• Kathryn Cammell

The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, we marked the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s powerful oratory skills, exemplified by his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, marked him as the face of the American Civil Rights Movement which is widely believed to have dispersed after his death - but who was King, and what is his legacy?

On December 1, 1955, an African American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for breaking segregation law in Montgomery, Alabama when she refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. Activists soon formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which used Parks’ case as the basis to mobilise people into action against segregation laws. At the same time, the Association was searching for a new leader for their movement. King had just arrived in Montgomery, and was a well-respected and educated young man. King was chosen to be the president of the Association; his new voice and powerful oratory skills brought a different dynamic to the long struggle for racial equality in the United States.

The campaign in Montgomery lasted over a year, during which time those opposed to the movement bombed the homes of King and E.D. Nixon in an attempt to scare them into silence. King relaxed the crowd gathered at his home by stating, ‘be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place’ [2]. Despite efforts by white citizens and city officials to end the boycott, African-American residents kept their resolve and stayed off the buses, organising carpool services as alternative transport. Eventually, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. The activism in Montgomery demonstrated that non-violent mass protest had the power to challenge racial segregation successfully. Moreover, the Montgomery Bus Boycott attracted national attention, which resulted in King became a prominent and recognised leader in the Civil Rights Movement. King carried through this momentum and the strategy of non-violent resistance to new campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 respectively.

Part of what King brought to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s was his keen strategising. He understood the power of news media, particularly the television which had become an influential technology in shaping public opinion. King recognised that television had the potential to bring the struggle for civil rights to the national and international stage, and he used this for his advantage by getting the news media to broadcast the violence of white supremacists against the non-violent resistance practised by the Civil Rights Movement. King’s tactics often worked - he secured the support of many African Americans, as well as some liberal whites and sometimes the support of the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

King’s influence grew in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December. In the previous year, his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington had uplifted and inspired a crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. ‘I Have a Dream’ has become an often-quoted and well-known speech, and in the popular imagination King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial symbolises the Civil Rights Movement of this period. For many people, King will be remembered mainly for his work in what has been considered the ‘first phase’ of his activist career, where he worked to defeat segregation and disenfranchisement and achieved legislative change through his non-violent approach [3]. However, the ‘second phase’ of King’s career, where he set about addressing the economic inequalities that were at the root of American society, remains less well known.

In the final years of his life, King took on new and more complex challenges that were not always successful. King was concerned with economic inequalities between whites and African Americans, and he was passionate about working to address poverty and unemployment. King was also opposed to the Vietnam War, arguing that the Government spending on the war effort was detracting support away from vital economic programs like President Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’. King and his team attempted to challenge racial segregation in housing in Chicago, addressing the poor quality of life and economic inequalities evident in the ghettos that had emerged there. The Chicago campaign was eventually undermined by the powerful mayor Richard J. Daley and the unexpected difficulties related to the complexity of racism in the Northern states.

At the same time, many African Americans were growing increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change. The Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1965 demonstrated the depth of these feelings. People started to disagree with King’s non-violent tactics, arguing that social change needed to come much faster. Indeed, Malcolm X argued that ‘concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks’ [4]. Still, King worked on his Poor People’s Campaign to try and address the deep economic inequalities that persisted across America. Critically, the Poor People’s Campaign incorporated economic goals and interracial class issues with the struggle for racial equality, meaning that the issues King was confronting were deeply complex and challenging.

In 1968, King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by black sanitary public works employees. It was here that he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Many people have understood the Civil Rights Movement to have ended at this point. However, despite the widespread grief over King’s death, the Civil Rights Movement continued. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, finished the Memphis march after King was assassinated and thus directly contributed to the success of the sanitation workers in their strike. In the next month, she delivered an anti-Vietnam War speech in Central Park. Recognising that the Civil Rights Movement continues after King reflects an important shift in our conceptualisation of the movement. It prompts us to consider that the movement was made up of not just King, but diverse organisations with a shared goal of improving the lives of African Americans and achieving racial justice and economic quality.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s worked through a combination of King’s top-down charismatic leadership and the bottom-up work from people on the ground. For instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned by approximately 25 local organisations, including the Women’s Political Council, a group of black professionals that was founded in 1946 [5]. Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon and other leaders working on the ground in Montgomery also had a massive impact on the success of this campaign. Civil rights activists had worked for a long time to build the stage for King, who was able to use their platform to capture the attention of not only the United States but people across the world. As Clayborne Carson argued, the Civil Rights Movement would have happened without King, but because he was there it was more effective and their victories came sooner. In the end, King was ‘a leader who stood out in a forest of tall trees’ [6].

--- Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Martin Luther King Jr’, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

[2] "Blast Rocks Residence of Bus Boycott Leader," by Joe Azbell, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, Stanford University, retrieved from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/blast-rocks-residence-bus-boycott-leader-joe-azbell

[3] Review of Micheal Honey, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, retrieved from https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/168549

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Martin Luther King Jr - Challenges of the Final Years’, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr/Challenges-of-the-final-years

[5] The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’, retrieved from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott

[6] Clayborne Carson, ‘Martin Luther King Jr.: Charismatic Leadership in a Mass Struggle’, Journal of American History, 74, 1987, pp.448-454, retrieved from https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230000/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/additional_resources/articles/charisma.htm

Further Reading

Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, https://www.amazon.com/More-Beautiful-Terrible-History-Misuses/dp/0807075876

Clayborne Carson, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/clayborne-carson

Christopher Strain, Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism


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