Civil Rights Most Americans Have Heard Martin Essay

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Civil Rights

Most Americans have heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" in which he talked about the dream he had for the future of his nation in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by "the content of their characters." It's a stirring speech, of course, but today it is often offered to viewers out of context. There is the history of slavery and then the KKK and the era of Jim Crow, and then (in the abbreviated version of American history that is all too common) suddenly there is the "I have a Dream Speech" and then today there is an African-American president.

But, of course, the history of the fight for and the growth of American civil rights is hardly either so linear or so discontinuous. Nor is it as dependent on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. As it can seem today, when King has emerged as the icon of the movement. This comment is not meant to disparage the contributions that King made to the Civil Rights Movement in particular or to American history in general. However, it also seems clear that King himself would not have been entirely pleased with the way that he has been lionized at the expense of others in the movement. For while no important social movement can succeed without charismatic leaders, neither can it succeed without the hundreds and often thousands of others who give their labor, their love, and their dreams.

King wrote about the ways in which movements must always be collective in their nature in his essay "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," one of his most trenchant statements of his philosophy:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Society cannot be changed by a handful of individuals, at least not in the long run. Rather, changes must be made by many people to ensure that they are both broad and deep.

The Civil Rights Movement, despite its inclusive terminology, actually refers primarily to the struggle of African-Americans from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s to gain a more equal position in American society. The movement achieved a number of important gains for black Americans; it is, however, important to remember that it was also limited in its scope. Other racial minorities were not included in the movement, nor was there much thought given to women's rights (Height 84). Even some issues that directly affected blacks were not fully addressed until the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s brought to the fore such ideas as pride in racial identity and increasing social and cultural autonomy.

The Civil Rights Movement focused on the most pernicious aspects of racism in American society in the middle of the last century, including limitations on the rights of black Americans to vote and the system of social segregation known as Jim Crow. Black men had been granted the right to vote during the Civil War, and black women were given the franchise along with all other American women with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But despite their legal right to vote, blacks often faced personally insurmountable barriers at the polls.

These barriers included such things as "poll taxes," fees that individuals had to pay to vote that barred the poorest people (including most black Americans) from voting and literacy tests,…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Barber, Lucy. "In the Great Tradition: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963," in Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition. (Berkeley: U. Of California Press, 2002), 141 -- 178.

Height, Dorothy. "We wanted the voice of a women to be heard": Black women and the 1963 March on Washington," in Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. Eds. Collier. Thomas, Bettye and V.P. Franklin. (New York: NYU press, 2001), 83 -- 91.

Klug, Francesca, Starmer, Keir, and Weir, Stuart. The Three Pillars of Liberty: Political Rights and Freedoms in the United Kingdom. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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