To what extent was Martin Luther King the significant factor in the Civil Rights Movement between 1955 and 1968?
Within the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King was seen as a major part of the Movements because of his campaign work. He is thought to have been the inspiration and the “hero” of the desegregation in America. Martin Luther King had an individual philosophy based on his religious beliefs as a devout Christian. He based his protests on the teachings of Jesus and examples of Ghandi’s behaviours. He also believed you should love your enemies and not retaliate. His main aim whilst protesting was to gain direct action yet to stay peaceful. Looking at the evidence from the campaigns Martin Luther King was involved in, it shows that he wasn’t as significant as he is said to be regularly. Going through his campaigns shows that he was the “face” if the Civil Rights Movement rather than the significant factor. The protest in which King first became noticed was the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955 to 1956. This was led originally by E. D. Nixon who wanted Claudette Colvin. In the end they used a woman named Rosa Parks to initiate the boycott that would then last around a year long.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger, which is what they had to do as a black citizen. Doing this was direct action, and this boycott later established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA is where we first saw King, as this group worked through the churches and had a non-violent aim. The significance of this protest was that King came into the light and showed the black people he had leadership qualities that stood out above all other things. However at this moment in time it’s fair to say that King had no authority and the black people in the communities still held the power. This protest also brought about the court case of Browder V Gayle in 1956. This changed the laws of segregation on buses as a protester, Aurelia Browder, refused to give up her seat, and took the case to court with the support of the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP). A few years later in 1961 brought the start of a new campaign – The Albany Movement. This protest is linked to the Freedom Rides where black riders where beaten and killed as they rode buses through different states. It was led by William G Anderson, who was supported by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP. Martin Luther King (who had established the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] after the Montgomery Bus Boycott) with the SCLC after they were requested to join. They targeted libraries, lunch bars, bus stations, small businesses and held city hall marches. The SNCC created the “Jail not Bail” idea. This meant that protesters chose prison rather than to bail themselves out, hoping to bring the prisons to a standstill with being too overfilled. During this protest King was arrested and followed the theme of choosing jail over bail, however days later he was released as an anonymous person (thought to be Police Chief Laurie Pritchett) paid the bail money. King being one of the famous faces of the protesters Pritchett knew this would hot the media, causing the town and its authority’s negative publicity. He could have had ulterior motives however, as this action also made King look as though he had bailed himself to leave the prison.
Many Black protesters thought he had “ditched” the cause. The way in which Pritchett avoided the media coverage was by looking at and studying previous protests from around the country. He studied their strategies, and realised he had to give the protesters a sense of gaining their cause. He respected King and his followers and promised them changes with conditions. He later went back on his word. The significance of the Albany Movement was that it showed King’s methods in a new light – that peaceful protests didn’t always work, maybe even becoming predictable in a sense that the authorities could predict King’s next move. A year later is when the Birmingham Campaign starts in 1963; the protesters had developed a new slogan – “Free by ’63”. However after the incident in Albany they had to plan carefully. The protesters already knew from the freedom rides that Police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor was unsupportive of them, and the federal government had to be brought in due to the levels of Violence, however King knew this method of protest would provoke him. Looking at the reasoning behind the Birmingham Campaign was that the area was one of the worst areas due to the lack of black employment in the emergency services, transport or banks, the area had only 10% of black people registered to vote, and the organisation NAACP had been banned. At this point Bull Connor had taken a similar approach to Pritchett in Albany. He initially changed his tactics to what was actually legal at the time. He also released prisoners. King was arrest for an “illegal march”. When put in prison King wrote a letter and declared in this letter he believed he had the right to break the law for this cause. The protesters, especially the SCLC also developed a new tactic. This is where they start to use young people (teenagers) and students. Their reasoning for this was that if they end up in prison it will not impact the families as they are not a wage earner. He also hoped to embarrass the authority as their prisons would be filled with children. However the authorities reacted unexpectedly, by using high pressure fire hoses and aimed for the children. Within this campaign 1300 children where either killed or jailed. We see the media play a big part in this campaign and even the President Kennedy was “Sickened” by it. The significance of Birmingham was that the department stores were desegregated and racial discrimination within employment had ended. However only four months after the end of the campaign the KKK (Klu Klux Klan) bombed the 16th Baptist Church and killed four young Black girls.
On a more positive side, the media had covered President Kennedy’s support which had helped the Northern Whites become more sympathetic towards Southern Blacks. Only two years later is when The Selma Campaign develops. This protest consisted of a fifty miles march from Montgomery to Selma, to be allowed to vote. It also fell on the ten year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. The aim of to register Black people to vote was developed due to Alabama having only 1% of black adults registered. King believed that Jim Clark, of Selma, would respond with violence. The march was in fact attempted three times in total. The first attempt they were met with many police officers who wouldn’t allow them to pass, where the predicted violence erupted. In some cases the police had used electric cattle prods. On the second attempt King got half way over the bridge, stopped, prayed, and turned back home. This is when some black followers appeared in uproar as it appeared that he had given up. On the third attempt it was finally successful and the numbers of marching black people grew from 8000 up to 25000, they had more than tripled. The Selma Campaign had later become known as a bloody Sunday. There was one murder that stood out, and that was of Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was a 26 year old young man, who was killed by the police for protecting his mother and grandmother. The significance of Selma was that it highlighted theg problem with blacks voting and whether they are still not allowed to vote. It also led to the 1965 Voting Act. This campaign proved that the SCLC, SNCC and CORE can all co-operate together
even though they are different variations for similar causes.