Martin Luther King

Involvement in civil rights movement

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Martin Luther King

MLK espoused a philosophy of civil disobedience. He often broke the unjust laws of the de jure discrimination of the south. He encouraged mass support for these actions.

 He insisted that no resistance should be offered to those who tried to stop them, whatever the treatment that they meted out.

 He believed in integration – that all should live together, whatever their colour, in harmony.

 There were many influences operating on King that led him to this set of beliefs.

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 a)    The example of Gandhi in India.

 b)    His personal background and the influences of Christianity.

 c)    The fact that passive resistance was likely to reduce the threat of violence and therefore encourage greater participation in the movement by ordinary people.

 d)    That where there were violent responses, the attendant publicity would undermine those who opposed civil rights and encourage support for the protestors.

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However, King was a divisive figure.  Conservatives criticised him for taking protest to the street and not working through the courts and through Congress.  He was also criticised for using children in his campaigns.  Radicals, however, thought King was too cautious.  They criticised him for being too close to white politicians.  For example, he was criticised for re-routing a march during the Albany campaign of 1961 at Johnson’s request.  Young activists were worried King was trying to dominate the campaign and make SNCC a subsection of the SCLC.


King was also criticised for misunderstanding the situation in the North during the Chicago campaign of 1966.  Local leaders claimed he did not appreciate the scale of the problem & did not proposed a workable solution.  Many, even those in the SCLC, believed his Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was impractical & poorly focused.  King was unable to unite the northern black working class, many of whom did not share his Christian faith. 

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Montgomery Bus Boycott


1.    Across the south, buses were segregated, with blacks having to sit at the back or to stand if there were too many white passengers on board.


2.    It began with the arrest of Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.  She was arrested & fined $14.


3.    In response to her arrest, the NAACP mounted a legal case to challenge segregation laws.  The NAACP & local churches also organised a boycott of the buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association was created to co-ordinate the boycott. Martin Luther King was invited to be its president.


4.    Due to the involvement of the churches and King’s leadership the MIA was committed to non- violent methods. 


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During the campaign Martin Luther King was harassed.  He was arrested for speeding (at 30 mph in a 25 mph zone!) and also arrested, fined $500 dollars and sentenced to year in prison.  The arrest backfired and brought attention to the campaign







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1.    It demonstrated Martin Luther King’s leadership qualities and brought him to national attention, marking his emergence as a leading light within the civil rights movement. His contribution reinforced the philosophy of a non-violent approach to the achievement of change.



2.    The success at Montgomery led to the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).


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Greensborough sit-ins






      A new organisation was set up to co-ordinate the movement. This was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the movement spread Martin Luther King and the SCLC also became involved in the movements organisation

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Birmingham Campain, why Birmingham ?

Martin Luther King was able to manipulate the media.

1.    During the Freedom Rides, Birmingham’s police chief Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor refused to protect the riders and had even granted the local police the day off, thereby giving a green light to local racists.  Violence broke out and the Federal Government had to intervene to restore order.  King and the SCLC hoped that a new campaign in Birmingham would provoke ‘Bull’ Connor.  King and violence would ensue which would bring about the desegregation of the city.


2.    King targeted Birmingham because it was one of the worst examples of segregation in the South.  Birmingham had no black police officers, bus drivers, fire-fighters or bank workers.  Only 10% of its black population was registered to vote.  The city authorities had even banned the NAACP.

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What were MLK’s goals at Birmingham?




MLK’s goals were to achieve the desegregation of the city’s major shopping areas, administrative buildings, schools, public parks and put an end to discrimination in employment.

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Why did the SCLC change tactics during the Birming

1.    The first month of the campaign was relatively calm with Bull O Connor weakening the protestors by obtaining a court injunction against demonstrations in certain precincts and releasing high profile campaigners to avoid bad publicity.  


2.    MLK was arrested & jailed for taking part in an illegal march.  While in prison he wrote his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ which clearly set out his reasons for the use of non-violence.


3.    However, events in Birmingham were not winning the CRM the publicity it needed.  Consequently, the SCLC changed tactics by recruiting students and young people to take part in the campaign.  When the young people taunted the police, the police attacked them with high pressure hoses and arrested & imprisoned 1300 black children.  This marked a turning point in the campaign  


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What was the significance of the Birmingham Campai




The violent treatment of the young protestors caused a media frenzy.  Northern whites became increasingly sympathetic towards the CRM.  President Kennedy said he was ’sickened’ by the images he saw.  .  

The Soviet media devoted 1/5th of their radio time to the protest and presented the violence as evidence of American corruption and Soviet superiority.


Following the violence negotiations began between the SCLC and the city authorities.  President Kennedy sent the assistant Attorney General to mediate.


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What was the significance of the Birmingham Campai

Negotiations resulted in the following reforms being put in place:


  • Civil Rights Protestors were released without charge.
  • Large department stores were desegregated.
  • Racial discrimination in employment was ended.


Birmingham had persuaded Kennedy of the need for federal intervention in civil rights in order to prevent a complete breakdown in law and order.  He also made a public commitment to support a Civil Rights Bill. 


However, schools and most public places in Birmingham remained segregated and there continued to be much public opposition to desegregation in Birmingham.  Four months after the end of the protest the KKK bombed the Sixteenth Baptist Church (used as HQ during the Birmingham campaign).  They killed 4 young girls and sparked off demonstrations across Birmingham.

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What was the significance of the Birmingham Campai

     The momentum of the civil rights movement had been lost at Albany and Martin Luther King aimed to regain this at Birmingham in 1963. He hoped that by engaging in acts of non-violence, a confrontation with white racists would be triggered that would lead to action by the Kennedy administration.Martin Luther King was among those who were arrested. While he was in prison, he wrote the ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’.

      The decision was taken to include children in the marches at Birmingham.This coincided with the decision of Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the Chief of Police of Birmingham, to take more drastic action to deter the marchers.

The Birmingham police subjected the marchers to a range of physical

attacks. They came under fire from high-pressure water hoses and police dogs attacked them. The photographs that appeared in the media of children being attacked were highly damaging to those who wished to protect segregation at all costs.The consequence of the events at Birmingham was that there was some end to discrimination – there was to be desegregation in the stores and greater rights in employment.



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March on Washington,1963


On August 28th 1963, the largest civil rights demonstration in American history took place. Over 200,000 protesters, black and white, from across the entire range of civil rights pressure groups, marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

 -It showed Martin Luther King as a strong leader, with excellent speech making skills and was inspirational .


Martin Luther King addressed the crowd with his emotional and memorable ‘I have a dream’ speech.

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Why did Martin Luther King begin to campaign in th





    By 1965 many Americans believed that the civil rights movement was obsolete.  Segregation had been outlawed & voting rights guaranteed.  However, King knew racial equality meant more than just legal or ‘de jure’ change.  Inspired by the Moynihan Report which highlighted the extent of social and economic discrimination against black Americans, King decided to make this form of discrimination the focus of his next campaign in the North.  These campaigns were to be the most difficult of his career.

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What strategies did King use in the Chicago Freedo

This was King’s first initiative in the North.  He aimed to use the techniques of non violent action that had been so successful in the South to challenge the ‘de facto’ segregation of Chicago’s education, housing & employmentKing & the SCLC organised a rally – which was disappointing as only 30,000 attended rather than the 100,000 King expected.


A riot broke out when police tried to force black neighbourhoods to turn the fire hydrants during a heat wave.Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley made things worse by cutting off water to fire hydrants in the west side of the ghetto.  King called for calm, but violence intensified.


After the riots, King tried to engage blacks in peaceful protest – organising marches through all-white areas.  He was shocked by the violence of the white crowds who bombarded him with rocks.  Jesse Jackson planned more marches through white racist areas. 

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How successful was Chicago?





The threat of more violence forced Mayor Daley to negotiate.  However, following a court injunction restricting future marches, King was forced to compromise.  The Chicago Real Estate Board promised fairer housing, which King presented as a victory.  However, once the marches were called off and the Mayor was re-elected, these promises were not carried out.

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What was the significance of Chicago?

Local CORE activists complained that King should have broken the court injunction restricting further marches.  If he had done so, they could have achieved more in Chicago. Many of Chicago’s citizens lost faith in the SCLC & turned to more radical black leadership


King had misjudged the situation in the North.  Black church leaders in the North had relatively small congregations and did not command the respect of the Chicago black community.  Consequently, King’s Christian philosophy & commitment to non-violent protest had far fewer supporters.   The campaign revealed the scale of the problems faced by black people in the north.  Chicago was 10 times bigger than Birmingham & 100 times bigger than Selma.


Segregation in the South was ended by changing the law.  In contrast social and economic change required high financial investment & authorities were reluctant to commit this kind of money.King admitted that urban regeneration could not be solved quickly & might take another 10 years.

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What strategies did King use in the Poor People’s

In response to Chicago, King decided that the only way to tackle the huge social & economic problems he identified in Chicago was to act in a much more radical way.   


He planned to form a coalition would include all poor people: black people, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Native Americans and poor white people. 


Together, they would campaign for a better standard of living for the poor and an end to the ghettos.  Their demands would include:

-a federal budget of $30 billion a year to combat poverty

-a government commitment to full employment

-government initiatives to build 0.5 million new houses a year. 

Their strategies would be nationwide civil disobedience, occupying government buildings, boycotting businesses and a march on Washington.

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How successful was King’s Poor People’s Campaign?






Its success was limited because:

1)    President Johnson did not support the plan due to King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.

2)    The War also diverted resources away from alleviating poverty.


However, SCLC had won the support of many Labour Unions & religious groups had begun to raise the money to run the campaign.

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What was the immediate significance of King’s assa






King was assassinated on 4th April by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of his hotel room.  He died at the age of 39. 

President Johnson called it a national day of mourning & more than 50,000 mourners joined King’s funeral procession.

Some black Americans reacted violently & violence broke out in 130 cities across 29 states.

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Brilliant resource :)

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