More than a half-century after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, it’s difficult to grasp the power of the segregationists Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement sought to defeat.
Today, our images of that era tend to focus on tyrannical governors wielding baseball bats, brutal sheriffs aiming water cannons, and police officers unleashing attack dogs. Those images were real enough, but the bench of segregationists went far deeper, and their strength was far greater than the most obvious villains.
In the early 20th century, the United States House began awarding committee chairmanships based on seniority in Congress. Having disenfranchised blacks through Jim Crow laws, southern Democrats had huge amounts of seniority, and thus a disproportionate number of committee chairmanships. The Democrats also held the majority in the House almost uninterrupted until late in the 20th century.
The lack of a competing party in the South had a great deal to do with that as well. Just in case something slipped through the House (it didn’t), there were plenty of Senators from the south to filibuster things to death. Opposing these guys was political suicide, or so it very much seemed.
Against these unsurmountable odds, Martin Luther King Jr. and others deployed a brilliant strategy of non-violent resistance. King appealed to universal values of justice. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was hand-written in the margins of a newspaper as a response to a rebuke of his organization’s protests by white religious leaders in Birmingham, Ala. It reads in part:
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.
Today, our country celebrates the work of Dr. King, who has justly been called “the last Founding Father.” As our nation seeks to expand educational opportunity, we are incredibly fortunate to have both the words and the example of Martin Luther King Jr. to study for guidance.