Clearly, Dr King had a large impact on how the Civil Rights Movement was perceived by other Americans and by people around the world. His ability to speak eloquently and thoughtfully gave him a high profile in the age of television. His speeches during the Montgomery Bus Boycott maintained morale among the local African American community. His 'I have a dream' speech in August 1963 is widely regarded as one of the finest speeches in US history.
However, it was not just the delivery of speeches that made King so significant it was also the message. His support for non-violent, peaceful protest was the only realistic strategy open to the African Americans at the time, if they were to achieve their civil and political rights. Any other strategy would have resulted in a more violent backlash. King's strategy elevated the civil rights cause into a religious movement in the way Lincoln had transformed the conflict between the states into a moral crusade to end slavery in the Civil War.
King's strategy was effective because African Americans in theory at least, already had equal civil and political rights. These had been guaranteed by the three Civil War Amendments of 1865-70. What King and his supporters were able to do through their peaceful protests was to shame America into recognising that fact. Through the use of the media and by linking the Civil Rights cause directly with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, King occupied the high moral and political ground.
In many ways, King was fortunate in facing opponents who, themselves, reflected the intolerance of which he spoke. In 1955, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, African Americans were attacked and Churches bombed. Then Emmet Till, a young African American boy from Chicago was brutally murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, for the crime of having talked to a white woman. His mother demanded an open casket funeral back in Chicago, where the nation's media photographed Till's badly mutilated body.
From a media point of view, Eugene 'Bull' Connor, the police chief of Birmingham, Alabama, offered the most striking example of white intolerance, in the full glare of national publicity at the Civil Rights demonstrations 0f 1963. Arresting school children and pregnant women, brutally attacking the demonstrators with dogs and water canons, Connor was the personification of everything that was wrong with legal segregation in the South.
King's contribution was also important in organisation. In 1957, he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King used the organisation as an umbrella organisation to unite various civil rights groups across the South. From 1957 to 1965, King was the unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King was also highly successful in encouraging others to join the movement. The use of his non violent protests inspired the lunch counter protesters of 1960, which eventually led to the formation of SNCC. King also inspired liberal whites to take part in the civil rights cause. His moral, non violent stance helped to create this fragile coalition of interests.
Due to his high media and national profile, King was able to act as the link between the civil rights movement and the White House during the Kennedy and Johnson years. King met Kennedy twice during the presidential campaign of 1960. It was Robert. F. Kennedy, the brother of the presidential candidate, who helped get King out of an Atlanta jail after he had been arrested for the first time during a voter registration drive. These events helped to forge a link between King and the Kennedy White House, in particular with Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General. During the Kennedy Administration of 1961-63, Robert Kennedy intervened decisively on a number of occasions to help the cause of educational integration in the South.
During and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King served as a catalyst of increasing symbolic and charismatic significance. He was able to direct attention onto, and support for, protests started by others.
Until the emergence of the Black Power slogan, King through his prestige and force of personality was able to hold together an obviously fragmenting Civil Rights coalition. In his respect, he served as the vital centre of the movement, standing between the 'conservatism' of the NAACP and National Urban League, and the 'radicalism' of SNCC and CORE.
A testimony to King's role in the Civil Rights Movement is to assess what happened to the SCLC after his assassination. Under the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the organisation declined rapidly in significance.
The supporters of Black Power, who criticised King's campaign strategy, achieved far less for African Americans. It is significant that many historians conclude their studies of the Civil Rights Movement in 1968 with King's death.
However, it is important to consider that Martin Luther King may not have been as significant in the Civil Rights Movement as many people have been led to believe.
'Ella Baker, a former staff member of the SCLC and a founder of SNCC claimed that 'the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement'1. It is also important to acknowledge that the Civil Rights Movement was already in existence before King became involved. The NAACP had already won the historic Brown case in the US Supreme Court in 1954. King was not involved in the events surrounding the enrolment of nine black students at Central High School, Little Rock in 1957, nor was he involved in James Meredith's application to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. In fact, on the whole issue of desegregation in education, King had played a marginal role.
King was more a spokesman than a leader of a wide and diverse movement. The lunch counter protests of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961 were devised and executed by students outside his control. King's attempts to make the SNCC the student wing of SCLC came to nothing. From 1960 to 1965, SNCC and CORE had an uneasy relationship with King and the SCLC.
As August Meier states some twenty five years ago in 'On the Role of Martin Luther King', 'King was a master synthesiser who could interpret the African American struggle for freedom in language that struck responsive chords among blacks and whites'2 . More recently, scholars have discovered that King liberally borrowed ideas for his sermons and writings from both black and white protestant ministers, often without attribution, and that his published books were produced with the help of ghost-writers.3
Unlike the students of SNCC and CORE, King faced a number of embarrassing failures as leader of SCLC. The campaign for increased voter registration, from 1958 to 1960, had virtually no impact. His attempt to desegregate Albany, Georgia, in 1961-62 also came to nothing. When faced by a shrewd police chief, like Laurie Pritchard in Albany, who avoided violent confrontation, King's tactics did not work.
Above all King's area of influence was the Old South. The SCLC had its headquarters in his hometown of Atlanta. In the North, King's role was marginal. On the few occasions King became involved in the Civil Rights movement in the North, he faced failure. In 1966, King went to Chicago to lead a demonstration against the sum housing, de facto school segregation and poor employment opportunities for African Americans. He came across hostile reactions from Polish Americans in Cicero who stoned his march. King was injured by a brick thrown during his attempt to march through the white housing area of Gage Park.
It seems clear that King's influence was centred on the South in the years, 1955-66. After that date, SNCC and CORE became detached from King's control. They looked for inspiration from the writing of Malcolm X and the lure of Black Nationalism. King also lost support from the Johnson White House when he began to speak out openly against the Vietnam War.
Also in 1967, King began to lose white, middle-class support when he embarked on the 'Poor people's Campaign'. Having gained civil and political equality for African Americans, King was attempting to gain social equality. Through the support for Third World revolutionary movements and social justice at home, King had ceased to be a liberal and was perceived to be a socialist.
King did not help his alienation from white, liberal America. He kept as a close aide a known Communist, the white Stanley Levinson. This made King and the Civil Rights cause vulnerable to attacks from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who always contested that King was a Communist sympathiser.4
Martin Luther King has come to symbolise the Civil Rights years of 1955-68. The nature of his death elevated King to a national hero. 'However as King's own sister, Christine Farris, noted: 'My brother was no saint but an average man'
For many historians and contempories it is actually the Federal Government which were the most important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the 1960s.
The Federal Government occupies a central role in the achievement of full Civil Rights for African Americans. It was the Federal Government, during the Civil War that freed the slaves. However, from the end of Reconstruction, in 1877, the Federal Government turned a blind eye to the introduction of legal segregation in the Old South.
The Federal Government compromises of the President, the Congress, and the US Supreme Court. Each branch of Government has played a different role in the achievement of Civil Rights.
'The Federal Government played an indispensable role in shaping the fortunes of the Civil Rights revolution. It is impossible to understand how Blacks achieved first-class citizenship rights in the South without concentrating on what national leaders in Washington D.C did to influence the course of events leading to the extension of racial equality'5. Historians Lawson and Payne argue that without their support the Southern struggle for equality would have continued until they had organisations like the Government to command the power they needed to quash White supremacy.
In the Congress, the dominance of the Democratic Party in the Old South, from 1877 to the late 1960s, meant that important committees were run by Southern Democrats, who were completely opposed to full Civil Rights for African Americans. Southern Democrats proved to be an obstacle to the introduction of effective Civil Rights legislation up to the 1960s.
The Presidency has also had a mixed role in the achievement of Civil Rights. Democrat Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson all played an important role in the advancement of Civil Rights. However, they faced opposition from within their own party. On two occasions in 1948 and again in 1968- Southern Democrats put forward their own anti- civil rights presidential candidate, to stand against the official Democrat candidate.
Finally, he US Supreme Court played a central role in the achievement of Civil Rights. As the highest judicial body in the land, its power to interpret the Constitution was central to the ending of legal segregation in the South.
However many people believe the main party of real importance during the Civil Rights Movement was in fact the Grass Roots organisations, the ordinary people.
'As scholarly inquiry has refocused the vision of this struggle 'from the bottom up', it is appropriate to consider how efforts at the local level intersected with those on the national stage'6
A second generation of scholars, writing in the late 1970s and 1980s, sought to reshape Civil Rights historiography. They questioned whether the Civil Rights movement could be properly understood as a coalition of national organisations pressuring Washington to correct racial injustices. They suggested that the focal point for investigation should shift to local communities and Grass Roots organisations. King and the other well-known players would not disappear from view, but they would take a back seat to women and men who initiated protests in small towns and cities across the South and who acted according to their own needs rather than those of central organisations headquartered in New York, Washington, or Atlanta.7
Both national Civil Rights campaigns aimed at legislation and litigation and community organizing directed toward consciousness raising were part of a larger process of empowerment. In an interactive way, the Civil Rights Movement altered local black institutions and shaped national goals: in turn, the actions of the federal government and established Civil Rights groups transformed local communities in the process of expanding freedom.8
The quest for freedom over the last half century enabled Blacks to be released as serving passive objects of white domination and forged them into active agents striving to shape their own political destinies.9