Martin Luther King (MLK) was a very important person in the campaign for civil rights. His actions helped change the law for black Americans, such as manipulating the media during the Birmingham March and organising non-violent protests, millions of people supported him in the course of this. Without these people, and factors such as the local protests, the support of the president and the anger sparked by WWII, MLK may not have had the success he did. Despite this MLK was the figurehead of the civil rights movement and his leadership helped to inspire others and expedite the process.
MLK became the foundation of an accelerated path to equality. In this essay I am going to prove my point that MLK was the catalyst of the civil rights movement, but without the ground swell of public opinion and the support of establishment figures his impacted would have been diminished. Many civil rights leaders of the pre-war period in 1920’s and 1930’s were often unintelligible and lacked many features of a leader, such as being unified. Booker T Washington took the approach to try and make all black Americans show what they were worth to the USA to abolish segregation.
This idea was complimented by Mary Overton who helped to form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) which supported equal rights for black people. Another organisation formed by Marcus Garvey was Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which demanded that the blacks left the USA and should keep complete segregation from all non-blacks setting up there own country in Liberia which is in west Africa. A contrast to this suggestion was William Du Bois who created the Niagara Movement campaigning for freedom of speech and an end to racial discrimination.
This led to so many conflicting ideas, the Government found it easier to discount them. Due to the failure of these attempts, MLK was pressurised into having a more unified and coherent effect on the mentality of the American people. And based on this, it shows that MLK was the most important figure in unifying the civil rights movement. After this success, MLK attempted to take the civil rights movement to a national audience, by publishing events on TV. MLK was disappointed in the 1950s; the only legal changes that were made were in local states laws rather than in federal law.
So MLK organised a march on Washington which is where he made one of the most famous speeches in history “I have a dream”. He did this to give the wider audience a greater picture of the conditions the blacks were living under. Due to this MLK got what he wanted and consequently forced President Kennedy to promise that he would officially introduce the Civil Rights laws, giving every human being equal rights. The march consisted of over quarter of a million people and 80% of these people where black with the other 20% being whites and other ethic groups.
Another great example of MLK being the most important factor of the civil right movement was the way he manipulated the media. MLK took full advantage of this when ever he got the chance to, like he did in Washington, performing the “I have a dream” speech. This time MLK knew that there where going to be cameras at a march that he organized in Birmingham, so he anticipated this, by exposing to the whole of the USA via the media the brutal, cruel and violent acts the protesters had to put up with.
The local police responded in a way which was unacceptable for a non-violent protest by setting dogs on them. Within the same day MLK was arrested by the hard-line chief of the police which was also caught on camera. This brought a lot of publicity for MLK and he took the opportunity to write a letter to President Kennedy called “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. This was successful and allowed MLK to be free from prison under the direction of Kennedy. After this, President Kennedy admitted that the success of the campaign led by MLK was essential for progress and gave permission for a march later on.
MLK is by most people, perceived as the most important person to do with the Civil Rights movement, despite him being the catalyst and the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, in same areas MLK was criticised by many people in the mid- 1960s mainly by the Black Nationalists. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 said that black people were equal, in reality this was untrue as 30% of young black people were unemployed whilst their pay was 61% of whites in 1950’s and 59% of whites in 1964.
Figures show that black people were four times more likely to be unemployed. Also during 1965 riots were held, that did not agree with MLK’s idea of non-violent protest. The biggest riot was the Watts Riot in LA, Which resulted in over 900 businesses, public and private buildings being damaged. The Black Nationalists were also a group who criticised King’s non-violent methods and the slow pace of change. However, in comparison to MLK they were not as successful has him.
During the time of the Black Nationalists they did not make any legal changes towards the civil rights movement, where as MLK did show that he was more successful. Also MLK had million of supporters where as a Black Nationalist groups such as the black panthers only had 250,000. However, we all know that MLK did contribute to the civil rights movement in a massive way but, we have to remember he did not start the civil right movement it was in fact started before WWII.
It really gained momentum by the anger felt and the desire for change by the black solders after the war. It all happened when the black solders were only allowed to serve for their country, in the black only units. This was until the black soldiers made an enormous contribution to the war; they fought well in battles in Europe, at the Battle of Bulge, and in the Pacific in the Battle of Iwo Jima. During 1945 black and white troops were able to fight together as a combined unit, up until the war ended. Then the blacks had to go back to segregated units.
This created anger, because they were allowed the privilege of no segregation in the army, then had it taken away from them, which made them want reverse this decision, quite rightly, the felt they where good enough to fight , to defended the USA’s interest, they should not be treated as second class citizens after. Without this ground swell of opinion the civil rights act could have been a bit of toothless legislation that was passed but never acted upon. It was the rank and file and the ordinary person that took this act and gave it the power to succeed.
This made MLK’s job a lot easier, so in this incident MLK was not the most important factor. Another factor that MLK did not take part in was local protests such as the more famous protests: Bus Boycotts, Little Rock and Freedom Riders, which were all local protests that laid foundations for the legal changes. Bus Boycotts was set-up and lead by Rosa Parks and the NAACP. They did this when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person at the front of the bus which was illegal. The consequence of this was that she got arrested, but after that, blacks refused to use the busses.
When they did this the bus company lost 65% of there money so therefore a law was introduced so blacks could sit whereever they wanted, when ever they wanted, without having to give there seat to whites. Another successful case is the Little Rocks in 1957. Little Rock was a group of students sent to the racially segregated school. The US Supreme Court declared that segregated schools were illegal. These events had nothing to do with MLK but both of these events were successful without him although he was able to build upon these foundations.
Although the segregation on busses was abolished by MLK, it still remained in southern state of Alabama. So in 1961 a group of black and white students organised themselves into a group called Freedom Riders. This was a group that was fighting for racial segregation to end on busses in southern state of Alabama, so they rode into the city of Birmingham, Alabama with protection but there protection ended at the border of the states and was meant to been take over.
This never happened and consequently several of the Freedom riders were assaulted and 200 were arrested by local police officers. Due to this President Kennedy promised he would step up the protection for the freedom riders so it would not happen again, but the fact that Kennedy support the civil rights movement can also be regared as another vital factor of success with out MLK. The mood in the USA during the 1960s also contributed to the civil rights movement which captured the imagination of many people around the USA.
This had a very positive outcome and resulted in people like students to set up their own protests at universities. A great example was that a black student didn’t get served his lunch at the counter, so the next day himself and three other black students went to dine at the same counter which again refused and every day the number of students grew, until the canteen became over crowed with people not being served. This provided publicity and inspired other students to do the same.
Another act preformed by the broader society was a photo related to the Vietnam War, where a man was shown being shot; this photo caused many people in the USA to act. Conversely, many people felt that the government were being “hypocritical” by helping Vietnam and not helping the black people who were also suffering. This had an effect on the Government and changed there point of view causing them to change the laws to benefit the blacks. In conclusion, no one can doubt the profile MLK achieved for himself within the civil rights movement.
His public speaking was inspirational and unifying, his Gandhi type stance of non-violent protest, brought onboard the majority of Christian and law abiding people that would have rejected more direct or illegal means. As with so many people in history, he proved to be the right man, in the right place, at right time. His success is in channelling the feeling of un-organised public opinion in to a single goal; one can not succeed with the other. Also at this time media coverage was growing rapidly and he fully understands how to use the new instant mediums of TV and broadcasting.
MLK is know as the a very important figure but with out other aspects such as the Bus Boycotts and Rosa Parks the process may of taken considerably longer or if not never happened. However, the assassination of Martin Luther King that occurred in 1968 allowed his memories to be immortalised, and the fact that he died for the cause give him an element of martyrdom, meaning when the civil right movement is mentioned he is perceived as the fore most important person.