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Confluence of ThoughtMohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.$

Bidyut Chakrabarty

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199951215

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199951215.001.0001

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Challenging Jim Crow: King’s Approach to Racial Discrimination

Challenging Jim Crow: King’s Approach to Racial Discrimination

(p.154) Chapter 4 Challenging Jim Crow: King’s Approach to Racial Discrimination
Confluence of Thought

Bidyut Chakrabarty

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter is about those political movements in which King had participated. Beginning with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Strike, the chapter makes a threadbare analysis of the series of non-violent movements that became most critical during the era of civil rights campaign in the US. What had begun in Montgomery was further pursued in the 1963 Birmingham campaign, the 1963 Washington March and 1965 movement in Selma against racial segregation. An era of sustained mass militancy over civil rights issues came to an end with the acceptance of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Two movements in which King had participated create a history because while the 1963 Birmingham campaign led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Selma upsurge culminated in guaranteeing voting rights to the hitherto disenfranchised Negroes of the South.

Keywords:   Rosa Parks, Jim Crow, Racism, NAACP, Washington March, Pacifists

Despite being born in two completely different locations, both Gandhi and King confronted racial discrimination in its most brutal form—Gandhi in South Africa, where it was clearly contrary to philosophically justified British liberalism, and King in the United States, the country of liberty, fraternity, and equality. The Jim Crow laws of segregation were, for King, clearly at variance with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. For King, the continuity of the legally sanctioned discriminatory practices not only threatened the foundational basis of the state in America, it also considerably weakened its claim of being liberal. It was thus natural for King, just like Gandhi, to oppose the system of segregation because it was hardly justified in the light of the basic canons of American democracy.

King had a very protected life when he was young. He was nurtured by a family that instilled in him the finer values of love, compassion, and empathy for others. As he elaborated in his Autobiography,

[I]t was quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.1

(p.155) He was influenced by his father, who was a pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. As the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta, he led a campaign in Atlanta “to equalize teachers’ salary” and was also instrumental “in the elimination of Jim Crow elevators in the courthouse.”2

At the same time, King also faced many adversities. When he was six, he was slapped by a white lady in Atlanta’s downtown because, as the lady shouted at him, he was “that nigger that stepped on her foot.” He absorbed the shock because that was “instinctive of the blacks, raised in the atmosphere of segregation.”3 He experienced the pang of racial discrimination while traveling to Booker T. Washington School as he was not allowed to sit in the front of the bus, which was reserved for the white students. He felt miserable, though helpless, because of the circumstances in which blacks tended to accept humiliation as part of their being. Unable to accept racial segregation, the fourteen-year-old King thus wrote in an essay—“The Negro and the Constitution”—that

we cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one-tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harbouring germs of disease which recognize no color lines—obey no Jim Crow laws…. Let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity [so that] the spirit of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments [is] translated into actuality.4

This was King’s first articulated response to the Jim Crow laws of discrimination.

Both Gandhi and King suffered humiliation because of color prejudices. What is striking is the fact that the systemic humiliation to which they were subjected left an indelible imprint in their minds. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that these incidents made them strong in their determination to fight against racism and injustice. Gandhi graphically illustrated how he was insulted while he was traveling in a train in South Africa:

The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal…. A passenger came and looked at me up and down. He saw that I was “a coloured man.” That disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, “come along, you must go to the van compartment.” “But I have a first class ticket,” said I. “That does not matter,” rejoined the other. “I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.” “I tell you [Gandhi added], I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.” “No, you won’t,” said the official. “You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out.” “Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily,” [said Gandhi]. The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat in (p.156) the waiting room keeping my hand-bag with me leaving the other luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.

It was winter, and winter in the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold. Maritzburg being at a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered.5

This incident was a watershed moment in Gandhi’s political life. Out of such humiliation emerged a different Gandhi, one resolved to plunge into action as perhaps the only option to eradicate the evils of racism. As he argued, while he was in the cold waiting room in Maritzburg,

I began to think of my duty. Should I fight for my rights or go back to India or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case. It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial—only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice.6

The Maritzburg incident brought before Gandhi the devastating nature of racism, which was ruthlessly practised by a section of humanity at the cost of a majority. This led to the rise of the rebel Gandhi, who failed to fathom why he was discriminated against despite being a subject of the same empire as the South Africans. Instead of absorbing the shock, he decided to combat the color prejudices politically “to root out the disease of color prejudice” completely.

King faced the same plight in his home state of Georgia, which was racially segregated. While Gandhi suffered the humiliation of color prejudices at the age of twenty-four years, King was only fourteen when he, returning home from a Negro Elks-sponsored oratorical contest with his teacher, Mrs. Bradley, was subjected to such an inhuman ordeal. He won the contest for his speech, ironically entitled “The Negro and the Constitution.” He was applauded by the judges for his lucid language and the strength of the argument. The joy ended with his experience on the bus, as he graphically illustrated:

Anyway, that night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta, and at a small town along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit for him, so he began cursing us, calling us black sons of bitches. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley finally urged me up saying we had to obey the law. And, so we stood up in the aisle for the ninety miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.7

(p.157) On another occasion, an incident involving bigotry and public transportation came even closer to Gandhi’s first experience in South Africa. King had passed the entrance examination to Atlanta’s prestigious Morehouse College, enrolling at the age of fifteen without graduating from high school. To earn money for his college tuition he worked summers on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. He was very happy because of the personal and social freedom that he enjoyed in New England. He had no problem entering by the front doors or sitting wherever he wished in restaurants and theaters, just like the white folks. But the train trip back to Atlanta at the end of the summer drove home to him once more the terrible reality of his situation as a Negro. On this occasion, as the train entered Virginia, King made his way to the dining car to select his seating, as he had done on the way through New York and New Jersey. But the train was in Dixie now, and the waiter led him to a rear table and pulled a curtain down to shield the white passengers from his presence. He sat there staring at that curtain, unable to believe that others could find him so offensive. “I felt,” he mentioned to his friend, “as though the curtain had dropped on my selfhood.”8

Such incidents remained constant references in both Gandhi’s and King’s later lives, as is evident from the way they articulated their sociopolitical ideas. For them, the systemic color prejudices were rooted in a specific mind-set that needed to be combated by nonviolent means. Gandhi never reconciled to the racial abuse to which the Indians in South Africa were subjected. He raised his voice in the Indian Opinion against the way Europeans dubbed Indians as “coolies.” The term “coolie” means porter; Europeans displayed “deliberate contempt” by describing every Indian as a coolie regardless of profession, even referring to “coolie lawyers and coolie traders.”9 On one occasion, a police officer thrashed Gandhi because he mistakenly used the pavement surrounding the Presidential Place in Pretoria for his regular walk.10 Although it was a clear case of racial prejudice as Gandhi was aware that the policeman “no doubt treats Negros as he [treated] me,”11 he decided not to pursue legal redressal because he made it “a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance” despite the assurance of his white companion to stand by him as a witness.12

Gandhi did not have comparable experiences of racism in India, presumably because of the peculiar way in which the British system accommodated educated Indians within its governance. There were segregated areas for the whites in major metropolitan cities and also small towns; but segregation never became a serious individual issue to those fighting for liberation from colonialism. The situation was different for King, who suffered day in and day out because of legally endorsed segregation between blacks and whites in the Southern states. Segregation, as King illustrated, generated “a sense of nobodiness” among the Negros. The color prejudices were so strong that the blacks were not treated as human beings, and there was no alternative but to fight the unjust law. The situation in which the Southern blacks were forced to remain was so appalling that it was impossible for them not to resort to action, because “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair.”13

(p.158) Two fundamental points come out of King’s graphic illustrations of racist torture: first, racial segregation gained sustenance, as a legitimate attitude, from a racially based mind-set that had grown in America since the days of slavery, when slave parents and plantation owners regarded childhood as a time to prepare African American youngsters for the lives they faced as slaves. While whites saw it as a time to teach “efficient work habits and discipline to ensure that black children would grow into ‘good hands,’ slave parents aimed to impart the skills needed to survive enslavement.”14 It was natural for those constrained by the existing racial hierarchy to have accepted racism as part of their being. Racial supremacy was thus politically convenient for the whites, who desired to maintain the existing power relationships. Second, while identifying the roots of racial segregation in a mentality, King became convinced of the natural outbursts of the outcastes because “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever [and] the urge for freedom will eventually come.”15 This realization is what put King a class by himself. Not only did he conceptualize the problem of racial hierarchy, he, like Gandhi, also put forward a probable course of action for redemption. As was true of Gandhi, it was King’s mother who had instilled in him tremendous confidence and self-belief. His mother, reminisced King, “taught [him] that [he] should feel a sense of ‘somebodiness’ to face a system” that was inherently structured to make the African Americans feel “less than and not equal to” the whites.16

By focusing on four major movements in which King was involved—the 1955 Montgomery bus strike, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1963 Birmingham campaign, and the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March—this chapter seeks to bring out the distinctive nonviolent nature of the black civil rights campaign in America. It is true that King’s charismatic leadership worked miracles in these movements, though it was not at all effective in King’s campaign in Albany, Georgia, where he failed to rouse mass support even among the blacks. What complemented King’s leadership was the organizational support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King and his colleagues had founded in 1957 to guide the movement against racial discrimination. As a true liberal, King justified his demands for racial equality as most appropriate because of their cultural roots in African American Christian faith in love and justice and also the American democratic tradition. “We the disinherited of this land,” argued King, “ … are tired of going through the long night of captivity…. We are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom, justice and equality.”17 According to him, the protest for desegregation was completely congruent with the American constitutional and religious traditions, and he thus reiterated, on another occasion, that “no one can scorn non-violent direct action of civil disobedience without canceling out American history.”18

The 1955 Montgomery Bus Strike

One of the most decisive moments in the history of the civil rights movements happened to be the 1955 Montgomery bus strike. The strike was an outcome (p.159) of resentments of the African American community due to racial oppression. As a natural outburst against the Montgomery ordinance, which was adopted in November 1900 and dictated segregation in public transportation,19 the bus strike always remained nonviolent and clearly Gandhian, despite provocation. The protestors’ resolve to remain nonviolent even when confronted with violent harassment drew international attention and catapulted the civil rights movement onto the world stage. In other words, the 1955 bus strike was a watershed moment in the entire struggle against Jim Crow. For the protestors, the discriminatory seating arrangements in public transport were contrary to the core values of American democracy and hence needed to be done away with. What was unique about the movement was its nonviolent nature and the support that it had following Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing to abide by the discriminatory seating arrangement. By challenging the prevalent rules and regulations, the local African Americans articulated a new form of protest for themselves. It was perhaps one of the few successful efforts with a clear agenda and goal. With mass support for the cause, the Montgomery bus strike firmly established nonviolence as an effective strategy for mobilizing the unarmed blacks. The fact that the protest was legitimate and also constitutional seemed to have created and consolidated a base for the campaign that the local African Americans organized.

The Montgomery bus strike began on December 1, 1955, when a local resident, Rosa Parks, was arrested because of her refusal to follow the law of segregation in public transport.20 It was an incident that ignited the fire of protest in a unique way among the blacks and later among a section of local whites, presumably because they viewed the protest as genuine and humane. As an NAACP activist, Parks had suffered humiliation earlier, but was determined to fight at an opportune moment. It is perhaps most natural for victims to raise their voices when faced with unbearable torture, as Parks mentioned in her interviews with the local press after her arrest. She referred to an incident that infuriated her long before the famous Montgomery refusal. In early 1943, while attempting to register to vote, she discovered that “exercising her right as an American meant surmounting a series of deliberate bureaucratic obstacles.”21 For instance, it was deliberate on the part of the council not to leave sufficient time before announcing the schedule of voter registration. The goal was to discourage blacks, who had less access to such information, from registering. Furthermore, registration was scheduled between 10 a.m. and noon, when white employers refused to let their black workers off work. It was also evident that registration officers usually took longer to complete the paperwork for blacks, limiting the number who could register on any given day. Parks failed to register after making two attempts. As a devoted Christian, she always prayed to God for courage and mental strength to withstand humiliation. On her second attempt, in November 1943, she experienced a vexatious ordeal in public transport involving a bus driver named James F. Blake, who would play an even larger role in her life a dozen years later in Montgomery. Although the Jim Crow laws provided for clearly demarcated public areas for whites and colored people, the bus system in the South seemed to follow “a byzantine set of rules, made more confusing by the bus of the individual (p.160) drivers.” In Montgomery, out of thirty-six seats in the bus, the ten seats farthest toward the back of the buses were unofficially designated for blacks—unless there were white passengers to occupy them. As for the sixteen seats in the middle of the bus, individual drivers imposed their own segregation rules at random and enforced them “with the threat of the pistols they always carried.”22 Though clearly unfair, the system persisted in Montgomery because the blacks “learned to forego the middle seats or at least to give them up to any white person on board.” Many drivers made blacks pay their fares tat the front door, then get-off and re-enter the bus through the back door. It was, Parks mentioned, “a form of everyday public humiliation in apartheid Montgomery.” She further stated that “some bus drivers were meaner than others [though] not all of them were hateful.” Nonetheless, “segregation itself is vicious, and … there was no way you could make segregation decent or nice or acceptable.”23

In this fateful journey for voter registration, Rosa Parks confronted James F. Blake, who derived tremendous pleasure from spitting tobacco juice out of his bus window and cursing at “niggers” just for the fun of it. His favorite sport was, Parks remembered, “making African-Americans pay in the front of the bus and walk back to board in the rear, then leaving them with a face full of exhaust as he [sped] the bus away before they could get-in.”24 On that November afternoon, she boarded the bus through the front door and refused to exit as Blake requested because the rear door was jammed with African American passengers. Blake fumed and shouted at her saying that if she was unable to re-enter by the back door she should leave the bus entirely. Her defiance annoyed him so much that he held Parks’s coat sleeve to push her physically from the bus. She remained quiet and asked him not to hit, assuring him that she would leave of her own accord. In response to his abusive instruction—“get off my bus”—Rosa responded “by intentionally dropping her handbag then plopping [it] down on whites-only seats to retrieve it on her way out, further infuriating the driver.”25

The November encounter was resolved in a peaceful manner when Rosa capitulated to Blake’s demands, though the manner in which she protested reflected nonviolent passive resistance. This incident seems to have charted a course of future action for Rosa Parks and the NAACP. It was a strange coincidence that Blake confronted Rosa Parks again, in December 1955, twelve years after this November encounter. Though Blake drove buses in Montgomery, Parks avoided getting onto any bus that he was driving. It has been argued that the momentous December incident took place when Parks “absentmindedly” boarded Blake’s bus, and that her act of civil disobedience was “partly the result of her personal revulsion of a particular driver.”26

On that fateful afternoon of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded the bus, which had just one empty seat in the row immediately behind the section reserved for whites. The rear seats, meant for the blacks, were already taken. Rosa therefore took the seat that was available. At a later stop, several other passengers boarded and one white passenger was left standing in the aisle. The driver, in order to provide a seat to the white man, asked those seated behind the white section to give up their seats; three of them immediately heeded the instruction (p.161) while Rosa Parks refused. As she recollected, “I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand-up. I told him, no. I wasn’t. He then said, well if you don’t stand up, I am going to have you arrested. I told him to go on and have me arrested.”27 The driver asked the police for intervention, and Parks was arrested, even though she had paid the fare and hence had a legitimate right to the seat. Her arrest started an unprecedented nonviolent movement in Montgomery.

The arrest had a snowball effect on the community of blacks. Once the Montgomery women’s council resolved to go ahead with a bus boycott as a protest against such humiliation, E. D. Nixon28 and his colleagues in the local NAACP joined. Nixon was very popular and he persuaded his colleagues to support the campaign, particularly as the city was small enough that one could avoid needing to use public transport. He sought to make it a national issue and contacted black ministers of national reputation elsewhere; he approached Martin Luther King Jr., though he was not as quick to extend his support as colleagues including Ralph D. Abernathy and H. H. Hubbard. King’s involvement radically altered the complexion of the movement. When King joined the movement instantly became a national campaign. The strike brought the city of Montgomery to a standstill with its circular requesting Montgomery blacks “not to ride the bus to work, to town, to school, to anyplace.”29 As true liberals, the NAACP leadership “offered to send a delegation to discuss blacks’ grievances with the bus company, and specifically abjured the use of any unlawful means or any intimidation to persuade persons not to ride the buses.”30 Protestors joined the strike spontaneously. King, when he cruised down every major street and examined every passing bus, found that most of the buses were empty except for a few white passengers. A zealous King thus pronounced that “instead of the 60 percent cooperation we had hoped for, it was becoming apparent that we had reached almost 100 percent. A miracle had taken place: the once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.”31 It was a complete boycott because every Negro taxi community in Montgomery had also agreed to support the protest. The success was largely an outcome of mass resentment against the age-old and oppressive system of segregation.

The 1955 Montgomery bus strike was one of those efforts in which King successfully mobilized the victims of racism against the visible forms of oppression. In his Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,32 which is “an account of a few years that changed the life of Southern community,” King put on record his own views on this movement by saying that

… it is the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of non-violence, who learned to fight for rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their human worth…. It is the story of the Negro leaders of many faiths and divided allegiances, who came together in the bond of a cause they knew was right. And, of the Negro followers, many of them beyond middle age, who walked to work and (p.162) home again, as much as twelve miles a day for a year rather than submit to the discourtesies and humiliation of segregated buses.33

According to King, the movement was spontaneous, and people participated to register their protest over the deliberate distortions of the liberal values that the founding fathers held so dear. The majority of the Negroes who, argued King, “took part in the year-long boycott of Montgomery’s buses were poor and untutored, but they understood the essence of the Montgomery movement.”34 He defined Rosa Parks’s defiance as “an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom.” She was not planted, he further argued, “by the NAACP or any other organization, she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect; she was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and destiny, backed by the Zeitgeist, or the spirit of time.”35 As one who employed religion for political mobilization, King also underlined the Christian identity of Rosa Parks, who became a strong voice of protest because of her “Christian commitment and devotion to Jesus,”36 which naturally attracted people of the same religious denomination.

Like Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa, King’s “stride toward freedom” represented a serious effort not only to put on record the entire event, but also to articulate meaningfully and to reiterate some of the major ideological strands of nonviolent civil resistance that it launched. Both redefined prevalent modes of the struggle against injustice, to which the participation of victims had remained peripheral in the past. Montgomery was strategically important since, as Bayard Rustin pointed out, without a victory at Montgomery, “the southern protest movement, then showing its first signs of life, would [have] die[d] stillborn.”37

As a result of the Montgomery bus strike, the US Supreme Court affirmed a decision of a special three-judge US district court that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. The bus strike made six things clear. First, the movement was a natural reaction to the well-entrenched racial prejudices confronting African Americans in America. It had grown out of many experiences that “have often been humiliating and have led to deep resentment.” The Negroes constituted about 75 percent of bus riders in Montgomery. Yet they faced conditions that caused “a great deal of embarrassment [including] the very humiliating experience of being arrested for refusing to give up seats to a white passenger.”38 Second, the Montgomery bus strike translated King’s conceptualization of nonviolent civil resistance into reality. Despite provocation, even to the extent where detractors bombed King’s house, the campaign remained nonviolent, since “love is,” declared King, “our great instrument and our great weapon, and that alone.” While challenging violence, which “creates many more problems than it solves,” he further stated that “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”39 Third, the Montgomery bus strike confirmed King’s undiluted faith in nonviolence. It was at this time that the Gandhian emphasis “on love and non-violence” became most effective in King’s campaign against racial segregation. The protest, which was absolutely nonviolent, was articulated in a democratic fashion. (p.163) It was never allowed to phase out, since King and his colleagues “sought relief for the complaints within the framework of law.” Instead of attacking the laws, they requested that the government consider their demand sympathetically. By denying Negroes even the right to be heard, the bus segregation was contrary to democracy, which guaranteed each citizen “equal opportunity and privileges to enjoy the benefits of what service he is able to pay for, so long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others.”40 Fourth, the bus strike was the last option under the circumstances since “the rights of the Negroes have been infringed upon repeatedly.” So, the strike was a legitimate form of protest to achieve “ a fair, just and honorable settlement of a contentious issue.”41 Fifth, for the Negroes, the Montgomery strike was not at all an outcome of racial bitterness against the whites. As King elaborated, “[T]he tension in Montgomery is not between seventy thousand whites and fifty thousand Negroes; the tension is at bottom a tension between justice and injustice…. If there is a victory for integration in America, it will not merely be a victory for sixteen million Negroes, but it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.”42 What is evident here is King’s unflinching faith in American democracy and political liberalism. He was thus persuaded to believe that a solution to the race imbroglio was likely to be found within the available liberal parameters. Finally, despite being critical of the white Christians, King did not appear to have lost faith in Christianity. He was a true Christian seeking to address race relations from a Christian point of view. Hence he confidently stated that “we must keep … God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions [and only then] we can realize the true meaning of love and justice, the kernel of Christianity.”43 So committed was King to biblical values that he, on another occasion, declared that “we live in a Christian community in which brotherhood and neighborliness should prevail among all the people. We can rely on these principles to guide those in authority and other people of influence to see that the Christian way is the only way of reaching a satisfactory solution to the problem.”44 Unlike Gandhi, who employed religion strategically because of India’s peculiar sociological complexion, King utilized religious affiliation to build and consolidate among blacks the campaign against racial discrimination. It was therefore not odd for King to highlight the religious identity of Rosa Parks or the citizens of Montgomery while appreciating their contribution to the movement against racial segregation.

The 1955 Montgomery bus strike was a watershed moment in King’s political career not only because it gave him a chance to articulate his ideology of nonviolence, but also because it allowed him to project an alternative discourse by drawing upon Christian ethics and the Gandhian method of civil disobedience. Also, much like Gandhi, who established the Natal Congress as an organization to challenge the state, King founded the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in 1955 to pursue his ideological goal. It was an intelligent step on his part to involve the local people whose support was most critical in sustaining the movement. King pursued two alternative methods of spreading the movement and engaging with the cause and those who held it high: he not only attacked segregation through a series of mass meetings and rallies, he also (p.164) sought to inspire the local African Americans by reference to their contribution to America’s growth as a nation. While evolving such a technique, he was indebted to the evangelist Billy Graham, who helped King prepare the groundwork for the movement by compiling mailing lists, enlisting church sponsors and volunteer groups, arranging publicity campaigns, and creating special bus routes.45

Notwithstanding MIA’s role in Montgomery, King attributed the success of the bus strike to “the rise of a new Negro with a new sense of dignity and destiny. Montgomery had broken the spell of Negroes being unworthy [and was] ushering in concrete manifestations of the thinking and action of the new Negro.”46 As King himself explained,

The story of Montgomery is the story of 50,000 Negroes who are tired of injustices and oppression, and who are willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk and walk until the walls of injustice are crushed by the battering rams of historical necessity. This is the new Negro47 … ready to sacrifice his life to challenge segregation … which is a cancer in the body politic [that] must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.48

While the protests in Montgomery marked a resurgence of the Negroes as a community willing to challenge racial discrimination in the Southern states, the US Supreme Court seemed to have been favorably disposed toward the Negroes as well. In its famous Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954, the Supreme Court reversed the equally famous 1896 verdict of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of separate-but-equal as the law of the land. Under this doctrine, equality of treatment was accorded when the races are provided substantial equal facilities, even though these facilities remain separate. The 1954 Brown case challenged the doctrine by arguing that “segregation with the sanction of law has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”49 The Supreme Court, felt King, “gave a death blow to the old Plessy doctrine, insisting that separate facilities are inherently unequal and to segregate a child because of his race is to deny him the equal protection of the law.”50 The Supreme Court ruled that segregation was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment reiterated the 1866 Civil Rights Act by endorsing that “all persons born in the United States [regardless of race] … were citizens and were to be given full and equal benefit of all laws.”51 The institutions of power thus created circumstances conducive to the Negro cause of racial equality.

The Montgomery movement attained success partly because of King’s charismatic leadership, which swayed African Americans to support the bus boycott, and partly because of his colleagues, who worked from behind the scenes to sustain the daily momentum for more than a year. While dwelling on the Montgomery bus strike, Bayard Rustin provided perhaps the most persuasive description by focusing on the specific nature of the movement, which was a (p.165) class by itself given its historical and sociological roots and the psychological involvement of its participants. It became a monumental event in the history of the civil rights movement because, as Rustin viewed, following the Montgomery bus strike, “the centre of gravity and the centre of activity for the whole civil rights movement was [sic] the church people and ministers of the south.”52 In his communication of December 23, 1956, with King, Rustin attributed the success of the movement to the following three factors: first, the movement involved all social strata of blacks, who came forward because the boycott not only gave them an instrument of empowerment, it also created the possibility of a bright future with the removal of the Jim Crow laws of segregation. “The fellowship, the ideals, the joy of sacrifice for others and other varied features of the movement have,” argued Rustin, the most prominent force behind the MIA, “given people something to belong to which had the inspiring power of the Minute Men, the Sons of Liberty, and other organized forms which were products of an earlier American era of fundamental change.”53 Second, the nonviolent nature of the movement, in which the enemy was treated with equal respect, won the heart of the opponents. What was critical in the success of the Montgomery strike was a combination of factors, including unity among the blacks, intelligent planning, and a high level of moral and ethical motivation. That the strikers had no “hatred” or “ill-feeling” toward the perpetrators of racism seemed to have radically altered the perception of the whites who participated and appeared to have learned “the value of being together.” Montgomery remained an important event in America’s social life, which, felt Rustin, “contributed to the mental health and growth of the white man’s mental health, and thus to the entire nation.”54 Finally, the success of the Montgomery strike would not have been possible without the active participation of the local inhabitants who, with their commitment and dedication to the cause, never allowed the movement to die down. This was unique because the role of leadership was confined to providing ideological direction, while local activists provided perhaps the most useful services to the campaign and its cause by sustaining the momentum in the day-to-day struggle.

Besides catapulting King onto the center stage, the Montgomery bus strike is also remembered for “[t]he strong sense of unity and purpose exhibited by the Negro community, the ability of the black citizens to sustain the boycott through month after weary month [and] their renewed determination in the face of violence.”55 With mass participation in the boycott of public transport, the Montgomery bus strike set in motion a completely different kind of mass movement, argued Rustin, since “the fight of the Negro for integration and equality is a vital component in the fight for common man, Negro and white alike, to realize higher living standards, higher education, and culture and a deeper commitment to moral and ethical principles.”56 The Montgomery movement was thus historically most significant because it had not only given a well-defined sense of identity to the African Americans, it had also “contributed to the movement of America to achieve a nation capable of utilizing impressive industrial might for the benefit of all.”57 It was true that Montgomery heralded a new era in the history of the black political campaign for self-dignity, which remained a casualty (p.166) so long as the Jim Crow laws were effective. According to an eyewitness, the Montgomery protest not only “repudiated the violent machismo of America, it also stirred to awakening another America—the America of Emerson, Thoreau, of the Quakers, of the abolitionists, the America of principle and compassion. A new America was born.”58

It is also true that the 1955 bus strike initiated several new socioeconomic and political processes in America challenging the fundamental issue of discrimination, which was not merely a problem of racism, but one of a specific mind-set supporting the exploitation of human beings by human beings. It is thus argued that during the movement, “the city slipped into a surreal dimension … in which the moderate white opinion was tragically silenced … and any hint of deviation from the white supremacist orthodoxy [invited immediate retaliation] in the form of active harassment and social ostracism.”59 Not only did the whites institutionalize their views through the formation of an organization called Citizens’ Council, they also sought to fulfill their ideological goal by adopting a militant stance that was clearly articulated in a 1959 resolution stating that

we believe that any person who speaks, writes or in any way advocates or works for anything short of total and complete segregation will be ostracized, and will earn and receive the condemnation of the public…. we feel sure that an aroused and informed public will make it unprofitable and uncomfortable for any person to remain in our community if he is not willing to support the will of the community in this matter.”60

Nonetheless, in the changed socioeconomic environment, the white opposition, however strong, was never effective, suggesting perhaps the rise and consolidation of an alternative ideology seeking to champion both Christian ethics and fundamental constitutional principles. With the rescinding of segregation in public transport, the MIA-led Montgomery movement thus proved, beyond doubt, the extent to which the core humane values of Christianity remained adequate in mobilizing people of identical religious allegiance for a common cause. The movement that began with the arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955 thus articulated a voice that was previously peripheral, but gained momentum with the spontaneous participation of the racially segregated and socioeconomically underprivileged African Americans in campaigns against artificially maintained racist discrimination.

There was another dimension that surfaced with the formation of the SCLC and when the black protest movements against segregation became more organized and well-directed. Although King was projected as its leader, his colleagues, especially Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, appeared to have provided the required organizational skill to sustain the organization and consolidate its support base among the blacks and white sympathizers. The first meaningful protest movement under SCLC guidance, the 1955 Montgomery bus strike, actually affected the prevalent social, economic, and political order supporting racial discrimination. It was Rustin who was the main pillar behind the SCLC in the context of the bus strike. To continue the movement against the Jim Crow (p.167) laws in the aftermath of the Montgomery strike, Rustin suggested two specific methods: voting power and mass direct action. It was not easy to augment Negro power through the first method, given the obvious resistance by the whites, who still held substantial authority. Instances abound showing how the Negroes were denied registration as voters on flimsy grounds. At the same time, many blacks lacked interest in voting, which was a further constraint on challenging the white hegemony through liberal means. Hence Rustin submitted that “so long as Negro voters remained too insignificant to influence the outcome of elections, we shall have to rely more and more on mass direct action as the one realistic weapon.”61 They became confident that their success in the 1955 Montgomery bus strike had demonstrated that “the center of gravity ha[d] shifted from the courts to the community action and the leaders should now realize that the people, and not simply their lawyers, could win their own freedom.”62 King seemed persuaded, as his 1957 address to the NAACP revealed, when he echoed Rustin’s concerns by saying that there was a

need to expand the struggle on all fronts. Up to now we have thought of the color question as something which could be solved in and of itself. We know now that while it [is] necessary to say “No” to racial injustice, this must be followed by a positive programme of action: the struggle for the right to vote, for economic uplift of the people. A part of this is the realization that men are truly brothers, that, the Negro cannot be free so long as there are poor and underprivileged people…. Equality for Negroes is related to the greater problem of economic uplift for Negroes and white men, They share a common problem and have a common interest in working together for economic and social uplift, They can and must work together.63

A clear change in King’s perception was thus visible in the aftermath of the 1955 Montgomery bus strike. Despite being critical of racial segregation, he was aware that declaring segregation in public transport illegal was not adequate as long as the majority of the Negroes reeled under severe poverty and remained ignorant of their rights (and also duties) within the liberal democratic framework of American constitutionalism. In order to expand his political horizon, King also talked about the plight of poor whites, who were as oppressed as their black counterparts. Here the influence of labor activists such as Randolph and Rustin was evident. The campaign for civil rights was thus no longer confined to the demands for racial desegregation; it became a movement for radical socio economic changes in which class issues were equally important.

The 1941 March on Washington

The idea of rallies for political purposes was nothing new. A. Philip Randolph, a trade union leader, planned the famous March on Washington of July 1941 when America was getting ready to involve itself in World War II. The purpose of the July march to the capital was to force the government to stop racial (p.168) segregation in the military. This was a strategic moment for Randolph to raise the issue of racial discrimination on behalf of those in the American army. Black veterans of World War I, despite their service, were tormented by Jim Crow laws once they went back to their homes in the Dixie states. The plight of the Negro soldiers remained unchanged because “employers and unions denied them jobs, real estate agents and politicians confined them to ghettoes, and a vast number of whites treated them with deep-rooted antagonism and generally did their best to keep them in permanent misery.”64 This was an immediate source of provocation to the black leadership, which found in this instance another illustration of racial discrimination. The proposed march was to be a challenge to the age-old practices of racial discrimination that had become “lived experiences” of the blacks. Reflecting the black sentiments, the manifesto that Randolph and his colleagues prepared to justify such a confrontation with the Roosevelt government was nothing but a list of demands for racial equality. They are as follows:

  1. 1. We demand in the interest of national unity, the abrogation of every law which makes a distinction in treatment between citizens based on religion, creed, color or national origin. This means an end to Jim Crow in education, in housing, in transportation, and in every other social, economic and political privilege; and especially, we demand, in the capital of the nation, an end to all segregation in public places and in public institutions.

  2. 2. We demand legislation to enforce the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, so that the full weight of the national government may be used for the protection of life and thereby may end the disgrace of lynching.

  3. 3. We demand the enforcement of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the enactment of the Pepper Poll Tax so that all barriers in the exercise of suffrage are eliminated.

  4. 4. We demand the abolition of segregation and discrimination in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Corps and all other branches of national defense.

  5. 5. We demand an end to discrimination in jobs and job training. Further, we demand that the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) be made a permanent administrative agency of the US government and that it be given power to enforce its decisions, based on its findings.

  6. 6. We demand that federal funds be withheld from any agency which practices discrimination in the use of such funds.

  7. 7. We demand colored and minority representation on all administrative agencies so that these groups may have recognition of their democratic right to participate in formulating policies.

  8. 8. We demand representation for the colored and minority racial groups on all missions, political and technical, which will be sent to the peace conference so that the interests of all people everywhere may be fully recognized and justly provided for in the postwar settlement.65 (p.169) Although the March on Washington was called off, the Randolph manifesto still achieved a remarkable victory in the sense that a presidential decree was issued establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee. This move signaled perhaps the first serious federal involvement in the economic interests of the African American community, although the other main issues of racial discrimination—including discrimination in the military—were shelved. It took almost seven years before the Truman Executive Order, in 1948, upheld “equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”66 These orders were hardly adequate to meaningfully combat the well-entrenched structure of exclusion and discrimination that drew sustenance from the Jim Crow laws. Hence Randolph, despite having withdrawn the March on Washington in 1941, carried forward his crusade against the racial othering of the blacks in a series of meetings and rallies in various US cities because “vested political interests in race prejudice are so deeply entrenched that to them winning the war against Hitler is secondary to preventing Negroes from winning democracy for themselves.”67

The March on Washington set in motion a new type of politics that gained momentum over time. Both the March on Washington and the FEPC set out to “rally African-Americans to challenge racial discrimination and generate sufficient political pressure for social change”68 among whites as the legal stipulations proved more cosmetic than effective. In order to fulfill his ideological goal, Randolph held ecumenical and interracial prayer meetings, especially to attract the white, as well as black, religious leaders of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths. The purpose was “to stir the white American community’s public conscience, showing how hatred endangered American democratic and Christian institutions.”69 The other important contribution that Randolph made to the civil rights movement derived from his internalization of the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence. He always believed that nonviolent demonstrations were the only means by which the disenfranchised African Americans could exert their influence on a government that, in its pursuit of a policy of segregation, was unfair to an integral section of the population. Nonviolent demonstration also provided psychological benefits: participation in movements against racism would provide “an outlet for the frustrations of southern blacks and thus minimize the possibility of violence [which would, Randolph feared] dissipate the reservoir of good will, built by the non-violent nature of the southern struggle.”70

The 1963 March on Washington

The second March on Washington, in 1963, was a historic occasion in the civil rights movement in the United States for two important reasons: first, like the first one, which was later withdrawn with the acceptance of some of the demands, the 1963 march attained the goals that it had set out to accomplish. Two major acts—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—were approved, thoroughly challenging segregation and outlawing discrimination based on race (p.170) in education, public accommodations, employment, and any federally funded program. Second, the march remained a historical moment for King, who, through his “I Have a Dream” speech, evolved an ideologically persuasive and politically meaningful conceptual model to challenge racism in particular and sources of human oppression more generally. What is significant in his conceptualization was his sincere commitment to liberalism and nonviolence, which he initially derived from Christian ethics and later from Gandhi.

The story of the second March on Washington followed the same trajectory in the sense that it was Randolph who suggested, to King, the idea of a mass rally early in 1963. King was persuaded to accept the suggestion given the success that the first march had attained even before it was undertaken. The plan was to hold a two-day gathering in Washington, DC, to highlight the economic subordination of the Negroes. As sketched out by Randolph’s close aide and the main pillar of his mammoth organization, Bayard Rustin, the fundamental objective of the 1963 March on Washington was to get rid of racial segregation and to establish economic justice for African Americans. With the disappearance of economic inequality along racist lines and integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and, public accommodation, racial segregation was likely to melt away.71 The aim was to establish equality. Thus, argued Rustin,

our feet are set in the path of equality—economic, political, social and racial. Equality is the heart and, essence of democracy, freedom and justice. Without equality of opportunity in industry, in labor unions, schools and colleges, government, politics and before law, without equality in social relations and in all phases of human endeavor, the Negro is certain to be consigned to an inferior status. There must be no dual standards of justice, no dual rights, privileges, duties or responsibilities of citizens. No dual forms of freedom.72

Ideologically, this march was thus not different from earlier efforts that had challenged the Jim Crow discrimination. Organizationally, it was, however, different in the sense that the 1963 March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations, all of which had different approaches and different agendas—though on this occasion they came together for a common cause, seemingly by underplaying their differences. The Big Six organizers were James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Whitney Young Jr., of the National Urban League (NUL). Supported by a strong coalition of organizations with more or less identical ideological aims, the organizers of the march set out specific demands, which included the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, the elimination of racial segregation in public schools, protection for demonstrators against police brutality, a major public-works program to provide (p.171) jobs regardless of race and color, the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring, a $2 per hour minimum wage, and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a black majority.73

It is true that several organizations came together for a common cause, although the differences of opinion surfaced once their respective leaders addressed the gathering of almost 250,000 people. The tone was certainly not Gandhian or nonviolent, because “the Negroes, the victims of racism over centuries, have become impatient,” as John Lewis of the SNCC declared. He said,

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The non-violent revolution is saying [that] we will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and assure us victory. For those who have said, be patient and wait, we must say [that] patience is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”74

Lewis further charged that American politics was “dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.”75 This radical speech caused a fissure among those who took a lead in organizing the March on Washington. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP threatened to quit unless his request not to allow John Lewis to speak was conceded. Randolph defused the crisis by persuading Lewis to tone down his statements.76 There was another serious charge against the organizers: no women leader was invited to address the congregation, which probably hinted at the organizers being patriarchal in their strategy, as the feminist author Pauli Murray charged. According to her, “[I]t is indefensible to call a national March on Washington and send a Call which contains the name of not a single woman leader. Nor can this glaring omission be glossed over by several Negro women to appear on the 28 August program…. [T]he tokenism is as offensive,” she angrily added, “when applied to women as when applied to Negroes, and that I have not devoted the greater part of my adult life to the implementation of human rights to condone any policy which is not inclusive.”77 Nonetheless, the march was a huge success presumably because of the astute Randolph and his younger colleague Rustin, who never allowed the bond to be disrupted by internal feud.

After preliminaries of singing and benediction, Randolph delivered the afternoon keynote address, in which he announced the ideological aims and objectives of the August march. He said that they were in the midst of

a massive moral revolution [which] reverberates throughout the land, touching every city, every town, every village where [blacks] are segregated, (p.172) oppressed and exploited. But this civil rights demonstration is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights; for our white allies knew that they cannot be free while we are not. And we know that we have no future in which six million black and white people are unemployed, and millions more live in poverty …. Those who deplore our militancy, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tensions than enforcing racial democracy.78

In his address, Randolph reiterated some of the major points of the manifesto that he had prepared for the 1941 march. According to Randolph, the American military attack on Hitler, which was justified as appropriate to protect democracy in the world, was paradoxical given the denial of basic democratic rights to the Negroes in the country. “Negroes in Uncle Sam’s uniform,” he further added in his address,

are being put down, mobbed, sometimes even shot down by the civilian and military police, and on occasion, lynched. Vested political interests in race prejudice are so deeply entrenched that to them winning the war against Hitler is secondary to preventing Negroes from winning democracy for themselves…. [Unless] the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possesses … democracy makes no sense.79

What ran through these efforts was his concern for racial equality, which yet remained a distant goal. For real democracy to strike roots in America, what was required, suggested Randolph, was a complete abnegation of the Jim Crow laws. Such a move would make “America a moral and spiritual arsenal of democracy.”80

Martin Luther King Jr. was the last speaker, and Randolph introduced him as “the moral leader of our nation.” For Randolph, King was the face of the civil rights movement, for not only did he “epitomize the emergence of a new militant black church, something that he had hoped for since his radical activism before World War I,” but he could also “stir the imagination of the black irrespective of age and socio-economic locations.”81 King’s effort contributed, as Randolph had conceptualized, to the rise of the black militant church with “a social gospel.” Characterizing the August 28 march “as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech became the signature touchstone of the march. Unlike any of the speakers, he avoided attacking the administration for being racially biased, though he charged the American leaders with not being attentive to the fundamental values of American constitutionalism. Reflecting his sincere commitment to liberalism, the speech was a reiteration of the values that the founding fathers held so dear. While strongly arguing against artificially created racism, King advanced three arguments in his defense: first, the white (p.173) Americans had fulfilled their partisan designs by simply bypassing Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scared in the flames of withering injustice.” So the continuity of the Jim Crow laws was not only a challenge to Lincoln’s vision, it was also a threat to the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The march was organized to demonstrate that “the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society, and finds himself in exile in his own land.” The second point in his speech relates to the growing resentment of the Negroes in response to centuries of oppression. When the architects of the republic, argued King, wrote “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note [guaranteeing] to all men, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Speaking metaphorically, he compared these promises to “a bad check” that the American authority should now respect by honoring the vision that the founding fathers of this great nation had espoused and nurtured. Now was the time “to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice … [and also to] lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” According to King, the demands were legitimate, because the Negroes, as much as their white counterparts, remained historically integral to American society. The victims of racist discrimination seemed to have run out of patience. As King articulated, “[W]e cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote…. We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America,” warned King, “until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights, and unless this is conceded, the whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation.” Finally, King understood the revolt as a natural outcome of century-old Negro resentments. But he true to his commitment to the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhian nonviolence, never endorsed violence or any deviation from what he sincerely believed. Aware of the devastating impact of being violent, he insisted on conducting the struggle “on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” In order to fulfill this goal, he suggested two concrete steps: he asked those involved in struggle against racism not “to allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence [and also to] rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” While being committed to nonviolence, King was also aware that adherence to vengeful violence was likely to alienate the whites who also participated in the August march. It would be strategically suicidal if the Negroes failed to earn respect from their “white brothers,” who also realized that “their destiny is tied-up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Contemporary America, felt King, was neither true to the American creed of “all men are created equal” nor was adequately equipped to realize liberty, equality and fraternity in their true manifestations.82

(p.174) The “I Have a Dream” speech was the signature touchstone of the August 28 March: not only was it reflective of King’s optimism, it was also a fine example of a liberal exposition of human protests. Besides contributing to a successful protest march that was certainly a show of strength, King and his colleagues also forced the government to legally endorse their demands. Ten months later, President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, championed in Congress by the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was signed into law as the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. One year after that the other bookend legislative achievement of the Southern civil rights struggle, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also became law. So, politically, the March on Washington was a successful effort; ideologically, it reconfirmed King’s unflinching commitment to nonviolence, and, organizationally, it represented a rare occasion when major civil rights organizations, irrespective of their ideological differences, came forward to fight for a common cause. Besides the civil rights organizations, the participation of the white churches seemed to have strengthened the movement beyond recognition, as King argued by saying that “no single factor … gave so much momentum [as] the decision of the religious leaders of this country to defy tradition and become an integral part of the quest of the Negro for his rights.”83

The Birmingham Campaign, 1963

The fall of 1962 was a difficult time for King and his colleagues because of the failure of the nonviolent campaign in Albany, Georgia, and the increasing questioning of nonviolence as a strategy vis-à-vis the segregationists. It was a defeat that considerably weakened the civil rights movement in the Dixie states. What made King slightly defensive was the criticism that he had faced because of his uncritical faith in the strategy of nonviolence. Questions were raised as to whether nonviolence was an appropriate strategy to combat racial segregation. The differences among the major civil rights organizations—SNCC, SCLC, and CORE—came to the surface during the movement in Albany, an old slave-trading center in the Deep South. The growing confidence of SNCC activists in Albany, in particular,

led to their open criticism of the approaches of other civil rights groups, especially the SCLC, and their decision to expand the work into rural areas; but they also learned in Albany that even massive, sustained and generally disciplined protests based on moral principles did not necessarily ensure immediate success and efficient police action against demonstrators could seriously hamper their struggle.84

King was aware of the situation and he tried to accommodate their views without abandoning the idea of nonviolence. Regardless of their respect for King, the SNCC activists sought “opportunities to dispute his position, thereby expressing the black anger, discontent and disillusionment that could not be conveyed (p.175) through King’s moderate rhetoric.”85 So it was a testing time for King, who now felt the need for another campaign to sustain the spirit of his followers, to prove the viability of nonviolence, and to revive the mass tempo of the civil rights movement. For King, defeat and victory were both sides of the same coin, and as a political activist he always learned from defeat. “If I had to do it again,” he mentioned, “I would guide the community’s leadership differently than I did.”86 It was a temporary setback for the people of Albany, but King noted that “[t]he atmosphere of despair and defeat was replaced by the sense of strength of people who had dared to defy tyrants and discovered that tyrants could be defeated…. Albany would never be the same again. We had won a partial victory in Albany and a partial victory to us was not an end but a beginning.”87

So the stage was ready. As regards King’s involvement in the campaign, the pattern was the same: he joined the movement after it already had begun. In the 1950s, Fred Shuttlesworth88 and his colleagues started a movement against segregation in Birmingham at the behest of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which was one of the eighty-five affiliates of the SCLC. The city of Birmingham was notorious for its ruthless implementation of racial segregation and equally ruthless commissioner of police, Eugene Bull Conner, “a racist who prided himself on knowing how to handle the Negro and keep him in his place.” Bull Conner held this key position for many years and displayed “as much contempt for the rights of the Negroes as he did defiance for the authority of the federal government.” An atmosphere of violence and brutality prevailed in the city in which “local racists intimidated, mobbed and even killed Negroes with impunity.”89 The SLCC agreed to get involved in the campaign in Birmingham because King believed that the movement could, if successful, “break the back of segregation all over the nation [since] the city had been the country’s chief symbol of racial intolerance. A victory there shall [therefore] set forces in motion to change the entire course of the drive for freedom and justice.”90 It was therefore decided to thoroughly plan the movement well in advance to avoid its derailment under any circumstances. Christened as Project C—the C for Birmingham’s confrontation—a detailed blueprint was prepared to steer the campaign toward its goal. Led by King, the Birmingham campaign resorted to nonviolent direct action to defy laws supporting segregation. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said that “[t]he purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”91

One of the unique features of Project C was to be a Negro economic boycott of the local businesses. It was a Gandhian strategy of “omission” that yielded positive results, as King stated, because “the Negro population had sufficient buying power so that its withdrawal could make the difference between profit and loss for many businesses.”92 In addition to the economic boycott, which was not appreciated by a large number of black businessmen and ministers,93 the first few days were confined to sit-ins at lunch counters in the downtown department stores and drug stores; the demonstrators were arrested under the local “trespass after warning” ordinance. The first week passed by smoothly, (p.176) making the local authority confident of its ability to contain the movement quickly. This feeling soon disappeared as the movement gained momentum. The economic boycott was most effective, and most of the shops lost considerable earnings. With the increasing number of volunteers, the SCLC expanded its sphere of operation with several other tactics: kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the library, a march on the county building to mark the opening of a voter registration drive. The local police remained calm but made the demonstrators stand behind bars in public places in accordance with segregation laws. In order not to allow the movement to spread, the city government obtained a court injunction directing the demonstrators to cease all activities until approved by the court. The Alabama courts were “notoriously famous for sitting on cases of this nature,” and so the injunction was “a maliciously effective pseudo-legal way of breaking the back of legitimate moral protest. [The] injunction method [was] a leading instrument of the South to block the direct action civil rights drive and to prevent Negro citizens and their white allies from engaging in peaceful assembly, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment Act.”94 Since the injunction was issued to thwart a genuine movement, it was morally correct for the demonstrators, felt King and his colleagues, to disobey the court order. The order surprised many, as the civil rights movement had an overt liberal character, and many within it possessed an unflinching faith in the liberal institutions of justice, like the courts. For his part, King justified his action on the grounds that the authority had played foul. As a Gandhian, he found it morally appropriate to counter an immoral authority pushing people to the wall by hook or crook. It was therefore not a violation of constitutional principles but a challenge to “a draconian authority [that] had misused the judicial process in order to perpetuate injustice and segregation.”95

King was arrested, and the movement entered its most critical phase: not only did white moderates join the campaign, but high school students began participating in the resistance movement as well. They were “eager to get involved and also hungry for participation in a significant social effort.”96 The victory of the Birmingham campaign was shaped, to a significant extent, by the emotional attachment these teenagers felt to the cause of racial equality. Serious as they were about what they were doing, these teenagers, argued King,

had that marvelous humor that arms the unarmed in the face of danger. Under their leaders, they took delight in confusing the police. A small decoy group would gather at one exit of the church, bringing policemen streaming in cars and on motorcycles. Before the officers knew what was happening, other groups, by the scores, would pour out of other exits and move, two by two, toward [the place in downtown where we were scheduled to congregate]. Many arrived at their destination before the police could confront and arrest them…. The police ran out of paddy wagons and had [to requisition] sheriff’s cars and school buses [to transport them to the jail].”97

(p.177) As in other campaigns, King was always open for dialogue and negotiation with the city authority. There were four major issues that figured in his list of demands to get out of this imbroglio:

  1. 1. The desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains in variety and department stores.

  2. 2. The upgrading and hiring of Negroes on a nondiscriminatory basis throughout the business and industrial community in Birmingham.

  3. 3. The dropping of all charges against jailed demonstrators

  4. 4. The creation of a biracial committee to work out a timetable for desegregation in other areas of Birmingham life.

Despite having expressed willingness to open a dialogue with the protesters, the Birmingham local authority and police commissioner, Bull Conner, left no stone unturned to crash the campaign. Even the local businessmen preferred to incur losses rather than capitulate to the demands of the protestors, who also failed to mobilize the media in their favor, unlike in the case of Montgomery bus strike. The scene, however, underwent a radical change when national pressure began to mount on the White House, forcing the administration to act. On May 4, 1963, the attorney general sent two of his emissaries to seek a truce in the tense racial situation in Birmingham. With their intervention, the local authority agreed to sit for a discussion to resolve the crisis. An agreement was signed on May 10, and the month-long campaign was withdrawn once the major demands were met, as the terms and conditions of the agreement show:

  1. 1. The desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms and drinking foundation, in planned stages within ninety days.

  2. 2. The upgrading and hiring of Negroes on a non-discriminatory basis throughout the industrial community of Birmingham.

  3. 3. Official cooperation with the movement’s legal representatives in working out the release of all jailed persons on bond or on their personal recognizance.

  4. 4. Through the Senior Citizens Committee or Chamber of Commerce, communication between Negro and white to be publicly established within two weeks in order to sort-out issues of differences and confrontation between the two racial communities.98

The May 10 agreement added another feather to the cap of the civil rights movement. Although it was a micro movement, it had national ramifications—which perhaps explains the intervention by the White House. Reflective of a new wave of politics, the Birmingham campaign became “a model in southern race relations [suggesting] that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright future.”99 While the Montgomery bus strike had accorded King national prominence, the Birmingham boycott placed him in a very prominent position within the entire civil rights movement in the United (p.178) States. He rose to fame due to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he clearly articulated his views on racism and racial segregation. His letter was also a challenge to an open letter written by Alabama’s leading clergy, in which they disparaged the entire campaign as “destructive” to civil tranquility and likely to foment violence and racial hatred. In the letter, he said that segregation had completely lost its legitimacy in the changed socioeconomic and political milieu. The language King used in his letter drew on the liberal ideas of the leading proponents of the fight against injustice. In order to be persuasive, King put himself into a great tradition of protests starting with Socrates, extending down through primarily Christian history, “from the early prophets to Christ himself, to Paul, to Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Bunyan [in addition to] Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, leading modern spokesmen from both the Christian and Jewish faiths.”100 Instead of defending his position with reference to Gandhi or Thoreau, King, as an effective strategist, invoked the patriarchal figures and imageries that would instantly link the local habitants with the movement. He also referred to the architect of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson who, by declaring that “all men are created equal,” was also an extremist in the context of a segregated America.

There are three important dimensions of King’s refutation of the arguments101 made by the white clergy in trying to undermine the civil disobedience in the city of Birmingham. First, one of the serious charges against King was his violation of the court’s injunction in the light of his continuous exhortation to the public to obey the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools. His response was based on the fundamental assumption that laws were not ends in themselves, but means of achieving justice. Besides pursuing this fundamental distinction between means and ends, he also categorized laws as just and unjust: while the former needed to be respected, the latter had no place in a civilized society. In order to substantiate his argument, he thus stated that “[t]here are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws…. What is the difference between the two? … A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Seeking to strengthen his argument by drawing on an authentic voice in Christianity, he further elaborated that “Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? … Obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right … and disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”102 He was morally justified in challenging the unjust legal embargo because it was directed at preserving racial segregation and thus denying citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

The second dimension relates to King’s persuasive efforts at drawing on Christianity to defend civil disobedience as a natural outcome of those suffering due to another’s whims. According to him, “true” Christians always resisted “fallen” regimes in history—whether it was Hebrew resistance by the exiled Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego against Nebuchadnezzar in ancient Babylon (p.179) or the opposition of the early Christians against the edicts of the Roman Empire. One was committed to the highest moral laws regardless of consequences, and that was what a true Christian was expected to do. Hence he failed to appreciate why “everything Hitler did was legal and everything Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal. It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers [and sisters] even though it was illegal. If I lived in a communist country … I would advocate disobeying … anti-religious laws.”103 What King revealed here was his uncompromising stance vis-à-vis unjust laws since they were contrary to the highest moral laws.

The final dimension was about King’s unequivocal support for direct action as perhaps the only alternative left under the circumstances. Disappointed with the white church and its leadership because of its reluctance to aid the civil resistors, he was persuaded to accept open peaceful defiance as most appropriate in Birmingham by saying that

[w]e had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community…. You may well ask, why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…. I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, and there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.104

The alternative that King had opted for seemed to have built a solid organization given the absence of any effective mechanism to resolve the impasse. For King, it was not a confrontation between “good” and “bad,” but one that, by championing the fundamental values of the American dream became critical in the articulation of what “this great nation” stood for. As he eloquently put it, “When these disinherited children of God [Negroes of Birmingham] sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”105 It was not therefore surprising that those who joined the movement had to take a pledge in the name of God and Christianity that ran as follows:-

  • (1) Meditate daily on the life of teachings of Jesus;

  • (2) Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory;

  • (3) Walk and talk in the manner of love for God is love

  • (4) Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.”106

(p.180) Besides its distinctive religious fervor, the 1963 Birmingham campaign was a historic occasion in the series of movement against racial segregation in at least two fundamental ways: first, it was a local movement that became national with King’s involvement in the campaign, which followed the formation of the ACMHR in Birmingham. The movement was remarkable if judged from the point of view of its organizational base: not only did the blacks participate, the white moderates also came forward to willingly endorse the ideological goal of the civil rights movement. With the growing interest of the high school students in the sit-ins at lunch counters, the Birmingham campaign introduced a dimension, hitherto unknown, in the African American campaign for racial equality. Second, the Birmingham campaign reconfirmed King’s unflinching commitment to nonviolence and also the core values of American constitutionalism. He fought against segregation since it clearly contradicted Christian ethics and values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. He drew on these fundamental documents to inspire the participants who should not have suffered by virtue of being American citizens. According to him, Bull Conner was a product of circumstances in which these documents were conveniently bypassed to fulfill partisan goals and aims of a selected group of people. Such an argument acted miraculously in bringing the white moderates to King’s cause. Although the civil rights advocates proclaimed to disobey “evil laws,” they also remained committed to nonviolence, ruling out “retaliation” of any kind. As King mentioned, “[W]e will wear [those supporting segregation] down by our capacity to suffer [and] in winning the victory, we will not only win our freedom, we will also appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win in the process.”107 His basic concern was thus not merely to remove segregation but to create a beloved community that was free from artificially created racial prejudices. It was a difficult task to accomplish, although King, as a true apostle of nonviolence, always believed that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities.”108 By successfully courting violence while restraining violence in his followers, King and the SCLC projected the Birmingham struggle as one between good and evil forces. This easily gained him credibility among the blacks because of their faith in Christian ethics. Such a dramatic and also ritualized confrontation “proved irresistible to the media and, in turn, to audiences at home and abroad.”109 King’s appeal thus turned out to be relevant to all Americans. Just as King was speaking to the clergymen and laymen alike, he spoke with them both as “a Christian and as an American.”110

The Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965

What followed the Birmingham campaign was the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965, in which several civil rights organizations participated. The Selma campaign was the last sustained Southern protest movement that attracted whites as well. Unlike the 1963 Birmingham campaign, in which the King-led SCLC remained the nodal organization, the movement in Selma was reported to have (p.181) been initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the radical student organization. It has been shown that the SNCC was not at all happy with the SCLC’s “more cautious leadership over the protest associated with the Selma to Montgomery march,”111 although none of its key members were in a position to replace the SCLC’s supremo, Martin Luther King Jr. For King, however, the association of the SNCC with the campaign was very useful in building and also sustaining the momentum of the movement. Given the emotional attachment of the committed SNCC members to the cause for racial equality, it was also easier for them to associate with the campaign, which had, surely, pursued a radical goal by seeking to guarantee voting rights to the blacks. The Selma campaign was led by King, who became not only a national hero because of his sustained role in the civil rights campaign, but also a global entity by 1965 when he won the Nobel Prize for Peace. So King’s involvement with the Selma March immediately attracted international attention once the movement took off in early 1965.

The aim of the campaign was to achieve voting rights for Negroes in Selma, which would mean “ensuring a voice in their destiny.”112 The goal of the demonstrations was “to dramatize the existence of injustice”113 being perpetuated in the name of obvious natural differences between the whites and their black counterparts. The reasons for the protest at Selma are not therefore difficult to seek, if judged in the light of the well-entrenched racist bias of the majority of the whites in the Dixie states. What allowed such an institutionalized racism was certainly “fear.” The racist history of the blacks in the Deep South dictated that the black people could come together to do only three things: sing, pray, and dance; they were simply incapable of doing anything else, the argument goes, and if they tried to get involved in any other activity, they “were threatened or intimidated.” For centuries, blacks had been taught to believe that “voting politics … is white folks’ business [which] they monopolized by methods [ranging from] economic intimidation to murder.”114 It has been historically true that the blacks who held positions of power and respect in the Dixie towns were always at the mercy of the whites; the power that they had “was delegated to them by the white community [and] what the master giveth, the master can take away.”115 So they hardly held substantial power to address the racial imbalance in society not merely because of white domination, but also because of the “inferiority complex” that they were suffering from. From this perspective, the fight for voting rights was empowering, and King and, before him, the SNCC activists, agreed to be part of the demonstration since it would give the blacks a sense of being.116 The second difficulty faced by the protestors related to the so-called parade ordinances, which prevented processions and also congregations without the approval of the city council. Given their “natural” submissiveness, the local blacks were restrained from undertaking any activity that was likely to provoke white retaliation. It was their “fear” that always surfaced whenever efforts were made to violate the “white-made and sponsored laws and conventions,”117 despite blacks being the majority in Selma. The third link in the chain of denial was “the slow pace of the register and the limited number of days and hours for registration as (p.182) voters.”118 This was a strategy that was consistently applied to restrict the black voters, as shown in the context of the Montgomery bus strike. Rosa Parks was denied registration by the same technique, which provoked protest from among the blacks in Montgomery. As a contemporary report shows, out of 15,000 Negroes, only 350 of them managed to register themselves. Besides taking these deliberate steps to prevent blacks from registering to vote, the officials in the council asked the applicants “abstruse, and in some cases, even fanciful questions to have pronounced their education inadequate when they could not answer.”119 This was an artificial barrier to voters’ registration and was clearly unconstitutional according to the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which required, in addition to age, residence, sanity, and absence of a criminal record, lawful employment and the ability to read and write English or the ownership of property worth $ 300 or more. The prospective voters were also expected to pay $1.50 as a poll tax per year. As literacy had become widespread and the amount of the poll tax was so meager, it was almost impossible for the local authority to deny registration to the blacks. Hence, the segregationists devised newer techniques every day to scuttle the efforts of the blacks in registering to vote, evn though they were violating the categorical principles of the Constitution. One tactic involved the administration of a questionnaire to prospective voters to test their knowledge of the Constitution and the government. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, the questionnaire was used not to acquaint the voters with the basic ideas of American political life, but to test their knowledge before allowing registration—which was, again, unconstitutional. Black applicants—and occasionally their white counterparts—were denied registration for “the most minor and insignificant errors.”120 If a person made any mistake at all in filling out the form, the local authority could altogether reject the application. Such a rejection was “justified” even in cases where the interviewee failed to convince the authority about his character. This was the situation in Dallas County, of which Selma was a part. Here, the practice of denying voter applications was common, and the segregationists defended it as “a mere rule-based decision.”121 The final instrument of denial was the so-called literacy test. The board of registers introduced a new test in 1964 to examine whether applicants were well-enough acquainted with the Constitution and the system of governance. As a contemporary study demonstrates, during the three-year period before the 1965 approval of the legislation for voting rights, the proportion of registered black voters never crossed beyond 15 percent. The available statistics would thus seem to indicate that “the conduct of the board of registers was in fact vastly more significant than the content of the test in determining the number of blacks and whites who were added to the rolls [and] it was evident in the fact that regardless of the changes in the registration requirements, the board always managed to find the overwhelming majority of whites qualified and the overwhelming majority of black unqualified.”122

The denial of registration to the blacks was institutionalized by various legal and extralegal stipulations that gained an easy acceptance among the (p.183) segregationists for obvious reasons. Disregard for the constitutional principles was always paternalistically justified. As it was most eloquently put by King,

Clearly the heart of the voting problem lay in the fact that the machinery for enforcing this basic right was in the hands of state-appointed officials answerable to the very people who believed they could continue to wield power in the South only so long as the Negro was disenfranchised. No matter how many loopholes were plugged, no matter how many irregularities were exposed, it was plain that difficulties were to remain so long as the segregationist mind-set continued to exist.”123

Besides manipulating the rules and regulations, the local segregationists were determined not to disrupt the existing status quo in race relations for purely selfish reasons. It was therefore obvious that the SNCC, in its efforts to establish racial equality in Dallas County, was likely to face severe opposition. The situation became worse with King’s arrival in January 1965. During the Selma campaign, violent segregationists “turned to terror tactics to prevent the Dallas County’s blacks from following the example of the blacks in Montgomery and elsewhere.”124 The newly formed Citizens’ Council came to their aid. Founded on racial prejudices, the council lamented the failure of the blacks “to realize that the Constitution was not written for them or any other colored race [and also proclaimed] that it was God’s intention that whites should lead and black should follow.”125 Segregation, the council further added, was “a modus vivendi [that] has been worked out through the centuries in the South whereby two highly diverse races of people may live in the same community in peace and mutual achievement, freed of daily and constant irritations and conflicts that are inherent in a bi-racial society.”126 Hence the white moderates were warned by the council when they supported King on his arrival because not only would the movement disrupt social tranquility in the area, it would also weaken the foundational basis of racial co-existence in Selma. This worked both ways: the white moderates’ fear of “negative publicity and also disturbance in the area” produced in them “a hostility to the King effort fully equal to that of the segregationists”; at the same time, the black moderates who were still uncertain as to whether they should support the movement rallied behind King and the SCLC. It is thus argued that “the initial effect of King’s advent was to polarize the town completely along its racial division, by throwing the white moderates into the arms of the segregationists and the black moderates into the arms of those fighting for racial equality.”127 There is no doubt that King, with his remarkable charismatic quality and ability to pull together a crowd and supporters, galvanized the blacks in Selma to participate in a movement that was, of course, crystalized and consolidated by the radical SNCC. It was difficult for its radical members to completely ignore the nonviolent strategy that King and his colleagues adopted, given the widespread admiration of King and his zeal for leadership. Not only did the leading activists of the SNCC confront a dilemma over the leadership that King had projected, they were also “torn between their (p.184) desire to encourage mass militancy among southern blacks and their conflicting desire to avoid actions that would disrupt ongoing projects and interfere with the developments of long term programs.”128 King also faced a dilemma. He was reported to have been reluctant to choose Selma, which was considered to be the SNCC’s stronghold, “for fear that [the] SNCC would regard an SCLC campaign as an invasion of SNCC territory.”129 The dilemma was resolved in the context of the Selma campaign when the SNCC, or at least a majority of its leading proponents, agreed to accept nonviolence given the mass support in its favor. It was thus a strategic calculation that appeared to have provided the SNCC with a great opportunity to remain critical in the Selma protest against racial segregation.130

The situation was hardly nonviolent, especially when the segregationists began retaliating against the protestors. A black youth, Jimmie Lee Jackson, died on February 26 when he was shot while trying to protect his mother and grandmother from a police beating. On March 7, police attacked, tear-gassed, and beat mercilessly a group of nonviolent marchers, and later, on March 11, a white Unitarian minister, Reverend James Rebb, was beaten to death. This final incident seemed to have electrified the entire atmosphere, and more than 400 ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns marched along with King in Selma.131 Ten days after Rebb’s death, the proposed 54-mile Selma-Montgomery March resumed under the protection of the Alabama National Guard, which was placed under federal control by order from President Johnson. With the completion of the march, King had simultaneously achieved two goals: on the one hand, he had succeeded in persuading the country’s highest political authority to seriously look into the issue of segregation; on the other hand, he was able to argue that racism was a national issue affecting the rise of America and the vision of the founding fathers. He assured white moderates that they should not fear black backlash. By being committed to nonviolence despite provocation otherwise, it was possible for King to retain the support of moderate whites and also to expand his influence among those white moderates who were fence sitters. What was remarkable was his capacity to articulate his ideology in those terms that automatically built a base for the campaign for racial desegregation regardless of socioeconomic and political barriers. His aim was not merely to protect the Negroes in America, but to fulfill the American dream as articulated by the founding fathers through the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. His was not a racist goal, but a national goal, which, once attained, would truly translate the fundamental values of the American Enlightenment into practice.

After the Selma imbroglio was resolved, King proclaimed,

Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto of social and economic depression dissolves and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe and sanitary housing…. Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our (p.185) cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist…. Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama’s God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.132

One of the reasons for King’s political success was certainly his ability to couch his ideological preferences for nonviolence within the overall liberal paradigm. He fought against racial segregation simply because it was highly un-American and was not rooted in the values of American constitutionalism. He was Gandhian in his outlook but did not justify nonviolence solely in Gandhian terms, but in terms of Christian ethics. This tactic immediately struck an emotional chord with the African Americans because of their religious affiliation with Christianity. The other significant point explaining the Selma success related to King’s strategic sense: he agreed to lead the campaign, which was also organized and built by the militant SNCC, among others. It was possible for him to sustain the coalition because of his remarkable capacity to resolve differences through dialogue and discussion even with adversaries. Furthermore, his willingness to engage in dialogue always left room for discussion. It was thus not a strange coincidence that King was readily acceptable to the White House and that whenever there was a crisis in race relations, the Baptist pastor was invariably invited to find a respectable solution. Like Gandhi, he, by being receptive to other viewpoints, always sought to create a consensus among diverse opinions.

The result of King’s efforts was obvious: one of the profound achievements of the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March was the August 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, which essentially killed, at least legally, the Jim Crow laws. The Voting Rights Act allowed the hitherto disenfranchised blacks to utilize their recently acquired rights to participate in the political processes, which had a significant impact on the electoral politics in the South. Many white officials who had earlier supported segregation were voted out of office, and those who wished to remain in office changed their attitude toward segregation and racial minorities. Even George Wallace, the Alabama governor and notoriously rabid segregationist, was also found “courting black voters for fear of being voted out of office.”133

Concluding Observations

An era of sustained mass militancy over civil rights issues came to an end with the acceptance of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Two Alabama cities—Birmingham and Selma—created history: while the 1963 Birmingham campaign led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Selma upsurge culminated in the outlawing of discriminatory voting practices with regard to the hitherto disenfranchised Negroes of the South. Both these important pieces of legislation ushered in a new era in which racial segregation was, at least legally, abolished. (p.186) By forcing the state to accept universal franchise, the movements that King and other civil rights organizations led appeared to have realized the core values of American constitutionalism, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Both these acts deflated the Jim Crow system through their constitutional acceptance of racial desegregation, and amounted to “the second Reconstruction of the South restoring to black Southerners rights that had been formally granted” with the Emancipation Proclamation.134 In this sense, the greatest contribution that King made was to give a sense of justice and honor to the socioeconomically peripheral and racially segregated blacks in the Dixie states. This had obvious ramifications elsewhere in the United States. There is no doubt that these movements and also the ensuing legislation became the basis of affirmative action in later years, whereby the underprivileged African Americans were given access to those facilities that were denied to them because of the Jim Crow laws. Undoubtedly, these revolutionary legislations initiated a process of change, though not adequate to radically alter the mind-set that endorsed various kinds of discrimination. Nevertheless, one cannot undermine the contribution of the struggle that King and his colleagues undertook to create a structure of governance based on the Jeffersonian dictum that “all should be treated equally.” In this sense, the state has a responsibility to create conditions in which the American dream of creating a free and equal society is allowed to remain an inspiring ideal, as President Johnson underlined while defending the argument for universal franchise. As he stated,

All Americans … should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote. The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. This is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama…. I hope that all Americans will join with me in expressing their concern over the loss of any American’s right to vote…. I intend to see that the right is secured for all our citizens.135

It is therefore not an exaggeration that the federal government appeared to have been favorably disposed toward the campaign for securing voting rights for the blacks in 1965. The visible change of attitude can be explained partly by the growing momentum of the civil rights movement across the state—a momentum that the ruling party could not afford to ignore—and partly by the increasing media publicity at home and abroad that threatened to seriously harm the global image of America as a democracy. Although desegregation disappeared, at least legally, with the adoption of the Civil Rights Acts, there was a paradoxical resurgence of Jim Crow in a different garb in the context of the changed environment of global capitalism. The African Americans, like their underprivileged counterparts elsewhere in the globe, continue to remain in racially segregated communities with inferior housing, public schools, and health care facilities.136

(p.187) In the context of the movements that finally culminated in the acceptance of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, the 1963 March on Washington was the last nail in the coffin. Built on the spontaneous resentment of the blacks, the march was perhaps the most significant event in the rise of an America that finally abdicated, at least legally, the Jim Crow system of governance. Racial segregation was abolished by implementing the true spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment had been, until this point, an abortive effort at constructing a racially equal society in America, presumably because of a well-entrenched racially prejudiced mind-set that was too strong to be overturned at that historical moment. Not only did the march inspire the blacks in the Dixie states, it became a source of congregation for the blacks and also white liberals elsewhere in the United States. Although the march was made possible because of sustained efforts by various African American organizations, it was a historical milestone in the consolidation of a nation-state that was free from, at least legally, racial prejudices. This was one of those rare campaigns for racial equality in which King was involved from the very outset, along with his colleagues, including Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and others.

From the civil rights point of view, the March on Washington remained most significant not only because it represented a concerted effort on the part of the victims of racism but also because it was an occasion when King reaffirmed his faith in American liberalism by making his demands for racial desegregation in the language of the architects of the Constitution. The famous speech—“I Have a Dream”—is a clear testimony of how committed King was to liberalism. The idea of holding a mass rally came to him from Gandhi, who had, through the famous 1930 Dandi March in opposition to the salt tax, demonstrated the critical significance of mass rallies in political mobilization. According to Gandhi, the benefit of such a tactic was obvious because the Dandi March, while passing through several Indian villages during those 240 miles, acquainted the local people with the nationalist cause as well as with the devilish political design of the British government. Gandhi immediately struck an emotional bond with the people, who, to a significant extent, helped him mobilize for the nationalist cause. The British administration was alarmed, and it was admitted that “the personal influence of Gandhi threaten[ed] to create a position of real embarrassment to the [government]…. In some areas, he ha[d] already achieved a considerable measure of success in undermining the authority of the government.”137

While the Montgomery bus strike was a micro experiment, the 1963 March on Washington was its macro manifestation. One can thus draw a parallel between the King-led transport boycott in Montgomery and the Gandhi-led nonviolent resistance in Champaran, Kheda, and Ahmedabad. Gandhi led these movements at the local level before applying his lesson at the pan-Indian level in the context of the 1920–22 Noncooperation Movement. In terms of ideological aims, those of the March on Washington were similar to those of the 240-mile Dandi March in 1930. Besides mobilizing blacks and white moderates around issues of racism, the March on Washington put direct pressure on the Kennedy government (p.188) to rearticulate its responses toward one-tenth of the American populace. In a similar way, Gandhi attained a political victory in the Dandi March by forcing the British government to withdraw the salt tax. While this move had no effect on the financial health of the empire given the tax’s meager contribution to the annual budget, the withdrawal of salt tax was however a testimony to British weakness in the face of the nationalist challenge, which was certainly a strategic victory for Gandhi and his colleagues. The selection of Dandi was strategic and aimed to gain maximum political mileage. Dandi was a small and extremely poor hamlet, and it was thus inadequate to accommodate the large contingent of people who accompanied Gandhi. Since it was given wide publicity, several journalists from all over the world came to witness the occasion. Not only did these journalists publicize the violation of government decree by nonviolent means, they also wrote about the poverty that the Indians were subjected to because of the failure of the British government to take care of their basic needs. The Dandi March was thus a magic stroke that blended “the strong political message with a human interest story that caught the imagination of millions in India and abroad.”138

In conceptual terms, the Montgomery bus strike was an act of omission, while the March on Washington and the Selma-Montgomery March were acts of commission, just like Gandhi’s Noncooperation Movement was illustrative of the former whereas the Dandi March represented the latter. This is a conceptual distinction that Gene Sharp makes while explaining the nature of nonviolent resistance. According to Sharp, acts of omission are those where people may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, are expected, by custom, to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform; acts of commission, contrarily, involve those acts that people do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden by law or regulation to perform.139 Following Sharp’s distinction, one can broadly classify the nonviolent movements that Gandhi and King launched in their respective domain: the 1955 Montgomery bus strike largely remained an act of omission because boycott of public transport, or avoidance of acts that people of Montgomery usually performed, was the main agenda. Gandhi’s first pan-Indian movement of noncooperation with the British belonged to this category. The Dandi March and the rallies that King undertook were identical in nature because both had the aim of forcing the respective governments to accept the demands that, despite being “legitimate” from the participants’ point of view, did not receive serious attention from the administration. The distinction may not always be appropriate to comprehend the complexities of movements, as these two forms of acts remain interwoven in an equally complex way. But its analytical utility is beyond question.


(1.) Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998), pp. 2–3.

(2.) Ibid., p. 5.

(3.) Ibid., p. 9.

(4.) Ibid., pp. 9–10.

(5.) M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 2008) (reprint), pp. 103–4.

(6.) Ibid., p. 104.

(7.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 10.

(8.) Ibid., p. 11.

(9.) M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 2006) (reprint), p. 36.

(10.) Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 120.

(11.) Ibid., p. 121.

(13.) James M. Washington , I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World (New York and San Francisco: Harper, 1992), p. 89.

(14.) Statement engraved in the American History Museum, Washington, DC.

(15.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope, ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), p. 297.

(16.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 3.

(17.) King’s statement of December 5, 1955—quoted in Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: The Power of Non-Violent Action (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1999), p. 333.

(18.) King’s address to the American Jewish Committee, March 9, 1965—quoted in Michael J. Nojeim, Gandhi and King: The Power of Non-Violent Resistance, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), p. 223.

(19.) J. Mills Thornton III, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), pp. 42–6.

(20.) For details on the involvement of Rosa Parks in the bus strike at Montgomery, see Thornton, Dividing Lines, pp. 57–61.

(21.) Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life, (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 55.

(22.) Ibid., p. 57.

(24.) Ibid., p. 58.

(25.) Ibid., p. 59.

(27.) Rosa L. Parks, “Interviews,” in My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, ed. Howell Raines (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 41.

(28.) E. D. Nixon (1899–1987) was an active leader of the civil rights movement in Alabama. He was the one who endeavored hard to increase the number of registered black voters in Montgomery and was one of the key members of Montgomery Improvement Association and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

(29.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 52.

(30.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 64.

(31.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 55.

(32.) Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery story, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958).

(33.) Ibid., p. 9.

(35.) King’s speech of December 5, 1955—reproduced in Brinkley, Rosa Parks, p. 141.

(36.) Kai Wright, ed., The African-American Experience: Black History and Culture through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs and Stories (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009), p.486.

(37.) Bayard Rustin, Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 38.

(38.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Walk for Freedom,” May 1956 in The Papers of MLK of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson, vol. 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 277.

(39.) Ibid., pp. 278–9.

(40.) King, “To the Citizens of Montgomery,” January 27, 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 107.

(41.) King, “Walk for Freedom,” in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 107.

(42.) King, “Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony,” address delivered at the American Baptist Assembly and American Home Mission Agencies Conference, July 23, 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 326.

(43.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 60.

(44.) King, “To the Citizens of Democracy,” January 27, 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 108

(45.) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963, (New York: Simon & Schuster 1988), pp. 227–8.

(46.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Our Struggle,” in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 237.

(47.) King, “The New Negro of the South: Behind the Montgomery Story,” June 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 283.

(48.) King’s address of June 27, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 308.

(49.) Deirdre Mullane, ed., Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), p. 629.

(50.) King, “The Meaning of Montgomery,” June 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 283.

(51.) James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, (New York: New American Library, 1985), p. 11.

(52.) “Bayard Rustin Reminisces,” transcript of an interview by Ed. Edwin—quoted in Cynthia Taylor, A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African-American Labor Leader (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 178.

(53.) Bayard Rustin to King, December 23, 1956 in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 492.

(55.) Rustin, Strategies for Freedom, p. 37.

(56.) Bayard Rustin to King, December 23, 1956, in Carson, Papers of MLK, vol. 3, p. 494.

(58.) Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, p. 186.

(59.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 96.

(60.) The January 1959 resolution of the Citizens’ Council is reproduced from Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 97.

(61.) David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), p. 86.

(62.) Ibid., p. 87.

(63.) King’s address—quoted in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, pp. 94–5.

(64.) Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 176.

(65.) Reproduced from Mullane, Crossing the Danger Water, pp. 569–70.

(66.) Ibid., pp. 577

(67.) A. Philip Randolph’s statement, quoted in Ibid., pp. 568.

(68.) Cornelius L. Bynum, A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), p. 180.

(69.) Taylor, A. Philip Randolph, p. 154.

(70.) Paula F. Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph, The Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 177.

(71.) Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 51–2.

(72.) Ibid., p. 48.

(73.) Drawn from Shmuel Ross, “Civil Rights March on Washington,” Infoplease.com, http://www.infoplease.com/spot/marchonwashington.html#ixzz1ul7YEPAi.

(75.) John Lewis quoted in Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 94.

(76.) Anderson, Bayard Rustin, pp. 260–1.

(77.) Pauli Murray’s letter to A. Philip Randolph is quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, p. 259.

(78.) Randolph’s statement is quoted in Anderson, Bayard Rustin, p. 257.

(79.) A. Philip Randolph, “Why Should We March?” Survey Graphic, no. 31, (November 1942), pp. 488–9.

(80.) Ibid., pp. 489.

(81.) Taylor, A. Philip Randolph, p. 199.

(82.) King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is quoted from Wright, The African-American Experience, pp. 531–3.

(83.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. p. 222

(84.) Clayborne Carson, “SNCC and the Albany Movement,” Journal of Southwest Georgia 2 (Fall 1984), p. 15.

(85.) Carson, In Struggle, p. 208.

(86.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Why We Can’t Wait,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M Washington (New York: Harper One, 1986), p. 541.

(87.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, pp. 168–9.

(88.) Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (1922–2011) was a minister in Birmingham, Alabama, and a civil rights activist who led the campaign against racial segregation and other forms of discrimination based on color. He was also associated with the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was one of the primary organizers of the 1963 Birmingham campaign along with Martin Luther King Jr.

(89.) Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 527.

(90.) Ibid., p. 530.

(91.) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 246.

(92.) Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 174.

(93.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 299.

(94.) Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 542.

(96.) Ibid., p. 546.

(97.) Ibid., pp. 547–8.

(98.) Ibid., p. 552.

(99.) Ibid., p. 554.

(100.) Richard P. Fulkerson, “The Public Letter as a Rhetorical Form: Structure, Logic and Style in King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 65, no. 2 (1965): pp. 130–1.

(101.) “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was not merely directed to the eight clergymen critical of King’s civil disobedience in Birmingham. It was not directed only to the Negros of the community who were being asked by the clergymen to withdraw support for the civil rights demonstrations. It was addressed primarily to the moderate and laymen, black and white, in both North and South. Haig Bosmajian, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile, ed. C. Eric Lincoln (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970), pp. 128–43.

(102.) Washington, I Have a Dream, p. 89.

(103.) Ibid., pp. 89–90.

(104.) Ibid., pp. 86–7.

(105.) Ibid., p. 100.

(106.) Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 238.

(107.) King’s statement—quoted in Nojeim, Gandhi and King, p. 240.

(108.) Washington, I Have a Dream, p. 100.

(109.) Doug AcAdam, “The US Civil Rights Movement: Power from Below and Above, 1945–70,” in Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action From Gandhi to the Present, ed. Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 70.

(110.) Bosmajian, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” in Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., p. 129.

(111.) Carson, In Struggle, p. 153.

(112.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 271.

(113.) Martin Luther King Jr., “Behind the Selma March,” in Washington, A Testament of Hope, p. 127.

(114.) Kwame Tour and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberatin (New York: Vintage Books, p. 100).

(115.) Ibid., p. 101.

(116.) Washington, A Testament of Hope, pp. 128–31.

(117.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 272.

(119.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 436.

(120.) Ibid., p. 438

(121.) Tour and Hamilton, Black Power, p. 104.

(122.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 461.

(123.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 272.

(124.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 393.

(125.) Ibid., p. 401.

(127.) Ibid., p. 473.

(128.) Carson, In Struggle, p. 161.

(129.) Thornton, Dividing Lines, p. 476.

(130.) Tour and Hamilton, Black Power, pp. 101–5.

(131.) Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 349.

(132.) Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., p. 285.

(133.) Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, p. 371.

(134.) Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Quest for Nonviolent Social Change,” Phylon, The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 47, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 1—reproduced in Martin Luther King Jr.: Civil Rights Leader, Theologian, Orator, ed. David Garrow (New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1989), p. 333.

(135.) Johnson’s statement—quoted in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 385.

(136.) Clayborne Carson, “Civil Rights Movement: An Overview” (personal correspondence), March 3, 2011.

(137.) Viceroy to the Secretary of State, London, April 24, 1930, India Office Records, London, Sykes Papers, Mss. Eur F 130 (2).

(138.) J. Krishnalal Sridharani, War without Violence: A Study of Gandhi’s Method and Its Accomplishment (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1939), p. 131.

(139.) Gene Sharp, The Politics of Non-Violent Action (Boston, MA: Peter Sargent, 1972), p. 68.