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The African-American Civil Rights Movement Essay

Paper type: Essay Pages: 13 (3009 words)

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Within the context of the period 1865-1968, how significant was the role played by Martin Luther King in improving the position of African Americans? INTRODUCTION “When the definitive history of the American civil rights movement is eventually written, one of the central themes will be that Martin Luther King, Jr. ranks among the greatest political strategists of all time.’’ This is the viewpoint of James A.Colaiaco and he argues that Martin Luther King played the most significant role in the struggle for civil rights and was ‘the most important leader’ of the civil rights movement.

This is the argument shared by Great Man historians regarding of one of the greatest debates amongst historians in the 21st century. Great Man historians … the success of the Civil Rights movement as a result top down change and acknowledge Martin Luther King as the figurehead of the movement who drove most significant change. Whereas Social historians, regard history with a ‘bottom up’ perspective, arguing that the local people and less celebrated figures at the bottom forced change up and look at it in terms of a bigger picture.

For decades after the civil rights movement in America, Martin Luther King has been regarded as one of the most celebrated and most memorable figures of the movement and his birthday is even marked with a national holiday and it has only been in more recent years that social historians have challenged the significance and credibility of the role he had in improving the position of African Americans. Social historians reach the conclusion that other factors played a much more significant role. Nevertheless, it seems clear that, the Great Man theory of this debate seems to be more truthful and . Great man historians writing about the civil rights movement conclude that Martin Luther King was unique in his abilities and the success of the Civil Rights Movement was mainly the result of Martin Luther King’s The viewpoint of James Colaiaco mentioned above is shared by Great Man historians.

Overall it seems clear that had Martin Luther King not have existed, the movement woumld have taken a completely different course to the one it did and the Great Man theory arguing that Martin Luther King played the most significant role in improving the position of African Americans seem more accurate. Martin Luther King was a figurehead and one of the most recognised leaders at the time the Civil Rights Movement had most of its fundamental successes and a man who gave the Movement the positive media coverage it desperately needed to achieve what it did. WEAKER SIDE – Nevertheless, the contribution and role of other factors cannot and must not be ignored, for Martin Luther King would not have been so successful without the contribution of other factors that were pushing for equality throughout the entire period.

Some revisionist historians share a similar view of Clayborne Carson which is that ‘If King had never lived, the black struggle would have followed a course of development similar to the one it did.’ This side of the debate, argued by social historians, places much more emphasis on the role that other factors such as the federal government, local grassroots activists and other less celebrated leading figures played over the entire 100 year period. However, with reference to the 100 year period it seems clear that this argument is not very strong as during the short period that Martin Luther King was active; more progress had been made than in the century before, showing just how significant the role he played was. James Colaiaco argues that ‘during the 12 years that King dedicated his life to the civil rights movement, blacks made more progress than in any other period in American history’ because King helped African Americans overcome the ‘damaging psychological effects of generations of oppression, and gave them a ‘sense of unity and dignity’. argue that Martin Luther King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is over celebrated as well as some who focus on undermining and diminishing Martin Luther King’s reputation as a ‘Great Man’ through examining his personal life outside of the Movement.

GRASSROOTS Perhaps the most important factor out of these is the grass-root level activists who fought for their advancement ever since the beginning of the period. Their contribution is often overlooked and unreported in orthodox studies of the civil rights movement and social historians show a shift towards placing more importance on local communities and grass roots organisations. But because their campaigns were not in the spotlight their contribution went mostly unnoticed, especially their efforts at the beginning of the period following reconstruction. Local People by John Dittmer, examines how local black residents of Mississippi fought the battle for equality by themselves with hardly any support from national organisations such as the NAACP,SNCC or SLCC and how the ‘grassroots organizing proved essential to laying the groundwork and solidifying the movement.’

Through his use of primary sources, Dittmer

Yet without Martin Luther King’s involvement in the movement, MLK needed and wanted and aimed for government. Before Martin Luther King’s existence, considerable progress had already been made in terms of achieving both political and civil rights for African Americans. However, had it not been for Martin Luther King, the work done by these local activists would have probably gone unnoticed by the media, and he successfully gave their hard work the publicity it needed. For example, August Meier argues that ‘it was King’s presence that focused world attention of Selma’. Martin Luther King only had to show his face or be connected with a campaign for the media to latch on and make the story about him, although this is perhaps an unfair representation of events and overlooked the legwork made by local people, it positively affected the civil rights movement and gave it the positive media attention and momentum that it so desperately needed.

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION Furthermore, the success of the civil rights movement can also be argued to have depended on the federal government. The level of support and commitment from the federal government certainly varied over the period from president to president, with the government being of most value firstly at the beginning of the period during reconstruction, and then secondly towards the end with the issuing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Steven Lawson in Debating the Civil Rights Movement stresses how ‘the federal government played an indispensable role in shaping the fortunes of the civil rights revolution’ and had the federal government not intervened at all Southern blacks would have never eliminated racial inequality.

During the Reconstruction period of 1865-77, the government issued the 14th and 15th Amendments of the constitution; the first declaring that all citizens were entitled to full civil rights regardless of race and the latter guaranteeing all blacks the right to vote. Although at the time these two amendments were not enforced and deemed a failure in terms of improving the position of African Americans, they would prove to be the foundation of many campaigns during the movement. Robert Cook claims that ‘reconstruction anticipated some of the actions necessary to reform the South’s repressive caste system in the twentieth century’ and that Reconstruction was a crucial event, which gave ‘black men and women’ the power to ‘test the limits of their newly won freedom.’ In years to come, black activists and national organisations would famously challenge the enforcement of Jim Crow Laws and obstructions to voting rights by declaring these acts as unconstitutional under the 14th and 15th amendments.

Throughout the whole movement, many significant events showed just how important federal intervention was to change equality in terms of the law, or in other words ‘de jere’ change. For example, the Little Rock event was one of the key turning points showing how much the movement needed federal intervention. Furthermore, Steven Lawson argues that the Supreme Court’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott ‘proved that the struggle for civil rights desperately needed the federal government to crack determined white southern opposition.’ During the most central years of the movement, the government, after much pressure, issued the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which have been viewed by many as two of the movement’s paramount successes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended the existence of Jim Crow laws, one of the major aims of the civil rights movement and it has been described by Steven Lawson as the most ‘far-reaching civil rights statue since Reconstruction.’ Further, the Voting Rights Act … and the results of this were staggering.

Following the Voting Rights Act and help from the government to enforce it, ‘the majority of southern Blacks were on the voting rolls’ by 1969 and ‘approximately 55 % of eligible Blacks had gained the vote in Mississippi’, a state that throughout the struggle was described as However, although the somewhat variable assistance from the Federal Government was crucial to issuing these key legislations such as the many Civil Rights Acts of the 20th century, if it had not have been for Martin Luther King and the work of the SCLC these ‘de jure’ legislation achievements would have remained only ‘paper victories’. It was Martin Luther King mainly who sought to implement these legislations and pushed to achieve equality on a ‘de facto’ level on the ground.

On the whole, it seems clear that, when considering the entire 100 year struggle, the government was more unhelpful than helpful in advancing the position of African Americans, and the government would not have acted at all if it was not for leaders like Martin Luther King and national organizations like the SCLC and NAACP coercing them to. As Steven Lawson states; ‘powerful presidents, congressional lawmakers and members of the Supreme Court provided the legal instruments to challenge racial segregation and disenfranchisement ‘, but it was the job of Martin Luther King and his followers to enact this challenge.

‘History confirms that the federal government long had been derelict in its duty to protect the rights of black citizens in the South.’ Page 100 OTHER FAMOUS BLACK LEADERS/NATIONAL ORGANISATIONS ‘Also important were secondary and local level leaders who provided the impetus for those day-to-day civil rights activities.’ Steven Lawson –“the fate of the Civil Rights Movement depended on the presence of National Organisation”


Nevertheless, Great Man historians are adamant on the idea that without Martin Luther King, the civil rights Movement would not have taken the same direction and perhaps been far less successful in achieving and then implementing civil rights for African Americans. CHARISMA Made the movement respectable, appealed to blacks and whites, Christianity- god told me to do this, Most importantly, the legacy Martin Luther King left behind and the crucial input he had in the civil rights movement was largely a result of his charisma and style of leadership and the renowned tactic of nonviolent direct action that he applied. By many, Martin Luther King is remembered for his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the March on Washington campaign, just one of his key, speeches. His speeches gained worldwide media attention which gave the movement much needed momentum and nonviolent direct action shifted it in the right direction created such an inspirational and memorable leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Definitely perhaps presence In August Meier ‘s the essay ‘On the Role of Martin Luther King’ in his book ‘A White Scholar in the Black Community’ he highlights how important Martin Luther King’s role was in making the movement respectable and how he acted as the ‘vital centre’ of the movement.

Martin Luther King acted as a ‘conservative militant’ and with extremists/militants on his one side and conservative/conformists on his other, Martin Luther King acted as a bridge between the two and provided perfect balance of the two. Meier’s take on King is extremely valuable because he was writing before Martin Luther King was assassinated and it became controversial to openly talk of his shortcomings, furthermore by writing in 1863, Meier was also unaware of MLK’s turn to being more radical, meaning . This is evident as Meier does openly criticise King ‘In this combination of militancy with conservatism and caution, of righteousness with respectability, lies the secret of King’s enormous success.’ charisma Montgomery Bus Boycott is perhaps the first indication that MLK played a major role in the CRM and after this the movement started to take shape , beginning of his fame. Nobel peace prize 1964.

He had achieved so much in little time which could tell us that there was nobody more influential then King in the fight for equal civil rights. Speeches gained global worldwide media attention which gave the movement much needed momentum and nonviolent direct action shifted it in the right direction In consideration of the 100 year period, it is evident that Martin Luther King has left a lasting legacy over the civil rights movement and although he was only active for a ten year period he has remained the Could possibly balance with shortcomings but maybe not? DOESN’T detract from the facts about his role as a leader. Martin Luther King’s use of the media made sure that he occupied the moral high ground SOCIAL ACHIEVEMENTS pushed civil rights act, JIM CROW LAWS, de facto change, MoW – pinnacle of the CRM Furthermore, Martin Luther King’s role in the civil rights movement was extremely significant in terms of the successes he had in improving African American’s social position in society.

Although it is evident that the government was needed to issue legislations, if it had not been for the work of Martin Luther King and the work of the SCLC, legislations and orders issued by the federal government would have just remained ‘paper victories.’ Martin Luther King’s first major success was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and was also where ‘the civil rights movement had found its greatest leader and most inspirational orator. The Montgomery bus boycott was significant because it marked the start of the nonviolent direct action method; a method that would in future years prove key to the civil rights movement’s success. Martin Luther King mobilised the African Americans and the event showed their economic power and that were a force to be reckoned with. The 381-day protest resulted in the Supreme Court issuing Bowder v Gayle which ruled that segregation on buses was illegal, putting an end to the philosophy of ‘separate but equal’.

Voting rights act, selma

Although King who was only active in the movement from… Up until his death, whereas the Federal Government were around for the entire duration of the fight for equality from 1865-2968, , the government’s commitment improving the position of African Americans varied greatly depending on each President’s personality with the time period. as well as external factors such as the Cold War that pressured the government into making more dedicated …towards the fight for equality between the races. However King recognised that he had to get to the top to change this mentality of white Americans. Through the use of the media and his own knowledge of the law in regards to civil rights, King occupied high moral and political ground, giving the civil rights movement some much needed coverage.

Figurehead, national spokesperson for media attention

Cannot ignore or underestimate all the legwork and hard work done by grassroot activists and government and other leaders in the years before MLK’s presence but he was essential at changing the movement, giving it the direction.. Even though Martin Luther King was not active/around the for entire period of the struggle for civil rights, it can be argued that he was the most … and influential leader of the time of the most success, and his … was the pinnacle of the civil rights movement and as blah blah says.. he was alone in many of leaders in what he could do.. unique…

It would be wrong to say that the movement relied entirely on the existence of Martin Luther King and that all these other factors were insignificant in terms of improving the position of African Americans. Nevertheless it seems clear that had Martin Luther King not have been present during movement would not have reached the peak that it did between the years 1955 and 1968. In consideration of the whole 100 year period, it is evident that the years the Martin Luther King lead the movement were the most successful years in terms of improving the position of African Americans.

Furthermore, although from 1865-1955 a lot had been achieved when compared to the years of slavery and pre-reconstruction, change was occurring at a slow pace and African Americans were without support from the white population. Martin Luther King fought to end a struggle that had gone on for almost a century, and his unfortunately short existence

Between the years 1955 and 1968, Martin Luther King and his colleagues achieved the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the… all vital successes for the movement. Martin Luther King is rightly remembered as the main figurehead for the movement. It can also be argued that had Martin Luther King been active in a different period .

WORDS – impetus, contribution, advancement, assistance, advocated, enhanced,

With reference to the 100 year period – economic position hasn’t really changed, but huge gains in terms of social standing and political position, not only de jure but also de facto in many places but of course still less obvious racism. Everything else e.g. government and grassroots were active for the duration of the whole 100 year period, but the most successful period was during King’s existence – shows what a remarkable leader Martin Luther King was and he achieved what others could not and had been struggling to for decades – the way he appealed and made whites feel guilty was crucial.

In conclusion, it is evident that the Great Man theory on the civil rights movement is the most accurate debate.

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The African-American Civil Rights Movement. (2016, Jun 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-african-american-civil-rights-movement-essay

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