Study Guide

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Voting Rights Act

By U.S. Congress

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Taking A Stand

MLK, much like President Obama, is often bantered about (often by people of more, let's say, vanilla complexions) as an example of how we live in some kind of post-racism utopia.

Protests nationwide are chastised, news anchors wagging their fingers and tut-tutting the oft-repeated refrain of: "Martin Luther King didn't die for this."

Don't get us wrong here; Martin Luther King, Jr. was incredible in his commitment to nonviolent protest. Born in the heart of the South to a Baptist minister father, Martin Luther King, Sr., he felt the call to social activism from a young age. As he followed in his father's footsteps in the church, he resolved to use the pulpit as a platform for speaking out against injustice. Rosa Parks' 1955 stand against Montgomery's bus segregation laws provided the spark for his career in social activism in the all-out boycott to follow.

His strategy, in his protests, was to allow the worst of their opposition to be broadcast on live TV, to be recorded in newspapers, and thereby turn the wheel of public opinion in their favor. Eventually, those who attacked him and his fellow protesters demonstrated their own inhumanity for all to see, but non-violence definitely did not mean passivity. He challenged the status quo of racism in America staunchly and vocally, took to the streets in droves, and admonished not only the most racist Americans but also the very same kinds of moderates mentioned in the paragraph above.

To them, he wrote in his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail ":

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the N****'s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the N**** to wait until a "more convenient season. (Source)

During Kennedy's administration, he urged the president time and time again to use his executive powers to follow in the footsteps of Lincoln and use his executive power to strike a blow for the Civil Rights movement. While Kennedy never took up King on his request, LBJ was more receptive on that front: queue his suite of Civil Rights legislation.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Dr. King, even after his famous March on Washington, was viewed as a public enemy by the FBI, who launched investigation after investigation at him, trying to remove him completely from his social perch.

When they couldn't end up sticking him to the communist movement, they turned nasty, even going so far as to send threatening anonymous letters such as this one, received on the eve of his Nobel Peace Prize:

The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation. (Source)

In his later career, he turned his activism work more broadly to a campaign against poverty, and open opposition to the war in Vietnam. Eventually, he was considered enough of a threat to be assassinated, on April 4th, 1968. America still mourns his passing on the third Monday of January every year.

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