Weekly Feature

martin luther king speech, reverend martin luther king, mlk, mlk speech
Associated Press
Martin Luther King Jr.

The Civil Rights Era: Seed of a Movement

February 08, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
The difference between 1964 and today is the difference between the words possible and permissible; between “allowed to do” and “capable of doing.” A lot has changed for the better, as evidenced by the election of America's first black president, Barack Hussein Obama. Join us as we explore the origins of and events that characterized the Civil Rights Movement and how it shaped contemporary American culture. This is part one of a series.

Inheriting Jim Crow

The Jim Crow era, as it came to be known, was the time period between the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Jim Crow was the name of a character in a minstrel song, and became simply the “namesake of an American system of discrimination and segregation.” The PBS show “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” and its accompanying Web site addresses the government’s philosophies and legislation during the period, including symbolic Supreme Court cases like Buchanan v. Warley, which struck down a Kentucky segregation law. Interactive maps lead us through migration, higher education, riots, and litigation from the 1830s to the 1950s.

The essay “Resisting Jim Crow,” explores the various peaceful, nonpolitical methods of resistance, including religion, music, literature and legal challenges, that African-Americans used to forward their effort toward equal civil rights.

A History of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr. was descended from several Baptist preachers. One of his earliest influences was Mahatma Gandhi, whose teachings King first discovered while studying at the Crozer Theological Seminary. It was Gandhi’s emphasis on nonviolent protest that most influenced King, even prompting him to travel to India, where he studied the intersection of civil disobedience and nonviolence. Infoplease has a timeline of this early period of King’s activism.

The King Encyclopedia’s entry on Mahatma Gandhi illuminates the profound effect of Gandhi’s thought on King, and also provides insight into the many reasons Gandhi was such a revolutionary peacemaker.

Another of King’s influences was Frederick Douglass, called the “forefather of the civil rights movement.” An activist and former slave, Douglass was a key figure in the journey from emancipation to desegregation.

The Thoreau Connection

As a student, King read Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau was a strong advocate of abolition; he openly refused to pay taxes to protest a government that refused to abolish slavery and was engaged in war with Mexico. In the essay, Thoreau explained his theory of the individual as social savior, greater than any collective group.

As Art and Culture explains in its profile of Thoreau, the essay was adopted by Gandhi as a platform for India’s independence, and was also used as something of a handbook by the resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

In Conference

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, was perhaps the most important civil rights group of the first half of the 20th century. Its leaders included W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of its magazine. The group’s involvement in the legal system, where it won several cases against segregation, is crucial in understanding the environment and the potential that King and others inherited.

The Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1956 led Bayard Rustin, one of Dr. King’s top advisers, to believe that leaders and other activists needed an organizing body for such events. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed and became an incubator of change. The SCLC brought Dr. King's message to an enormous audience, inspiring many to see that “nonviolent direct action and protests, like the boycott, might succeed in battles against segregation."

The Role of Religion

Dr. King’s lineage of Baptist preachers meant, and King said this himself, that it was practically inevitable that he became a preacher himself. The Seattle Times studies King in its commemorative 2006 article, showing how the 25-year-old pastor’s work at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, including his “34-point plan” for the church, foreshadowed his energetic campaign for civil rights.

Most Recent Features