From 1865 to 1968 huge accomplishments had been achieved by African Americans in sport, literature, entertainment, and other areas. In spite of this, segregation still prevailed in the southern states. Martin Luther King, during the 1950s and 1960s, campaigned for the Civil Rights Movement on two premises; through peaceful demonstration and through (to fill). Seen by many as the most influential through the past century, he has to be measured in context of the era. The effect he had is believed to be the Second Reconstruction; the Reconstruction had been imposed on the South during the Civil War. There are two schools of thought: The Great Man Theory or the Grassroots perspective. The Great Man Theory argues that minority influence has ‘top down’ change, meaning the impact of influential men is due to their charisma and intelligence, that when used in a particular way has monumental historical impact. An example of a Great Man historian is James A Colaiaco who put forward the view that “The civil rights movement had found its greatest leader and most inspirational orator.” From this perspective many Great Man historians view Martin Luther King as the figurehead of outstanding change. However, arguing from a social perspective, minority influence has ‘bottom up’ change. This means less celebrated figures affected the Civil Rights movement from the bottom of the hierarchy, whereas, King was a great orator and had an audience.
By challenging the significance of Martin Luther King from a social perspective, one can be retroactive and gain deeper knowledge of the many Grassroots activists prior to King and recognise their contribution in the fight for civil rights. A prime example of this was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. While Martin Luther King played a role in this event, the major change was due to the people, rather than the orator himself. 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’. When regarding non-violent leaders, one has to note the number of activists who believed the best way to make a difference was through violent protests. For example, Marcus Garvey and his work during the 1920s and how his legacy inspired the work of Malcolm X in the late 1950s and 1960s. 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. 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 was the face of the people, 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. After his being placed in the political limelight at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King realised that while socially a large following was important to spread his message, he 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, 60000 of whom were white. Here he delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, where he spoke for legal racial equality.
The religious sermon ‘equated the civil rights movement with the highest and noblest ideals of the American tradition’. The effect of this moving speech, allowed the population to understand the gravity of racial harmony and equality making it incredibly valuable. The tone of the speech reminded the thousands of people listening of every black slave and what they were campaigning for. This was a symbolic act as he was standing on Lincoln’s memorial who defeated the south over slavery during the Civil War. Furthermore, within his speech, King left a legacy of Christianity building an even larger audience, especially in the south. This speech represented the collective, King was speaking for them through their dreams for equality, strengthening the source significantly.
This was a major achievement because the civil rights movement achieved its greatest successes. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which banned segregation in public areas and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. 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.

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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. Therefore, 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, emphasises the role of the federal government and less celebrated leading figures who affected the movement over the century. This suggests that even though Martin Luther King played the face of the Civil rights movement, he did not 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, over a century 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’ was written because African American people were ‘regarded as an inferior creation’. Darwin T. Turner suggested that DuBois used literature to enforcee his ‘social, political and economic ideas’, which is shown through the poem. DuBois argued for the oppressed community and their struggles while being persecuted by the caucasian population and 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’ showing how bitter and angry the black community. This tone 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. Through his poem, W.E.B Du Bois was enforcing the fears of the entire black 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. 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, causing the increase of grassroot activism.

Since the Reconstruction, there have been grassroot activists whose contribution is significantly overlooked and unreported yet they solidified the civil rights movement. From a social perspective, these local communities were the most important in shifting ideology. However, since the spotlight was not shone upon these events, the effects ‘must have seemed undramatic’. However, Charles M. Payne further argued that grassroot organisations were ‘slowly developing’. A prime example of a grassroots event 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. However, this event would not have succeeded in the same way without the spotlight given by Martin Luther King. On the 5th of December 1955, a group of black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected King as president. The boycott was a major political success for King, who developed a larger political standing and cement his beliefs of non-violent resistance. The effects that King’s power had on the outcome 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. Martin Luther King’s publicity made every event he was attached to that was originally a grassroots campaign, have unfair representation, but gave the event the attention that it needed. However, from a political perspective, King needed to influence government.

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. 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. When arguing over Lincoln’s legacy, one has to mention Frederick Douglass, a black slave who worked with LIncoln to abolish slavery. 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 properly enforced, therefore, these newly freed slaves lost any security they did have and now had to provide for themselves. While this was problematic and Johnson refused to continue Lincoln’s work, in the long term, the work that Lincoln and Douglass did set the foundations for the future; without the abolition of slavery and the amendments to the law, Martin Luther King and the other leaders would not have had the chance to continue changing society. 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 law since Reconstruction’. Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, approximately 55% of eligible Black people gained the vote in Mississippi.
The tone that is presented within the quotation (source 3) is of respect. Over the time the two men worked together, Lincoln’s ‘respect for back troops increased considerably’. In the short term this friendship influenced those who saw the two interacting and therefore, influence the whole population. The quote actually took place in front of two police officers whose ‘jaws dropped’ when they saw the interaction. This makes the source highly valuable because one can understand that even in 1865 society was changing and people had more ‘radical’ views. This further supports the argument that Martin Luther King was only helpful at the very end of the Civil Rights Movement and bringing the entire event to a climax. The government was mostly useful during the period of reconstruction and around a century later when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.

To conclude, the legacy left by King, the input through his non-violent ideology and his world-renowned speeches lead people to agree with the Great Man debate. It cannot be denied that he was a national spokesperson and gained vast amounts of media attention; he was the figurehead of civil rights. However, one cannot ignore the amount of work that went into the civil rights movement before King. The Grassroot activists, government and other leaders were present much longer than Martin Luther King but do not get the same recognition. From a socialist perspective, one could argue that the most significant individual was the legacy that Lincoln left behind, supported by Frederick Douglass. Compared to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the work of WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King was limited in power. While Malcolm X had many weaknesses, he became the face of rebellion, whereas, Martin Luther King’s ‘de jure’ legislative achievements were only ‘paper victories. Therefore, while Martin Luther King was successful in helping improve the political standing of the advancement of African American Civil Rights, it is unfair to say that he is the most significant figure. Each person or group throughout the period had their own successes and weaknesses; Lincoln had a legacy that lasted over a century, Douglass became a “role model not only to blacks and whites, but to all people everywhere”. The grassroots activists were the faceless soldiers that fought, laying down the path that Martin Luther King could walk across to take the award. Therefore, 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.


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