Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta on this date in 1929. At that time, the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans was decades old, but little progress had been made.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, federal legislation and constitutional amendments gave black Americans the same rights as white Americans. Within 12 years, Southern courts and the federal government were ignoring these laws.
In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court held that states could pass laws requiring the separation of blacks and whites, as long as the black and white sections were equal. Thereafter, separate facilities of all sorts (such as schools, streetcars, hotels, restaurants, bathrooms and drinking fountains) became the norm throughout the South and in several places in the North (including Indiana). They were separate, but hardly equal.
Lawyers, both black and white, filed lawsuits designed to chip away at the Plessy decision. Throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the United States Supreme Court recognized, in some specific situations, that the separate facilities provided to black Americans were not, in fact, equal.
In May 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy decision and held that separate schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal.
Not much changed, though. Officials throughout the South said they would not follow the Supreme Court’s ruling. Montgomery, Ala., for example, kept on its books an ordinance that treated blacks differently than whites on the city’s buses.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to follow the ordinance. A boycott of the buses was organized, led by the 26-year-old King. After a 13-month boycott, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated.
All was not well, however, in mid-1950s America. Lynch mobs and law enforcement-sanctioned murders of blacks continued in the South. “Liberty and justice for all” was a lie.
In the face of brutality, King preached nonviolence and love. Regardless of the abuse and violence from fellow citizens and public officials, he advocated turning the other cheek.
The August 1963 March on Washington revitalized a stalled civil rights movement and brought King to the attention of even apathetic Americans. But getting a civil rights bill through Congress was going to be extremely difficult. Although Democrats held a majority of seats in both houses of Congress, several of those Democrats were Southern segregationists.
They did not go down without a lengthy fight. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. The act banned discrimination in employment, public facilities and schools on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and gender.
The movement’s work was not done. Most blacks in the South could not vote in the 1964 elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 started a process that allowed African-Americans to vote.
Progress lagged in other areas. Many black children were still going to segregated, underfunded schools. And most African-Americans still could not live wherever they wanted. Many neighborhoods remained “whites only.”
King’s life after 1965 was just as difficult. As he increasingly pressed for an end to the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration distanced itself from him. As he embraced workers who were treated poorly, he antagonized many business people. As living conditions changed little
from one day to the next for most African-Americans, he was disparaged by people, both black and white, who believed that nonviolence was not the answer.
He pressed on. He was in Memphis in April 1968 on behalf of garbage workers when he was assassinated. His goal of ending segregated housing was advanced by passage of the Fair Housing Act later that year.
King was nonviolent but hardly subservient. He was extremely intelligent and a superb speaker. He fought injustice until the day he died. Often discouraged, he never gave up.
Did King bring an end to racism? No. But he played an enormous role in limiting the effects of racism in American society. We are, without a doubt, a much better country because of him.
Tim Vrana is a community columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.