To What Extent Has the Importance of Martin Luther King Been Exaggerated

How far has the importance of Martin Luther King been exaggerated? The significance of Martin Luther King’s role during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA has become a matter for debate. In this essay I will examine the importance of his role along with many other factors. Shortly after King graduated with a Doctorates in Theology at the University of Boston, he was instantly involved in the attempts to improve black peoples rights in predominantly the South of America. King was the harbinger of Civil rights and ‘hit the ground running’ with his policies and ways of protests. His non violent strategies – inspired by Ghandi – were the source of his actions and they proved to be very popular. One of his most notable successes was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, where Rosa Parks; an active member of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured people followed instructions from King. These were that she should sit in her designated ‘coloured area’ on the bus, a white man then demanded that she’d move, and let him take her seat, Rosa refused and in doing so broke the law. We can interpret Source J as very valuable and reliable source, it shows the man in an uncomfortable way who almost seems surprised that someone in the Black community is standing up to him, this ironically portrays the white man as inferior to Parks. This act sparked a boycott of the black community on the bus services, and they kept this up for a year that was until the bus companies realised how important the service of the black community was to their economy.

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They ceased to include segregation on buses. This was a masterstroke in the movement and proved how much black people could achieve when they all come together. Another major success of King was in 1963, where the focus of Rights leaned towards Birmingham Alabama; a town which Dr King described as “the most segregated city in the United States”. It was a perfect area to expose the harsh realities of the Jim Crow Laws. In April, Dr King and his followers began a campaign of peaceful protests with over 30,000 people taking part. A month later, Bull Connor, the feared police chief ordered his men to fire hoses on anyone who disobeyed their orders to leave. Kings peaceful protests were successful and gave him and his followers the moral high ground over racists. The protests also received recognition from an embarrassed President Kennedy, who shortly after put forward the notion for a Civil Rights bill – which stated that ‘all Americans (have) the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public’. In source I we can see that the police reacted in an unjust, and unnecessary way, on the plus side, we can see how many African Americans followed Dr King, and how strong he was becoming. Probably Kings most distinguished success was The March on Washington in 1963. This event was primarily to convince Congress to act and support the Civil Rights Bill. Civil Rights groups from around the US came together and organised a March in Washington and towards the end of the campaign, over a quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear the iconic words of the “I Have a Dream” speech, in Source C we can see that his status in America was truly unique and his vision was shared with thousands of fellow Americans, both black and white. In the 1950s, the South of America was vastly behind the moral fairness in the North, the position of Black Americans had changed very little since the late 19th Century. The Jim Crow Laws ensured that black people could never escape from discrimination, the laws enforced segregation on public services. This reflected strongly on the poor action taken by authorities, who for years had just turned a blind eye on the matter.

Black people were expected to live separately, and had the lowest standard of jobs, education, and accommodation. In Source D we can see the signs which enforced segregation in the South, this shows the dark reality of the matter, and tells us that white people and the authorities would go to as much trouble as possible to implement segregation, even in the most unreasonable areas such as sinks and picnic parks. A further legislation put in to place was in 1957. The Civil Rights Act addressed the situation of voting rights, where only 20% of Black Americans had passed the test in order to vote. Congress passed the act to ensure all Americans could vote and forbade any person from interfering with anyones right to vote, in actuality little was done to enforce the Act, and the situation remained. Though, 3 years later, the Act was amended by requiring local authorities to keep thorough voting records. However, records showed that the acts only increased the number of votes by a dreary 3%. Another legislation put forward was in 1960 when Kennedy won the election, he put forward a controversial notion of a Civil Rights Act; he had showed support in previous years when he supported the Freedom Riders in 1961. But President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 so he could not pass the Act until his successor; Vice President Lyndon Johnson approved the Bill in July next year. The Act marked a defining moment in the struggle for Civil Rights; it outlawed segregation in all areas. In Source A we can see the combined partnership of Johnson and Kennedy, they offered a mixed bag of experience and charisma, which gave a great deal of diversity to American politics, who in the past rarely did anything to do with Civil rights; their policies gained millions of votes from anti-discriminates. An additional Act was the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which furthered the advancement for Civil Rights. The act outlawed the literacy test required for all Black people who wanted to vote, the Act was just another landmark in the Civil Rights movement that Johnson had passed. Before Martin Luther King came onto the scene, a considerable amount of work was done by Ordinary Americans in the fight for Civil Rights. Most notably was the work of Dorie Miller, who in 1941 during the bombing of Pearl Harbour showed tremendous bravery and courage. His act of valour brought him the Congressional Medal of Honour. When Miller returned home, although in the Black Community he was a hero, the position for Black people had not changed, and racism was still very much active. Dorie Miller did inspire great deal of citizens and ex service men to join the NAACP, and the membership count grew to 45,000. After Miller had returned, he was used as the face of many posters and propaganda, including that in Source A (Page 7) when they have presented him as a cook, wearing the rarely awarded medal of honour, this showed the bravery shown by the Black community, and also was a reality check to the racists, proving that they are willing to fight and die for their own country just as much as anyone else. The Brown v Topeka case was also pivotal in the Movement. This was when a young black girl and her father were fighting for integration in schools. Her home was just 1 block away from a white school, yet she had to travel 20 blocks to get to a black school.

The case was taken to the Supreme Court and they ruled that all School segregation was ‘unconstitutional’. However the court did not give a date for integration and states carried on with the segregation. Elizabeth Eckford too played a vital part, who in 1957 was one of 9 black students to attend Little Rock high School. She faced a huge mob at the gates. In Source A we can notice the shear anger and rage that the white students felt at her, and also the bravery of Eckford, who was most likely to be victim of violence. The Little Rock 9 were turned away but tried again 20 days later. President Eisenhower sent in the US Army to protect the black students for the rest of the year, this didn’t stop hate mail and threatening phone calls. Eisenhower sent a very clear message by enforcing integration in schools but it showed that it was too easy for the white people to ignore and maintain segregation. Throughout the 50s and 60s there was a considerable amount of unsung heroes. Although individual like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Eckford were given a huge amount of respect and acknowledgment, there acts arguably would have not been possible with out the work of people behind closed doors. Such people were the 250,000 who marched on Washington; these citizens followed King into the capital and supported him, without these people, King would not of been accepted. Another case are the members who worked for the NAACP, all of them risked going to prison for their beliefs, their bravery was a huge factor in the Civil Right movement and without them the position of black may not have changed. There are a considerable amount of people who were involved in the movement, from all Ethnicities, in source A we can see a group of black people and white people being assaulted with ketchup and sugar, this reveals the coming together of all races, proving that not all whites were racist, it was in fact proving that whites were not only multicultural, but they were willing to risk arrest or physical attack for their values. During the Movement the inventions such as the Television, and the radio were a huge aid to King and his followers. Most notably at the Birmingham Marches, where the media were present and revealed the shocking reality of the struggle the blacks faced, and the poor response the Police took. In Source B the pictures show the police letting dogs and hoses onto the black human. This footage went world wide and Dr King received world wide recognition and support. The music industry was also a massive asset to the struggle for rights, the world famous Billie Holliday sang a song called Strange Fruit which condemned American Racism and was about the lynching of the Blacks in the South. The words are very dark, and the style of the song is slow, giving it an enhanced negativity. This short song received colossal recognition and was awarded Song of the Century by Time Magazine. This meant that Black people also has the support of world famous musicians like Billie Holliday, Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan.

Other than King there were other groups which promoted Civil Rights. Most outstandingly the Nation of Islam (NOI) who were an Islamic group of Black Americans, led by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X; these people promoted violence, and taught that the ‘white men are the devil’. Rather than King who wanted to pull the whites out of there torment, Muhammad and Malcolm X wanted to bring them even further down. Armed self defence was a resilient and powerful tradition, however people started to realise that violence was counterproductive and Martin Luther king had the moral high ground over Malcolm X, who, was extremely critical of Dr King; . Another group were the Black Power Movement, led by Stokely Carmichael, who wanted the blacks to unite as a community and stand up and be proud of there “big noses and nappy hair”. He didn’t believe in integration, and wanted to create institutions. The Black Power movement gained international recognition when two runners –Tommy Smith and John Carlos- performed the black power salute on the podium. In Source C we can see the iconic image, where the two athletes are on top, standing up for their beliefs, in front of the world, for them all to see the problem America were facing, the white athlete shown was also given a Black Power badge to show his support, he returned to Australia as a villain, and only received recognition for his courage hen he died. One more movement were the Black Panthers, co founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. After Kings death these 2 became hugely popular and Stokely Carmichael joined as there Honorary Prime Minister. With 5000 members they took to the streets and argued for working class unity in Chicago; where street gangs were prominent. Much like the NOI, the Panthers were not hesitant in using violence on police, and in one occasion, Huey Newton was wounded by a policeman, he was charged with killing a police man and in the early 1970s, the party collapsed. Overall, from what I can gather, Martin Luther King’s role in the Movement was not exaggerated, but it is evident that his prominence in the History of the USA would not be so vast if it weren’t for the numerous individuals that helped him, and without them, he would not have been so powerful and renowned. On the contrary without controversial figures like Huey Newton and Malcolm X his role would – arguably – not of been so well respected, as because of his calm approach, he gained the honourable high ground over the contentious and notorious ways of the NOI, the Panthers and the Black Power Movement.


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