Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King

Civil Rights

The history of the struggle for equal civil rights in America is complex and only a cursory study can be attempted here. There is a plethora of material available both online and in bookstores for readers who wish to study the movement in more depth. However, in order to place certain events in proper context, a brief overview of the 20th Century American civil rights movement is necessary.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the leader of the national racial equality movement of the late 1950s and 60s after organizing the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that helped end the American apartheid policy of separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. An energetic speaker able to motivate large crowds with his message of non-violence, King quickly became a target of the southern establishment, which opposed his call for a change to the status quo. Death threats and harassment were commonplace in the life of black civil rights activists and as one of the most well known, King, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attracted more than his fair share.

King, who held degrees in sociology and theology and a doctorate from Boston University, dominated the moderate wing of the civil rights movement during the 1960s as head of the SCLC. To his left were the more radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which despite its pacifist nature espoused theories of more socialist reforms. On the right was the senior black civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sought change through courtrooms and legislatures. King's SCLC advocated the principle of Satyagraha, or nonviolent social change, promoted by Mohandas Gandhi of India. Although in the early days King concentrated on equal rights for black Americans and was less concerned with redistribution of wealth, one of his advisors was Stanley Levinson, a former leader of the American Communist Party. King was very successful at forging alliances with northern whites, particularly Jewish civil rights leaders, but his association with Levinson would put him at odds with many whites, particularly the red-hating J. Edgar Hoover.

After a series of successful marches and boycotts, King led the famous march on Washington, D.C. in 1963, where he gave his capstone speech, "I Have A Dream." In that speech — a sermon, really — King outlined his vision for America: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." King's rousing address to the millions on the Mall helped shine the international spotlight on the American civil rights movement and for his non-violent work toward achieving equality, King was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

Martin Luther King Jr, 1963 march (CORBIS)
Martin Luther King Jr, 1963 march

Lyndon B Johnson
Lyndon B Johnson

In 1964, following one of the longest debates in the history of the U.S. Senate, the United States Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which, among other things, sought to guarantee the right of all eligible citizens to vote in national elections. In theory, one of the largest roadblocks to legal equality between blacks and whites in America was eliminated. In practice, however, many southern communities continued to restrict minority access to the polls, and no federal legislation could change what hundreds of years of racism and segregation had ingrained in society.

"Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right," said President Johnson a year later. "The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.

"For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin," Johnson concluded in a speech before a joint session of Congress.

So in 1965, after additional fractious debate, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated eligibility tests for voting. Of course, another federal law was not going to end racial separatism in America, but other storms were brewing in the country which began to attract the attention of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

America was at war in Vietnam, and the gap between the rich and poor in America was widening. Equality and justice for blacks could not be achieved without solidarity among the downtrodden, King believed, and he became more and more outspoken about labor movements, poverty and the Vietnam War.

It was King's pro-labor stance that brought him to Memphis, Tennessee in March and April 1968. His quest for the recognition of the nascent union movement of Memphis' Sanitation Department workers, not his drive for racial equality would put him in the path of the assassin's bullet.

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