Boston Globe Editorial: The Multifaceted King (MLK)

Roundup: Talking About History

The 1965 protests in Selma, Ala., were perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.'s greatest triumph. They pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act within weeks. And yet one participant in the climactic march to Montgomery, Ala., noted that King appeared to be doing little: "He seemed to have his mind on something else all the time." Another recalled, "He seemed to be a kind of symbol, and an inspiring figure, but all the actual organizing and leadership was done by other people in his entourage."

These eyewitness accounts imply that King's role in the civil rights movement was that of a prophet and proselytizer, and not that of a general. But in a year when his impact on America has become a subject in the presidential race, it would be a mistake to minimize the many ways he moved the nation toward change.

King had a lot of help during his 12-year struggle, which began with the boycott of the buses in Montgomery in late 1955 after a bus driver refused a seat to Rosa Parks. Local activist E.D. Nixon was at first the prime mover behind the citywide protests. In 1963, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was instrumental in getting King involved in the epic 1963 protests in Birmingham, Ala. In Selma, King drew on the veteran staff of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), established after his initial success in Montgomery. And he was challenged to insist on full voting rights for black people by the militants in the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which began the Selma protests before King got involved. To a casual observer, he must have often seemed an on-looker at the revolution.

Historian David J. Garrow, in "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," does a superb job of apportioning credit in the civil rights movement. The two quotations in the first paragraph come from this book. "The movement made Martin, rather than Martin making the movement," said Ella Baker, an organizer of the SCLC.

And yet on Martin Luther King Day it is important to remember King's singular mix of contributions, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott. It helped that he was the son of one of the best-known preachers in the South. King could draw on the great strength of the black churches. Because he was educated in the North (at Boston University) he could easily communicate with the liberal philanthropists who underwrote the movement and with the journalists who spread the news of black resistance to segregation. And because he was young, not yet 27 when he first came to prominence, he could connect to the young people who would become foot soldiers of the resistance, even as he maintained the demeanor of the dignified preacher to appeal to their parents.....

comments powered by Disqus