Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
Teaser Image

Martin Luther King Jr.

Title: King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s emergence, notoriety, evolution, and demise paralleled that of the civil rights movement itself. He became the nation's preeminent spokesperson for the strategy of nonviolent direct action, the dismantling of Jim Crow laws in the South, and the creation of a larger "beloved community." He negotiated between the push of political expediency and the pull of militant black activists, all the while combating enemies who perceived him as a dangerous radical.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, King was raised in relative privilege. His father was pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which served a middle-class clientele. The second of three children, he enjoyed a comfortable home life, material security, and the attention of a loving family. However, he periodically experienced segregation in the Jim Crow South. He mostly thrived, however, within the institutions of the black middle class, especially the black church. He graduated high school at 15 and attended Morehouse College. Before his senior year he decided to enter the ministry.

King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. At this liberal, predominantly white institution, he read the classics of Western philosophy, the key texts of Hinduism and Islam, and the writings of Mohandas Gandhi. He also questioned the liberal, optimistic belief in progress influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. From 1951 to 1953, King attended Boston University, from which he received his doctorate in theology in 1955. In Boston, he met Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. They married in 1953.

In 1954, King took the pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, that catered to a small congregation of African American professionals. In December 1955, the Montgomery police arrested Rosa Parks, a seamstress and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secretary, for refusing to vacate her seat on the segregated city buses. The African American leadership recognized the political opportunity, declared a bus boycott, and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association; they elected the 26-year-old King president only because he had avoided the rivalries among the older ministers. King urged nonviolent protest, which not only placed the protestors on higher moral ground, but also engendered support from white liberals. For more than a year, Montgomery's African American citizens walked and established carpools, and King endured arrests and a bombing of his home. The national media paid King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott significant attention. In November 1956, the Supreme Court ruled Montgomery's bus segregation unconstitutional.

In the public mind, King had become the preeminent African American leader. He founded and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a political network for civil rights activism. Along with Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph, he led a 1957 mass meeting in Washington, D.C., known as the prayer pilgrimage, but it failed to attract much attention from the media or the federal government. In 1959, he resigned from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and based himself at SCLC headquarters in Atlanta.

The student sit-in movement campaigns of 1960, starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spreading through much of the South, energized the civil rights movement. In April 1960, King spoke at the organizing meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During the next year's Freedom Rides, when activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC encountered violence while desegregating bus terminals in the South, King again offered encouragement and political clout, but he declined to place himself on the dangerous frontlines of the Freedom Rides. In October 1960, King began a four-month sentence in an Atlanta prison on a trumped-up traffic violation. Republican Vice President Richard Nixon had been Dwight D. Eisenhower's point man on civil rights, and he had worked behind the scenes to get King released. But Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, distant from African American protestors and quiet on King's arrest, placed a concerned telephone call to King's spouse Coretta Scott King. The Kennedy campaign publicized the gesture in African American newspapers and in pamphlets distributed to African American churches, helping deliver a close election over Nixon.

However, the Kennedy administration resisted any alliance with King. Kennedy feared King's capacity to stir up disorder, and he first invited to the White House more established African American leaders such as the NAACP's Roy Wilkins. U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy sanctioned Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance of King and his associates. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered King a disloyal radical. King's trusted white adviser, Stanley Levison, moreover, once had financially supported the American Communist Party. Hoover's agents, who offered little protection to the civil rights demonstrators in the South, tapped the telephones of King and Levison. However, the FBI tapes reveal nothing politically incriminating about King. However, in private, he offered the occasional crude comment. He enjoyed bawdy late-night drinking sessions and smoked cigarettes, although never in public. His sexual indiscretions were not public knowledge, although friends warned him of the dangers to his image, and elements of the African American community whispered rumors. Hoover regarded him a moral degenerate and maintained FBI surveillance.

In December 1961, King arrived in Albany, Georgia, at the behest of the Albany, Georgia Movement, a coalition of community civil rights groups. His involvement gradually escalated from a speech, to a protest march, to an arrest, and finally to a longer commitment for the city's desegregation. King brought media attention and SCLC resources to this civil rights campaign, but the Albany Movement faltered. The NAACP fretted about militant SNCC tactics; local leaders resented the condescension of SCLC deputies; SNCC feared that King would leave Albany with a symbolic victory but little change to the substance of racial patterns. Police chief Laurie Pritchett also defused the demonstrators' tactics of moral theater by avoiding crude violence before television cameras and by arranging to jail demonstrators outside the city. King was arrested twice, but city leaders paid his fine and suspended his sentence so that he could not become a media martyr. King left Albany in 1962 with few public facilities desegregated.

Unlike in Albany, in the 1963 SCLC campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, King and SCLC gave direction to the entire series of protests, and "Project C" began with specific targets: the desegregation of three downtown department stores, leading to broader desegregation, the hiring of African Americans for city jobs, and the formation of a biracial council. They trained volunteers in nonviolent resistance and raised reserves of money. Through early April, SCLC held sit-ins, marches, and mass meetings. After a state court injunction barring further protests, King led another march and was arrested. While in prison, he read that liberal white clergymen had condemned his campaign for "extremism" from "outsiders." King's response, referred to as "Letter from Birmingham Jail," outlined King's basic philosophies. He defied state law, he wrote, because of a higher moral law. He rejected the plea that African Americans must be patient, arguing that freedom for the oppressed arrives only when the oppressed demand freedom. Nonviolent direct action, moreover, did not promote racial ill so much as bring it to the surface.

When King emerged from jail on Easter Sunday, Project C was floundering. In May, SCLC began using children for their protest marches. Thousands marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, singing freedom songs and clapping their hands. Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor responded with violence, unleashing police on African American demonstrators with billy clubs, electric cattle prods, attack dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses—images that circulated throughout the country. The protestors maintained the demonstrations, pressuring the city's business community and gaining a settlement that met SCLC's original demands. Birmingham's violence continued, but a corner had been turned. Civil rights protests again spread throughout the South, and national attention focused on the plight of African American southerners. President Kennedy now proposed a civil rights bill desegregating public accommodations.

The momentum continued in late August with the March on Washington. An interracial throng of 250,000 congregated at the Lincoln Memorial to hear speeches from assorted civil rights, labor, and religious leaders on live television. King began his speech solemnly, with a measured pace, using the metaphor of a promissory note to recall the U.S. government's unfulfilled commitment to protect the constitutional rights of its African American citizens. The "I Have a Dream" speech, broadcast in America's living rooms, proved an iconic moment in the country's history. Time magazine named him Man of the Year in 1963. In 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In June 1964, Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting the segregation of public facilities and backing it with significant enforcement mechanisms.

Nevertheless, King could no longer embody any consensus of black political thought. SCLC's 1964 campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, featured white mobs so vicious that any progress was seemingly impossible; only a King oration kept the city's African Americans from responding with violence in kind. For some activists, King had become too moderate. SNCC members mocked him as "De Lawd" for his preachy ego. When the interracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party tried to obtain delegate seats at the 1964 Democratic Convention, King urged acceptance of a compromise proposal, alienating him from militants. Malcolm X countered King's values of nonviolence and integration with calls for eye-for-an-eye justice and Black Nationalism.

In 1965, King and SCLC came to Selma, Alabama. President Lyndon B. Johnson urged patience as the Civil Rights Act went into effect. Not wishing to antagonize Johnson, King left for Atlanta in early March, before a planned march to the state capital of Montgomery. The march began without him, and television cameras captured the violence of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the Selma police turned back the marchers with clubs and tear gas. King returned to Selma. By accepting Johnson's compromise to halt a second march upon reaching the bridge, he angered SNCC and other civil rights supporters. The Selma campaign nevertheless succeeded. The violent police response led Johnson to propose a voting rights bill on national television. The march to Montgomery was accomplished with the protection of federal marshals. In August Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, eliminating the procedures that had long disfranchised most African Americans from the South.

In urban neighborhoods outside the South, African Americans faced police harassment, possessed little political power, lived in substandard public housing, and suffered the economic and social dislocations of poverty. King visited Chicago in 1965 and launched the Chicago Campaign for open housing in 1966. Leading protest marches and lobbying city leaders for the elimination of de facto segregation in housing, King faced resistance as stiff as that in the South. By 1967, he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He called for a "revolution of values" in the United States that transcended the greed governing American involvement in Vietnam. His stance alienated many liberals and infuriated Johnson, but King, beyond the political mainstream, upheld his principles. In 1967, King also announced an interracial crusade called the Poor People's Campaign. The movement would be highlighted by an encampment on the Washington Mall, designed to force the federal government to more deeply address the concerns of the poor. Some of the SCLC staff doubted the political wisdom of such a radical call, but again King forged beyond liberal reform.

In March 1968, in the midst of planning the Poor People's Campaign, King arrived in Memphis to lend support to striking sanitation workers in the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike. On April 4, 1968, stepping onto his motel balcony, King was struck by assassin James Earl Ray's bullet and died. His death sparked 130 separate instances of racial violence, leading to the deaths of 46 people.

Aram Goudsouzian


Further Reading
Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982; Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988; Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998; Carson, Clayborne et al., eds. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959-December 1960. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; Carson, Clayborne et al., eds. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000; Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Vintage, 1986; Garrow, David J. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Books, 1981; King, Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990; King, Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998; Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982; Posner, Gerald L. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Random House, 1998.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Reference
  Documents
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer