Contributed by Patrice Hamiter, African American History Archivist, using resources from WRHS’s African American Archives.
This Martin Luther King Jr. Day seems particularly poignant against the backdrop of recent events that seem to chip away at the “dream“ that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. This is currently evidenced by the insurrection on our nation’s capital, the rise of racist subversive groups, voter suppression, the ravaging effects of the coronavirus on black communities, police killings of black men and women, and violent protests and riots.
No one can argue the significance of Dr.’s King’s legacy; living a life of activism that has generated monumental strides for equality, and reach far beyond the civil rights movement. In just over a decade he accomplished what few could in a lifetime, but it was only the beginning. We continue to face the challenge of gaining civil rights for all, and like Dr. King, we have to understand the impact of working together to push for one common goal.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and an iconic activist who led marches and protests for black people’s civil rights, right to vote, desegregation, and labor rights. One of his first and most notable acts of activism was leading the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. When on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white a man on a city bus.
The boycott lasted for 385 days, and became so intense that Dr. King was arrested and his home was bombed. The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 and resulted in the United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. The boycott transformed Dr. King into a recognizable activist and leader during the civil rights era, and in 1957 he rose to national prominence by becoming the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The SCLC practiced nonviolent protest tactics, and though there were many stand-offs with segregationists and police that sometimes turned violent, Dr. King the son of a minister, remained committed to advancing civil rights through non-violence and civil disobedience. He was inspired by his religious beliefs, and the non-violent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically, the FBI labeled Dr. King a radical, and made him the object of many investigations trying to link him to communism.
As the head of the SCLC, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most visible spokesperson in the civil rights movement. In addition to helping organize non-violent protests, he was arrested and jailed for ignoring an Alabama state court injunction against demonstrating. It was during this time in jail that he penned his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was in defense of non-violent resistance to racism. Later that year, four young African American girls died in a racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Dr. King delivered the eulogy for three of the slain girls.
In 1963 Dr. King helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or as it’s most commonly known, the “March on Washington.” The march made specific demands to help end racial segregation in public schools, address civil rights legislation, employment discrimination, and protection of civil rights workers from police brutality.
The march was criticized because it was originally conceived as a forum to air grievances about the desperate condition of southern blacks and to publicly denounce the federal government’s failure to safeguard the rights and safety of civil rights workers and blacks. Some felt that organizers gave into pressure, and criticized the march as being too sanitized. Malcolm X dubbed the march the “Farce on Washington”, and the Nation of Islam forbade its members from attending the march.
Despite the tensions and criticisms, at the time the march was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history. With more than 200,000 people attending the peaceful event, Dr. King delivered his now famous I have a dream speech. The march, along with Dr. King’s speech, which is regarded as one of the finest in the history of American oratory, helped to put civil rights reform at the forefront of the United States agenda, and facilitated passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dr. King’s non-violent approach was not universally accepted by some members of the black community who were angry at the violence against blacks. Malcolm X, accused Dr. King of working “to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack.” And black psychologist Kenneth Clark called the philosophy of loving one’s enemy “psychologically burdensome.” Nevertheless, on October 14, 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to achieving racial equality through nonviolent actions, and his activism and leadership in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led marches in Selma, Alabama to call attention to it’s history of using violence to prevent African Americans from voting. Due to the marches, seven months later President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress that would expand the 14th and 15th amendments. The bill banned race based restrictions, making discriminatory voting practices illegal. It was quickly adopted by Congress and signed into law as the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, and is considered to be one of the most far-reaching pieces of Civil Rights legislation.
Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 during a trip to Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers, but he didn’t die in vain. There has been progress and people of color contribute to almost every facet of society. More African Americans have professional and political positions, access to higher educational opportunities, the black middle class has grown, there are more black millionaires, and more persons of color have significant roles in the television and movie industry. Among the greatest accomplishments was the election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, as the first African-American President of the United States.
But, despite these strides, African American still face inequalities which prevent them from assuming their rightful place in this country, a country they built. Outright racism, policies that don’t effectively address systemic racism, and a complete lack of attention to important issues continue to create large disparities within education, health-care, employment, and fair treatment within the justice system.
This only means we have more work to do. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday appointed as a national day of service to motivate and inspire everyone to volunteer to help improve their communities. This is a creed that all Americans should be striving for and carrying with them every day to honor Dr. King and his legacy, so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be within every American’s reach.