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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Study & Essay

Assassination and Legacy

Review Test

Study Questions

How did King's extensive education affect his career as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement?

Although King forwent the life of a scholar by remaining at Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (where he did not have the opportunity to teach), his studies at Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University provided meat for his speeches, guided his decisions, and provided him with a means to relate to whites. His sermons and writings often alluded to both the scripture and the secular philosophy he had read. He constantly "universalized" the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by relating it to other historical events he had analyzed. He created an impression of great authority by employing artful rhetorical structures, and by filling those structures with references to great names and great ideas with which he had come in contact during his years of formal education: in deciding, in a given situation, which course of action to take, King often bore in mind Walter Rauschenbusch's social gospel, which emphasized the importance of good deeds in the world; the pessimistic Christianity of Reinhold Niebuhr, who contended that immoral institutions could corrupt moral individuals; and the philosophical method of Hegel. King's reference to these and other thinkers, in writing and in speech, appealed to white audiences, and gave King validity in their eyes. Other early influences, such as the black church, King would play up or play down, depending on whom he was trying to impress.

Contrast King's view of America during the last three years of his life with his view during the Birmingham and Selma campaigns.

Whether as a strategic choice, or out of a real belief in it, King, in his early campaigns, frequently invoked the American Dream. In speeches, he borrowed the language of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as that of the New Testament of the Bible. He talked about freedom in the conventional American sense of the word. Whenever he could, he violated racist local laws by referring to the federal laws with which they were at odds; he had far more qualms about disobeying a federal injunction than a state injunction. In his "I Have A Dream" speech, he presented America as a wasted opportunity, but not as an evil thing itself. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had passed, however, his view of the situation changed. Between racial tensions in the Northern ghettos, which the new legislation had done nothing to dispel, and the escalation of the Vietnam War, which seemed a conflict of capitalists against peasants, King began to believe that America's problems ran deeper than Jim Crow laws. He began to see social problems as rooted in economic iniquities. The whole system needed to be changed: the campaign that King was planning in the days before his assassination was a Poor People's March, in which the downtrodden, regardless of race, would unite and demand a redistribution of wealth.

Was King a leader in the right place at the right time, or can his success be attributed to his innate characteristics?

The Montgomery Bus Boycott effectively launched King's career as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. King was elected as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, not only because he showed promise as a leader, however, but because he was new to town, and thus not yet implicated in local political rivalries. And yet his success owed something to his charisma as a speaker, as well as to his authority and intelligence: he was young–only twenty-six–but something about him made others willing to forgo their own egos and let him lead. And this happened again and again throughout his career; often he appeared at the site of some preexisting sit-in, voter-registration drive, or protest march and was instantly held up as its leader. Then again, the speed with which people responded to King also probably reflected how hungry the Civil Rights Movement was for a leader, a symbol, a figurehead–someone to articulate the hopes and dreams behind events, and thus lend chaos to order. And later in King's career, his propensity for instant acceptance caused a backlash, especially among members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who felt that his popularity indicated a superficiality or an opportunistic streak, and that it allowed him effortlessly to cash in on the victories they labored to achieve. Ultimately, as with so many great leaders, King's effectiveness stemmed probably from a mix of both his internally generated power and other people's need of him as a figure.

Essay Topics

Why did some of King's campaigns succeed, and others not?

How did King's relationship to the Johnson Administration differ from his relationship to the Kennedy Administration?

Toward what audience did King direct his "I Have a Dream" speech? How is this clear from the speech's language?

Characterize King's relationship to other leaders and organizations of the Civil Rights Movement.

Why was the church an important part of King's work as an activist? What did he gain by working with and through it?

What aspects of King's life are emphasized in mainstream America's remembrance of him?

If King had not been assassinated, what campaigns might he have organized in the 1970s and 1980s? Would the Civil Rights Movement perhaps fared differently during these years, or, after the victories of the sixties, was deceleration inevitable?

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