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Essay: Martin Luther King: Most Significant Black Leader in 1865-1968?

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In the context of the years 1865 to 1968, how far was Martin Luther King the most significant Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights?

Martin Luther King was a black leader and social activist who led the campaign for civil rights in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968. It could be argued that he was the most significant Black leader in the years 1865 to 1968 because of his peaceful protests and campaigns towards equality between black and white civilians. However, it can also be argued that people such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were more significant because of the way they stood up for their rights, for example, unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was more aggressive in his fight for equal rights.

Significantly, the way that Martin Luther King emphasised and encouraged the importance of non-violent protest and resistance is a reason why it could be argued that he was the most significant Black leader in the years 1865 to 1968. For example, Historian 1 explains that on 30th January 1956, a bomb was thrown onto King’s porch.  King asked that the protestors outside his home took their weapons home and didn’t try to get more, he preached about god and Jesus and told them that they must meet violence with nonviolence.  This showed how King managed to constantly encourage the importance of nonviolent protests even when he himself was being targeted by violence as serious as bombs. This historian lived in California so his view towards the civil rights would have been more positive as many Californians showed their support for Civil Rights activists and victims of racial discrimination in the South by holding marches, rallies, and demonstrations urging equality for African Americans. For example, white children in San Francisco held up a sign in support of the four young black girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  This suggests that his view would not have been racist and that what he wrote about Martin Luther King would have been true. In addition to this, the Greensboro sit-ins which began in North Carolina also had an impact on California, where Archer lived, as many people in San Francisco boycotted Kress and Woolworths stores; the sit-ins shifted the civil rights movements towards public places such as restaurants, swimming pools and libraries. In February 1960, four local students entered a Woolworths and sat on ‘whites-only’ seats at the counter and refused to leave until they were served; the protest escalated and on the second day there were 27 students but by the fourth there were 300. By the end of the week, the store had to shut temporarily to halt the sit-ins. Within a week, similar protests had occurred in six towns throughout North Carolina and after a few months, sit-ins were taking place in six more states. Many other similar protests took place and by the beginning of 1961, over 70,000 people, black and white, had taken part in demonstrating against the segregation of public places.  This was significant as it demonstrated how civil rights campaigns could spread quickly and affect the whole of the south. By the end of 1961, 810 towns had desegregated their public places. Six months after the campaign started, Black people were finally served at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworths store. As a result of the commitment King had towards peace, his protests for civil rights, especially segregation between blacks and whites, made a lot of progress in the civil rights campaign during Martin Luther King’s role from the mid 1950’s until his assassination in 1968. Therefore, it could be argued that Martin Luther King was the most significant Black leader of the campaign for Civil rights from 1865 to 1968 because the way that Martin Luther King emphasised and encouraged the importance of non-violent protest and resistance in his involvement with the civil rights campaign. However, the success of King’s peaceful approach could be questioned because the Albany campaign failed. The SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) targeted Albany, Georgia, and organised protests to end segregation, a local police chief adopted a new approach designed to deny the protestors the media attention they needed to have impact and King was also arrested during the campaign. It showed that peaceful protest did not always bring about change which led to divisions in the civil rights movement and radicals in SNCC began to talk about using violence to challenge segregation as peaceful process was proving less effective.

Consequently, it could be argued that Martin Luther King was the most significant Black leader during the period 1865 to 1968 because of his ability to provide leadership to the African-American civil rights movement. For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 5th December 1955 to the 20th December 1956 demonstrated King’s leadership qualities and brought him to national attention. It was in response to the segregation in Alabama as buses throughout the South were segregated. This meant that the front rows if the bus were reserved for white people while black people were forced to sit at the back. Additionally, if the bus was full, Black people had to give up their seats to white people.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott financially destroyed the bus companies and as a result proved the importance of black customers. Source 1 suggests that Martin Luther King was able to successfully lead his followers as it states “it was almost military discipline combined with emotion”. This suggests that everyone did what King asked as if they were his soldiers and he was their officer in charge, they all agree with what he says as “many said they would never ride the bus again”  just because he had said that enough was enough with the way they were being treated. This source is a newspaper report on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how it was a positive, not aggressive, protest against racism. The source is reliable as the meeting that announced the boycott took place on the 5th of December 1965 and Joe Azbell, the white reporter, wrote up his report the day after. It could be argued that because the meeting with King took place on the first day of the boycott, not enough had happened yet to write a good report on the events but meeting with King from the start allowed the activist to outline his intentions of the boycott from the start; King demonstrates his intentions by saying “there will be no violence or intimidation. We are seeking things in a democratic way and we are using the weapon of protest.” It could be argued that this source isn’t reliable as he is a white journalist reporting in a black event which could lead to some doubts in the validity of his words and they may be misinterpreted as he cannot see things from an oppressed black perspective, however, it appears that he is able to successfully portray the events of the day in his report and his own opinion doesn’t appear to be a part of this report. The report appears to focus on the announcement of the boycott and how the black community reacted to it rather than his own opinion but his own background as a young man and his kind actions towards the black community suggest that he doesn’t believe the black community should be treated the way they are so there are no personal negative opinions of black people to influence his report. In his early life, when he had spare time, Azbell provided transport to hospitals for black children stricken with polio as most members of the black community did not own a car. Overall, this source could be suggested as being helpful in providing a reliable insight into why Martin Luther King was the most significant campaigner for civil rights from 1896 to 1965 as it explains what happened and what King said when introducing his plan to boycott the company and also explains the reaction of the crown and how they responded. Therefore, King’s ability to provide leadership to the African-American civil rights movement made him the most significant as he was able to plan events to protest against the segregation and was able to get people on board to protest with him. However, the Chicago Freedom Movement led to criticism of King’s leadership and tactics, local CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) activists claimed that King had made tactical mistakes in the campaign such as his decision not to break the court injunction restricting further marches. The campaign also highlighted the extent to which King had misjudged the situation in the north, despite other factors, President Johnson refused to involve the Federal Government in the campaign because he was no longer willing to work with King following his attack on the Vietnam War.

Notably, Martin Luther King could be the most significant Black leader from 1865 to 1968 because he brought publicity to major civil rights activities and events. On 28th August 1963, 250,000 people gathered outside the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC for the March on Washington which protested against racial discrimination and encouraged the passage of civil rights legislation; at the time, the Civil Rights Act was being discussed in Congress.  The location of the ‘I have a dream’ speech is significant because it was given in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, the monument honouring President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states. By giving his speech there, King called attention to how things were so terrible a century before and how some things hadn't changed very much in one hundred years.  King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was clearly influenced by the lack of change towards the treatment of black people since the Emancipation Proclamation because the March on Washington commemorated the centenary of the event. The March put pressure on the President and Congress to pass the civil rights bill that was being discussed.  After the seventh paragraph of his speech, King paused which gave time for his good friend, Mahalia Jackson, to shout “tell ‘em about the dream” and King then went on to push his papers aside and improvise the remainder of his speech, though some of it had been said two months before at Cobo Hall in Detroit.  This is significant as it suggest King didn’t need a perfectly prepared speech to get his message across, that his own words were enough to say what needed to be said in order to make change. As a result, the “I have a dream speech” highlighted the significance of media involvement, television reports had portrayed the injustice of segregation to a national and international audience and the nature and scale of the march attracted favourable media attention within the United States and abroad; a newspaper in Ghana reported that the march was among the ‘greatest revolutions in the annals of human history’. It is also important that 20% of the marchers were white which showed unity between blacks and whites for civil rights legislation and solidified support for new civil rights legislation which would give the government the power to force southern states to desegregate.  Therefore, Martin Luther King could be the most significant Black leader from 1865 to 1968 because he brought publicity to major civil rights activities and efforts and without publicity there would be less support nationwide as not as many people would be aware of what was taking place to influence the civil rights movement. As a result, if there was no media coverage of what Martin Luther King was doing, his actions may not have had as much impact so the publicity he gained for civil rights campaigns was what could have made him the most significant black leader of the campaign for civil rights from 1865 to 1968. However, King didn’t just get good publicity, after the Birmingham Campaign, he was criticised as the SCLC, which King was closely associated with, had recruited children and had put them in danger; this shows how not everything Martin Luther King did was a success.

On the other hand, Malcolm X, who was highly critical of the aims, methods and achievements of the civil rights movement thanks to Martin Luther King, could be argued as being the most significant Black leader from 1865 to 1968 because he didn’t agree with King’s approach to violence with nonviolence. For example, Malcolm X believed that the nonviolent approach put an emphasis on the stereotypes that black people were weak and defenceless. He argued that white racists didn’t acknowledge peaceful protests so they could not bring substantial change. He also believed that self-defence was more powerful than love and forgiveness, he said that self-defence was a natural response to violence and hatred, therefore going completely against Martin Luther King’s approach to the civil rights movement. Although historian 2 is positive regarding Martin Luther King’s aims, he is also negative when talking about the widening of King’s message and how his tactics entailed controversy even within his own movement. Malcolm X was able to provide a different approach towards racism during the civil rights campaign for those who wanted it and that’s what he did and is arguably what made him such an important black leader as he led them away from something they didn’t necessarily think was working and gave them a better option. An example of how violence was influenced by Malcolm X is his speech from 1963. The speech implied that Malcolm believed that non-violence didn’t work but violence would and that there hadn’t been enough change since Abrahams Lincoln emancipation proclamation one hundred years before. Evidence of his preference to using violence from the speech is the constant repetition of the word “bloodshed”. For example, "…Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it was bloodshed … What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed … The Russian Revolution – what was it based on? Land; the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven't got a revolution that doesn't involve bloodshed. And you're afraid to bleed. I said, you're afraid to bleed."  This suggests that Malcolm X felt like the only way to move forward was to use violence since this is the way that others have made change in the past and there was no reason why the civil rights movement should be any different and so violence instead of non-violence was the way to get what they wanted. Therefore, it could be argued from 1865 to 1968, Malcolm X was the most significant Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights because of his opposing view to Martin Luther King which influenced the organisation of many more violent groups, for example the Organization of Afro-American Unity. However, the longevity of Malcolm X’s work could be questioned because after his assassination in February 1965, the Organization of Afro-American Unity collapsed but many of its aims did become central to other radical groups, particularly SNCC and the Black Panther Party.

Furthermore, Marcus Garvey was an important leader in the period 1865 to 1968 because of his approach which fought against racism in a different way to Martin Luther King; similarly to Malcolm X, Garvey believed in violence instead of non violence. Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association in June 1917 and by 1919 the UNIA had 30 branches and 2 million members. Garvey campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, denial of black voting rights and racial discrimination but the UNIA was different to other civil rights organisations because of their opinion on how the racial problem could be solved. Garvey didn’t believe that whites people in the United stated could ever live alongside African Americans and treat them as equals and argued for segregation rather than integration. Garvey suggested that African Americans should go and live in Africa. He wrote that he believed "in the principle of Europe for the Europeans, and Asia for the Asiatics" and "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad". Garvey began to sign up recruits who were willing to travel to Africa and "clear out the white invaders".  This suggests that Garvey believed that violence to remove whites from Africa was acceptable so it can be interpreted that he wouldn’t have hesitated to use violence in other places to do the same. Unlike King who was against violence and told protestors to get rid of their weapons and not try to find more, Garvey “formed an army and equipped them with uniforms and weapons”  therefore showing a significant difference between the two leaders. Garvey was a significant black leader for the civil rights campaign because he realised the difficulty of fighting for desegregation and equality between black and white brought and suggested an alternative option where everyone could live in peace. However, Garvey’s leadership could be criticised there wasn’t longevity in his plans. After just a few journeys to and from Africa, he ran out of money and several people in his company had been involved in corruption. Garvey was arrested and charged with fraud and in 1925 was sentenced to five years imprisonment, he had served half of his sentence when President Calvin Coolidge commuted the rest of his prison term and had him deported to Jamaica.  

Historian 2, Vincent Harding, would also argue that despite how Martin Luther King preached for non-violence, shortly after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, racial violence escalated across America. Evidence of this is the fourteen people who were injured and four black girls who were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in September 1963 in an act of racially motivated terrorism. This act could have been influenced by the Church hosting several meetings led by civil rights activists and evidence that this had an influence on the attack is the effort to intimidate demonstrators when members of the KKK routinely telephoned the church with bomb threats intended to disrupt the meetings as well as regular church services.  This suggests that Martin Luther King was not the most significant leader in the civil rights campaign as he actually aggravated the whites too much and they fought back in anger which resulted in an increase in deaths and injuries in the black community. Therefore, it could be argued that King brought more harm than good as there was an increase in racial violence after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech so he was not a significant black leader in the civil rights campaign. Despite this, King did have successes in other areas such as boycotts, marches and sit ins which led to notable change in legislations and it could be argued that there was always racial crime towards the black community and other factors such as the increase in violence from other black leaders led to this escalation of violence.

In conclusion, it could be argued that in the years 1865 to 1968, the most significant black leader of the campaign for civil rights is Martin Luther King because of his efforts to make changes to the treatment of black people with his work on desegregation using non violent methods such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Sit Ins. The publicity that Martin Luther King brought to the civil rights campaign helped him greatly and because of this, he is the most significant black leader for civil rights in the years 1865 to 1968. However, it is important to take into account the efforts of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey who both used opposing methods to Martin Luther King with their use of violence which they heavily encouraged as it showed a strong character and as a result influenced the course of the civil rights campaign although overall, Martin Luther King had more significant achievements.

From the years ….. it could be argued that Douglass was a significant Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights

It could also be argued that Dubois was an important Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights as he headed the NAACP, which was founded in 1909 by a multi racial group of civil rights campaigners and was created to fight for the rights of black people and to oppose discrimination and racial hatred. The groups membership grew to 450,000 in 1942 and was best known for its campaigning court cases which challenged the legal basis for segregation, they went to court as they believed that the American legal system could be used to end segregation. Their strategy was to challenge ‘Jim Crow’ laws by appealing to the fourteenth amendment, which states that everyone born in the USA has full citizenship rights, as well as the fifteenth amendment, which states all citizens have a right to vote regardless of their colour. Similarly to Martin Luther King, the NAACP were involved in non violent direct action and other initiatives to empower African Americans.  Therefore, W.E.B. DuBois was an important Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights as he fought for legislative changes in the treatment of black people as a part of his leadership of the NAACP. However, the NAACP was banned from Alabama in 1956 which removed the party from an entire state so limited their impact.

Booker T. Washington was also an important Black leader of the campaign for Civil Rights since he was born as a slave but put himself through school and he founded institutes such as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama which focuses on training African Americans. He was a political advisor and writer but clashed with W.E.B Du Bois over how to bring equality between blacks and whites. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the white house for dinner which became a national sensation as several other presidents had invited African Americans to meeting at the White House but never to a meal and segregation was still the law in 1901.  Therefore, Booker T. Washington was an important individual in the civil rights campaign as he showed how despite background, black people could still make change.

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