Over the period between 1865 to 1968 there were many people whom advanced African American civil rights including Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement between the 1950s to late 1960s, is considered the Second Reconstruction, referencing the Reconstruction which had been imposed on the South during the Civil War. By challenging the significance of Martin Luther King, one can be retroactive and gain deeper knowledge in the many African American activists prior to King and recognise their contribution in the fight for civil rights. A prime example of this is W.E.B DuBois, who organised a variety of movements including the Niagara Movement of 1905 to 1907, the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, and wrote a monthly publication called ‘The Horizon’. He is considered to many the ‘father of pan-africanism’. Looking even further back, one can gain a deeper understanding of the Civil Rights movement from an earlier period. Social reformer, abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass is to this day, considered ‘the most famous abolitionist to work for the emancipation’. On the other hand one has to understand the influence of others who were not activists. For example, Abraham Lincoln, whose influence lived on for the entire scope of this period. Overall, each played a part in advancing American Civil Rights, however, where Martin Luther King symbolised the end of the Civil Rights movement, W.E.B DuBois became the face of the people and Frederick Douglass represented the overcoming of their struggles through an even darker period of American history.
Through his non-violent ideology, King shaped the methods of protest from 1955 onwards. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his first major success where non-violent protest proved beneficial was the Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 1955 to December 1956. Prior to the boycott, during 1955, 75% of revenue going to the bus companies in Montgomery Alabama came from African Americans, yet the seats were segregated with white people getting the best seats. In anger Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat causing the police to be called. This led to a full scale boycott as the local community worked together to gain justice for Parks, they were led by King. Finally the supreme court applied the 1954 Brown ruling to busses, meaning that they would be desegregated. Socially, this was a major victory for the local black community. This was also a major political success for King, who was developed a larger political standing. This was emphasised through the contrasting newspaper articles from that era. December 6th 1955, Montgomery Advertiser published an article, saying how the council would not compromise. Furthermore, the Attorney believed that it was ‘impossible to accept the proposed seating arrangement’. Just over a year later, an article from the New York Times stated that ‘the Negroes and the whites for the first time sat where they both chose to sit’. Both newspapers can be seen as reliable sources as they both give factual and gave balanced accounts even though they were both partially left wing. Partly owing to King’s brilliant oratory skills his message of peaceful integration was widely appealing to both his black and white supporters. While socially a large following was important to spread his message, King needed a larger political standing to pass the laws he wanted. Due to his peaceful manner, he gained indispensable support from politicians. This strengthened Martin Luther King’s position as most significant individual because he could go on to achieve many other legislations and continue an era of non-violent resistance. A prime example of this was the March on Washington, August 23rd 1963. An estimated 250000 people participated in the march, a third of whom were white. Here he delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, where he spoke for legal racial equality. This was another major achievement, as in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which banned segregation in public areas. From a legal perspective, Martin Luther King was of vital importance, however, socially his reforms had little impact. In north America, African Americans did not associate with his Christian ethos, which had a major impact in the south. Furthermore, the laws he passed had little impact on the social climate. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many African Americans in the south were blackmailed and threatened into not voting and many schools remained all black and all white after they were desegregated. Therefore, while having a peaceful position would have had a major effect prior to Martin Luther King, by the 1950s, King’s aura was too amenable and unconvincing. This meant that people started to turn to more violent and extremist methods, such as Martin Luther King’s main opposition; Malcolm X.
While Martin Luther King’s non-violent protests helped him gain a strong political position, Malcolm X created strong social change. X was a direct opposite of King but the north’s main Civil Rights leader and particularly appealed to younger African Americans through an extreme, radical approach. Through his support of black nationalisation, reviving 1920s Garveyism, showing how people should fight for freedom rather than wait for it, Malcolm X revolutionised society, incomparably surpassing the effects of any legislation. This was mainly because of the violence and riots that X advocated, forcing people to view black communities vigorously and to a certain extent, with fear. Apart from a legislation outside of the timeframe in question, Malcolm X had few political victories, especially in comparison to King. However, he was a symbol of pride and change within the black community. Those who had prior been united in support of peaceful boycotts, started to follow X’s style and many called for nationalism. On the other hand, It has to be understood that X was majorly northern centric, having little impact on the south where 20.6% of the population was African-Americans, whereas, in the north it was only 6.7% (1960s). Furthermore, his radical and violent methods were heavily criticized because they allowed white supremacist groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan, to justify their actions of lynching by confirming that free African American people were ‘violent’, giving them evidence to prove their propaganda was true. He also weakened his position by causing the black and white communities to become even further separated, meaning gaining a link in politics would be impossible. A prime example of this was how the SCNN became an all-black organisation in 1966. Overall, while X showed that non-violent protests were unstable and that King wasn’t the only leader to shape the Civil Rights Movement, it could be argued that Malcolm X was an impediment to the movement, which allowed for the loss of political authority and discord within the Civil Rights Movement itself. However, Malcolm X proved that there were many other leaders who significantly changed the development of the Civil Rights Movement, such as, W.E.B DuBois.
According to Kevern Verney, the civil rights act of the 1950s and 1960s were not down to King, but down to the culmination of the African American community. This is further supported by Carson who believes that ‘Black students would have probably still rebelled’ even if Martin Luther King had not been involved. This critical view of King suggests that even though he played the face of the Civil rights movement, he didn’t play a significant role in influencing the majority. Understanding that Martin Luther King may have only played a superficial role in the forwarding of Civil Rights allows one to be retrospective and turn to other activists such as Rosa Parks who became a global symbol of resistance. Carson further argues that it was inconceivable that the Jim Crow laws would not be resisted. This is understandable as the civil rights movement had been longer than Martin Luther King and the leaders prior to him became the resistance. Clayborne Carson, a leading historian believes that W.E.B DuBois is a central figure african american history and that ‘all subsequent scholarship about African Americans can be seen as a footnote about what Dubois has already said’. Similarly to King, DuBois was an incredible orator. His legacy is so powerful, that he is spoken about with pride, centuries later, he marked the turning point of revolution. His life allows one to look at so many central themes of the civil rights movement. DuBois role in the NAACP and The Crisis played a significant part in the advancement of African American civil rights. However, his work prior to this in 1907 with the Niagara Movement outstandingly developed his position and the way in which he constructed the future of the African American community.
The publication of his poem ‘The Song of the Smoke’ 1907, in his monthly publication ‘The Horizon: A journey of the colour line’; is an incredibly important source as one is able to understand the black experience in an entirely new way. It tells a narrative of the ‘Smoke King’ whom portrays the community of the African American citizens and their struggles while being openly persecuted by the caucasian population. The poem conveys the extent of their difficulties through the figurative connotations and symbolisation far greater than the literal meaning. The embodiment of the difficulties the African Americans faced throughout history is depicted in such lines as ‘Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes’. The Smoke King and repetition of ‘black’ allows one to infer that the struggles are of the entire community. This is further supported by David Levering Lewis who wrote ‘W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a race’, this title shows that Dubois did more than just stand up for African American civil rights, but moulded the future, to such an extent that he is still considered the father of the civil rights movement, over a century later.
Through the numerous references to suffering and hardship, the narrator is shown to be sorrowful and dejected. The repetition allows the reader to understand the implication that the African Americans will never develop in society and will always be classed as ‘black’, thoroughly depicting how African American citizens were treated throughout American history. The poem created an aura of sympathy for black people due to the extent of their suffering. Furthermore, the use of ‘smoke’ allows one to understand that Du Bois is suggesting that the African American population have a great presence, like smoke they don’t cause commotion and are not there to tear down society. The Song of the Smoke is a highly useful source as it framed African American culture and forced the Caucasian population to understand what the civil rights movement was about in a completely different way to what had been done previously.
This was published in the primary outlet for the Niagara Movement he founded in 1905. Through the movement, Du Bois hoped to change the way the African American people had been told to accept their second-class status as instructed by Booker T. Washington. Due to its powerful and unambiguous demand for rights, this movement was completely unique. Members demanded for equal economic and educational opportunities and they sent a powerful message across the country; they wanted an end of segregation. The Plessy vs Ferguson case of 1896 marked the beginning Jim Crow era, where African Americans were given the same public services, however, they were separated and the African American facilities were always of a much lower standard. By 1906 the group had grown to 170 members and met annually until 1908, the year of the Springfield race riot, which caused the death of eight African Americans. This was a major turning point for the the civil rights movement because it was a symbol of revolution; the first northern race riot in four decades in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Both black and white activists believed it was time for a stronger interracial organisation to combat racism; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Through his articles, ‘The Song of the Smoke’, and his movements, W.E.B created a community, allowing all to stand up for their rights; Martin Luther King was the face of the Civil Rights movement, but W.E.B Du Bois was a mediator, allowing an entire community to work together.
Steven Lawson claims that “the government played an indispensable role in shaping the fortunes of the civil rights revolution”, suggesting that the progression of the Civil Rights Movement was reliant on the federal government. While political support did vary from president to president and which Civil Rights leader was trying to gain that support. The government was mostly useful during the period of reconstruction and around a century later when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
After his death in 1865, Abraham lincoln’s legacy was a significant reason for the civil rights movement pushing forward in the way that it did, especially in the next two years. Over the reconstruction period, Amendments 14 and 15 were issued, declaring that all citizens were entitled to full civil rights, including the right to vote. These prove to be the basis of the entire movement, even though Lincoln died before the amendments could be enforced. Without the reconstruction the African American community would have progressed very differently. Therefore, even though the failings of improving African American life were significant, the position it placed the African American people in to continue the fight for their rights was much more powerful. Lincoln’s legacy allowed black activists to oppose the Jim Crow Laws and other obstructions to their rights. A prime example of how Abraham Lincoln forwarded the USA decades later was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought the end of the Jim Crow laws suggested to be the most ‘far-reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction’.
To conclude, Martin Luther King was a national spokesperson for media attention and figurehead of civil rights but compared to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the work of WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King was limited in power. Furthermore, compared to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King’s ‘de jure’ legislative achievements were only ‘paper victories’, while Malcolm X became a face of rebellion. Therefore, while Martin Luther King was successful in helping improve the political standing of the advancement of African American Civil Rights, from a social perspective the legacy that Lincoln left was much more significant in the Civil Rights movement. Overall, the importance of Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement has been highly exaggerated and to believe he was solely the most significant individual would be hyperbolic.