Martin Luther King. Does his crusade for equality still live on?

Pre-University Paper, 2015

22 Pages, Grade: 15 Punkte


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Brief overview of African-American history
2.1. From slavery to freedom
2.2. From freedom to the Civil Rights Movement
2.3. From the Civil Rights Movement to equality by law

3. Martin Luther King
3.1. Early Life
3.2. Leader of the Civil Rights Movement
3.3. Nobel Peace Prize
3.4. Selma to Montgomery March
3.5. Late life
3.6. Vision
3.7. Impact

4. Does Martin Luther King’s crusade of equality still live on?
4.1. Equality in politics
4.1.1 Barack Obama – the first Black president
4.1.2 Voter participation in national elections
4.2 Equality in education and economics
4.2.1 Education
4.2.2 Unemployment rate
4.2.3 Income distribution
4.2.4 Poverty rate
4.3 Equality in justice
4.3.1 Crime rate
4.3.2 Ferguson – an example of ongoing racism

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1. Books
6.2. Websites
6.3 DVDs

1. Introduction

“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he is not fit to live”[1] – these are words that are still well known and have truly determined not only the life of one man, but of an entire race. Nobody has ever been able to influence the destiny of one class as much as this man did. The talk is of Martin Luther King Jr.: A man whose one of a kind rhetorical skills and unique determination to make a change have rewritten endless chapters of history, of slavery, of segregation. A man who took very seriously what he said; a man who never gave up on his dream, not even after uncountable insults, attacks and assassination attempts; a man who stood for what he said and finally paid with the death. He was “fit to live” though. And the result is that his legacy has not only protected innumerous “Negros” from being insulted, humiliated and abused, but has also provided them more equality and a sense of unity and brotherhood. Special about his endeavour was his tremendous condemnation of any sort of violence, what he elucidated when he said that “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”[2]

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the sustainability of Martin Luther King’s project and to conclude what impact it had and still has on the contemporary American society. First of all a brief overview of the history and situation of African Americans in North America from the beginning of their importation until the onset of the civil rights movement will be given in order to illustrate the circumstances King was facing and to acknowledge the improvements achieved by the civil rights movement activists in general and Martin Luther King in particular. In the following part King’s life and beliefs will be more closely examined in order to explain how he had become the charismatic and influential leader living in the memories of a whole nation and how his relentless fight for his ideals has changed and shaped the face of America. In the last part it will be discussed whether and to which extent Martin Luther King still has an impact on today’s American society by analysing recent examples which prove that thanks to Martin Luther King America has become a fairer and more human place, but also by exposing facts that pose challenges in terms of equality.[3]

2. Brief overview of African-American history

It took the African Americans almost three centuries to obtain a status equal to the white population of America. These decades were defined by long and hard struggles and many setbacks until the Blacks finally gained first freedom and then equality by law.

2.1. From slavery to freedom

In 1619 the first Blacks were brought from Africa to America to serve as slaves on tobacco and rice plantations. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the slave trade flourished as the slaves were seen as a vital component for the economic foundations of the nation. In 1793, in the midst of the industrial revolution in England, the cotton gin was invented, a machine that removed the seeds from raw cotton fibres and due to which it was possible to multiply the production of cotton. As a consequence, a huge number of slaves working on the cotton fields in the South were required in order to meet the European demand for cotton. So after exploiting Black people on the tobacco fields, the South was once again dependent on black slaves for its economic growth: “within a few years the South would transition from the large-scale production of tobacco to that of cotton, a switch that reinforced the region’s dependence on slave labor.”[4]

After the election of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President of America, in 1860, one of his main ambitions was to abolish slavery. The “cotton states” did not agree with that and eleven southern states decided to leave the Union and to form the Confederate States of America in order to maintain slavery which led to the American Civil War. After the Union’s victory Lincoln announced that the slaves would be freed and in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, officially abolished slavery.

2.2. From freedom to the Civil Rights Movement

However, even after obtaining freedom, the Blacks’ condition in the post-war South remained uncertain and unsafe. Despite being granted the rights of citizenship and equal protection by law in the 14th Amendment in 1868 and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment in 1870, these rights were often neglected and violated and Blacks still had to face multiple forms of discrimination and racism.

During the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) following the Civil War the keeping of the laws contained in the recent Amendments was controlled by the US Army in the South. As black people formed the majority in many regions of the South, many Blacks were elected as representatives. But these improvements were of short duration. When the last Northern troops left the South in 1877, white people re-established their supremacy by different means. One pillar of white supremacy were different measures summarized under the term “segregation” which meant a strict separation of black and white people in all areas of life. Public transports had separate parts for both races. Schools, restaurants and other facilities were destined to either black or white people. Marriages between Blacks and Whites were made illegal. New laws, the so-called “Jim Crow Laws”[5] were passed which encouraged segregation. Even the US Supreme Court stated that these laws were constitutional because by setting up “separate but equal”[6] facilities the government did allegedly not discriminate against black people. However, the facilities for Black were by far not equal but in bad conditions which clearly showed that Blacks were considered to be second-class-citizens.

In addition to that “legal” discrimination, a secret society was formed in 1865, the “Ku Klux Klan”, whose members terrorised and even lynched Blacks in order to prevent them from getting equal rights. Despite being outlawed in 1872, the clan did not stop its activities and secretly kept spreading fear and terror amongst Blacks. The popularity of this group demonstrates how deeply hatred was rooted in America’s society.

Opposing these conditions and struggling for their rights several influential Black leaders kept encouraging their people to stand up to white supremacy. In 1910 the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) was founded which paved the way for the era of the civil right movements. In the first decades of the 20th century a growing “resistance to the lingering racism and discrimination in America that began during the slavery era would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s which would achieve the greatest political and social gains for Blacks since Reconstruction”[7] some of which will be shown in the following part.

2.3. From the Civil Rights Movement to equality by law

During the Second World War many Blacks joined the American Army and fought for America. But even in the military system segregation was maintained and Blacks had to serve in separate black units. According to President Roosevelt, the war was fought in order to defend freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Realizing the discrepancy between these slogans and their own situation the Blacks’ struggle for equality entered a stage of new determination in the 1950s and 1960s known as the Civil Rights movement. Its most famous leader was Martin Luther King who opted for a non-violent way of battle (cf. part 3). But even though Martin Luther King’s perseverance and peaceful measures had finally led to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act (cf. part 3.7), some influential Blacks were dissatisfied with the outcome, as the movement had not improved the daily life of many impoverished Blacks. Especially the explosion of a bomb in a church in Birmingham, where four little girls attending Sunday school were killed, caused a huge wave of indignation and a cry for vengeance among the Blacks. As a result, more militant leaders and organisations such as Malcolm X, the Black Panther or the Black Power movement gained in popularity. But being considered as a threat to the white population they could not achieve as much as Martin Luther King did. “Urban uprisings, however, didn't lead to any improvements in black life. Instead, violent civil disobedience only increased police surveillance (…) and contributed to a powerful white backlash to civil rights.”[8] So in the end MLK and his belief in nonviolence proved to be far more effective.[9]

3. Martin Luther King

As demonstrated above the Black population of America was still suffering from discrimination, segregation and inequality when Martin Luther King stepped into the scene. Within a few years he managed to put an end to some of the major disadvantages the African Americans had been facing for almost 350 years.

3.1. Early Life

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, as the second child of four born to Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. He was named Michael King Jr. after his father. When his father adopted Martin Luther’s name in honour of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther, he also made his son change his name into Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. has experienced racism ever since due to the laws of segregation, which strictly separated Whites from Blacks in all situations of everyday life. Even though his parents tried to shield him from these experiences, they influenced him for the rest of his life: “He saw WHITES ONLY signs staring back at him everywhere (…) Segregation caused a tension in the boy, a tension between his mother’s injunction (remember, you are somebody) and a system that demeaned and insulted him every day”[10]. His family was deeply religious and his father, Reverend of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, considered racism and segregation to be an :”affront to god’s will”[11], a message he relentlessly taught his children: “With this heritage, it is not surprising that I also learned to abhor segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.”[12]

King Jr. entered public school at the age of five and turned out to be an extraordinarily smart kid. On the other side he was extremely sensitive and suffered from a depression, which led to a suicide attempt after his maternal grandmother died. His extraordinary intelligence made him skip the 9th and 11th grades. He was a leading part of the school-debating club where he developed the base of his rhetorical skills that served him well in later speeches and the pursuit of his goals during the civil rights movement. After graduating from high school at the age of 15 he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta where he studied medicine and law. At Morehouse he got to know Dr. Benjamin Mays, the college president, who was also a preacher and theologian and an active member of the NAACP. Thanks to him, Martin Luther King understood that the ministry “could be a respectable force for ideas, even for social protest”[13] and chose to follow in his father’s footsteps.

After graduating from Morehouse, Martin Luther King completed three years of studies in theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951.

In 1953 he married Coretta Scott, who he had four children with. In the following year he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama while still working on his doctoral which he finished in 1955 at the age of 25.

3.2. Leader of the Civil Rights Movement

The key event that made King the leader and symbol of the Black’s fight for equality was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which is broadly regarded as the beginning of the civil rights movement. When Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, Martin Luther King was selected the head of the newly formed “Montgomery Improvement Association” which aimed to protest against the arrest and unequal treatment of Blacks. Martin Luther King and other local civil rights leaders organised a bus boycott which he became the spokesman of: “We have no alternative than to protest. For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come tonight to be saved, to be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”[14] Remarkable about this is, that even though the Whites suppressed, humiliated him and his “Negros” and even bombed his house during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he calls them “our white brothers”. This is quintessential for his peaceful manner of protesting and generating equality and brotherhood by regarding everyone as equal and brothers. For 382 days, Montgomery’s African people refused to take a bus and walked to work instead which led to a considerable loss of money for the city. The Montgomery Bus Boycott resulted in the abolishment of segregation on public transports and the foundation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King led as its president until his death and whose main purpose was to achieve full equality for African Americans through peaceful means.


[1] http://mlk−

[2] Oates, Stephen, B.: Let the trumpet sound. A life of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York 1994, p.321

[3] The information of this part are based on the following sources:

Field, Ron: African Peoples of the Americas. From slavery to civil rights, Cambridge 1995

[4], p. 3

[5] These laws were named after a black character in minstrel shows, cf.


[7], p. 7


[9] The following sources provided the information for this chapter: Historical Icons. Martin Luther King Jr. (dvd), San Francisco 2010 Carson, Clayborne (ed.): The autobiography of Martin Luther King, London 1999 Oates, Stephen B.: Let the trumpet sound. A life of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York 1994

[10] Oates, Stephen B.: Let the trumpet sound, p. 11-12


[12] Carson, Clayborne: The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., London 1999, p. 5

[13] Oates, Stephen B.: Let the trumpet sound, p. 20

[14] ibid. p. 71

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Martin Luther King. Does his crusade for equality still live on?
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Martin Luther King equality
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Brigitte Wildberger (Author), 2015, Martin Luther King. Does his crusade for equality still live on?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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