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Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement


Sanderson Beck


True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


With nonviolent resistance, no individual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need anyone resort to violence in order to right a wrong.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


From 1956 until his tragic death in 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was the foremost leader in black Americans nonviolent quest for civil rights and a better life. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and was named after his father who was a successful Baptist preacher. His father taught him self-respect in the face of racial discrimination. Martin started at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was only 15, and he graduated four years later. Choosing the ministry over medicine and law he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for three years. While there he heard A.J. Muste lecture, and after hearing Mordecai Johnson lecture on Gandhi he went out and bought every book he could find on Gandhi and nonviolence. Martin had already read Thoreaus Essay on Civil Disobedience at Morehouse; he was so moved by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system that he reread it several times. In his theological studies he leaned toward the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. He read Marx and rejected his materialism and deprecation of individual freedom; however, he also questioned the materialism and injustices of capitalism.

In reading Gandhi, King realized that the love ethic of Jesus could go beyond individuals and be applied to the conflicts of racial groups and nations. He discovered the method for social reform in Gandhis love force (satyagraha) and nonviolence. After being elected student body president and graduating first in his class at Crozer, King moved on to Boston University where he earned his Ph.D. in Theology. In 1953 he married Coretta Scott, a bright student of music, and they eventually had four children. Believing in the guidance of a personal God and equipped with the techniques of nonviolence, King accepted a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama, hoping he could help his people achieve social justice.

King had only recently completed his doctoral dissertation and gotten settled in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when the issue of racial segregation on the public buses erupted in Montgomery. On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court had declared, Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and in 1955 the same Court ordered all public schools to be desegregated with all deliberate speed. In Montgomery King had become active in the NAACP and in the integrated Alabama Council on Human Relations. In March 1955 a fifteen-year-old girl had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on the bus. King was on the committee that protested this, but no action was taken. On December 1, 1955 Mrs. Rosa Parks felt her feet were too tired for her to stand up for a white man who had boarded after her. The bus driver ordered her to stand up and give her seat to the white man, but she refused. She was arrested and taken to the courthouse. From there she called E.D. Nixon who in turn made several calls. The Womens Political Council proposed a one-day boycott of the buses. The next morning, which was a Friday, Nixon called King, and he offered the Dexter Avenue Church as a meeting place for that night. Over forty black leaders showed up, and they agreed to boycott the buses on the following Monday and hold a mass meeting Monday night. Leaflets were mimeographed and distributed announcing these actions. Committees were organized, and alternative transportation was arranged. Recalling Thoreaus words about not cooperating with an evil system, King thought of the movement as massive non-cooperation.

The word spread, and on Monday morning the Montgomery buses were practically empty except for a few white passengers. Mrs. Parks was convicted that morning of disobeying the citys segregation ordinance and fined ten dollars and court costs. Her attorney appealed. That afternoon Dr. King was elected president of what became the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The Holt Street Baptist Church had five thousand people standing outside listening to loudspeakers for the evening meeting. King spoke for the hearts of many when he declared that they were tired of being segregated and humiliated. He affirmed that their only alternative was to protest for freedom and justice. Christian love and nonviolent principles provided the basis for his advice. He said, No one must be intimidated to keep them from riding the buses. Our method must be persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to the people, Let your conscience be your guide. He concluded his speech, If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, future historians will say, There lived a great peoplea black peoplewho injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility. Ralph Abernathy proposed three moderate demands which were unanimously approved at the mass meeting: 1) courteous treatment by bus operators; 2) passengers to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis with Negroes in the back and whites in the front; and 3) Negro bus drivers to be employed in predominantly Negro routes.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom King explains how Christian love and nonviolent methods guided the movement. In weekly meetings he would emphasize that the use of violence would be both impractical and immoral. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. Although to King nonviolence was a way of life, he was glad that the black people were willing to accept it as a method; he presented it simply as Christianity in action. In Stride Toward Freedom King elucidates six key points about the philosophy of nonviolence.

First, it is not based on cowardice; although it may seem passive physically, it is spiritually active, requiring the courage to stand up against injustice.

Second, nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent but rather to win his understanding to create the beloved community.

Third, the attack is directed at the evil not at the people who are doing the evil; for King the conflict was not between whites and blacks but between justice and injustice.

Fourth, in nonviolence there is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliating.

Fifth, not only is physical violence avoided but also spiritual violence; love replaces hatred.

Sixth, nonviolence has faith that justice will prevail.

Meanwhile, to get people to work and back, black taxi companies had lowered their fares, car pools were arranged, and many people walked. However, the city prohibited the taxi companies from doing this business, threatened people with vagrancy and illegal hitchhiking charges, and rumors spread that drivers might lose their licenses or insurance. King was arrested in January for driving 30 in a 25 mile-per-hour zone, even though he was driving very carefully since he was aware of being followed. The Kings house was bombed; however, Coretta and a friend had escaped injury by moving quickly to the back of the house. Martin rushed home from his meeting, and a furious mob gathered outside. He calmed them down and advised them to put down their weapons and go home. He said, We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence We must meet hate with love. When the mayor tried to speak, he was booed and threatened; but again King quieted the crowd. His presence and words had prevented a bloody riot. The Kings often received threatening phone calls, but even after the bomb blast, King would not allow a weapon in his house.

While King was away lecturing at Fisk University in Nashville, the Montgomery attorney began arresting MIA leaders for violating an old state law against boycotts. Against the advice of his father Martin returned to Montgomery to be placed under arrest. He was released on bail. On March 22 Judge Carter found eighty-nine defendants guilty. King was sentenced to pay a fine of $500 or serve 386 days hard labor. Appeals were filed. On June 4, 1956 a federal court held that bus segregation was unconstitutional. However, the city attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court. In November the city tried to ban the car pools. While they were in a Montgomery court on this charge, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision declaring Alabamas state and local laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional.

Meetings were held to prepare the people for integration of the buses. Training sessions in nonviolent techniques enabled actors to play out different roles before a critical audience which would discuss the results. Integrated bus suggestions were printed which recommended complete nonviolence in word and action and the admonition, Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend. A few days before Christmas, after more than a years boycott, the black ministers of Montgomery led the way in riding integrated buses. In January a few acts of terrorism occurred, but again King urged nonviolence and the way of the cross. After a few weeks the transportation systems had returned to normal with integrated buses.

The Montgomery success gave King national prominence. Along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and C.K. Steele, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with headquarters in Atlanta. He urged President Eisenhower to call for a White House Conference on Civil Rights. When the Eisenhower Administration failed to respond adequately, King organized a Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom which drew thirty-seven thousand marchers to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on May 17, 1957. King led the cry of blacks for the ballot so that they could participate more fully in the legislative process.

In 1958 Stride Toward Freedom came out calling for a militant and nonviolent mass movement. King suggests in this book that if they remain nonviolent, then public opinion will be magnetically attracted to them rather than to the instigators of violence. A nonviolent mass movement is power under discipline seeking justice. He summarizes his nonviolent intentions this way:

We will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act.

We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices.

We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade.

We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.

We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.

We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer, when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.

He points out that nonviolence first affects the hearts of those committed to it, gives them greater self-respect and courage, and then it stirs the conscience of the opponents until reconciliation is achieved. In a world of ballistic missiles he declares, Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

On Lincolns birthday in 1958 twenty-one mass meetings were held simultaneously in key southern cities calling for freedom now. In September King was arbitrarily arrested while in the Montgomery courthouse. He decided to refuse to pay bail or the fine. However, the officials preferred to pay his fine for him to save the taxpayers the expense of feeding King for fourteen days.

While autographing copies of his book in New York, a psychotic woman stabbed King in the chest with a sharp letter opener. He remained calm and waited for a surgeon to remove the knife-like weapon. Its point had been touching his aorta, and he was told that if he had merely sneezed he probably would have died.

In February 1959 Martin Luther King made a pilgrimage to India and returned even more confirmed in the principles of nonviolence. On the first of December King called for a broad, bold advance of the southern campaign for equality. In 1960 student activists organized numerous sit-ins at lunch counters in order to end discrimination. King and James Lawson spoke on nonviolence at a meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. King and thirty-six others were arrested for sitting at the lunch counter in Richs Department Store in Atlanta. The judge sentenced King to six months hard labor. This was on October 25, and the election was only a few days away. President Eisenhower considered making a public statement, but he and Vice President Nixon decided not to comment. However, John Kennedy and his brother Robert made some phone calls urging Kings release. Some say that this gesture helped Kennedy win the election over Nixon by a narrow margin.

King was elected chairman of the committee on the Freedom Rides in 1961. To protect the Freedom Riders from the onslaught of violence King requested Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send more federal marshals. King explained, The law may not be able to make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. The Freedom Rides took the civil rights movement from the urban college campuses to the rural hamlets of the South.

King answered the call to help the movement in Albany, Georgia to desegregate public parks and other facilities. He and Ralph Abernathy were arrested in December 1961 for refusing to disperse. They were tried the following February and sentenced on July 10, 1962 to pay a fine or be imprisoned at hard labor for forty-five days. They chose prison. Again an anonymous person paid the fines. King then announced a civil disobedience campaign. However, when two thousand people threw rocks and bottles at the police, he called for a Day of Penitence and a week of prayer vigils. King, Abernathy, and Dr. Anderson were arrested at the first vigil. They spent two weeks in jail before the trial and then were given suspended sentences. A new demonstration was planned after their release, but this time the city obtained a federal injunction against the demonstration. Since the federal courts had always been their ally, King reluctantly canceled the march. Many considered the Albany campaign a failure because it did not achieve desegregation, but King felt they learned tactical lessons and through increased voter registration began to affect elections more. Five percent of the black population had accepted nonviolence and had gone willingly to jail. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had been working to desegregate Birmingham, but he was meeting much resistance. He requested the help of the SCLC, and in April 1963 after the elections involving Eugene Bull Connor they acted. Their organization had improved since Albany, and workshops on nonviolence and direct-action techniques were conducted. They began with sit-ins involving a few arrests each day. Mass meetings with talks on nonviolence were held each evening. Many volunteers came forward, and the movement grew into a nonviolent army. Each volunteer signed the following Commitment Card:

I hereby pledge myselfmy person and bodyto the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

1.       Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2.       Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliationnot victory.

3.       Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

4.       Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

5.       Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

6.       Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7.       Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8.       Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9.       Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10.   Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

King chose to postpone his own arrest so that he could speak to meetings in the black community; he appealed to ministers for help in the struggle to improve social conditions. On Saturday April 6, forty-two were arrested for parading without a permit. So far both sides were nonviolent, and they sang on their way to jail. The boycott of the downtown merchants was effective. There were kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the library, a march to the county building for voter registration, and the jails began to fill. They decided to disobey a state court injunction, because they felt Alabama was misusing the judicial process. Although most of the leaders wanted King to stay free in order to raise money, he asked Ralph Abernathy to go to jail with him. On Good Friday they were arrested, and King was put in solitary confinement. Coretta contacted President Kennedy to request help in improving Kings jail conditions, and Harry Belafonte was able to raise fifty thousand dollars for bail bonds.

On scraps of paper Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter from Birmingham jail in which he responded to ministers public charges that his actions were unwise and untimely. He explains that he came to Birmingham because of the injustice there. They had gone through the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign: collection of facts about injustice, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Just as Socrates had been an intellectual gadfly, he too must struggle against injustice. He states the hard truth, We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. He quotes St. Augustine who said that an unjust law is no law at all. Segregation is unjust because it damages the personality and creates false concepts of superiority and inferiority. To break an unjust law openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty is to express respect for real justice. He points out that what Hitler did in Germany was legal, while aiding or comforting a Jew was illegal. Their action does not create the tension; it merely brings to the surface the seething hidden tensions. Nonviolence offers a creative outlet for repressed emotions which might otherwise result in violence. If he is an extremist, then like Jesus he is an extremist for love.

After eight days King and Abernathy accepted bail. King then suggested that they enlist young people in the campaign. Andy Young sent some who were too young to the library to learn something. On May 2 over a thousand youths demonstrated and went to jail. King explains in his book Why We Cant Wait that all ages, sexes, races, and even the disabled can be accepted into a nonviolent army. When the jails were almost full, Bull Connor changed his tactics to violence, turning on the water hoses, sending in police with their clubs, and releasing the police dogs. Moral indignation swept across the nation. On May 4 the Attorney General sent mediators to seek a truce. On May 10 an agreement was reached granting the major demands: desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains; upgrading and hiring of blacks on a nondiscriminatory basis; release of all jailed persons; and establishing communications between black and white leaders.

Segregationists reacted by bombing the house of Martins brother A.D. King at midnight on Saturday in order to incite a riot. Followers of the movement sang We Shall Overcome to stop the violence. The next day President Kennedy sent in three thousand federal troops. On May 20 the Supreme Court decided that demonstrations against segregated institutions are legal. Justice had triumphed.

King went on a speaking tour from Los Angeles to New York. In Detroit on June 23, 1963 he led 125,000 people on a Freedom Walk. To this crowd he spoke of nonviolence as a strong method of disarming the opponent. He declared, If a man hasnt discovered something that he will die for, he isnt fit to live!

At a conference with A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, John Lewis of SNCC, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, James Farmer of CORE, and Whitney Young of the Urban League, they planned a march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in order to put pressure on Congress to pass President Kennedys Civil Rights Bill. Two hundred fifty thousand people, about a third of them white, congregated at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Randolph introduced King as the moral leader of the nation. King began with his prepared speech about how America had given the Negro a bad check and they had come there to collect on the promises. The great crowds response inspired him, and he put aside his text and began to speak of his dream of equality, brotherhood, and freedoma dream where people are not judged by their skin color but by their character. He tolled the bell of freedom so that it would ring out all across the land.

When the assassination of President Kennedy was announced, King privately told Coretta that the same thing would happen to him because this is a sick society. The following June King and Abernathy were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida. King explained how some people were trying to stop the movement by threatening them with physical death, but he responded, If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brother and all my brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. On July 2, 1964 King personally witnessed President Lyndon Johnsons signing of the Civil Rights law. King submitted an Economic Bill of Rights to the Democratic Party platform committee. He suggested that the disadvantaged who have been denied so long ought to receive something comparable to the G.I. Bill of Rights.

At age thirty-five Martin Luther King became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize. He accepted the prestigious award for peace on behalf of the Movement, saying it was a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and racial questions of our timethe need for man to overcome oppression without resorting to violence.

In 1965 the push for voter registration was accelerated, and Selma, Alabama was selected as the most challenging target. Mass meetings were held there throughout January and February. On February first King and Abernathy led a march of 250 blacks and 15 whites to the courthouse where they all were arrested. On March 5 King spent two and a half hours with President Johnson urging him to expedite the Voting Rights Bill. On March 7 he announced a fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Although Governor Wallace prohibited the march, King exhorted the people to stand up for what is right. SCLC strategy was for the leaders to avoid arrest in the early stages of a campaign. Thus King was not at the front of the march when they were met by Alabama troopers with gas masks, tear gas, clubs, horsemen with whips, and deputies with electric cattle prods. The brutal attack was cheered by whites on the sidelines.

King announced that he and Abernathy would lead another march. A federal injunction was issued against it, but King made a nationwide appeal for ministers and others to join them. This time they crossed the bridge before coming to the troopers. Fifteen hundred people prayed on the road, and then to avoid a violent confrontation King asked them to turn back. That night a white minister from Boston was murdered by four Klansmen in Selma. Demonstrations were held across the country, and four thousand religious leaders picketed the White House to push for the Voting Rights Bill. The evening of the funeral President Johnson gave his We shall overcome speech and made the Voting Rights Bill his top priority. The injunction against the march was lifted, and the President federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent troops to protect the marchers. On March 21 the march was successfully carried out, and when they got to Montgomery they were a crowd of fifty thousand. Again Kings oratory lifted the people as he declared that they would not have to wait long for freedom because no lie can live forever, because you will reap what you sow, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, and because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. The Voting Rights Bill was signed on August 6, 1965.

Meanwhile problems were surfacing outside the South. In one night of rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles more people were killed than in ten years of nonviolent demonstrations across the country. On June 6, 1966 James Meredith was shot while leading a march in Mississippi. King visited him in the hospital and took his place on the march. Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power advocates wanted to exclude whites, but King said he would withdraw. They agreed to keep the march interracial and nonviolent.

In January 1966 King had moved his family into a Chicago slum to begin a protest for better housing and economic conditions. Mayor Daly closed up City Hall, but like his namesake Martin Luther, King nailed his demands to the closed door. Finally, to avoid a violent confrontation Mayor Daley met with King, Archbishop Cody, Chicago Real Estate Board representatives, the Chicago Housing Authority, business and industrial leaders, and black leaders of Chicago and the SCLC. An open housing agreement was announced on August 26. An SCLC poverty and unemployment program called Operation Breadbasket was put under the leadership of Jesse Jackson.

Kings conscience told him that he must speak out against the Vietnam War, even though the SCLC leaders asked him not to speak as SCLC President but as a private citizen. Many civil rights leaders considered his denunciation of Johnsons Vietnam policy a mistake. However, his wife Coretta, his former professor Harold de Wolf, A.J. Muste, and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg supported him for his courageous stand. In January 1967 in Los Angeles he declared, The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam We must combine the fervor of the Civil Rights Movement with the peace movement. He spoke at the Spring Mobilization campaign organized by A.J. Muste. While in Geneva King called for an immediate negotiated settlement to the immoral war. At Riverside Church in New York he proposed a five-point peace program for Vietnam: an end to all bombing; a unilateral cease fire to prepare for negotiation; curtailment of military build-ups throughout Southeast Asia; realistic acceptance of the National Liberation Front; and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.

King believed that the root cause of both racial hatred and war was fear. He hoped that the greatest application of the nonviolent methods used in the civil rights movement would be for world peace. Do we have the morality and courage required to live together as brothers and not be afraid? he asked. War, he said, had become obsolete, but he knew the danger when he saw the leaders of nations preparing for war while talking peace. If we want mankind to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. Since modern weapons are calamitous, he suggested that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations. He had faith that we can end war and violence as long as we do not succumb to fear of the weapons we have created. He recommended that the United Nations consider using nonviolent direct action as an application of peaceable power. He prophesied that achieving disarmament and peace would depend on a spiritual re-evaluation. He warned that a nation which spends more money on military defense than on social programs is moving toward spiritual death. Ultimately there must be a world-wide fellowship based on unconditional love for all people.

In 1968 Martin Luther King was preparing a massive Poor Peoples Campaign for whites as well as blacks when he was called to Memphis to assist with a strike of the sanitation workers. Two thousand people at Clayborn Temple wanted to hear him speak. He declared his support for their cause, but then he began to reflect about the threats made against his life. He confessed that he would like a long life, but his main concern was to do Gods will. He was glad that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. The next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. He had already requested a simple eulogy two months before when he had said,

Id like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. Id like somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. l want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

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