Black History

* Malcolm X



  Elke Moritz

III. Martin Luther King Jr. (15.1.1929 - 4.4.1968)

2.) The Civil Rights Movement

"Just like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved."
"Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom..."
"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Martin Luther King,"Letter from Birmingham Jail"

After decades of being treated as inferior human beings who were confronted with discrimination in every aspect of life, African-Americans eventually were able to move ahead on their road to freedom. Many battles before court had been lost, but organizations like the NAACP never stopped to fight. Then, on May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court finally ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.This famous decision in the case known as Brown vs. Board of Education marked the beginning of the so-called Civil Rights Era. But the decision didn't make segregation vanish immediately. A long way was still ahead. Still every institution was segregated, and signs saying "Whites only" could be found everywhere in the South. The segregationists were more cruel than ever, because they feared to lose their superior position. Their victims were too often innocent people, like the fourteen-year-old Emmett Till who was killed in 1955. Everyone new that something had to be done, but many were afraid of the white power structure. When in Montgomery a member of the local NAACP branch, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give her seat in the bus to a white passenger, the local community leaders decided to call for a boycott of the city buses. They founded the MIA14 and elected Martin Luther King president.

The boycott started on December 5, 1955 and the 45,000 African-American citizens of Montgomery organized car-pools or walked instead of riding on the buses. Many were arrested or violently harassed, and the home of King was bombed. Finally the boycott, which was intended to last only one day and which brought national recognition to the movement and King, ended after 382 days, when Montgomery followed a Supreme Court decision and integrated the buses. To continue the fight to end segregation by non-violent direct action, the community leaders founded the SCLC15.

King went back to Atlanta to become co-pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, so that he was able to spend more time for the movement. He became president of the new organization, which other leaders of activist groups like the NAACP saw as a competitor. Integration in public schools, though declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, made only slow progress. When in 1957 nine pupils had to be escorted by federal troops as they tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, the mass media spread the news in the whole world. King, along with A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and other civil rights leaders, met with President Eisenhower but no further step was made to improve the situation of African-Americans in the US. Bombs had been thrown into his house, he had received many threats, and had been arrested several times, but not enough: soon after this meeting, Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed in the chest by a mentally deranged black woman on 125th street in Harlem.

After his recovery, he and his wife made a trip to India to study the teachings of Gandhi. Back in the States, the demonstrations, voter registration drives, and court battles continued. Workshops were initiated by the SCLC and other organizations to teach students the techniques of passive resistance. In 1960, several students started the sit-ins by trying to integrate the lunch-counters at Woolworth's in Greensboro. Soon this form of action spread, and students started sit-ins all over the South. They formed the SNCC16, which was very close to the SCLC, but tended to be more active and radical. They didn't fear to be arrested, and often practised the slogan "jail, no bail," following the words of King: "There are just laws and unjust laws. ... And I submit that the individual who disobey the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until the law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for the law."17 While taking part in such a sit-in demonstration, Martin Luther King and many students were arrested. Everybody except King was released, and he was sentenced to 6 months in prison for "violating a probated sentence in a traffic arrest case."18 When he heard of the incident from Coretta Scott King, Senator John F. Kennedy called those in command and was able to convince them to release King. Daddy King and the friends of the family did everything to make this incident known in the black communities, and presidential candidate Kennedy won the election, like Eisenhower said, only because of a "couple of phone calls."19 The year 1961 saw the start of the Freedom Rides, which were intended to integrate interstate buses, and the beginning of the protests in Albany. Many people were arrested, and although King and the SCLC continued their non-violent demonstrations as well as sit-ins and pray-ins, the Albany movement wasn't successful.

At the beginning of 1963, nobody knew that this year would become one of the most dramatic years in American history. "Governor George Wallace of Alabama signalled how stubborn white racists had become in his inaugural address:>> I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.<< "20 Protests started in Birmingham, Alabama, and more than 600 people were arrested in the first period of the sit-in and other demonstrations. Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King who had been leading the demonstrations were also arrested and kept isolated in prison. While in prison, King wrote his famous essay "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to urge the white population of America to end segregation and to make them see how unjust the punishment of African-Americans was, who only wanted to gain their full civil rights one hundred years after they became citizens of the US.

When he was released, he and the other leaders decided to ask for the help of the pupils of Birmingham. Many young adults and children took part in the demonstrations and more than 900 were arrested as the protest continued. Then the leader of the local police, Eugene "Bull" Connors, ordered the use of fire hoses, sticks, and police dogs upon the marchers. The horrible pictures of the police brutality against the innocent children were televised around the world, and finally Connors had to accept that he had lost the fight. Just when everybody felt a kind of relief that the violence had ended, Medgar Evers, the local NAACP leader of Jackson, Miss., was murdered in front of his house. Although the murder weapon was identified, the owner, who was known to be a racist and a member of the white Citizens' Council, wasn't convicted. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement decided to stage a gigantic March on Washington, to make the government and the whole world see what was going on the freest country of the world. This idea had first appeared in 1941, when African-Americans were angry about the segregation in the armed forces, defense industries, and government. At that time, the government had been afraid to lose its leading position in world politics and therefore prevented the march by issuing "Executive Order 8802" which abolished discrimination in those fields of employment. In 1963 the government , who couldn't convince the leaders of the movement21 to stop the preparations for the demonstrations, ordered national guards to Washington, to prevent violence from happening. John Lewis of the SNCC even had to change his speech, because the government thought it to be too offensive.

But no violence erupted on August 28, 1963, and more than 250,000 marchers, black and white, peacefully attended the demonstration, sang freedom songs and listened to the different speeches. On this everybody had the feeling that changes were near, and this was underlined with the enthusiastical speech of the final orator, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today !22

James Baldwin, who attended the march, said afterwards: "That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance: perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream we dreamed in agony."23 Never before had there been so much optimism like on this day, and only few dared to speak out their doubts: Malcolm X, a radical leader of the black masses in the Northern ghettos, said to Bayard Rustin on the evening after the march:"You know, this dream of King is going to be a nightmare before it's over."24 Only "eighteen days after the euphoria of the March on Washington"25, the dream really turned into a nightmare, when four little black girls were killed when members of the KKK bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Two months later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and in 1964 three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi26. His speech at the March on Washington had made Martin Luther King known all over he world. Time magazine elected him "Man of the Year of 1963" and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, becoming the youngest NPP laureate ever. The government of the US did their best to prevent further protests of the Civil Rights Movement from happening. So in 1964 the Civil Rights Act ended de jure segregation in the South and the first stage of the movement. The situation in the South had changed, "White only" signs were removed, and facilities were integrated.

But in the Northern urban areas poverty, despair, and social discrimination was still present. The optimistic mood of the 1950s had finally been replaced by a mood of violence and despair. Many African-Americans were disillusioned, especially the students, who had risked their lives in the demonstrations, weren't satisfied. The masses turned to more radical leaders, whom they could identify with and who dared to say what they felt. One of those leaders, and the most influential one among the black underclass and the African-American youth, was Malcolm X.

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14.) MIA = Montgomery Improvement Association
15.) SCLC = Southern Christian Leadership Conference
16.) SNCC = Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
17.) address before the annual meeting of the Fellowship of the Concerned on 16 November 1961, titled "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience", printed in " A testament of Hope" p. 48f
18.) in "The words of Martin Luther King", p. 103
19.) taken from "Bearing the cross", p. 149
20.) quoted in "A Testament of Hope", p. 167
21.) the "Big Six": Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr.
22.) printed in "A Testament of Hope", p.219
23.) quoted in "Freedom Bound", p.83
24.) quoted in "Freedom Bound", p.83
25.) in "Voices of Freedom", p.171
26.) Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were members of the SNCC, who came to the South to help African Americans in the voter registration. Their story has been documentated by the movie "Mississippi Burning."