Of course, it is true that Martin Luther King’s influence was great in terms of raising awareness of the African American plight to advance their position towards equality. One of the leading qualities about King’s protests was that they were intended to be peaceful, in order to promote the message of the Civil Rights movement. King initiated many peaceful protests and marches to increase the support for the Civil Rights movement. This was shown during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, in which he united different branches of the Civil Rights movements into one protest, and delivered the now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. As this was a public speech, people of all colours could access it, showing how King was able to raise awareness through the power of his oration. The March on Washington led to the reinforcement of the 14th Amendment for Civil Rights .
King was able to use his social power and his platform to encourage change, especially after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his “dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement and steadfast commitment to achieving racial justice through nonviolent action.” During the period of 1957-1968, King travelled across the USA, giving over 20,000 speeches, meanwhile writing numerous articles as well as five books. He also led the protest in Birmingham, Alabama in early 1963 to aid the integration of African Americans into society. This inspired his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – a manifesto of the African American revolution he hoped for. All of these actions demonstrate that King understood how to make people want to help the movement by giving speeches unrelentingly and showing his support consistently, and becoming a symbolic leader for African Americans , which is in-keeping with Meier’s view.
However, there were many other influential civil rights activists who aided in raising awareness for the movement. Frederick Douglass used his skills as an orator to fight for the abolition of slavery in the USA. He raised awareness for the African American plight for social equality through becoming a national leader of the abolitionist movement due to his extensive antislavery writings. Douglass was also part of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination, which counted among its members Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, both women who advanced the position of African Americans in the Civil Rights movement during the 1800s, showing Douglass’ early involvement with other activists. Douglass ran his own newspaper entitled “The North Star”, eliminating any censorship and propaganda in the information he was printing, enabling many to read his newspaper and the articles within.
Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery, writing his last of three autobiographies in 1881, highlighting his determination to keep fighting against the unjust nature of the treatment of African Americans in the USA. Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist and abolitionist, leading an anti-lynching crusade during the 1890s. She is one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), showing the power she held as an activist and how successful her work was.
As well as this, Wells also established several civil rights organizations, including the National Association of Coloured Women in 1896. In 1898, Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., calling for President McKinley to reform, an impressive feat, showing how much she helped the movement and raised awareness for it . She has been called the “unsung heroine of the Civil Rights movement” showing how impactful she was, but also how under credited she is. In terms of her ability to raise awareness over that of King, not only did she begin protesting and actively fighting against lynching and segregation much earlier on in her life, it was also much harder for her as a woman to be able to advance as an activist and a journalist. However, she was able to get her campaign to the White House, showing her strength and influence, whilst also establishing numerous organisations, therefore arguably making King’s work seem less significant in comparison, as she along with other activists paved the way for newer activists to hold power within society. Booker T. Washington also raised awareness for the Civil Rights movement through founding the first school for coloured students in 1881 in Tuskegee.
By 1888, the 540 acre Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had an enrolment of over 400 students, offering a variety of training in skilled trades , showing how Washington raised awareness through educating black children, enabling children to learn without the hindrances of racist culture. Washington has been considered “the most influential black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” , stressing his importance. Another black activist who inspired King to follow the path of activism was Rosa Parks. After Parks’ peaceful protest on buses in 1955 , King and many other civil rights leaders promoted the idea of utilizing peaceful protests to advance the position of African Americans in society, showing that his stemmed from the work of other activists.
Malcom X was a popular activist who raised awareness for the movement in the poorer districts of America, having experienced poverty, drugs and crime, people understood him more than they did King. The Washington Post has described how Malcolm X “inculcated pride in thousands of black derelicts, drug addicts, turning outlaws into useful men and women\” and Newsweek describe him as “a prophetic voice in the flowering of black identity and pride” , showing how he raised awareness to African Americans having their own voice and being proud of their race. His key motive was to applaud Black National Pride, as he believed they were “African Americans rather than Americans” . Overall, the work of other black activists in furthering the position of African Americans in society with the aim of achieving equality strongly outweighs that of King because arguably, he simply carried on the task they started, therefore, the true impact of furthering the Civil Rights movement lies with them.
Of course, Martin Luther King inspired the legal changes that impacted the advancement of the position of African Americans whilst also putting pressure on the presidency to create change. It could be argued that because of King’s numerous protests, he sufficiently pressured locals and eventually Congress to change laws. In 1955, he became heavily involved in the Montgomery – Alabama bus boycott. King\’s support drew attention to the cause and rallied many supporters, pressurising bus companies across the South to examine and eventually change their rules. One could also say that King was responsible for the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 . Both of these acts increased the rights of African Americans within society and reduced segregation.
These victories had a significant impact on the USA as the introduction of this legislation was a milestone for advancing the position of African Americans in society. It eradicated segregation in public facilities and accommodations, whilst the ability to vote meant they held power to invoke real change within society, and arguably King was partly responsible for these changes. Furthermore, King worked together with President Lyndon B. Johnson to actively change society to advance civil rights. During the Selma to Montgomery march, President Johnson pledged his support to the Selma protesters on national television, saying that “There is no Negro problem… There is only an American problem…Their cause must be our cause…And we shall overcome. ” This quote shows how attitudes were changing towards African Americans and this show of unity and support for the movement could arguably be due to the President’s and King’s friendship. On March 17, 1965, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for federal voting rights legislation to protect African Americans from barriers that prevented them from voting, showing the extent of power and influence King held over the Presidents and Congress.
Although many can argue that although it was King who inspired the legal changes, he did not actually have the power to implement these changes, only Congress did. And so, therefore, the legal system and the presidents are partially responsible for the advancement of the position of African Americans towards equality. Some of the most influential legislation in furthering the advancement of the position of African Americans in society was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination and segregation due to race, religion, national origin and gender in the workplace, schools, and public accommodations and in federally assisted programs, making changes to society that benefitted people’ everyday lives. It also profoundly affected schools because despite the Supreme Court ruling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that segregation in schools was inherently unequal, the efforts to desegregate public schools and universities had been minimal.
The Civil Rights Act required schools to take actual steps to end segregation. Ralph Fertig, a retired federal administrative judge and former Freedom Rider in Chicago, said “It meant that black and white children got to know one another in school…it got workers to interact with one another and find out they were human beings” , showing how effective the legislation was in changing people’s opinions of the movement and African Americans. Unequal application of voter registration requirements was banned, paving the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing for the advancement of African Americans. The reality was that although King inspired change to occur, the law was the factor that created the actual change, therefore more significant.
It could also be argued that the strength of the political empowerment held by the presidents in terms of advancing the position of African Americans was more significant than that held by Martin Luther King. President Harry S. Truman “expanded on Roosevelt’s limited and tentative steps toward racial moderation and reconciliation” and in 1948, President Truman signed “Executive Order 9981” – desegregating the military, showing his dedication to creating a better standard of living for African Americans in the USA suffering under the laws of segregation, whilst also showing his appreciation to them. President Eisenhower also followed this pattern – desegregating Washington DC, overseeing the integration of blacks to the military, and promoting minority rights in federal contracts . Both presidents showed efforts towards furthering the advancement of the position of African Americans in society through their policies. However, it is also true that some Presidents hindered the development of African Americans Civil Rights. For example, President Andrew Johnson in 1865 can be seen as actively hindering the development of Civil Rights.
Although he insisted on the south ratifying the 13th Amendment, he then allowed them to develop their own ‘Black Codes’, creating further discrimination against African Americans. He also prevented them from voting through clauses such as the “Grandfather Clause”, only allowing literate African Americans to vote, facilitating the institutional racism within the USA . President Hayes developed the Jim Crow laws under his presidency , segregating the black community which was detrimental to their progression and development in society. For example in the Plessy v Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled the racial segregation of railway carriages as constitutional, acting as a legal precedent for segregation, and the introduction of this damaged the development of Civil Rights irrevocably as the white public began normalise segregation. From 1885-1916, there was a long period of continuity in presidents hindering the development of Civil Rights, including Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson as both held white supremacist views and did not encourage the Civil Rights movement. Although it is true that some Presidents hindered the advancement of the position of African Americans, and facilitated and sustained institutional racism. However, action from those presidents who did help was significant. It could also be argued that as many of the presidents believed in the Civil Rights movement; it is likely that change could have happened regardless of the input of King, which is in accordance with the Carson’s view.
Of course, Martin Luther King inspired African Americans and had a great influence on people in terms of raising morale and maintaining support for the Civil Rights movement. He made it his life’s work to advance the position of African Americans in society, through his religious work (as his frequent sermons and preaching’s for the black community strengthened his relationship with them), but also politically as he commanded enough attention to be noticed on a national scale. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, as a show of unity from the previous president who freed slaves from their labour, was one of the most iconic moments of his time as he encouraged people to band together and support the movement . After his assassination, African Americans felt a great loss, and this can be seen even today as the 21st January has been coined “Martin Luther King day”, showing the profound impact he had on people’s lives. Moreover, the week following his death, the Trenton Riots of 1968 broke out nationwide, showing how extensive the turmoil was within the country, as racial tensions rose to a “volatile level” . All these actions demonstrate how influential King to African Americans and how during his life he was able to maintain support and hope for the movement.
An example of Martin Luther King inspiring people and raising morale is demonstrated in an article written by Joe Azbell for the Montgomery Advertiser reporting on a meeting organised by King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott . Azbell describes his experience attending the meeting and King’s impact on the people as evoking a “whoop of delight” after King announces a continuation of the boycott, showing how much people admired and idolised him but also believed in his plans to advance the position of African Americans. Azbell describes how King reiterates his policy of “nonviolence” showing the rationality behind the movement that perhaps may not have been previously seen, especially as the newspaper would have been read by all colours. Azbell ends his article describing how the meeting was “much like an old-fashioned revival with loud applause added” highlighting not only the determination, but the joy from the people at the sense of future achievement and hope as a result of King’s efforts and involvement. This article shows that King was in fact a “charismatic leader” of his time and he was able to inspire people to maintain support for the movement as Meier argued, but also how he raised the morale of the people and unified them. As a white man, Azbell illustrates seeing a group of people willing to sacrifice for the sake of their movement through this hopeful and almost surprising article, highlighting how influential King was.
However, there were also numerous organisations that also encouraged African Americans to continue to support the movement. The NAACP was established in 1919 by both black and white activists with the common goal of responding to the ongoing violence against African Americans and achieve equality. One of the key legal victories made by the NAACP was the changing of the “Grandfather Clause” in 1915 as they challenged the law, causing the Supreme Court to rule in Guinn v. USA that the “Grandfather clauses” were unconstitutional. Moreover, due to Ida B. Wells being a founding member, anti-lynching campaigns were a strong focus for the NAACP, and in 1917, over 10,000 people participated in a silent march organised by the NAACP to protest against lynching and other racial violence.. By 1919, the NAACP had over 90,000 members and around 300 branches, showing how widely spread they were and the massive impact the organisation had on society in order to create change and give people a sense of unity by joining this group and fighting for a common cause.
The Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the front-running Civil Rights movement organisations during the 1960s, emerged from student-led sit-ins. Ella Baker, formerly the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) initiated the first meeting of the SNCC after the Greensboro sit-in at a lunch counter closed to African Americans, after feeling that the SCLC, led by King, no longer understood the younger African Americans, and so Baker encouraged the movement to make faster progress and “look beyond integration to broader social change” . The SNCC became a more radical group than the NAACP as they wanted rapid change rather than the gradual approach that King often took. However, it allowed more extreme activists and African Americans to see a group determined to create change, adding an increased sense of hope and inspired more people to join the movement and help further the position of African Americans in society. Civil Rights groups often had a further reach than King did on his own, and were able to appeal to larger groups and create a sense of unity within their organisation. They were often seen as more useful in terms of raising morale and maintaining support than King was.