Fifty years on from the death of a dream, here is an extract from my book and retropective of Dr King’s life from Chapter 7 of My American Odyssey.
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr, 15 January 1929 – 4 April 1968
Dr King was just thirty-nine when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, but the legacy of his lifetime of achievement will last for generations. He was the third in a generation of male preachers, following his father who had changed his name from Mike to adopt the name of the founding father of the Protestants, Martin Luther.
In many ways, Dr King was the archetypal reluctant hero: happy to accept a life in the pulpit serving God, until destiny called. His role in the civil rights struggle would test not only his faith, but also his convictions and the very essence of his humanity. He was born in Atlanta on 15 January 1929, during the Great American Depression, into a stable middle-class family. The queues for bread and images of poverty that he witnessed would leave a lasting impression of the inequality and social issues facing America. His loving parents created a solid platform for him to achieve greatness, with his father a particularly strong guiding influence in his life.
Martin Luther King senior, or Daddy King as he was known, would educate his son about the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow. A large man in size and stature, he would never accept the status quo of a black man in the South: of second-class citizenship. Daddy King could trace the roots of his grandfather’s life as a slave, and had watched his own father suffer indignities in silence as a sharecropper on a Georgia plantation. He vowed to leave the plantation life behind him and moved to Atlanta, labouring by day and educating himself by night. He became an activist in the early civil rights era, and after receiving a degree in divinity, became a pastor on the street on which he lived, Sweet Auburn Avenue. The Ebenezer Baptist Church became his son’s ‘second home’.
His parents’ love could not protect him from what Dr King termed the ‘inexplicable and morally unjustifiable Jim Crow laws of the South’, and for a while he struggled to reconcile himself with the direct racism he experienced before it consumed him with bitterness. Where the young Dr King went to school, where he played and with whom were all things determined by the Jim Crow laws, leaving him with a burning sense of injustice.
Daddy King helped to develop his son’s public speaking skills by making him read extracts from the newspaper out loud after dinner. At the age of fourteen, Dr King delivered his first public address against racism at an oratory contest in Georgia, where he called for the Constitution, Bill of Rights and relevant Amendments Acts to be translated into reality, and attacked the discrepancy between those words and actions. This winning speech would mark the emergence of one of finest orators in history. In addition, it would represent what Dr King would devote the rest of life to achieving, and in so doing would change both America’s and the world’s perceptions of the black man.
By his own description, Dr King had an unremarkable childhood. One of the more notable things about the segregated neighbourhood in which he was raised was that poor and middle-class families lived on the same street, rather than living in separate areas. No one around him accumulated great wealth. Poor families lived in one-tier shotgun houses – so named because a bullet could pass through the front wall, travel through the house, and come out through the rear wall – standing next to Dr King’s modest two-storey family home, which still stands today in Atlanta.
Dr King undertook manual work to supplement the cost of his studies and, after leaving high school in 1944 at the age of fifteen, he enrolled at Morehouse College, Atlanta: a renowned historical all-black college and university (HSBCU). This was two years earlier than most of his classmates, and he recalls working hard to catch up. He revelled in the spirited atmosphere at Morehouse; the heady mix of active social life and modern clothing was where he developed his ‘ivy-league’ dress sense. The political debates on race, together with the knowledge he gained on civil disobedience, stimulated his eager young mind. With his spiritual roots strong, he entered the ministry in 1948, and later that year passed his sociology degree.
He continued his scholarship, gaining a divinity degree at Crozier Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania in 1951, and received his doctorate in theology in 1955. It was while undertaking his religious studies that he began reading some of the accepted great philosophers of the world, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. At each place of learning he added layers of knowledge and wisdom while being heavily influenced and abetted by his peers, teachers and mentors, building on the foundations of his faith and family. However, it was when he discovered Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy that he was able to combine his religious, social and moral convictions to tackle what he saw as the ‘evils of the world’ – which for Dr King meant racism.
In 1952, he met the love of his life, fellow student Coretta Scott, while they were both studying at Boston University. They married after less than eighteen months’ dating, and Dr King considered Coretta’s self-sacrifice and patience major sources of strength during his darkest hours. The spiritual and emotional support between the two enabled him to become the leader of a movement of tens of thousands, and an icon for millions around the world. Coretta was also a prime source of support for the movement: marching, campaigning and inspiring others, along with raising their four children as Dr King was away frequently. Dr King also had the support of his confidant, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, to assist him in formulating strategy and campaigns against the southern segregationists.
With their studies completed, the Kings moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, and Dr King became the pastor of The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Coretta had been born and raised in Alabama and, despite there being more glamorous or rewarding positions elsewhere in America, as native southerners they felt a ‘moral obligation’ to fight for social justice. They planned to enter a career in teaching, and for Dr King to further his studies later. The Kings had their first child, and life in Montgomery was relaxed compared to the challenges that were to follow.
As well as his pastoral role, Dr King took an interest in local activism, making important links with both the black and white communities of Montgomery. Then, on 1 December 1955, a forty-two year-old seamstress called Rosa Parks decided that she was tired of the continual injustices she faced on Montgomery’s transportation system. Her symbolic decision to refuse to give up her seat for a white male passenger and move to the back of the bus – as was the Jim Crow law of Alabama – would change the course of history, and ensure Dr King’s life would never be the same again.
The Reluctant Leader –The Birth of a Movement in Montgomery
Rosa Parks’s subsequent arrest, conviction and $14 fine were the catalysts that galvanised Montgomery’s black community, and later, under Dr King’s leadership, united all the disparate figures of the civil rights movement into a coalition of action. After Rosa Parks had been marched from her bus seat to jail, a bus boycott, or ‘acts of non-cooperation’ as Dr King preferred to term it, began. This called for blacks not to travel on the public city buses until colour restrictions governing where they could sit were removed. An organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), was formed to coordinate the protest, and elected Dr King as its leader. He was surprised at his elevation, as he had not been in Montgomery that long and did not regard himself as one of the city’s leaders, but the vote was unanimous – a resounding vote of confidence in his potential.
In his first major speech at the beginning of the boycott, Dr King had to mobilise the Montgomery community, and in his autobiography admits, ‘Feeling obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy…for the most decisive speech of his life.’ He summoned up his years of learning, and borrowed from Gandhi to call for a campaign of social activism that would rouse the soul, repair and regain self-respect, within the spirit of their Christian faith, without violence.
Despite being small in stature at just under 1.70 metres (5.7 feet), Dr King rose to great heights, and without notes delivered what would become one of his trademark speeches. He received a standing ovation from the packed church hall, as well as achieving the desired effect of raising spirits ahead of the bus boycott. The MIA swung into action to organise the tasks of the boycott, such as arranging car pools and asking taxi drivers to reduce their fares to that of a bus journey. With the majority of the black community working in manual or domestic roles, many simply walked for miles and miles, month after month. Montgomery’s black residents, like Rosa Parks, had had enough, and would never be a cowering community again. After a century of indignities they were prepared to suffer whatever it took to achieve desegregation.
The Montgomery city officials came under pressure from the business community, who were losing vast amounts of money, and used the weight of office to bend the rule of law in an attempt to break the boycott. Dr King’s family, friends and colleagues were threatened on a daily basis. Numerous churches and civil rights campaigners’ homes were firebombed by the KKK, including the King family home while his family slept. Dr King was arrested several times. When physical intimidation failed, other measures were used, such as getting insurance companies to cancel the car insurance of the pool drivers, or pressuring employers to sack the MIA ringleaders. Their resolve could not be broken, and is fondly recalled in Dr King’s autobiography where he describes how a pool driver stopped to give a struggling elderly black woman a lift home. She refused, and said: ‘I’m not walking for myself. I’m walking for my children and grandchildren!’
With the economic effects of the boycott proving successful the city officials were forced to the negotiation table. Eventually the 381 day campaign resulted in victory, which we know today as first come, first seated. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not only a breakthrough for the civil rights campaign, but within this first tumultuous battle can be seen the parable that encapsulates the overall struggle for civil rights. From then on, when an issue concerning a Jim Crow law flared up, the community would be mobilised into an organised campaign. Physical abuse and intimidation inevitably followed, which would include bombings, beatings and mass arrests. Then a protracted legal process would take place while the local black community continued their daily lives, enduring their own individual unheralded sacrifices. Each campaign would at first be met with an indifferent response from the federal government, and even criticism, before it belatedly enforced law and order. Finally the protracted struggle would lead to gradual concessions to end segregation in the target city. In this way, the movement incrementally gained first their dignity, and then their civil rights as they literally battled for equality.
Civil Rights Era in 1950s, and Dr King’s Pilgrimages to Africa and India
Before long, the question of civil rights was no longer just a local, city or state issue, but had gained a national platform and become an international story. In 1954, the Supreme Court members, who more than the politicians saw themselves as the moral guardians of the Constitution, made a landmark ruling in the case that became known as Brown v Board of Education. The Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities were unconstitutional, overturning the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson ‘separate but equal’ ruling of its predecessors.
Two years later, in Little Rock, Arkansas, this exploded into violence. The federal government ordered troops to protect nine black children from an enraged local mob to enforce the bussing policy that followed the Brown v Board decision. Dr King applauded the federal government’s actions, sending a telegram of thanks to President Eisenhower, though he felt that the White House should have acted sooner. Crucially, the Supreme Court’s caveat that the southern states were to integrate with ‘all deliberate speed’ allowed them to de-segregate at their leisure, and by the end of 1956 not one school in the Deep South had been integrated. Dr King remarked that ‘The federal government were more concerned about what happened in Budapest than what happened in Birmingham.’
By now, Dr King’s global profile was rising, and he embarked on several travels abroad to further his own personal knowledge. This included an enlightening journey to Africa, where he joined the celebrations at the independence of Ghana on 6 March 1957. He also undertook a personal pilgrimage to India to observe the civil disobedience teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, who had used non-violent techniques to propel India toward its own independence. Coretta and Dr King were warmly received and widely recognised, as the Montgomery bus boycott had made international headlines. Like his spiritual mentor, Dr King was not solely concerned with single issues such as race or colonialism. Gandhi had been appalled by the treatment of the untouchables in India, and had adopted an untouchable orphaned child. Gandhi also went on a hunger strike to highlight their plight, which brought an end to the practice of not touching thousands of people from India’s poorest in society.
This focus on the plight of the poor was to mark Dr King’s latter years as he campaigned for social reforms. At the time of his death, he was in Memphis attending a rally for striking sanitation workers. A fellow Hindu had killed Gandhi, and Dr King nearly suffered a similar fate when a black woman stabbed him at a book signing in Harlem, New York, in 1958. The woman was categorised as clinically insane, and Dr King came so close to death his surgeon informed him that had he sneezed he could have died. His travels around the world, especially to Africa and India, gave him the strength, conviction and determination to strive for social justice and equality. Finding out about them inspired me to travel the world too. I was most impressed that, by adopting Gandhi’s non-violent methods, Dr King expanded the civil rights campaign throughout the South and away from his parish in Montgomery, Alabama. The influence of Rosa Parks and Dr King inspired many others to take action. After students staged their sit-in at the Woolworth’s food-counter in Greensboro, North Carolina (a place l will visit and discuss later in this chapter) in February 1960, ‘Over 70,000 black students staged sit-ins around the country, which saw 3,600 jailed’.
From Montgomery to National Leadership
In February 1957, Dr King became the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a network drawn from scores of civil rights movements throughout the southern states. This role would prove vital in helping him coordinate the campaign across the South through the affiliate bodies of the SCLC. Dr King led the non-violent war on Jim Crow and southern segregationists, and such were his personal charm and magnetism, he could advise protesters and presidents with equal aplomb, and turn bigots into activists.
Dr King’s leadership was pivotal in assisting to overthrow centuries of state-sponsored inequality. His strategy and planning of the civil rights struggle was as good as any high-ranking military general, allied with the management skills of a top chief executive.
One of the many great unheralded things we can learn from Dr King is the leadership quality that elevates great leaders from mere mortals. As one of the world’s best-selling management books, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says, Dr King ‘Begin with the end in mind’. He created a vision of a desegregated south, ‘where little black and white boys and girls could play together’. He led from the front, displaying his courage and integrity while being abused, beaten and jailed. He spent many days away from his family, with Coretta supporting his decisions to remain behind bars to highlight injustice.
Dr King would learn lessons from defeats, such as the painful unsuccessful year of struggle in Albany, Georgia in 1961, which he evaluated to plan a successful campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Each campaign was planned with a full strategy, and a target city selected. Teams of individuals were organised into committees to deliver thousands of tasks and actions to the army of foot soldiers who were ready to lay down their bodies to achieve the goal. Within the target city mass marches would be planned, followed by rousing speeches with the specific aim to empower and embolden the local community. Protestors would take part in acts of civil disobedience, staging sit-ins within cafés and restaurants, and even kneel-ins inside segregated churches. With the jail cells overflowing, the judicial system would be pushed to breaking point. Grandparents, students, teachers, labourers and many others flocked to the South to protest, and lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped to defend them. Local, state and federal politicians and power brokers were lobbied to give political support. The power of the black dollar was utilised by economic boycotts, which were used as sanctions against shops that had segregationist policies. Eventually, when combined to maximum effect, these collective actions would make the target city’s business community beseech the city officials to negotiate a compromise.
Dr King evoked the embodiment of hope as a key message to disarm opponents and accomplish change. Andrew Young, who was standing next to Dr King on the balcony in Memphis when he was killed, recalls Dr King’s leadership skills, saying he would be ‘Meeting black business leaders in the morning to help them understand the process of non-violence, and in the evenings after school he would meet with the students from the high schools and colleges to encourage them to support the movement.’
When he returned from India, Dr King was more convinced than ever before that his moral convictions of non-violence should be deployed to break the southern bastion of segregation. He ignored the growing calls for Black Power and separatism as he did not believe that black people could win an armed struggle in America. It was also morally repugnant for him to embrace black separatism, as he viewed it as a similar system to the one he was fighting against.
The Birmingham Campaign – 1963
Dr King faced harsh criticism from all sides for his methods, and history has recalled his legacy far more kindly than people felt about it during his lifetime. Even in his dark moments, he remained true to his beliefs, and would often meet his detractors personally. Those who argued for him to stay within the rule of law would be met with determined resistance. Dr King opposed what he saw as unjust man-made doctrines, and drew strength from his theologian studies, stating: ‘Any law that uplifts human personality is just.
Any law that degrades the human personality is unjust. Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 Brown v Board decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances for they are morally wrong.’ So the stage was set for Dr King and the civil rights movement to gain arguably their biggest and most controversial achievement in the form of Project C – C for Confrontation. They chose Birmingham, a city in the industrial heartland of Alabama, named after its English relative and a living example of the terror and injustices of Jim Crow in America.
The leader of the SCLC affiliated Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights, Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, had invited Dr King to Birmingham, which had a population of over 350,000. Dr King made no secret of his disgust at the primitive conditions he encountered. The segregation and the way it was enforced exceeded anything he had endured in his life. Dr King wrote of a black child being born in Birmingham, and the infant drawing its first breath in a segregated hospital. The baby would return home with its parents to a life of poverty, as well as being excluded from certain schools, restaurants, cinemas, churches and other social institutions, all based on the colour of his or her skin.
After receiving a federal order to desegregate its parks, the city closed them instead. When it was told it should integrate black players into its baseball team, Birmingham disbanded it. If you wished to protest against these injustices by joining America’s most predominant national civil rights organisation the NAACP, you would find that they were banned in Birmingham. If you wanted to vote you would find yourself the subject of discriminatory literacy tests which These would help to ensure that in a city where 40 per cent of the population was black, only one in eight had the right to vote. This lack of voting power meant racist politicians and officials, such as the Governor of Alabama George Wallace and police commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, would ensure the black community lived with fear and terror as constant companions. Reverend Shuttleworth himself had seen his home and church bombed and destroyed, and both he and his wife had been assaulted, but, undeterred, Shuttleworth continued to protest. He was jailed on eight separate occasions.
In summary, should that child about whom Dr King wrote overcome adversity and reach maturity, it would grow up to raise the next generation in the most segregated city in America. Therefore, Birmingham would prove the ideal place to expose the brutality of racism and the moral corruption of its officials.
The date of 12 April 1963, Good Friday, was symbolically chosen for the mass protest to highlight the fact that Dr King was in prison. He announced defiantly, ‘It’s better to go to jail with dignity than accept humiliation in humility.’ Dr King was used to going to jail for his principles, although he hated being locked away from his family and society. On one occasion, he was falsely arrested for an alleged traffic violation by the Georgia state authorities. They bound his arms and legs in shackles, before driving him 220 miles without food, water, access to a phone call or informing him of his alleged crime.
Dr King received public criticism concerning his breaking of the law, not from the segregationists, but from eight clergymen of mixed denominations who he felt should have been supporting him in his bid to tackle hate and inequality. In jail, on scraps of leftover paper, he wrote his polemic Letter from Birmingham Jail. He restated his unshakeable beliefs and principles, and denounced unjust laws as invalid, as Nelson Mandela had done before being sent to jail at Robben Island, before him. Dr King attacked the liberal critics who lamented that this was not the right time for civil disobedience and that patience was required. Dr King replied, stating that his people had been patiently waiting for over a century since slavery was abolished. They could not and would not wait any longer, and through thousands employing the tactics of non-violent direct action, they would find America’s salvation and unity.
It was now that Dr King played his riskiest strategy in the civil rights campaign by deploying children. He believed that harnessing their natural energy and exuberance would give the movement fresh impetus. Dr King also wanted the children to be able to shape their own destiny, and involved them ‘To give our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice.’
The local community was trained and prepared for the extreme courage the people would need to display to live under fire. A number of entertainers, such as Harry Bellefonte, raised money for legal funds for the thousands who were jailed or suspended from school. Project C would lead to some of the most disturbing and violent scenes in civil rights history, beamed into homes and reported in newspapers around the world. These were brutal and damaging images for America, and would remain in the world’s conscience forever.
On 3 May 1963, hundreds of schoolchildren set out from the 16th Street Baptist Church, marching towards the Kelly Ingram Park across the road. Their mood was exuberant and their resolve strong as they defiantly sang, ‘We want freedom now!’ This enraged Sheriff Bull Connor, whose openly racist views were expertly exploited by the movement. He ordered the fire engines to turn on their high-pressure hoses, knocking children to the ground, and released police dogs onto them. This incensed many black spectators, some of whom had not received the non-violent training required, and they retaliated only to be met by club-wielding policemen. When Bull Connor was told Fred Shuttleworth was one of those injured by a fire hose, he said publicly, ‘I wish he’d been carried away in a hearse.’
With the world’s media attention on Birmingham, the White House became involved. The attorney general was Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, who played a key role in civil rights negotiations both for his brother and later for President Johnson, before Bobby was also assassinated in the turbulent year of 1968. President Kennedy sent a special envoy to negotiate between the two sides, but violence flared throughout May 1963, and even a tank was deployed to patrol the streets. Dr King’s brother, the Reverend A.D. King’s home was bombed, and a device was placed near to a room at the Gaston Motel where Dr King often stayed in Birmingham. These acts were aimed to provoke the black community into retaliatory acts of violence, and fighting between the police and black community raged.
When the Supreme Court declared Birmingham’s segregationist policies unconstitutional, the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from entering. President Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to remove him. Eventually, hostilities eased, and with the economic boycott hitting white businesses, an agreement to desegregate the city’s facilities and improve employment equality practices was reached.
Andrew Young summarised the success of Project C thus: ‘Everybody looks at the Birmingham demonstration and thinks that there was some kind of miracle performed, but it was a lot of hard work. Birmingham was not a non-violent city. Birmingham was probably the most violent city in America, and every black family had an arsenal. To talk in terms of non-violence…in Birmingham…Folks would look at you like you were crazy because they had been bombing black homes. They had been beating up black people and the blacks thought there was no alternative for them but to “kill or be killed”. The achievements of Birmingham were historic; help and support came from across the country in the form of donations, including some from the entertainment field and sportspeople. Volunteers gave their time, and the NAACP legal defence fund carried out sterling work in releasing the jailed and getting the students reinstated. The community itself was galvanised into action, taking control of their own destiny to win the battle of Birmingham.’
For Dr King it provided proof to the hardcore southerners ‘That the walls of segregation could be broken down.’
March on Washington – 28 August 1963 – I Have A Dream
If Birmingham proved to be his most successful campaign, then there was no doubt that events in the nation’s capital would prove to be Dr King’s finest hour. The March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, to give it its full and appropriate title, was proposed by union leader A. Phillip Randolph to keep the world’s attention on the cause of civil rights.
President Kennedy, who before Project C in Birmingham had stated civil rights legislation would have to wait, hastily tabled a raft of new legislations.
The campaigners had seen centuries of broken promises befall their people in the fight for equality, and were determined to keep the spotlight on their cause. Though relations within the civil rights movement were often fractious, the march on Washington was a great display of unity by the black leadership, and Dr King was invited as just one of many speakers.
In the shadow of Lincoln’s memorial, with a quarter of a million people of all races, denominations and backgrounds packed into the National Mall, he delivered one of the most historic speeches of all time, fondly recalled as the I have a Dream speech. To hear Dr King’s sonorous voice booming with passion and prose brings goose pimples to the flesh. The tumultuous ending to the oratory is drawn from a Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!’ Dr King received praise and plaudits from around the world, and, with his stature growing, America finally seemed ready to fulfil Lincoln’s legacy.
However, from this zenith of success the civil rights movement would plunge into despair, and America too would be forced to examine itself as the dark hand of violence exploded.
Autumn 1963 – A Tragic American Fall From Grace
On 22 November 1963, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, became the fourth president to be assassinated by a fellow American. Although he declared himself non-partisan in politics, Dr King was convinced that JFK had won a very close 1960 election against Richard Nixon due to the votes and respect that he had gained from the Bblack community. A key moment had been JFK’s efforts to rescue Dr King from a Georgia jail for the false traffic violation. Dr King went so far as to call the then Senator Nixon, whom he knew personally at the time, a ‘moral coward’ in his autobiography because Nixon had stayed silent, fearing a backlash from southern segregationists.
Dr King’s response to the President’s assassination was less reported than his counterpart Malcolm X’s infamous comment that ‘The chickens had come home to roost’. Malcolm X was censured for this by the Nation of Islam, beginning a chain of events that would lead to his own assassination in New York in 1965. Much as he lamented the death of a president and personal ally, Dr King wept more for an America that ‘Could produce the climate where they [men] express their disagreement through violence and murder.’
Dr King evoked the lives of millions of African-Americans when he said that they too had tragically known ‘political assassins from the whine of a bullet or the roar of the bomb that had replaced lynchings as a political weapon.’  Those words were said because two months earlier, in the same Birmingham church from which thousands of children had set out to demand their equality, a bomb had been planted that killed four little girls attending Sunday school. Dr King had been highly distressed by these brutal murders, and had delivered a moving and rousing eulogy. He’d called for the girls’ deaths not to be in vain, and for renewed faith and courage in the doctrine of non-violence to prevail in the face of such a shocking atrocity.
The newly installed President Johnson was determined to push through a raft of civil rights legislations and social welfare reforms as a tribute to President Kennedy, who had initially introduced them. President Johnson termed this vision The Great Society, and as a southerner combined his forceful personality with his knowledge of Southland to get his legislation passed through the Congress and Senate. On 2 June 1964 he signed the Civil Rights Act, which would outlaw many segregationist practices in the South.
However, as we have discovered, those ingrained practices had survived the writing of the Constitution, war and much prior legislation. The segregationists continued to use violence and intimidation to maintain their rule. In 1965 in Selma, during a voter registration drive, over 3,800 were arrested, but the net result of three months of non-violent demonstrations was only fifty extra black people eligible to vote. Many had been beaten and sent to hospital when state troopers had turned on demonstrators during Sunday, Bloody Sunday (see chapter 8). Dr King lamented that yet more blood had been spilt, but his faith gave him the strength to continue.
The violent events of Selma, like those in Birmingham, would prove historic. A fitting tribute to the lost lives, and lasting proof that their deaths were not in vain, was the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This gave federal jurisdiction over any state which used discriminatory practices in the voting process, and gave African-Americans the power not only to vote, but also elect whomever they choose.
War and Poverty
Two major issues, war and poverty, were splitting the fabric of American society in half, and also causing turmoil for Dr King. The civil rights movement had been a predominately southern cause to end institutionalised segregation. Dr King, though, had always believed that poverty was also a major factor in causing inequality, so he turned his attention to the economic segregation that he felt was the source of great poverty in the so-called American ghettos. Race riots flared across the country, fuelled by anger from those with the least to lose. Dr King visited Watts, Los Angeles, to appeal to the rioters for calm after violent riots erupted in August 1965. In 1966, he and his family moved to a Chicago ghetto for several months to sample the conditions ‘at the grass roots’ and lead a campaign for desegregated housing. Though more extreme, in terms of the appalling deprivation in the slums these experiences mirrored those of the Windrush Generation since their arrival in Britain in 1948.
Decades come and go among epochs, but the one marked ‘The 1960s’ was a decade of great political, social and cultural change. Assassinations of great leaders, a peace movement to oppose the Vietnam War, driven by a new youth culture fuelled by the rise of the Beatles, and the appeal of Motown and black artists on both sides of the Atlantic sparked a series of cultural changes that would have repercussions for decades to come.
President Johnson felt he had not only completed Kennedy’s legacy of social reforms, but that he had gone even further by supplying finances and policies to tackle America’s poverty, enhance education, promote the arts and even environmental measures. He introduced two health reforms, Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for those on low incomes, which are still integral parts of the American healthcare system today. However, it was President Johnson’s duplicitous statements over whether America had committed troops in a war with a tiny nation, thousands of miles away, that were to taint and dominate his presidency.
Dr King was not alone in noticing that America’s poor were dying disproportionately in South East Asia, or that monies President Johnson had allocated to the war on poverty were being siphoned off to fight Vietnam. Dr King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, and as its ambassador and advocate, with his religious beliefs and moral convictions, the Vietnam War weighed heavily on his conscious. ‘Moved to break the betrayal of my own silences’, he became a firm and vocal opponent to the war. This took him into direct conflict with his former ally President Johnson, making Dr King an enemy of the state.
The FBI, under its notorious chief J Edgar Hoover, closely monitored Dr King, and spied on his life with official clearance from a compromised White House. Dr King was criticised for his anti-war stance not only by the state, but also by other campaigners for moving the message away from civil rights issues. Black segregationists attacked him for his continued belief in non-violence, and the mood within the civil rights movement began to fragment. This was to assert itself in Black Power slogans, misunderstood by many, by more radical blacks.
On the eve of his death, Dr King would not take the podium as the celebrated icon we remember today. Monitored by the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, who hated Dr King, had leaked allegations about his private life to discredit him. His colleagues had denounced his anti-war stance, and some were losing faith in his methods, while black militants were eager to respond to violence with violence. On what was to be the last full day of Dr King’s life, 3 April 1968, as he gave his Mountain Top speech in Memphis, Tennessee several questions about his methods, and even his relevance, were being asked across America.
Visiting the Student Sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina
In a country where there is a Martin Luther King Boulevard in every state, it is not difficult to find symbolic, if token, gestures to one of its most revered leaders. However, to appreciate fully the legacy of Dr King and the effect of his non-violence philosophy, I visited the university town of Greensboro, North Carolina. There, on 1 February 1960, four students from the A&T University, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr and David Richmond, fully embraced the non-violent strategy and marked their place in history. After much planning, they attempted to get served lunch at an all-white food counter of F.W. Woolworth’s. When they were refused lunch, they refused to move and staged a sit-in, sparking a six-month protest that spread throughout America.
The Woolworth’s building has since been lovingly restored and turned into the International Civil Rights Center. The Executive Director, Bamidele Emerson, gave me a personal guided tour around the first-class museum, that doubles as an arts facility, when I visit in 2010. The room where the sit-in was staged is much larger than I’d imagined, and every detail has been painstakingly preserved. My footsteps echo on the marble floor as I walk towards the famous steel and chrome counter. The original alternate blue and pink stools still stand there around the lunch counter, their leather surfaces aged and split open like over-ripened tomatoes. Behind the lunch counter the menu of the day is displayed. Appropriately, as its Thanksgiving the next day, a roast turkey dinner is advertised, costing 65 cents, and for dessert a cherry pie costs 15 cents, washed down with a Pepsi Cola for just 5 cents.
As America is now gripped by the ravages of a global recession, the absurdity of the moment hits me with stark reality. Those black students would have had green dollars in their pockets, but the colour of their skin would have prevented them from making any purchase. However, on that day, over fifty years ago, those four students did not care about hunger or capitalism. They cared about equality. Their stance brought America’s segregation laws to the world’s attention, and inspired many to take action.
Birthplace – Resting Place of Dr King: Sweet Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
The area where Dr King was born, raised and now rests is known as the Sweet Auburn district. With its network of businesses, churches and entertainment, for many years this was the heart and soul of Black Atlanta. I’m a frequent visitor to Sweet Auburn as Dr King’s resting place represents my own personal Mecca and sanctuary. I always feel a pleasant sense of serenity when I’m within its family of buildings, which includes the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, featuring excellent artefacts on Dr King’s life, a theatre and an old preserved fire station. It also includes the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (seemingly under perennial renovation) where both Dr King and his father preached. Dr King’s home, at 501 Sweet Auburn Avenue, sits at the top of a gentle hill and is still beautifully preserved, with free guided tours given by National Park guides if booked in advance.
Dr King won numerous awards and acclaim, but most of all his achievements was the ability to inspire a movement against hate and inequality. He was not a consensus leader who based his decisions on populist views; he was a conviction leader who, in the face of violence and intimidation, never wavered in his beliefs to achieve change…and he won.
At Dr King’s resting place I wipe a tear away, and at the eternal flame I say a prayer in remembrance of my own beloved family members who have passed away. Inspiration, however, is the main reason I’ve returned here, and as I look along the shimmering reflecting pool by his and Coretta’s graveside, I find strength building in me once again. I bid them both farewell in the knowledge that I will return after examining more of the achievements of the civil rights movement and Dr King’s legacy. Though Jim Crow had been abolished, many, like Dr King, worried about the psychological impact those racist laws would leave behind. He said, ‘All too few people would understand how slavery and racial segregation wounded the soul and scarred the spirit of the black man.’
Though the physical scars from the plantations had disappeared, they were soon replaced by the mental scars of racism in America’s ghettos and in Britain’s inner cities.