Voices of Civil Rights Activists
Freedom Rides across the South were common in the decades-old struggle for civil rights in a segregated society. James Meredith made headlines when he tried to enroll in the all-white University of Mississippi and the governor personally blocked his attempts despite federal law. This being the early 1960s, President Kennedy had sent in federal marshals.
Governor George Wallace of Alabama blocked the University of Alabama, and once again, Kennedy sent in the National Guard. Such incidents incited the president to propose a bill on desegregation, and his successor would push through significant civil rights legislation.
Several African-American leaders' voices rose up amid the chaos of the 1960s. Angela Davis promoted the concept that being black is beautiful. Malcolm X, assassinated in 1965, gave voice to the Black Power movement, urging blacks to reject white culture in favor of their own heritage.
Although at first he preached violence as a means of expression, he later devoted himself to peace. The Black Panther activists also staged antiwar protests and stood for the black cause.
The Rise of Martin Luther King Jr.
The most noted of the leaders was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who had organized the bus boycotts during Rosa Parks's struggle in the 1950s. As a clergyman, he used his vision of nonviolent confrontation to challenge segregation and the racial divide, and in doing so, he convinced other Americans to join his cause.
King, along with other black leaders, organized the August 1963 March on Washington. During this march he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, where he said:
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. . . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. . . .
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’
King's speech showed not only his articulate and passionate delivery, but also his moral character, and it gave momentum to his followers and their cause. As a result of his work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
A Hero Falls
Continuing his work to speak out for equality, King made another speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, where he said, “We've got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.” The next evening, on April 4, an assassin gunned down Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the balcony of his Memphis motel.
Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president and now a presidential contender himself, informed a crowd of people in Indianapolis of King's death, refusing to cancel his remarks in light of the danger of further violence.
Kennedy told those gathered that he understood their anguish, as he'd lost a brother to an assassin's bullet, and he added, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
While the crowd listened intently and followed Robert Kennedy's advice, others around the country engaged in a week of looting, rioting, and burning.