Since the Reconstruction, there have been grassroot activists whose contribution is significantly overlooked and unreported yet they solidified the civil rights movement. From a social perspective, these local communities were the most important in shifting ideology. However, since the spotlight was not shone upon these events, the effects ‘must have seemed undramatic’. However, Charles M. Payne further argued that grassroot organisations were ‘slowly developing’. A prime example of a grassroots event was the Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 1955 to December 1956. Prior to the boycott, during 1955, 75% of revenue going to the bus companies in Montgomery Alabama came from African Americans, yet the seats were segregated with white people getting the best seats. In anger Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat causing the police to be called. This led to a full scale boycott as the local community worked together to gain justice for Parks, they were led by King. Finally the supreme court applied the 1954 Brown ruling to busses, meaning that they would be desegregated. Socially, this was a major victory for the local black community. However, this event would not have succeeded in the same way without the spotlight given by Martin Luther King. On the 5th of December 1955, a group of black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected King as president. The boycott was a major political success for King, who developed a larger political standing and cement his beliefs of non-violent resistance. The effects that King’s power had on the outcome was emphasised through the contrasting newspaper articles from that era. December 6th 1955, Montgomery Advertiser published an article, saying how the council would not compromise. Furthermore, the Attorney believed that it was ‘impossible to accept the proposed seating arrangement’. Just over a year later, an article from the New York Times stated that ‘the Negroes and the whites for the first time sat where they both chose to sit’. Both newspapers can be seen as reliable sources as they both give factual and gave balanced accounts even though they were both partially left wing. Martin Luther King’s publicity made every event he was attached to that was originally a grassroots campaign, have unfair representation, but gave the event the attention that it needed. However, from a political perspective, King needed to influence government.
Steven Lawson claims that “the government played an indispensable role in shaping the fortunes of the civil rights revolution”, suggesting that the progression of the Civil Rights Movement was reliant on the federal government. While political support did vary from president to president and which Civil Rights leader was trying to gain that support. After his death in 1865, Abraham lincoln’s legacy was a significant reason for the civil rights movement pushing forward in the way that it did, especially in the next two years. When arguing over Lincoln’s legacy, one has to mention Frederick Douglass, a black slave who worked with LIncoln to abolish slavery. Over the reconstruction period, Amendments 14 and 15 were issued, declaring that all citizens were entitled to full civil rights, including the right to vote. These prove to be the basis of the entire movement, even though Lincoln died before the amendments could be properly enforced, therefore, these newly freed slaves lost any security they did have and now had to provide for themselves. While this was problematic and Johnson refused to continue Lincoln’s work, in the long term, the work that Lincoln and Douglass did set the foundations for the future; without the abolition of slavery and the amendments to the law, Martin Luther King and the other leaders would not have had the chance to continue changing society. Without the reconstruction the African American community would have progressed very differently. Therefore, even though the failings of improving African American life were significant, the position it placed the African American people in to continue the fight for their rights was much more powerful. Lincoln’s legacy allowed black activists to oppose the Jim Crow Laws and other obstructions to their rights. A prime example of how Abraham Lincoln forwarded the USA decades later was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought the end of the Jim Crow laws suggested to be the most ‘far-reaching civil rights law since Reconstruction’. Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, approximately 55% of eligible Black people gained the vote in Mississippi.
The tone that is presented within the quotation (source 3) is of respect. Over the time the two men worked together, Lincoln’s ‘respect for back troops increased considerably’. In the short term this friendship influenced those who saw the two interacting and therefore, influence the whole population. The quote actually took place in front of two police officers whose ‘jaws dropped’ when they saw the interaction. This makes the source highly valuable because one can understand that even in 1865 society was changing and people had more ‘radical’ views. This further supports the argument that Martin Luther King was only helpful at the very end of the Civil Rights Movement and bringing the entire event to a climax. The government was mostly useful during the period of reconstruction and around a century later when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
To conclude, the legacy left by King, the input through his non-violent ideology and his world-renowned speeches lead people to agree with the Great Man debate. It cannot be denied that he was a national spokesperson and gained vast amounts of media attention; he was the figurehead of civil rights. However, one cannot ignore the amount of work that went into the civil rights movement before King. The Grassroot activists, government and other leaders were present much longer than Martin Luther King but do not get the same recognition. From a socialist perspective, one could argue that the most significant individual was the legacy that Lincoln left behind, supported by Frederick Douglass. Compared to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the work of WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King was limited in power. While Malcolm X had many weaknesses, he became the face of rebellion, whereas, Martin Luther King’s ‘de jure’ legislative achievements were only ‘paper victories. Therefore, while Martin Luther King was successful in helping improve the political standing of the advancement of African American Civil Rights, it is unfair to say that he is the most significant figure. Each person or group throughout the period had their own successes and weaknesses; Lincoln had a legacy that lasted over a century, Douglass became a “role model not only to blacks and whites, but to all people everywhere”. The grassroots activists were the faceless soldiers that fought, laying down the path that Martin Luther King could walk across to take the award. Therefore, the importance of Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement has been highly exaggerated and to believe he was solely the most significant individual would be hyperbolic.