Representative John Lewis remembers when he first met Martin Luther King, Jr. during a discussion this summer with artist Danny Lyon. Lewis and Lyon first met in the 1960s, when Lewis was serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Lyon was a principal photographer of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and a staff member of SNCC. Watch more.
In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr.—founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Nobel laureate and the nation’s most prominent civil rights activist—moved his family into a squalid tenement apartment in one of Chicago’s economically barren ghetto neighborhoods.
A fixture in American political life since December 1955, when he assumed leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association—a coalition of churches and organizations that banded together to coordinate a boycott of city buses following Rosa Parks’ arrest just weeks before Christmas—King subsequently appeared to be everywhere the civil rights movement took root. Albany, Georgia; Birmingham; Selma; Atlanta. Even when he wasn’t at the forefront of events, as was the case with the wave of lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides that shook the South in 1960 and 1961, civil rights activists at the grassroots level looked to him for guidance and inspiration.
Now, the man who helped spearhead a movement that had pressed successfully for laws integrating schools, public accommodations and voting booths was ready to take the struggle north, where, as he put it, “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.”
That summer, King led protests throughout the “bungalow belt” in Chicago’s working-class white neighborhoods and the nearby blue-collar suburb of Cicero. Polish, Italian and Irish residents who once regarded themselves as strident New Deal Democrats and who had applauded passage of the Voting Rights Act a year earlier now erupted in rage against the invading legion of peaceful black protesters. They cascaded marchers with rocks, beat them with clubs and fists, and hurled ugly invective of the sort that most people would have expected of Southern Klansmen. Cries of “White Power! White Power!” rang out in an angry rebuke of the “black power” mantra that many young, radical civil rights activists had adopted a year earlier. “Polish Power!” “Burn them like Jews!” “Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back.” (One protester tried to do just that but missed, inadvertently sending a knife into the shoulder of another backlash heckler.)
King was aghast at the ugly reception accorded his peaceful marchers. “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” he mournfully observed.
Almost 50 years after his death, we remember MLK as the transcendent figure who helped lift the South out of Jim Crow. We also remember him as almost preternaturally calm in the face of great pressure and danger. He was indeed all of these things. But the passage of time has obscured his dimensionality. In the last years of his life, King expanded his vision beyond the former Confederacy and took on a broader struggle to dismantle America’s jigsaw edifice of racial and economic discrimination—a struggle that took him deep into northern states and cities, where onetime allies became bitter enemies. He did so even as he strained to keep a fractious civil rights movement unified, and in the face of unremitting sabotage from federal authorities.
In April of 1965, Dr. King visited Boston. He addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts State Legislature and then led a march of about 22,000 down Columbus Avenue to the Boston Common, where he spoke to the crowd.
After King’s visit, this Bostonian wrote to Boston Mayor Collins and complimented him on the “dignified reception” that met Dr. King in Boston. “When all Americans enjoy equal rights and opportunities throughout our country, a stronger more united nation will emerge.”
Box 20, Folder 2, Mayor John Collins records, Collection 0244.001, Boston City Archives.
Hey so because it’s MLK day, I just wanted to say a quick thing. MLK was inspirational, pivotal, and an amazing man. He was the public face of the civil rights movement. That’s important to remember, because often the major events that we remember (freedom rides, bus boycotts, etc) were organized by members and leaders of civil rights organizations (SNCC, NAACP, SCLC). MLK was important because he traveled to places where things were happening and brought attention to them, but even without him, leaders of the civil rights movement would’ve still made everything happen. People to remember and learn about: Ella Baker, Edgar Nixon, Rosa Parks (who did so much more than refusing to sit; she and others planned that scene on the bus to begin the bus boycott), T. R. M Howard, Jo Ann Gibson-Robinson, Myles Horton, and many more.
Remember MLK, and remember all that he did, but also remember all those that fought alongside him.
USA. Illinois. Chicago. 1970. A teenager wearing a Bobby Seale button on his hat to show his support to the Black Panther Party. One of the greatest achievements of the Black Panthers was their ability to motivate urban youth.
A lot of people, Black and white, have the impression that those of us who got involved in the Movement, when it started in 1960, were fighting for integration. That’s the way the white press interpreted the sit-ins and freedom rides and all that. But what they didn’t understand was that none of us was concerned about sitting down next to a white man and eating a hamburger. Anybody who thinks that is reflecting white nationalism. That’s that white supremacist attitude. Nothing is good unless it can be done in the company of white people. We would’ve been some kind of fools to get beaten up, spat on and jailed the way a lot of folks did just to sit down at a lunch counter beside a white person. Integration was never our concern. In fact, integration is impractical. You cannot legislate an attitude and integration is based upon an attitude of mutual acceptance and respect between two racial or cultural groups in the society. A law can govern behavior, but attitudes cannot be forced or enforced, and what the Civil Rights Movement was concerned with was controlling the animalistic behavior of white people. I resented somebody telling me I couldn’t eat at a certain place. It wasn’t that I wanted to eat there. Hell no! I always knew we had the best food anyway. But as part of that constant battle waged by Black people against white america, if white folks didn’t want me to eat there, in the door I went. If I had a free choice, I’d sit in the back of the bus. That’s where the heater is. We weren’t fighting for integration. We were letting white folks know that they could no longer legislate where we went or what we did.
H. Rap Brown, Die Nigger Die: A Political Autobiography
this day in 1929, the future civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Born as Martin King, he and his father
changed their names in honour of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. King
entered the ministry in his twenties and first came to national
attention for his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This
event is considered by many to be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement,
which saw a national struggle to end discrimination against African-Americans. King was one of many leaders, but became the face of
the movement for his nonviolent tactics and powerful oratory. In 1963,
during the March on Washington, King delivered the crowning speech of
the movement - the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Beyond his role in combating
racial inequality, King also focused on tackling poverty and advocating
peace, especially during the Vietnam War. On April 4th 1968, King was
shot and killed by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived to see
the legislative achievements of the movement - the 1964 Civil Rights
Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act - but tragically was unable to continue
the push for full equality. The movement King set in motion continues to
be fought today; the United States is still not a completely equal
society and systemic discrimination persists. However, thanks to Martin
Luther King, America is closer to fulfilling King’s dream of a truly
free and equal society. Since 1986, a national Martin Luther King Day is
celebrated on the third Monday in January.
USA. California. Oakland. 1971. Mojo mows the lawn as Black Panthers (and Mojo’s dog) stand in the yard of the Black Panther National Headquarters. 1048 Peralta Street, West Oakland.
The Black Panther Party was one of the most influential responses to racism and inequality in American history. The Panthers advocated armed self-defence to counter police brutality, and initiated a program of patrolling the police with guns and law books. Their enduring legacy is their programs, like Free Breakfast for Children, which helped to inspire a national movement of community organising for economic independence, education, nutrition, and health care. Seale believed that “no kid should be running around hungry in school,” a simple credo that lead FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to call the breakfast program, “the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralise the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”