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MLK : A monument, an iconic figure, a hero? Why is he still so relevant today?

His fight then:

In May 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King organized the most brilliant civil disobedience campaigns of his career, when he brought more than a thousand black schoolchildren into the streets to demonstrate against segregation. Hundreds were arrested; others were blasted with fire hoses. When people rebuked Dr. King for putting young people at risk, he said: “Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job not only for themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.” The world reacted, shamed the city and Birmingham took its first steps toward desegregation. Thousands of school children and students are marching today  against gun violence. Had he survived, he would have surely been among them as he was in Birmingham. He fought for racial equality and voting rights, for fair wages and the reproductive rights of women. And in doing so, Martin Luther King Jr. became one of the pioneers of the American model of nonviolent protesting that’s practiced to this day. On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, let’ s take a look at how Americans emulate him, consciously or not, in today’s political movements.

MLK still relevant today : compare these photos

MLK protest with kids

Racial inequality: then :The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives a young protester a pat on the back as a group pickets against segregation in St. Augustine, Fla., on June 10, 1964. “This is the ultimate tragedy of segregation,” King said in an address to the National Council of Churches in 1957. “It not only harms one physically, but it injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and distorts the personality. It inflicts the segregator with a false sense of superiority, while inflicting the segregated with a false sense of inferiority.”

kids protest today

Racial inequality: now :Jayceon Hurtz, 2, holds a sign as Black Lives Matter protesters rally March 28, 2018, in response to the police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif. Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by police March 18 while in his grandmother’s backyard

dream MLK

Fair wages: now Fast food workers and union members carry signs as they stage a protest outside a McDonald’s in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 12, 2018. The protesters were demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage on the 50th anniversary of the start of the historic Memphis Sanitation Strike that was led by King.

Dr King, at the end of his life, said that all worthy leaders should live a life of « dangerous unselfishness ». Had he been here today, as he was for countless campaigns for social justice in the 1950s and 60s, he would have been walking hands in hands with protesters of March for Our Lives, BLM, Metoo, Never Again.

An article to illustrate his heritage and impact on US society:

The life and legacy of MLK

Political atmosphere today in the US : progress is cut off but let’ s remember the sermon he gave before he died, somber and cautionary but also full of hope: « Only when it’s dark enough, can you see the stars ».

What Martin Luther King Jr. Might Think About America Today

The fight for full African American citizenship continues.

When I heard about the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought back to another name etched into American history: Dred Scott.

In 1857, the Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether Scott, an African American man born into slavery, should be granted his freedom. The justices not only denied Scott’s request, but also took the opportunity to send a chilling message to all African Americans, free and enslaved, that reverberates to this day.

The court held that as members of an inferior race, African Americans were not citizens at all — and, as such, did not even have legal standing to sue. African Americans, as Chief Justice Roger Taney so decisively determined, had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The next century was characterized by an ongoing struggle to prove Taney wrong.

African American heroism during the Civil War era hastened the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which ended slavery and (theoretically) reversed race-based restrictions on citizenship. Yet these gains were negated almost as quickly as they were realized, as the strong grip of Jim Crow choked communities throughout the South.

Over the violent decades that followed, African Americans endured church bombings,harassment, and police beatings and animal attacks, like the brutalities inflicted on those marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. This sacrifice of the black body, along with sustained lobbying, ultimately led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yet even today, second-class citizenship continues. It shows up in generational poverty, a disparate education system, mass incarceration, and violence at the hands of police.

In fact, African Americans are three times as likely as whites to be killed by police, even though they’re twice as likely to be unarmed. That’s produced a slew of names that, like Dred Scott’s, may loom over our history for centuries because of the rights they were denied.

In 2012, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both of whom had committed no crimes or infractions of any sort, were deprived of their constitutional right to life by self-deputized racists who proclaimed themselves judge, juror, and executioner and gunned them down.

That same year, Rekia Boyd was murdered under a hail of bullets by an off-duty police officer who reproached Boyd and her friends for talking too loudly, depriving her of her right to free speech, freedom of assembly, and life.

In August 2014, Michael Brown’s right to a fair and public trial was violated by the police officer who shot him and callously left his lifeless body to bleed out in the street.

Walter Scott’s life and right to due process were taken in April 2015 at the hands of a law enforcement officer, who then had the audacity to plant his weapon next to Scott’s motionless body on the ground — all over a mere traffic violation.

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a father of five who was selling CDs to provide for his children, was murdered by law enforcement officers who violated his Fourth Amendment right to prevent unwarranted search and seizure simply because he fit a certain profile.

Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light. Castile’s non-threatening disclosure that he was legally carrying a concealed weapon prompted a police officer to murder him in front of his partner and her four-year-old daughter, violating his Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In 2016, one would hope that the “inalienable rights” of all Americans are respected. Yet Taney’s words that African Americans “have no rights which the white man was bound to respect” still ring loud and clear.

The fight for full African American citizenship continues.



Slavery in the USA was abolished in 1865, but black Americans did not have equality:

  • The Ku Klux Klan beat up and lynched [lynchTo kill someone, usually by hanging, without holding a legal trial. black people.
  • Black people were not allowed to use white public facilities such as schools and parks. This was called ‘segregation’.

There had been successful attempts to improve the status of black people before the 1950s – for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), set up in 1909.

However, it was in the 1950s and 1960s that the civil rights movement – led by Martin Luther King – challenged white supremacy:

  • In 1954, Rev Brown won the right to send his child to a white school.
  • In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • In 1957, nine black students, with military protection, went to a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • In 1963 – after campaigns of restaurant sit-ins, Freedom Rides on interstate buses and bloody civil rights marches – a quarter of a million people marched to the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

The civil rights movement gave black Americans legal equality:

  • The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places or jobs.
  • The Voting Rights Act (1965) gave all black people the vote.
  • The Fair Housing Act (1968) banned discrimination in housing.

However, black Americans did not achieve economic equality, and still remain a socially disadvantaged group.


‘Jim Crow’ laws were passed in the southern states. They denied black people equal rights. Black people and white people were segregated. Black people were not allowed to use ‘whites only’ public facilities. In this streetcar terminal in Oklahoma water coolers are marked for ‘colored’ or white use.

Many pictures that illustrate segregation can be found on the internet.

Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865, after a bloody civil war.

Life didn’t improve for ordinary black people in America:

  • ‘Jim Crow’ laws were passed in the southern states. They denied black people equal rights. Black people and white people were segregated [segregationKeeping groups, particularly racial groups, apart.. Black people were not allowed to use ‘whites only’ public facilities such as schools and parks.
  • Ku Klux Klan was formed. It was set up in 1865 to frighten, beat up and lynch black people.
  • Poverty was a major problem. Black people occupied the worst jobs in society. Many black women worked as servants to white people.
  • Race riots flared up. Occasionally white people would riot and attack black people such as happened in Detroit in 1943.

Gradually, black Americans began to challenge their second-class status:

  • In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was set up to oppose discrimination by challenging it in the courts.
  • In the 1920s and 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance celebrated black culture and declared ‘black is beautiful’. Jazz music and dances like the Charleston became popular.
  • In the Second World War, black Americans were just as brave as white Americans. They came home demanding respect. The US military finally allowed black and white soldiers to serve next to each other in 1948.
  • In 1942, James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge segregation by non-violent direct action.
  • In 1957, Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight for civil rights by peaceful marches and demonstrations.

    The path to civil rights

    paths to civil rights1954: Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case. With the help of the NAACP, Rev Brown won the right in the Supreme Court to send his child to a white school.

Again many pictures can be found on the internet to illustrate the following events:

1955: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Black people in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, refused to use the buses until the Town Council abolished segregated buses.

1957: Nine black students exercised their right to go to a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mobs threatened the students. Even the governor of Arkansas tried to stop them by sending in the National Guard. President Eisenhower eventually took charge and used soldiers to protect the students.

1960: Sit-ins took place when black students went and sat in white restaurants until they were attacked and thrown out.

1961: Freedom Riders were black and white activists who travelled together on interstate buses – many were badly beaten by white mobs.

1963: A civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama, was attacked by police and white racists.

1963: The Washington Freedom March took place when a quarter of a million people marched to the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.


  • In 1964, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize. The third Monday in January in America is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday.
  • White violence forced the US government to step in to give black people their rights:
    • The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places and jobs.
    • The Voting Rights Act (1965) made it illegal to do anything that might limit the number of people able to vote. Some states had used a literacy test to try and prevent black people from voting as many black people had limited access to education.
    • The Fair Housing Act (1968) banned discrimination in housing.
  • In 2008, a black American, Barack Obama, became President of the United States.


  • Civil rights did not give black Americans prosperity or jobs. Black Americans – particularly in the ‘black ghettos’ in the towns – remained poor and angry.As a result, more extreme black leaders such as Malcolm X, and more radical groups such as the Black Panthers, were set up – black protests in the 1970s became more violent.
  • Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
  • Black poverty, and violence and discrimination against black people, continues.


Many of the historians who wrote in the 1960s and 1970s about the civil rights movement had taken part in it. They focused on heroes of the movement, such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and the national campaigns which led to the civil rights laws.

Many of these books portrayed civil rights as a struggle between the bigoted white segregationists [segregationKeeping groups, particularly racial groups, apart. of the south and idealistic civil rights workers from the north.

This interpretation has provided thrilling stories for Hollywood films, such as Mississippi Burning (1988) and The Long Walk Home (1990) and most recently Selma..

The Revisionists

In the 1980s, local studies overturned this ‘heroic’ interpretation of civil rights history. They showed how the civil rights movement was built ‘bottom up’, out of thousands of local actions by black churches and community organisations from which a few issues, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, became national news.

In the 1990s, historians began to realise that the civil rights movement involved more than ‘evil whites fighting noble blacks’. They also began to pay more attention to different kinds of black activism – eg environmental and union campaigns – and the role of black women, and of other disadvantaged groups such as the Native Americans and Hispanic and Latino Americans.

Recent studies have shown that black challenges to discrimination did not spring into existence with Martin Luther King in the 1950s, but began as early as the 1860s.

What is your interpretation of the American civil rights movement? Was it something special or part of a longer process of protest and progress? Was it ‘the Martin Luther King show’, or part of a wider movement? Was it is a success or a failure?

Watch on the history of civil right history of the civil rights movement

One step forward…..

A post to come will focus on  African Americans in the USA today .