50 years ago this week Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. , arguably the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America at that time, was assassinated. On 4th
April, 1968 he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was staying in Memphis, Tennessee. As a black-owned establishment, the Lorraine Motel was one of the few hotels in Memphis where African Americans were welcome to stay and free to mix with whites. [i]
Dr King was in town to support striking sanitation workers. Just after 6pm on April 4 he was standing on the balcony outside his room, when he was fatally shot by a sniper’s bullet fired from the window of a boarding house across the street. He was just 39 years old.
I was just 450 miles away in Kansas City, Missouri. I was nearing the end of my year as an exchange student at a private boys’ school near Minneapolis. I was a member of our Glee Club and we had gone on tour during the Easter vacation giving concerts in schools in Iowa, Oklahoma and finally Kansas City, Missouri. Here our concert was in a girls’ school and after the concert the school held a ‘mixer’, a dance for the girls and boys to get together and know each other a little better. It was heavily chaperoned and only fruit punch was served. But then when the shocking news came in we were rushed to our bus. It seemed that the whole of the south was rising again. The black community were outraged by the news that their most articulate spokesman had been silenced by a single bullet to the head. Riots broke out in many cities and we were told to lie low on the floor of the bus in case we were shot at. Similarly, when we reached our motel we were instructed to stay in our rooms and not go out onto our balconies. We should stay there until we were called to make our way back to Minnesota.
Towards the end of our academic year, we were the graduating class, and most of our studies were completed. But we were asked to write one last major essay on a theme of our choosing. I chose to write about the Negro problem, not a title one could use today I suspect, but somehow the Black problem would sound worse and the term African-American was not yet in popular use. It seemed to me to be at the heart of America’s young history, still less than two centuries of independence. In the opening to its Declaration of Independence it is stated that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And yet the supreme irony that they did not hold that these truths applied to the large number of slaves many of the signatories “owned” was apparently lost on all of them.
An alternative phrase “life, liberty and property”
is found in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First Continental Congress. The Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution declare that governments cannot deprive any person of “life, liberty or property without due process.”
This phrase is derived from the writings of the 17th
Century English political philosopher, John Locke. But for many Americans property certainly included the quantity of slaves they owned. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves and while he talked about emancipation he freed few of his own. He served his young country well as Minister to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams and President for 1801-09 but during his presidency he was silent on the subject of slavery while in 1807 the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. Britain used its influence to coerce other countries to follow suit.
But as early as 1780 the State of Pennsylvania had passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. This prohibited the importation of any new slaves but existing slaves remained as slaves. Here was progress of a kind but because the right to property had been enshrined in the constitution it became difficult, even impossible to change. That could only be done by war and the terrible Civil War resulted.
The Northern States supported the new President Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to restrict or even abolish slavery. The Southern States, where it was far more widespread, supported secession and the ability to expand slavery. After four years of brutal conflict the Union won but at dreadful cost. There were at least 1,030,000 casualties (3% of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths, – two thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians. Some estimates go much higher. This single domestic war accounted for more American deaths than in all other U.S. wars combined. Based on 1860 census figures, 8 per cent of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war including 6% in the North and 18 per cent in the South. About 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps in the war.
Once the war was over so in law was slavery though it took a long time for this to be the case in practice. And with freedom came few rights. The war also brought the unification of the currency. Different currencies had been in operation throughout its history but now the South suffered two blows to its economy. Not only did it lose its ‘free’ labour. It also was enslaved to a single currency thus dooming it to decades of relative poverty.
The civil rights movement was a struggle for social justice that took place mainly during the 1950s and 1960s for blacks to gain equal rights under the law in the United States. The Civil War had officially abolished slavery, but it didn’t end discrimination against blacks – they continued to endure the devastating effects of racism, especially in the South. By the mid-20th
century, African Americans had had more than enough of prejudice and violence against them. They along with many whites mobilised and began an unprecedented fight for equality that spanned two decades.
There were many individual heroes during this period and far too many martyrs. But to really transform majority public opinion, and then legislation, would require organisation and leadership. Martin Luther King Jnr’s father was a preacher and the boy took to the craft of speechmaking early. His memory had always been prodigious; at the age of five he was learning Bible passages by heart. At the age of fourteen he travelled across Georgia on a bus to compete in a public speaking contest. On the way home to Atlanta, the white driver ordered Martin, a ‘black son-of-a-bitch’, and his teacher Sarah Bradley to give up their seats when whites got on the bus. Ms Bradley eventually persuaded Martin to comply. The incident stayed with King, who later recalled that he had never in his life been more angry. But he had also won the speaking contest.
Perhaps it was this experience that motivated him to get involved in the Rosa Parks case. On December 1st
, 1955, a 42-year old woman named Rosa Parks found a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus after work. Segregation laws at the time stated blacks must sit in designated seats at the back of the bus, and Parks had complied. When a white man got on the bus and couldn’t find a seat in the white section at the front of the bus, the bus driver instructed Parks and three other blacks to give up their seats. Parks refused and was arrested.
As word of her arrest ignited outrage and support, Parks unwittingly became the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement.” Black community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) led by Baptist minister Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, a role which would place him front and centre in the fight for civil rights. Parks’ courage incited the MIA to stage a boycott of the Montgomery bus system that lasted over a year until segregated seating was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Arguably one of the most famous events of the civil rights movement took place on August 28, 1963: the March on Washington. It was organised and attended by civil right leaders such as A Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Dr King. More than 250,000 people, black and white, congregated in the nation’s capital for the peaceful march with the main purpose of forcing civil rights legislation and establishing job equality for everyone.
None of the protagonists wanted to speak last. They all thought that by then the news crews would have long gone. Dr King, who always prepared thoroughly for any sermon or speech, agreed to go last and he was restricted to just four minutes. In fact he was to speak for an hour in a speech that ebbed and flowed with improvisation. But nearing the end he realised that his conclusion was weak. Normally meticulous preparation would iron out every wrinkle. Here there were plenty of wrinkles but this was easily the finest speech he ever gave. Here he wasn’t just speaking to a church congregation but to an audience of a quarter of a million people and millions more at home watching him live on every TV network.
He paused, not for dramatic effect but searching for the right conclusion. “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,’ yelled the singer Mahalia Jackson. It was a reference to something Dr King had been talking about over the previous months as he preached to church congregations – a dream of a better future, in which whites and blacks lived in harmony.
He spoke of his dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, that ‘one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood….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’.
These impromptu words provided the conclusion to a speech that shook the twentieth century. That speech would forever be known as ‘I Have a Dream’.
It quickly became a slogan for equality and freedom. Many people believe that this speech, and the worldwide reaction to it, led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, legislation initiated by President John F. Kennedy before his assassination. Dr King and other civil rights activists witnessed the signing. The law guaranteed equal employment for all, limited use of voter literacy tests and allowed federal authorities to ensure public facilities were integrated.
On October 14, 1964 Dr King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance.
On March 7, 1965, the civil rights movement in Alabama took an especially violent turn as 600 peaceful demonstrators participated in the Selma to Montgomery march to protest the killing of a black civil rights activist by a white police officer and encourage legislation to enforce the 15th
amendment. As they neared the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were blocked by Alabama state and local police. Refusing to stand down, protestors moved forward and were viciously beaten and teargassed by police and dozens of protestors were hospitalised. The entire incident was televised and became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Some activists wanted to retaliate with violence, but Dr King pushed for nonviolent protests and eventually gained federal protection for another march.
Again the effect on national public opinion was profound. On August 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act which took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 several steps further. The new law banned all voter literacy tests and provided the use of federal examiners in certain voting jurisdictions. It also allowed the attorney general to contest state and local poll taxes. As a result, poll taxes were later declared unconstitutional in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections
The riots that followed Dr King’s assassination across 102 cities in America put even more pressure on the Johnson administration to push through additional civil rights legislation. The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, just a week after King’s assassination. It prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion. It was also the last legislation enacted during the civil rights era.
I no longer have my essay and can’t pretend to remember everything I said. But I do recall vividly another experience in that fateful year. As we approached the end of term and looked forward to our graduation ceremony in June the school arranged a series of visiting lecturers on subjects of general interest. One stood out. Lester Cannon was a member of the Black Panther movement. The concept of Black Power had been developed and in measured but forceful tones Mr. Cannon kindly informed us that unless much more progress was made then “This country will burn, baby.”
He was addressing a group of almost entirely prosperous middle class white young men. Of course, the year before in the summer of 1967 there had been violent rioting in cities like Detroit and Los Angeles but they seemed more random. My Cannon was talking about something planned. That it did not happen is in my opinion down to the success that Dr Martin Luther King Jnr and his colleagues had demonstrated with nonviolent protest. On the other hand Dr King’s work remains unfinished.