Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Chapter Two:

This chapter briefly reviews the origins of the American Civil Rights Movement and provides an overview of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s career as a civil rights leader. The Civil Rights Movement encompassed many desegregation demonstrations and campaigns in diverse locations across the American South. Dr. King participated in many of these campaigns, while residing in Montgomery, Alabama (1954 to 1960), and Atlanta (1960-1968). Atlanta was also the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an important civil rights organization headed by King from 1957 to 1968. The period of significance begins in 1955, when King became the leader of a movement to boycott segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and ends in 1968, the year of King's death. [35]


Although the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, had worked for decades to secure black civil rights, several factors infused black civil rights campaigns with new vigor and made national politicians more receptive to black demands following 1945. The experience of blacks in World War II, the increasing political power of blacks in northern cities, the willingness of some black ministers to more aggressively attack segregation, and the role of a new communications medium—television—in exposing Americans to the plight of blacks in the segregated South all influenced the postwar racial climate. [36]

As the United States slowly emerged from the Great Depression and prepared for the possibility of war, black leaders lobbied for equitable treatment of blacks in the military and defense industries. In January 1941, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an important black labor union, pressured the Roosevelt Administration to increase black employment in defense industries. Randolph began preparations for a mass protest march in Washington, D.C., with fifty to one hundred thousand black participants. President Franklin D. Roosevelt avoided the march by issuing Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, banning employment discrimination by defense contractors. Approximately one million blacks served in the armed forces during World War II in segregated units, usually with white officers. But these men enjoyed greater opportunities to train as officers, pilots, and engineers than during previous conflicts. Black veterans returned from the war with broader horizons and enhanced self-confidence to press for full civil rights and an end to segregation. [37]

Legal racial segregation in public places continued after World War II throughout the South, where 70 percent of American blacks lived. In 1944, only 5 percent of black adults in the South were registered voters. The NAACP, led by blacks, spearheaded intensified challenges to segregation and disfranchisement and remained the dominant civil rights organization during the 1940s and 1950s. [38] While the NAACP concentrated on legal challenges through the courts, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial group founded in 1942, experimented with nonviolent sit-ins to protest discriminatory hiring practices at Chicago department stores. CORE, however, never gained a large following among blacks. [39]

The postwar federal courts and Democratic administrations were increasingly sympathetic to black concerns. The Democratic Party was becoming more dependent on black voters in northern cities and included in its ranks outspoken civil rights advocates like former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the all-white primary election, a device commonly employed in the one-party, Democratic South to exclude blacks from the political process. In 1946, President Harry S Truman appointed a biracial presidential commission that released a report, To Secure These Rights, which called for the elimination of segregation. The President issued an executive order in July 1948 desegregating the armed forces. A civil rights platform plank endorsed at the 1948 Democratic National Convention led to a walk-out by many Southern delegates and the creation of a third-party presidential ticket that carried four southern states. Also in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially restrictive covenants in residential real estate transfers legally unenforceable. The covenants were widely used to prevent the sale of houses to nonwhites. In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on interstate railroad dining facilities unconstitutional. [40]

In the early 1950s, blacks were gaining political influence in parts of the South. By 1952, 20 percent of eligible southern blacks were registered voters, a fourfold increase over 1944. Blacks were elected to city councils in Winston-Salem (1947) and Greensboro, North Carolina (1951). Most registration gains came in the Upper South rather than in the Deep-South states, where entrenched legal hurdles, culturally sanctioned intimidation, and violence effectively crippled enfranchisement attempts. [41]

The most important legal defeat for segregation occurred in May 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education—a group of consolidated cases the NAACP had been pursuing for years. The Brown decision greatly encouraged civil rights activists to expand their attacks on other aspects of segregation. It also intensified southern white resistance to integration. [42]

Local desegregation campaigns launched the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Montgomery, Alabama; and Tallahassee, Florida, blacks challenged segregation on city buses. Leadership of the bus boycotts quickly passed from teachers and other professionals to black clergymen. Black ministers, supported financially by their congregations, were less vulnerable to white economic reprisals. Churches also possessed unmatched prestige in the black community and controlled organizational assets. Church auditoriums and classrooms provided space for meetings, and mimeograph machines spread the message for mass actions. [43]

During the Civil Rights Movement, blacks relied less on traditional legal challenges to segregation and more on direct-action protests, often involving hundreds or thousands of demonstrators. Southern blacks in the 1960s protested with boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, risking arrest and beatings from white law-enforcement officers. The press carried news of any violent response by white authorities to a national audience. The new medium of television cast a particularly harsh light on the repressive tactics of southern officials and spurred reform efforts nationally. Civil rights leaders always hoped to extract concessions from local governments, but federal legislation, which tended to be more progressive and broad-based and more likely to be enforced, was usually more effective in accomplishing change. Civil rights campaigns in the 1960s aimed to influence national opinion as much as secure local concessions.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002