Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
In just under 13 years, the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until 1968, made huge strides in improving racial equality in America. Often led by a man who helped break the barriers which held people back over the prior 350 years. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement is a story of overcoming adversity, and helping all people achieve a level of dignity previously not imagined.
The civil rights movement in America began as early as the 1830’s, through the growing influence of evangelical religion. The religious fervor and its moral imperative determined its vision had to include emancipation of all people of color. The preaching of Lyman Beecher and Nathaniel Taylor in New England through various religious revivals, began in Western New York state in 1824 under Charles G. Finney and swept across the north.
The abolitionists were often denounced and abused. Mobs attacked them in the North; Southerners burned antislavery pamphlets and in some areas excluded them from the mails. Congress imposed the gag rule to avoid considering their petitions. These actions, and the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837, led many to fear for their constitutional rights. Abolitionists and antislavery sentiment spread rapidly in the North. By 1838, more than 1,350 antislavery societies existed with almost 250,000 members, including many women.
An antislavery lobby was organized in 1842, and its influence grew under Theodore D. Weld among others. One of the principle and influential orators of the time was a former slave, Frederick Douglass. His influence in the advancement of civil rights started in the 1840’s and continued with the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. More restrictive fugitive slave laws in 1850 increased abolitionist activity using the Underground Railroad and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Kansas and Missouri compromises aroused both abolitionists in the North and slave owners in the South. The defining moment in extreme abolitionism occurred in the raid of John Brown on Harper’s Ferry. The advent of the Civil War hastened abolitionist demands for immediate freeing of the slaves. Frederick Douglass pressed Republicans in Congress and the President Lincoln to do something to aid the movement; this influenced him in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
By the 1860 U.S. census, the slave population in the United States was around four million. After the assassination of President Lincoln, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect, abolished slavery throughout the U.S. including slavery among the Indian tribes. Despite the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, civil rights slowed to a crawl and in some instances took several steps backward. During the early 1900s, state legislatures were dominated by white Democrats. Many southern states ratified new constitutions and created barriers to voter registration with more complex election rules. Black voter registration and turnout dropped markedly in the South as a result. Men who had been voting for thirty years were told they did not “qualify” to register.
A race riot in 1908 in Springfield, Illinois, highlighted the urgent need for an effective civil rights organization in the U.S. This event became the catalyst for formation of the NAACP. Mary White Ovington, journalist William English Walling and Henry Moskowitz met in New York City in January 1909 and the NAACP was born. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People elected its first officers:
✧▫ National President, Moorfield Storey, Boston
✧▫ Chairman of the Executive Committee, William English Walling
✧▫ Treasurer, John E. Milholland, New York
✧▫ Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard
✧▫ Executive Secretary, Frances Blascoer
✧▫ Director of Publicity and Research, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois.
Interestingly at its founding, the NAACP had only one African-American on its executive board, Dr. Du Bois. It did not elect a black president until 1975, up until that time it was largely supported by Jewish Americans. As a member of the Princeton chapter of the NAACP, Albert Einstein corresponded with Du Bois, and in 1946 Einstein called racism “America’s worst disease”
By the 1950’s, the civil rights movement was frustrated by the return of many American G.I.s to a continuing system of discrimination, racial segregation, education, voter disenfranchisement, lynchings and in federal government hiring policy. All of this became a catalyst to marches and boycotts and many steps towards trying to gain wide-spread public recognition.
There were many great leaders who emerged from that period but one stands out amongst them, Martin Luther King Jr. The message of non-violence advocated by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders was a difficult pill to swallow for many, but he realized the hope and dreams of improving people wasn’t going to gain permanency through violence. He understood the lessons from history and people and that is his crowning achievement.
His vision of human improvement extended beyond recognition of all people are born equal with rights that no government should be allowed to suppress. in April of 1967 he delivered a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Excerpts:
“I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values….When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered…”
“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as His divine messianic force to be — a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America: ‘You are too arrogant! If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power”.
He may have been more than just a leader in his time, he may have also been a prophet.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
✧✧✧January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968
- About Dr. King (The King Center)
- Civil Rights Movement & Dr. King (Seattle Times)
- Civil Rights Timeline (InfoPlease)
- Dr. Martin Luther King (Nobel Peace Prize)
- NAACP (home page)
- Beyond Vietnam (Riverside Church NY April 4, 1967)