that 95% of blacks now regarded King as their most successful spokesman. King’s presence and his oratorical skills were both dramatically demonstrated during the March on Washington of August 1963, the climax (to its critics, the nadir) of the civil rights movement, when a quarter of a million people converged on the capital to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill. (Originally conceived by A. Philip Randolph as a two-day mass protest to dramatize black unemployment, the projected “March” became a one day rally which passed off without incident). On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his “I have a Dream” oration—one of the great speeches of the twentieth century. Although he had made use of the “dream” imagery in a speech in Detroit two months earlier, the cadences of King’s delivery, and the repetition of its central image-rather like that of a skilled jazz improviser—visibly moved his audience. William H. Johnson, a World War II veteran and New York City policeman, who acted as a security guard during the March, remembered:

I was enthralled by Dr. King’s speech . . . It made me reflect upon my army service. It made me angry about what I had suffered overseas at the hands of my white compatriots . . . But Dr. King brought to life the hope that . . . one day we could smooth out our differences.[19]

Others disagreed: Julius Lester, a field secretary of SNCC, later scathingly observed that the March on Washington and King’s keynote address were:

a great inspiration to those who think something is being accomplished by having black bodies next to white ones. The March was nothing but a giant therapy session that allowed Dr. King to orate about his dreams of a nigger eating at the same table with some Georgia cracker, while most black folks just dreamed about eating.[20]

In 1964 King appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and in the accompanying article was credited with “an indescribable empathy that is the touchstone of leadership”—an opinion which the Luce publication, in the light of King’s later critique of American involvement in Vietnam, would severely modify. In the same year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Significantly, in his Nobel acceptance speech King linked the American civil rights movement with the larger causes of world peace and human rights. Ironically, he was already under investigation by the FBI following J. Edgar Hoover’s directive to keep the SCLC under close surveillance because of its alleged infiltration by Communists (and because of King’s extra-marital activities). Attorney General Robert Kennedy, convinced that Stanley Levison, King’s associate and advisor, was an active member of the American Communist party, authorized FBI wiretraps on King.

St. Augustine and Selma
King’s “dream” of racial harmony received a rude awakening with the defeat of the proposed civil rights bill by a southern filibuster, and by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham on 15 September, 1963 which killed four young black girls. But following the assassination in Dallas of President Kennedy on 22 November, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, asked Congress in January 1964 to pass the stalled civil rights bill as a memorial to the late President. The civil rights coalition resolved to put added pressure on Congress to adopt the measure by further demonstrations in the South. The SCLC selected St. Augustine, Florida—the oldest community in America—and already in the news because of its approaching 400th anniversary celebrations, as its target. As in Birmingham, SCLC’s strategy was to apply economic pressure that would force the business community and local authorities to desegregate the city’s public accommodations and institute fair employment policies—including the hirings of blacks by the police and fire departments. But the collusion of local law enforcement officers (some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan) with white mobs who attacked King and the Reverend Andrew Young as they led the protests, and the refusal of the Florida state governor to obey a federal court injunction protecting the right of peaceful protest in St. Augustine, effectively weakened the SCLC campaign. Again, despite his announced sympathies for civil rights goals, Lyndon Johnson feared that federal intervention in St. Augustine would hurt the Democratic party in the forthcoming national election at a time when the ultra conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, was gaining the support of Democrats in the Deep South.

Although the SCLC’s St. Augustine campaign did not achieve its immediate goals, it kept black protest at the forefront of national (and international) attention—Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, featured a photograph of the violence in St. Augustine-and further dramatized the need for passage of civil rights legislation. King himself witnessed the signing of the historic Civil Rights Act by President Johnson in the White House on 2 July, 1964. Covering all areas of life and concerned with de facto as well as de lure segregation, the 1964 act—the public accommodations sections of which were confirmed as constitutional by a Supreme Court decision of 14 December—was regarded by the SCLC as a victory for direct action protest. It quickly became evident, however, that such devices as the poll tax, literacy tests and actual intimidation were making it difficult (and dangerous) for blacks attempting to register to vote in the South. Early in 1963, the various elements in the civil rights coalition joined with the National Council of Churches to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to help blacks register in Mississippi. The murders of three SNCC student workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, served notice that many southern whites remained implacably opposed to political equality for African-Americans. It also increased tensions between SCLC and the more radical elements—SNCC and CORE—involved in voter registration campaigns, tensions that were to become increasingly evident during SCLC’s campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Already ridiculed by SNCC activists for what was regarded as his excessive religiosity, his insistence on non-violent protest and tendency to compromise, King was also regarded as remote from the local, grassroots protests that were escalating across the South. Again, the SCLC was alleged to promote confrontations between civil rights protestors and southern authorities, gain valuable publicity in the media, and then leave the scene with local demands unresolved.

In Selma, King and the SCLC hoped to provoke local law enforcement officials—notably the brutal and avowedly racist sheriff Jim Clark—into attacking and arresting demonstrators. After armed posseemen and Alabama State troopers charged marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday”, King issued an appeal for help, and hundreds of clergymen and lay persons from all over the country joined the protest. When King complied with a federal court injunction against a proposed march from Selma to Montgomery, SNCC field workers were appalled. When the injunction was lifted, and after President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, King led the historic march to Montgomery, where on 25 March he spoke to 25,000 people from the steps of the state capitol. The violent events in the Selma campaign-including the fatal beating by whites of a Unitarian minister, James Reeb, a participant in the march, and the murder by four Klansmen of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife and mother who had driven some marchers back to Selma, caused national outrage, and prompted President Johnson to convene a joint session of Congress and announce his intention of sending it a voting rights bill. His televised assertion that “it is not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome!” thus appeared to vindicate and endorse the strategy and objectives of militant non-violent direct action in Selma. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy and other “tests”, southern blacks—95 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution-were finally guaranteed the fundamental right to register and vote. The Selma campaign, in retrospect, was King’s finest hour, and as one of his biographers observes:

The march from Selma had brought the Negro protest movement full circle, since it had all begun with the Montgomery bus boycott a decade before.[21]

The legality, morality and justice of the movement’s struggle for civil rights and liberties, personified by the example of King’s leadership, appeared to many Americans as incontrovertible. Moreover, the unremitting hostility of southern whites to even minimal changes in race relations had brought the powerful support of the Lyndon Johnson administration to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans. But with their appeals for constitutional rights largely secured, blacks came to demand more fundamental changes which challenged both American domestic and foreign policies, and threatened the continued existence of the civil rights coalition itself. By 1965, some members of the SCLC appeared uncertain of what direction they should now take. James Bevel sums up this feeling with his observation that: “There is no more civil rights movement. President Johnson signed it out of existence when he signed the voting-rights bill.”[22] Public opinion polls indicated that increasing numbers of whites believed that blacks ought to be satisfied with their recent gains. Aware of these trends, King commented that: “The paths of Negro­white unity that have been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge.”[23]

4. Beyond Civil Rights, 1966-1968

Civil Rights and Civil Disorders
By 1966, what Milton Viorst has called the “reformist phase” of the civil rights movement was over.[24] The formal practices of segregation had been ended by the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act appeared to guarantee that blacks could no longer be denied the ballot in the South. But King was to complain that the Voting Rights Act did not receive adequate federal support and enforcement, while the SNCC became committed to independent black political organizations like the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. During the Selma protest, following the murder of a black youth, Jimmie Lee Jackson, in Marion, Alabama, King made a cutting reference to the “timidity of the federal government that is willing to spend millions of dollars a day to defend freedom in Vietnam but cannot protect the rights of its citizens at home.”[25] SNCC and CORE were also to denounce American policy in Vietnam; the older members of the coalition—the NAACP and NUL—regarded the war as irrelevant to the movement and (correctly) argued that opposition to it would alienate President Johnson’s support for civil rights. At the same time, King was also expressing concern about the poverty, despair and anger of urban blacks, who cited federal indifference, exploitation by white merchants and police brutality as major grievances.

In August 1965, following an incident in which a policeman attacked a bystander on the edge of a crowd which had gathered to protest a traffic violation arrest, the black ghetto of Watts, a suburb of Los Angeles, erupted in a racial riot. Thirty-four people were killed, 900 injured, and damage to property was estimated at over $40 million.

(When King visited the scene of the rioting, he discovered that many of Watts’ residents had never heard of him and regarded his attempts at mediation with hostility). The following year, forty-three more urban riots occurred, with the most serious disturbances in Cleveland and Chicago. In 1967, there were eight major riots, the worst of which were in Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Otto Kerner, a former governor of Illinois, reported that the riots were not the result of organized conspiracy but of black unemployment, inadequate housing and educational facilities and oppressive police tactics. It recommended massive federal spending to improve the conditions and quality of life for ghetto residents, and asserted somberly:

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. Our society is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate but unequal.[26]

For the three remaining years of his life,. King concerned himself with the issues of persistent racism, “civil disorders”, urban decay, poverty and American militarism, all of which, he believed, were intimately related.

Chicago and Black Power
In 1966, despite the disapproval of many of his advisers, King decided to take the SCLC into Chicago to stage a nonviolent demonstration against segregated slum housing, de facto school segregation, black unemployment and job discrimination. (Three years earlier, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, a coalition of civic, religious and civil rights groups, had challenged persisting segregation in Chicago’s public schools). But, on all counts, the SCLC was unprepared for the formidable problems it would face in Chicago. Ill-prepared and inadequately briefed, SCLC workers did not even possess appropriate clothing for the severe Chicago winter. Richard J. Daley, the city’s autocratic mayor, was a consummate politician, and a major figure in the national Democratic party. As the Reverend Arthur Brazier, leader of the South Side Woodlawn Association observed:

King decided to come to Chicago because he thought Chicago was unique in that there was one man, one source of power, who you had to deal with. He knew this wasn’t the case in New York or in any other city. He thought if Daley could be persuaded on the rightness of open housing and integrated schools that things would be done .[27]

King’s perception of Daley’s power was correct; his faith that Daley was amenable to reason was misplaced. Although he treated King with every outward sign of respect and cordiality, Daley was not prepared to see his city disrupted by SCLC demonstrations, with all their attendant publicity. Andrew Young later reflected that initially SCLC did not regard Daley as an enemy, but quickly began to realize that his interests were fundamentally opposed to those of the Chicago Movement:

Mayor Daley was trying to keep together a political machine. We were trying to get more registered voters. He saw too many registered [black] voters as being more than he could control. He saw the movement as a direct threat to his machine. We saw the machine as the basis of the slums, of the poverty, of the exploitation of black folk.[28]

When King, in an attempt to dramatize Chicago’s housing crisis, moved into a dilapidated and rat-infested apartment block, Daley sent in building inspectors who handed out slum violation notices to landlords-regardless of their political affiliations. When King led a march into Chicago’s blue-collar suburbs and encountered violent opposition from white residents, Daley charged SCLC with encouraging rioting. If King was unprepared for Daley’s obfuscating tactics, he was also unprepared for the intensity of racial animosity which SCLC demonstrations provoked. His courage here, as on other occasions, did not falter. Ralph Abernathy, who would succeed King as head of the SCLC, later recalled:

In Chicago, where we encountered the largest and most hostile crowd in our long experience, it was Martin who overrode the fears of the other staff members and moved to the head of the line to lead the march into the suburb of Gage Park.[29]

Again, despite some successes by SCLC’s Jesse Jackson in forming “Operation Breadbasket”-consumer boycotts organized with the help of local black ministers against Chicago employers practicing racial discrimination-SCLC discovered that urban preachers lacked the influence and prestige they traditionally enjoyed in the South, and that the black church was less effective as a command and organizing centre for protest movements. Above all, the sheer scale and complexity of urban problems eclipsed the resources, human and financial, of the SCLC. Although the Chicago Freedom Movement ostensibly succeeded in persuading Daley to concede an open housing agreement with the city’s real estate and banking interests, it achieved little in practice, and was disavowed by Daley after his election to a fourth term of office in 1967.[30]

King’s apparent failure in Chicago caused him to reconsider his beliefs about American capitalism and the processes of change. It also brought hirri renewed criticism from younger elements of the civil rights coalition, including James Farmer of CORE and Stokely Carmichael of SNCC. The SCLC’s strategy of passive resistance was contemptuously dismissed as myopic, and both CORE and SNCC were beginning to move away from purely civil rights issues to demands for economic fights, self-determination for African-Americans and rejection of alliances with white liberals. In this they were influenced by former Black Muslim minister Malcolm X’s newly-formulated programme of black nationalism and political activism and its rejection of integration as either an attainable or even desirable goal. Persistent violence against blacks intensified the disaffection of many younger activists with what they saw as the conservatism—if not the cowardice—of the movement’s older, established leadership in general, and of King in Particular.

The growing division between SCLC and SNCC became vividly apparent during James Meredith’s one-man “March Against Fear” in June 1966. In 1962, Meredith had become the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, but only after riots on the campus which resulted in the loss of two lives, the injury of 375 people, and President Kennedy’s Use of 600 United States marshals and 15,000 federalized national guardsmen to restore order. In 1966, Meredith (always a lone figure), decided to walk from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to demonstrate that, if he could cover this distance safely, black southerners need not fear walking much shorter distances to the polling booths during what was a primary election week. After Meredith was shot arid wounded by a white sniper, King joined with Stokely Carmichael Meredith’s Power” to characterize the emphasis on independent political action by the movement’s militants produced an enthusiastic response when he informed a crowd at Greenwood, Mississippi:

The only way we gonna stop white men from whuppin us is to take over … We been sayin’ “Freedom” for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is . . . BLACK POWER.[31]

King declared himself opposed to the new slogan because of its connotations of racial separatism and apparent acceptance of violence. As he later wrote:

I pleaded with the group to abandon the Black Power slogan. It was my contention that a leader has to be concerned about problems of semantics. Each word, I said, has a denotative meaning-its explicit and recognized sense-and a connotative meaning-its suggestive sense. While the concept of Black Power might be denotatively sound the slogan “Black Power” carried the wrong connotations. I mentioned the implications of violence that the press had already attached to the phrase.[32]

Although agreement was reached between King, Carmichael and McKissick not to invoke the opposing slogans of “Freedom Now” and “Black Power” for the remainder of the march, the dispute was further indication of serious internal dissensions within the civil rights coalition.

Vietnam and Poor People
Those dissensions became even more acute in 1964 as the United States became increasingly involved in Vietnam. Student protests against the war began with a “teach-in” at the University of Michigan-where, ironically, a year before Lyndon Johnson had delivered his “Great Society” address pledging his administration to a programme of massive domestic reform-and quickly spread to other college campuses. White students who had been active in civil rights protests now directed their energies into the growing anti-war movement. CORE and SNCC condemned U.S. involvement in Vietnam as diverting funds and attention from America’s domestic problems, and as a colonial war against people of colour, and they encouraged draft evasion. Although King had spoken out against the war in 1965, he was also aware that there was opposition within SCLC to any identification with or support for the peace movement. But as the American presence in Vietnam escalated and he became aware of the sufferings of civilians in the fighting, King (encouraged by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize) joined anti-war demonstrations. On 4 April, 1967, he delivered an address at the Riverside Church in New York City, in which he expressed sympathy for the Vietcong and for Third World revolutionary movements, denounced the costs of the war in human and economic resources, and compared American practices in Vietnam with those ofthe Nazis during World War II:

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and crops . . . We have supported the enemies ofthe peasants ofSaigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men . . . What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?[33]

Later the same month, King was the principal speaker for the “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam,” organized by James Bevel of SCLC, when over 125,000 protectors marched from Central Park to the U.N. Plaza in New York. Other notable participants included Dr. Benjamin Spock, Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick and Harry Belafonte. But King, now more cautious in his new militancy, refused to sanction the burning of draft cards, and was not a signatory of the Spring Mobilization manifesto, which charged the American government with genocide. If King’s opposition to the Vietnam war aligned him with the younger elements—CORE and SNCC—in the movement, it also brought condemnation from Whitney Young of the Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. Young cautioned that Lyndon Johnson would not tolerate criticism of his foreign policy from blacks: “If we are not with him on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights.” Wilkins asserted that civil rights spokesmen did not “have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”[34] The news magazines and the daily press attacked King’s anti-war pronouncements. Carl Rowan, a black journalist who had met King during the Montgomery boycott, argued in the Reader’s Digest that King’s intercession in a conflict between the United States and a Communist power would raise suspicions concerning his loyalties, and endanger future civil rights legislation. King’s response to such criticism was to argue that there was a causal relationship between poverty and racism and American militarism and imperialism-a conviction that hardened after the urban riots in Newark and Detroit. Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) later reflected on King’s opposition to the Vietnam War: “It was clear that his philosophy made it impossible for him not to take a stand against the war in Vietnam.”[35] The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, kept President Johnson informed of King’s anti-war activities, and further intensified its surveillance of the SCLC.

King’s conviction that American society needed fundamental redistributions ofits priorities, wealth and economic power was embodied in his concept of a “Poor People’s Campaign”-an interracial alliance of the dispossessed, which would engage in an orchestrated act of civil disobedience designed to paralyse the functioning of the nation’s capital. Such a movement, he also hoped, would bridge divisions within the civil rights movement and vindicate the efficacy of non-violent protest which had achieved such positive results in the South. Michael Harrington, author of The Other America (1962), an expose of poverty in the United States, who advised King on a projected march on Washington by the poor of all races, believes that the Poor People’s Campaign—the immediate objective of which was to pressure Congress into enacting King’s proposed Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, a massive federally-funded anti-poverty programme—was:

certainly no repudiation by Dr. King of his opposition to the war . . . it was an attempt to . . . go back and refocus on basics, and perhaps more importantly, to mobilize a mass movement.[36]

In February 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers (nearly all of whom were black) went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee to win union recognition, improved wages and working conditions and gained the support of the local black community, including its ministers. When James Lawson, a member of SCLC and pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis invited King to address a rally in support of the strikers, he accepted. One commentator suggests that:

As described by James Lawson . . . the strike had all the classic features of the supposedly moribund civil rights movement: packed mass meetings, church-based leadership, and a spirit of non-violence. The issue in dispute [the dignity of labour] … was one of the questions King sought to dramatize in the Poor People’s Campaign.[37]

But the violence that erupted during King’s participation in a demonstration in Memphis brought predictions of its repetition on a larger scale in Washington, D.C. A Memphis newspaper commented sharply that:

Dr King’s pose as a leader of a non-violent movement has been shattered. He now has the entire nation doubting his word when he insists that his April project can be peaceful.[38]

Deeply disturbed by events in Memphis and FBI-inspired media comment on his own alleged culpability, King (who conceded that he had gone there inadequately briefed) was encouraged by Lyndon Johnson’s surprise announcement (prompted by domestic turmoil over Vietnam) that he would not seek re-election in 1968.King hoped that the anti-war and anti-poverty movements might coalesce if the Democrats were successful in the election. But the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and the defeat of Hubert Humphrey, both ofwhom supported civil rights, brought the Republican, Richard Nixon, to the White House, pledged to the restoration of “law and order” and opposed to further social reforms.

On his return to Memphis, King, after delivering an address in which he referred to the increasing number of threats on his life, was killed by a white sniper—James Earl Ray—as he stood on the balcony of his motel. King’s assassination touched off a wave ofviolence in more than 130 cities in 29 states, resulting in 46 deaths, over 7,000 injuries and 20,000 arrests, with damage to property estimated at $100 million. Ironically, King’s assassination may have assisted the resolution of the Memphis strike. Following his murder, Memphis businessmen began to press for a settlement of the dispute. And a week after the assassination, Congress in a wave of sympathy passed a civil rights bill which incorporated fair housing proposals (impossible to implement effectively) absent from the earlier legislation.

But King’s violent death also induced a mood of deep pessimism among whites and blacks. Newsweek magazine (which, like its competitors, had earlier been critical of King’s perceived radicalism on the issues of poverty and American involvement in Vietnam), editorialized:

King’s martydom on a motel balcony did far more than rob Negroes of their most compelling spokesman, and whites of their most effective bridge to black America. His murder, for too many blacks, could only be read as a judgement upon his non-violent philosophy-and a license for retaliatory violence.[39]

Staff Sargeant Don F. Browne, serving in Vietnam, remembered:

When I heard that Martin Luther King was assassinated, my first inclination was to run out and punch the first white guy I saw. I was very hurt. All I wanted to do was to go home. I even wrote Lyndon Johnson a letter. I said I didn’t understand how I could be trying to protect foreigners in their country with the possibility of losing my life wherein in my own country people who are my hero [es] like Martin Luther King, can’t even walk the streets in a safe manner.[40]

The SCLC, riven by factionalism following King’s murder but under the nominal leadership of Ralph Abernathy, decided to stage the Poor People’s Campaign. “Resurrection City”, a canvas and plywood encampment was erected near the Washington Monument. Poorly organized and inadequately funded, it quickly disintegrated in a sea of mud and mutual recriminations (the National Parks Service served the SCLC with a bill for $71,000) and failed to arouse mass support or participation. At its peak, Resurrection City housed 2, 500 protestors, the majority of whom were black. It was dismantled on 24 June, 1968, and Jesse Jackson, who had served as the city’s unofficial “mayor”; later recalled:

When Resurrection City closed down there was a sense of betrayal, a sense of abandonment. The dreamer had been killed in Memphis and there was an attempt now to kill the dream itself, which was to feed the hungry . . . to bring the people together, and rather than come forth with a plan to wipe out malnutrition, they were wiping out the malnourished . . . They drove us out with tear gas . . . They shot Dr. King. Now they were gassing us . . . I left there with an awful sense of betrayal and abandonment.[41]

In 1971, Jackson—who regarded himself as King’s successor—resigned from SCLC and began to pursue an independent political career, contending (unsuccessfully) for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and again in 1988.

5. The Man and the Movement

Many Civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s began at the grass roots level, initiated by local leaders determined to destroy (or at least to modify) the customs and practices which relegated them to a subordinate socio-economic status. The ultimate success or failure of such protests depended, to a large extent, on their attracting national attention and positive responses from one (or all three) branches of the federal government: the judiciary, congress and the executive. From his emergence during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to his death in Tennessee thirteen years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was widely regarded as the leader ofthe civil rights movement, the individual best able to dramatize a situation by his words and actions, and to communicate black aspirations to sympathetic whites. In effect, King was a catalyst, able to focus attention and support on campaigns usually begun by others. As Ella Baker, a former staff member of SCLC, has argued persuasively: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.”[42]

Certainly King was at first reluctant to expend his energies in the service of civil rights. Commentators differ as to when and why King was prepared to assume a leading role in the movement. Andrew Young, a former executive director of the SCLC, believes that King “never wanted to be a leader”:

. . . everything he did he was pushed into. He went to Montgomery in the first place because . . . he wanted a nice quiet town where he could finish his doctoral dissertation . . . and got trapped into the Montgomery Improvement Association . . . He never would get involved in the Freedom Rides . . . He just did not want to assume leadership of the entire Southern struggle or of the entire national struggle . . . it wasn’t until the time ofBirmingham [1963] that he kinda decided that he wasn’t going to be able to escape that, that he was going on.[43]

On the other hand, one of King’s biographers believes that he underwent a moment of spiritual illumination in 1956 during the Montgomery campaign and at a time when he felt inadequate to continue the struggle: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me . . . never to leave me alone.”[44] Other commentators agree that King’s motivation and inspiration were essentially religious, and derived principally “from his deep faith in the Christian God as defined by the black Baptist and liberal Protestant traditions.”[45] That he was able to communicate these beliefs to blacks and whites is no small part of King’s achievement as the preacher and practitioner of a new social gospel attuned to the post-World War II era. During its southern phase, the civil rights movement effected profound changes in that section’s race relations: the overturning of the daily humiliations for African-Americans in a society pledged to the maintenance of the customs, laws and symbols of white supremacy. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked a new stage in southern black/white relations, as the former champions of racial segregation like governor George Wallace of Alabama began, if only reluctantly, to respond to the needs and demands of their newly­ enfranchised constituents. (In 1985, Wallace received Jessee Jackson in the governor’s mansion at the conclusion of the 20th anniversary march from Selma to Montgomery).

It was the signal achievement of the civil rights movement to exorcize and expiate the evils of institutionalized racism in the South. Black southerners, by their courage, tenacity and the undeniable morality of their cause, brought a measure of racial reconciliation (and increasing prosperity) to a section that, in the 1990s, no longer seems wholly obsessed with the precepts and practices of white supremacy. Again, Martin Luther King, Jr. should be accorded unqualified recognition for his role in reconciling southern whites to the claims of their black fellow citizens for equal treatment before the law. Adam Fairclough observes that King “was the first black leader of any stature deliberately to invite arrest while seeking out and confronting the most vicious racists, risking death as a way of life.[46]

Judged only by his example and his oratory, his articulation of Christian and democratic principles, King will be remembered as the greatest black visionary leader of the twentieth century. That the majority of Americans-black and white-were unable to endorse his critiques of the failings of American free enterprise, and his support for human rights throughout the world, suggests that he was, at the end of his life, a prophet largely without honour in his own country.

It was, therefore, entirely appropriate that Benjamin E. Mays, King’s former teacher and mentor, should remind the congregation at his funeral service in Atlanta, Georgia on 9 April, 1968 that Martin Luther King’s example had:

contributed largely to the success of the student-sit in movements in abolishing segregation in downtown establishments . . . that his activities contributed mightily to the passage of the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 . . . He died striving to desegregate and integrate America . . . non-violence to King was total commitment not only in solving the problems of race in the United States but in solving the problems of the world .[47]

For King, the movement he helped to inspire at home was always something more than a struggle for “civil rights”. It was, as he often declared, a struggle “to redeem the soul of America”, to bring its republican and democratic principles into greater congruence with its human and power relationships. King’s strength and vision came from his Christian faith rather than from any systematic study of philosophy and ethics. As James H. Cone has observed, “Black people followed King, because he embodied in word and deed the faith of the black church which has always claimed that oppression and the Gospel of Jesus do not go together.”[48]

But King’s most fitting tribute was the citation which accompanied his posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 4 July, 1977:

Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of his generation. A Southerner, a black man, he gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to free all people from the bondage of separation and injustice, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream ofwhat America could be . . . He spoke out against a war he felt was unjust as he had spoken out against laws that were unfair . . . His life informed us, his dreams sustain us yet.[49]

As Steven F. Lawson comments, King’s great strength lay “in his ability to adapt old ideals to changing situations.” His critique of American involvement in Vietnam and of neocolonialism after 1965 had been anticipated in a sermon which he delivered during the second year of the Montgomery bus boycott, when he predicted “the birth of a new age” for oppressed peoples of colour throughout the world who had “lived for centuries under the yoke offoreign power.”[50] If, as Ella Baker believes, the civil rights movement in America was the making ofMartin Luther King, it was King, more than any other leader, who fused the concepts of civil, economic and human rights, and so transformed the movement itself.

6. Guide To Further Reading

The impact of the New Deal on blacks is discussed in the following: Raymond Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner and David Brody, eds., The New Deal: The National Level (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), pp. 170-217; Nancy J. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in theAge of FDR (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983); and Harvard Sitkofh, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue, Volume 1, The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Black participation in and responses to World War II have been extensively treated. See especially: Neil A Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War (London: Paul Elek, 1976); A. Russell Buchanan, Black Americans in World War II (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio Press, 1977); Phillip McGuire, Taps for a Jim Crow Army: Letters From Black Soldiers in World War II (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio Press, 1983); and the following articles: Richard M. Dalfiume, “The ‘Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution,” Journal of American History, 55 (1968), pp. 90-106; Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, “Blacks, Loyalty, and Motion Picture Propaganda in World War II,” Journal of American History, 73 (1986), pp. 383-406; and Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History, 75 (1988), pp. 786-811. The March on Washington Movement and its chief architect are considered in Paula A. Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990). On the Congress of Racial Equality see: August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968.[22] There has been an enormous body of writing-as well as audio-visual presentations-on all aspects of the post-World War II civil rights movement. Many of these sources also treat Martin Luther King, Jr, his relationship to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the other elements of the civil rights coalition. Convenient starting points are provided by three recent review articles: George Rehin, “Of Marshalls, Myrdals and Kings: Some Recent Books about the Second Reconstruction,” Journal of American Studies, 22 (1988), pp. 87-103; Adam Fairclough, “Historians and the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American Studies, 24 (1990), pp. 387-398; and Steven F. Lawson, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement,” American Historical Review, 96 (1991), pp. 456-471. These can be supplemented by an interesting collection of essays edited by Charles W. Eagles, The Civil Rights Movement in America reference in the (Jackson and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1986); but see also: William H. Chafes essay “The Civil Rights Revolution, 1945-1960: The Gods Bring Threads to Webs Begun,” in Robert H. Bremner and Gary W. Reichard, eds., Reshaping America: Society and Institutions (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982), pp. 68-100, an extremely perceptive piece, which appears in revised form in Chafes excellent text, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II 2nd ed., (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1982 (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), others a trenchant analysis of the civil rights movement in the context of wider American domestic politics. Harvard Sitkofl’s The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), is a useful account and assessment. The complexities and diversity of the civil rights movement are ably conveyed in Robert Weisbrot’s Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1990).

C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955; 3rd rev. ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), contains perceptive comments on the aims and objectives of (and the growing tensions within) the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The latter topic is also the organizing principle of a collection of essays edited by John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliot Rudwick, Conflict and Competition: Studies in the Recent Black Protest Movement (Belmont, California: Wadworth Publishing, 1971). The Supreme Court’s seminal 1954 Brown decision is examined most comprehensively in Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1975, 1976);and more succinctly by Daniel M. Berman, It Is So Ordained: The Supreme Court Rules on School Segregation (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966). The Court’s decision is viewed retrospectively in Raymond Wolters’ The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation (Knoxville: UniversityofTennessee Press, 1984). Eisenhower’s (limited) perceptions of civil rights are discussed in Robert Frederick Burk, The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985); and by Michael S. Mayer, “With Much Deliberation and Some Speed: Eisenhower and the Brown Decision,” Journal of Southern History, 52 (1986), pp. 43-76. The NAACP’s long campaign for equal educational opportunities is ably charted by Mark V. Tushnet, The NAACP’s Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987). Catherine A. Barnes, Journey From Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), provides a detailed account of the struggle to end segregated transportation in the South, and conclusively demonstrates that “federal action came in response to black protest and pressure.” Southern opposition to the civil rights movement is treated by Numan V. Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); and Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-1964 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971). See also: David Alan Horowitz, “White Southerners’ Alienation and Civil Rights: The Response to Corporate Liberalism, 1956-1965,” Journal of Southern History, 54 (1988), pp. 173-200. The oaring responses of entrepreneurs to the southern phase of the movement are analyzed in Elizabeth Jacoway and David R. Colburn, eds., Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982). As the editors observe, collectively these essays “suggest that the response of the southern [white] leadership to the desegregation challenge was an accommodation to what was perceived as inevitable change.” See also Anthony J. Badger’s review essay, “Segregation and the Southern Business Elite,” Journal of American Studies, 18 (1984), pp. 105-109.

That the civil rights movement did effect fundamental changes in the South is the persuasive thesis of David R. Goldfield, Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture 1940 to the Present (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1990). Goldfield’s concern is not simply to relate the history of the civil rights movement, but rather to chart the grotesqueries of “racial etiquette,” and the “redemption” of the section from “the sin of white supremacy” to substantiate his conviction that the great achievement of the struggle “was its restorative effect on [southern] culture.” Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), deals perceptively with the most “radical” of civil rights organizations, and there is useful material in an earlier study: Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, (2nd. ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). Nancy J. Weiss, Whitney M. Young, Jr. and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), is a sympathetic account of one of King’s notable contemporaries, and leader of the National Urban League.

The movement at the grass roots, community level has only recently begun to be studied. Particularly recommended are: William H. Chafes Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (1980),[11] Robert J. Norrell, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (1985);[11] David R. Colburn, Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); and James W. Button, Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities (1989),10 a comparative study of several Florida towns. A major civil rights confrontation in the North-the SCLC and Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) 1966 campaign in Chicago-receives comprehensive treatment and analysis in: Alan B. Anderson and George W. Pickering, Confronting the Colour Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago (1986).[30]

Sociologically-derived analyses of the civil rights movement-stressing their localized nature-are provided by Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (1982);[10] and Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organize for Change (1984).[10] Two more recent books treat the composition and dynamics of the civil rights coalition: Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, and The Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); and Herbert H. Haines, Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988); both devote considerable attention to Martin Luther King. Valuable “eye-witness” accounts by participants in the civil rights struggle (with frequent references to and anecdotes about King) can be found in: Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, Selma, Lord, Selma:. Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days as Told to Frank Sikora (Tuscaloosa: University ofAlabama Press, 1980); Howell Raines, ed., My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977, 1983);[13] David J. Garrow, ed., The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987);12 Cynthia Stokes Brown, ed., Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Navarro, California: Wild Tree Press, 1986); Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984); and in the two companion volumes to the award-winning television series, Eyes on the Prize: Juan Williams, ed., Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987); and Henry Hampton, Steve Foyer and Sarah Flynn eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (1990).[4] On the value (and location) of oral history collections see: Kim Lacy Rogers, “Oral History and the History of the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History, 75 (1988), pp. 567-76.

A neglected aspect of the civil rights struggle has belatedly begun to receive serious attention. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, eds., Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1990), is a valuable collection of essays treating the roles (and problems) of black women-as organizers, activists and churchgoers—“in leading and sustaining the movement in local communities throughout the South.” In addition to profiles of such notable black women as Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Homer, Jo Ann Robinson and Ella Baker, this collection includes valuable pieces on lesser-known female participants, and an overview essay by Anne Standley, “The Role of Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” which demonstrates convincingly that: “Black women directed voter registration drives, taught in freedom schools, and provided food and housing for movement volunteers [and] were responsible for the movement’s success in generating popular support for the movement among rural blacks.” Again, Standley’s quotations from the accounts of black women activists strongly support her contention that “the movement gave women as well as men a sense of empowerment.”


There is now a considerable-but uneven-literature on King and his roles) in the civil rights movement. Biographical and semi-biographical studies provide one exploratory avenue. David Levering Lewis, King: A Biography (2nd rev. ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), treats the major stages in King’s life, and has some astringent comments on his personality, but adopts a rather patronizing tone, and is poorly written. Lewis is more effective in shorter compass. See his essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Promise of Nonviolent Populism,” in John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982),[17] pp. 277-303. Stephen B. Oates, Let The Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jnr. (1982),[21] covers similar ground, but lacks any serious analysis of King’s function and stature, and frequently lapses into saccharine prose. Like Lewis, Oates is more effective as an essayist. See his article, “The Intellectual Odyssey of Martin Luther King,” Massachusetts Review, 22 (1981), pp. 301-320. David J. Garrow has established himself as one of the leading authorities on King, and has written three important books: Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), is a close analysis of the notable SCLC campaign and its consequences; The FBI and Martin Luther King: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), concludes that by the last years of his life King had become a radical figure, and a perceived threat to the established order; Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986),[42] offers a massively detailed narrative account of the man and the movement. King’s private life (and the FBI’s prurient interest in his alleged extra-marital activities), tensions within the SCLC and its major campaigns all receive exhaustive treatment. Garrow is particularly concerned to prove that King was motivated more by his African-American Baptist faith than by any reading of Walter Rauschenbusch or Mahatma Gandhi.

Garrow is also the editor ofthe recently published 18 volume set Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1989). The cost of this series will be beyond the means of most individuals and libraries, but the first three volumes are particularly recommended: Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights Leader, Theologian, Orator, an invaluable collection of (previously published) essays and articles, drawn from an impressive range of periodicals. Aside from Garrow himself, contributors include Allan Boesak, James Colaiaco, August Meier, and three articles by Adam Fairclough, the most perceptive (and prolific) British commentator on King: “Was Martin Luther King a Marxist?” “Martin Luther King and the War in Vietnam,” and “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Quest for Nonviolent Social Change.” Steven F. Lawson’s historiographical essay (cited earlier) includes an assessment of all 18 volumes comprising Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Fairclough’s monograph To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1987),25 devotes little attention to King’s religious motivation and, instead, stresses the SCLC’s achievements as a flexible and loosely ­organized/disorganized protest movement, together with considered estimates of King’s strengths and weaknesses. Fairclough’s major conclusions concerning King and the SCLC are summarised in two articles: “The SCLC and the Second Reconstruction, 1957-1963,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 80 (1981), pp. 177-94, and “The Preachers and the People: The Origins and Early Years of the SCLC, 1955-1959,” Journal of Southern History.15See also Fairclough’s recent brief and judicious biography, Martin Luther King (1990).[46]

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-73 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), the first of a projected two­volume study, places King firmly in the forefront of the civil rights movement, and argues persuasively that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” His book is both an impressive and valuable addition to King historiography, and includes incisive profiles of participants in (and critics of) the movement. James A. Colaiaco, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence (1988),’6 is a brief but informative biography. Colaiaco, like other commentators, believes that toward the end of his life King became a radical figure, in sympathy with both Marxist and Black Power critiques of American militarism and capitalism.

King’s intellectual and spiritual development receive careful attention in Hanes Walton, Jr., The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1971)14 and in John G. Ansboro, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind (1982),14 which is especially informative on King’s attitudes to American involvement in Vietnam. King’s intellectual biography is also treated in the following articles: John E. Rathbun, “Martin Luther King : The Theology of Social Action,” Atlantic Quarterly, 20 (1968), pp. 38-53; Warren E. Steinkraus, “Martin Luther King’s Personalism and Nonviolence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973), pp. 97-111; and Mohan Lal Sharma, “Martin Luther King: Modern America’s Greatest Theologian of Social Action,” Journal of Negro History 53 (1968), pp. 257-63. On King’s relationship to the black messianic tradition, see: Wilson J. Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park and London: PenriSYlvania State University Press, 1982), pp. 178-82.

King’s function as a “mutable symbol” and his depiction in the three leading American news magazines—Time, Newsweek, andU.S. News & World Report—isexamined by Richard Lentz in Symbols, The News Magazines, and Martin Luther King (1990).33 The obsessive concern of J. Edgar Hoover with the allegedly subversive nature of the black protest movement is ably treated by Kenneth O’Reilly, “Racial Matters”. The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 (New York: The Free Press, 1989) and includes a serio-comic chapter, “Black Dream, Red Menace: The Pursuit of Martin Luther King, Jr. “ See also two articles by Gerald D_ N4cKnight: “The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and the FBI: A Case Study in Urban Surveillance,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 83 (1984), 138-56; and “A Harvest of Hate: The FBI’s War Against Black Youth-Domestic Intelligence in Memphis, Tennessee,” ibid., 86 (1987), pp 1-21.

August Meier’s influential essay of 1965, “On the Role of Martin Lutrier King,” typifying him as a “Conservative Militant” is reprinted in the Bracey, Meier, Rudwick anthology already cited, pp. 84-92. David J. Gartow, Clayborne Carson, James H. Cone, Vincent G. Harding and Nathan I. Huggins were the participants in a rewarding symposium: “A Round Table: Martin Luther King, Jr.,” published in the Journal of American History, 74 (1987), pp. 436-81. An earlier but still useful symposium, edited by C. Eric Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile (NeW York: Hill and Wang, 1970), has contributions from James Baldwln, August Meier, L. D. Reddick, Carl T. Rowan and Ralph D. Abernathy. Shortly before his death, Abernathy published And the Walls Cartre Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (1989),[29] which devotes two chapters to the Montgomery bus boycott and King’s subsequent career; but see also Coretta Scott King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969). King’s celebrated 1965 Playboy interview with Alex Haley is reprinted in G. Barry Golson, ed., The Playboy Interview (New York: Playboy Press, 1981), pp. 112-135. Kirig is also one of the subjects treated in John White, Black Leadership in America: From Booker T. Washington to Jesse Jackson (2nd ed., London and New York: Longman, 1990), pp. 109-144.

Finally, interested students should read King’s own works which reveal a great deal about his concerns. His major writings are: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958);13 Why We Can’t Wait (1964);18 Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967);[23] and Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). Clayborne Carson is editor of the Martin Luther King Papers, a projected 14-volume series of King’s writings, the first two volumes of which are scheduled for publication in 1992. Controversy already surrounds the enterprise, following the discovery and revelation that part of King’s doctoral thesis and other academic papers contain instances of definite plagiarism. The Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, currently president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference reportedly commented on the affair: “Dr. King as a young fellow may have overlooked some footnotes, but history is caught up in his footprints, and will be hardly disturbed by the absence of some footnotes.” That King’s conscious departures from the agreed rules of scholarship need to be both acknowledged and placed in context is the focus of an important recent symposium: “Becoming Martin Luther King, Jr.—Plagiarism and Originality: A Round Table,” Journal Of American History, 78 (1991), pp. 11-123. David J. Garrow, one of the contributors, concedes that although King’s “extensive plagiarism” is “a crucial issue” for his biographers, “it will amount to only a brief footnote in the expanding historiography of the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.” Like other sympathetic commentators, Garrow also believes that King saw a Ph.D. thesis as only a means to an end, and “was far more deeply and extensively shaped by the black church tradition in which he grew up than by the readings and instructors he encountered in seminary and graduate school.” (David J. Garrow, “King’s Plagiarism: Imitation, Insecurity, and Transformation,” ibid, p.86.)

7. Notes

  1. The terms “Black,” “Negro” and “African-American” are used interchangeably in this pamphlet. Back
  2. Pete Daniel, “Going Among Strangers: Southern Reactions to World War II,” Journal of Southern History, 77 (1990), p. 893. Back
  3. Differing estimates of the “Double-V” slogan and the extent of black assertiveness on the home front can be found in Neil A. Wynn, “Black Attitudes Toward Participation in the American War Effort,” Afro-American Studies, 3 (1972), pp. 13-19; and Lee Finkle, “The Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric: Black Protest During World War II,” Journal of American History, 60 (1973), pp. 692-713. Back
  4. Henry Hampton, Steve Fayer and Sarah Flynn, eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the CivilRzghtsMovement From the 1950s Through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), pp. xxv-vi. Back
  5. See Harvard Sitkoff, “Harry Truman and the Election of 1948: The Coming of Age of Civil Rights in American Politics,” Journal of Southern History, 37 (1971), pp. 597-616; and Monroe Billington, “Civil Rights, President Truman and the South,” journal of Negro History, 58 (1973), pp. 127-39. Back
  6. C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), p. 84. Back
  7. See, for example, Bob Smith, They Closed Their Doors: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965). Back
  8. Voices of Freedom, p. xxvii. Back
  9. Richard H. King, “Citizenship and Self-Respect: The Experience of Politics in the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American Studies, 22 (1988), pp. 8-9. Back
  10. The motivation of civil rights protests is treated in the following sociologically-based studies: Doug MacAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984); and James W. Button, Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989). Back
  11. See Robert J. Norrell, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983); and William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). Back
  12. David J. Garrow, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), pp.45-6. The best analysis of the boycott is J. Mills Thornton III, “Challenge and Response in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56,” in Sarah W. Wiggins, ed., From Civil War to Civil Rights: Alabama 1860-1960 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987), pp. 463-519. Back
  13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (London: Gollancz, 1959), p. 54. Back
  14. Hanes Walton, Jr., The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1971); John J. Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Making of a Mind (New York: Orbis Books, 1982). Back
  15. Adam Fairclough, “The Preachers and the People: The Origins and Early Years of the SCLC, 1955-1959,” Journal of Southern History, 52 (1986), pp. 403-40. Back
  16. James A. Colaiaco, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Non­violence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), p. 39. Back
  17. David L. Lewis, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Promise ofNon­violent Populism,” in John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 282; Voices of Freedom, p.113. Back
  18. “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Signet Books, 1963), pp. 86-7. Back
  19. Voices of Freedom, p.168. Back
  20. Julius Lester, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’Get YourMama (New York: The Dial Press, 1968), p. 104. Back
  21. Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 362. Back
  22. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), p. 330. Back
  23. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 4. Back
  24. Milton Viorst, Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 345. Back
  25. Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 241. Back
  26. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: E. P. Putnam, 1968), p. 1. Back
  27. Mike Royko, Boss: Richard. Daley of Chicago (New York: Dutton, 1971), p. 141. Back
  28. Voices of Freedom, p. 302. Back
  29. Ralph D. Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), p. 492. Back
  30. On SCLC’s (and King’s) Chicago experiences, see Alan B. Anderson and George W. Pickering. Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1986), pp. 172-88; 182-88; 203-7. Back
  31. Fire in the Streets, p. 374. Back
  32. Where Do We Go From Here, p. 30. For other critiques of Black Power, see Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, pp.233-35, and Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: W. W. Morrow, 1967), pp. 426-7; 544-5; 547-53. Back
  33. Richard Lentz, Symbols, The News Magazines, and Martin Luther King (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 237. For other reactions to the speech, see: Colaiaco, Martin Luther King, Jnr., pp. 179-82. Back
  34. Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon, 45 (1984), p. 25. Back
  35. Voices of Freedom, p.340. Back
  36. Ibid., p. 448. Back
  37. To Redeem the Soul of America, p.371. Back
  38. Ibid., p. 377. Back
  39. Newsweek, 15 April, 1968. Back
  40. Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War By Black Veterans (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 172. Back
  41. Voices of Freedom, p.481. Back
  42. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Morrow, 1986), p. 625. Back
  43. Howell Raines, My Soulls Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1983), p. 426. Back
  44. Bearing the Cross, pp. 57-8. Back
  45. James H. Cone, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Third World,” Journal of American History, 74 (1987), p. 458. Back
  46. Adam Fairclough, Martin Luther King (London: Sphere Books, 1990), p. 127. Back
  47. Benjamin E. Mays, “Eulogy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” The Morehouse College Bulletin, 36 (1968), pp. 8-12. Back
  48. James H. Cone, “Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Theology-Black Church,” in David J. Garrow, ed., Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights Leader, Theologian, Orator, Vol. 1 (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1989), p. 207. Back
  49. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind, p.v. Back
  50. Steven F. Lawson, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement,” American Historical Review, 96 (1991), pp. 462-63. Back

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