Last updated: April 10, 2015
In early May, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama firefighters turned high pressure fire hoses on blacks; police used dogs, tear gas, and clubs to harass civilians; and thousands - including children - were arrested, filling the jails to capacity. The images and film from the event shocked the nation. Why did such a scandalous event occur? This episode of violence was not by chance. Instead, it was a highly successful non-violent protest: a group of peaceful citizens invoking their right to freedom of speech while seeking to bring an end to segregationist laws. This was the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s brand of "creative protest" that sought to bring an end to centuries of inequality.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America granted freedom, citizenship, and equal voting rights to African-Americans, millions of whom were slaves at the outset of the war. However, after the Plessy V. Ferguson ruling in 1896, which established the "separate but equal" doctrine, discrimination against blacks and systematic disenfranchisement of black voters persisted in the South. Blacks and whites may have had equal opportunities to use public restrooms or eat in restaurants in the eyes of the law, but the quality, comfort, convenience, and dignity of the separate facilities were clearly unequal.
In Kansas, once the bulwark of abolitionism and liberalism, state law allowed for segregated schools in the larger cities. In 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) spearheaded an effort to desegregate schools through the courts. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown V. Board of Education, determining that separate facilities are inherently unequal. This ruling opened the door for desegregation efforts throughout the country, and other communities saw similar court battles.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. saw victories such as Brown V. Board of Education as positive steps, he believed this method of attacking injustice through the courts was too specific and too gradual. By energizing millions of supporters around the country, King aimed to do more than win a few court cases on specific issues; he aimed to awaken the American conscience. "The arc of the moral universe is long," King said, "but it bends toward justice." King would bend the arc with a revolutionary form of protest.
Martin Luther King at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963
King's interest in non-violent protest as a means for social change sprang from a variety of influences. Undoubtedly, King's primary influence was his Baptist upbringing and his study of the life of Jesus Christ, who said, "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." King found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience," an essay in which Thoreau explained his non-payment of taxes and resulting jail sentence to protest a war he did not support. Mohandas Gandhi proved a powerful influence because of his organization of wide-scale boycotts and non-violent resistance to achieve equality and end British colonial rule in India. King visited India in 1959 seeking a greater understanding of Gandhi, who "was able to mobilize and galvanize more people in his lifetime than any other person in the history of the world," King noted. Through theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, King realized that non-violent resistance could only succeed "if the groups against whom the resistance was taking place had some degree of moral conscience." If all Americans could see the injustice inherent in Jim Crow laws, King believed morality would compel the nation to side with the activists.
The strategy of non-violence allowed the demonstrators to retain a clear position as victims of amoral oppression and violence. Television, photographs, and print media would allow the world to witness the drama of oppression in the South. To achieve this end required an unarmed army willing to potentially absorb violence without resorting to violence themselves. The people who joined King had tremendous courage. Men, women, and children joined in the protests knowing that they could and would be jailed, injured, or even killed. The people's courage to put themselves in harm's way in the historic moment of the Civil Rights Movement was fueled by generations of blacks that King said had been "seared in the flames of withering injustice," and bolstered by faith in Dr. King's method of non-violence.
The Civil Rights Movement took place in many cities over a period of many years, and manifested itself in various forms. In Montgomery, AL, the law required blacks to sit at the rear of the bus where the engine made the cabin the hottest, to give up their seats for white passengers, and to stand instead of using empty seats reserved for white passengers. After years of this indignity, Ms. Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955 sparked interest in staging a wide-scale protest. With others, King organized a boycott of the city buses that, after months of persistence, resulted in a court ruling that desegregated the buses. In cities across the South, activists staged lunch counter sit-ins to protest segregated dining facilities, arriving en masse and sitting at lunch counters reserved for whites, refusing to leave until police hauled them away. The high water mark in the Civil Rights Movement was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963, a rally of over a quarter million marchers, to which King delivered the unforgettable "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Months after the 1963 march in Washington, a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL sparked intense, violent backlash in which three marchers were murdered, dozens beaten, and hundreds jailed. Through these demonstrations and media coverage, the injustice of segregation became apparent to all the world.
As a leader of the movement, King knew he was exposing himself and his family to violent backlash. King was routinely harassed and repeatedly arrested. On January 30, 1956, King's home was bombed. King was stabbed in 1958, saved only by open-chest surgery. J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. tapped King's phones. Finally, King was murdered by a rogue individual in 1968. "To believe in nonviolence does not mean that violence will not be inflicted upon you," King said. King accepted these risks; his Christian faith that love can conquer hate impelled him throughout the movement.
Because of the Civil Rights Movement's pressure over the years, lawmakers slowly dismantled Jim Crow laws and elevated blacks to full, legal equality. Victories came in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, both federal laws signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Non-violent resistance spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr. had worked to secure equal rights for African-Americans.
For young people today, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s world of segregation, racism, and social upheaval may seem to be ancient history, but there are millions walking among us today who were profoundly affected by King's leadership during their own lifetime. There are those among us today who, to paraphrase King, struggled together, prayed together, went to jail together, so that all Americans could be free. By doing so, they set the standard for the rest of the world to follow. The opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a recognition of his importance for the Civil Rights Movement and his philosophy of non-violence. But his memorial is also a memorial to all who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, and an inspiration to those who continue to fight today. The memorial will serve as a beacon for people from around the world to come and reflect on the nation's long trajectory toward freedom, and carry on Dr. King's legacy of standing strongly for freedom, justice, and equality for all.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, 2011