Martin Luther King Jr. was a highly influential figure during the Civil Rights Movement and proved to be the catalyst in helping the movement become as successful as it was. The Civil Rights Movement started due to decades of discrimination, segregation, and oppression of African-Americans in the United States, specifically in the deep south. African-Americans knew they deserved equal rights to everyone else in America, and so decided to start a movement, which became one of the most significant and notable in American history.
The Civil Rights Movement took over thirty years to have any real success and featured the influence of several key figures. King was the most well-known influence on the movement, as he led it in the role of president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC was formed with the intention of reclaiming the spirit of America with nonviolent tactics. Taking its inspiration for freedom from black churches, the SCLC started with the hope of supporting one another in the fight for equality.1 The initial event that propelled the movement into play was Rosa Parks’ arrest. On December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus to a white man, and was arrested. At the time, there were segregated sections on buses for white passengers and for black passengers, so in a time of racial tension, Parks’ refusal caused a stir in the Montgomery community. Her arrest attracted the attention of many, and resulted in a bus boycott from the black community in Montgomery.2
A leaflet written by Jo Ann Robinson helps to further our understanding of this boycott. The leaflet was a major statement made by the black community, which was sick of being treated the way they were by white society. The leaflet encouraged black people to not ride the bus “to work, to school, or any place,” highlighting the danger of public transport for black people at the time.3 The rejection of the city’s buses resulted in King’s national recognition as being the representative leader of the movement, and helped set his mold of nonviolent and community-orientated tactics for the movement. The boycott lasted over a year, with King not only leading it, but also ending it: he was among the first passengers to ride a bus again in December 1956, and this event proved to be the real beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. After the boycott came to an end, Parks carried on her work for civil rights, and often supported King in his work.4
Although the Montgomery Bus Boycott was eventually successful, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the desegregation of Montgomery buses, there were many threats and incidents during that year directly targeting King. With his newfound recognition, King bore the brunt of both the support, and, of course, the criticism and threats as well. He was often on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, and his house was fire bombed while he was giving a speech at a meeting for the bus boycott. Luckily, King’s wife and child were unharmed, but this did not prevent a group of angry black men, who were furious at what had happened, from gathering outside King’s house, looking to avenge the situation.5 That was when King began to emphasize the importance of nonviolent protest. He addressed the crowd in a calm and harmonious voice:
“We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”6
King was under the impression that the Christian foundation of love, working with Mahatma Gandhi’s method of nonviolence, was one of the biggest assets to oppressed people looking to fight through their struggle for freedom.7 King studied Gandhi and took a lot from him, including his stress on love and nonviolence, which gave King “the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”8 King thought that there must be new ways of solving conflicts with violence, and that nonviolence was the right tactic for fighting conflict: he highlighted that war and violent protests were very uncontrollable and they were usually not worth what they were trying to achieve. The best solution, in King’s eyes, was to protest in peace, so that the protesters could display their unhappiness but without being violent or causing harm to others.
This ideal was incredibly important to King. It was a mentality that he insisted upon throughout the movement. King did not want to fall to the level of the racists and people that were oppressing the black community all over America. A few years later, after founding the SCLC, and writing “Stride Toward Freedom,” which focused on the bus boycott, King visited India to study nonviolence and civil disobedience, and to learn more about Gandhi, and to help develop his own personal beliefs to guide his conduct of the movement.9
Despite the nonviolent protests, King was still arrested on various occasions. In 1963, King was arrested and imprisoned while taking part in anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham. In this case, King was arrested for breaking Alabama’s law against “mass public demonstrations.” This resulted in eight Birmingham clergy members criticizing the campaign, branding it “unwise and untimely.” They called upon “both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”10 This became the occasion for King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” King’s distinguished letter was written primarily in reaction to the local religious leaders’ criticism of the campaign, in which he made sure to point out that the letter would have been shorter if he “had been writing from a comfortable desk” instead of stuck in a small jail cell where he was able to spend a long time alone with his thoughts, and had plenty of time to pray in depth.11
The focus of King’s letter was on questioning the clergy’s claim that the African American community was being impatient and that the campaign was being “extreme.” To that, King wrote “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”12. King goes on to argue that when you are facing becoming a “nobody” and are constantly being looked down upon by the rest of the community, it becomes very hard to wait; People wanted to see a change, so they acted upon it. King also mentioned that he believed the clergymen were “of genuine good will,” meaning that their criticisms were worthy of a response, considering that King was under constant scrutiny and of course not able to respond to every person that criticized him.13 King’s letter is one of the most famous writings of the Civil Rights Movement, and helped the campaign take big steps forward.
As influential as the letter was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 1963, the high point of the movement. The March on Washington gained attention from people from all over the country. 200,000 people showed up in support of King and the March. At the event there were several speakers who spoke on equality and civil rights for African Americans, but King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still stands out as the anthem of the entire movement:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
His speech, which is now iconic and known around the world, made a lasting impression, one that arguably contributed to President Lyndon Johnson passing both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.14
King was a man of his word: a man who stuck to his morals and who had become the spokesperson for the movement. People looked to him for answers and for his leadership, belief, and other fine qualities aiding the success of the movement. Under his leadership, the Civil Rights Movement was hugely successful and forced changes that still resonate today. King will be remembered as one of the most influential figures in history for his efforts to gain equality for all.