If today America seems divided, by the first half of the 20th century it was even more divided. Jim Crow laws had reversed the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln had issued in 1863 during the Civil War. It wasn’t until almost a century later, thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), that racial segregation in the country was finally ended.
Jim Crow v. Abraham Lincoln
Even after the abolition of slavery, racism remained in the social dynamics of Southern states and there weren’t as many changes in terms of society’s acceptance of African-Americans who now enjoyed the same freedoms and civil protections as any other American citizen. Over the years, the Democrats gained more and more political territory in southern governorships and city halls.
It was after the “Great Compromise” of 1877 that resulted in the last withdrawal of federal troops in the South, that the Redeemers, a racist Democratic grand coalition, regained political power in the South, enacting Jim Crow laws and making African American voter registration and participation impossible in the last decades of the century.
With tax hikes, literacy tests, and text comprehension as strict requirements for exercising the right to vote, African-Americans and poor whites were virtually denied the right to vote.
The status of freedom for African-Americans that had begun as a great event led by Abraham Lincoln was quickly reversed for a century until the enactment of the “Civil Rights Act” in 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr., the good
Drinking fountains, buses, bathrooms, totally segregated sectors, plus constant persecution -often followed by lynching and murder- these were the conditions Jim Crow had created. But by the time of World War II the challenge to racial segregation had grown radically. In 1948 President Truman signed “Executive Order 9981” ending racial segregation in the military. But this alone was not enough.
It was the attack on veteran sergeant Isaac Woodard by police in South Carolina that caused, along with other events such as the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the incident of Rosa Parks on the bus, the organization of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. organized with different organizations and activists to hold the bus boycott in Selma, Alabama.
King’s leadership of the boycott inspired the continuation of the protest for more than a year despite police repression and the terrorism of white segregationists. Dr. King, who was arrested by authorities, revealed that he did not hold grudges, but rather nostalgia for understanding and communication.
In his book Stride toward Freedom; Montgomery’s Story, he wrote: “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, backed by the 40,000 African-Americans in the protest, succeeded in ending segregation in buses and other public spaces such as restaurants and schools in 1956, but many battles carried on until 1964.
Yet King Jr. didn’t stop there. He continued his leadership by organizing and leading massive marches for African American suffrage, the right to work -which also sought the dignity of work- and general desegregation. All these actions served as important pressures and his demands ended up being typified in the “Civil Rights Act” and the “Voting Act” of 1965.
His leadership, however, had generally been regional until his arrest in Birmingham, Alabama, when he generated the support of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) in 1963. This set an important political precedent, as regional authorities had ignored or criticized King’s actions. JFK’s support virtually sealed the passage of a law abolishing segregation and granting civil rights to African-Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr., the bad
Despite his great achievements, King was a man full of flaws that are as strong as his positive characteristics. The first, most notable to both his fellow activists and his rivals, was the use of children in the demonstrations he organized. For the boycott in Birmingham, King decided to use children in an attempt to deter police violence.
The result, to the activist’s surprise, was the opposite. Children and youth were harshly repressed and arrested by authorities who showed little compassion. Malcolm X, a radical Muslim and black nationalist, criticized the actions saying: “real men don’t put their children in the spotlight.”
Declassified FBI files reveal that MLK led a very different life from a religious leader should. In 1968, King had received funding from the Ford Foundation to sponsor workshops for African-American ministers in Florida. The documents show that the pastor participated in orgiastic events with other activists. “A black minister who attended later expressed his distaste for the drinking, fornication and homosexuality behind the scenes that occurred at the conference,” it reads.
“Several black and white prostitutes were brought in from the Miami area. An all-night sex orgy was held with these prostitutes and some of the delegates,” reads a later statement. In the event, the document relates, two women refused to participate in the event, which “King and another of the men present discussed” to agree “how they would be taught and initiated in this regard.”
Writer David Garrow, who won his Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Martin Luther King, comments on other disturbing revelations about the activist. The FBI had planted transmitters in the rooms that had been reserved for King. Looking for information about potential connections to the Communist Party, they actually found a rape of one of the parishioners who had accompanied him and his friend, Pastor Logan Kearse.
The incident, according to the Daily Mail, went as follows: In King’s hotel room, the archives claim that they then “discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural and unnatural sex acts.”
“When one of the women protested that she didn’t agree,” he continues, “the Baptist minister immediately and forcefully raped her” while King watched. King’s reaction, the document shows, was to “look, laugh and offer advice” during the rape.
When a woman criticized the act, the document states that Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly said that performing the act “would help his soul.”
Beyond Martin Luther King
King’s facets show two faces, one public and one private; both recorded, but one much more terrible and unknown than the other. His tireless pursuit of African-American rights, which ended in one of the greatest civil events, cast a shadow over some of his unacceptable and occasionally repulsive behavior.
The irony surrounding the lives of many historical leaders is the contradictory nature of these: curtailing freedoms in the name of freedom, killing in the name of life, and so on. But King’s actions are linked only to hypocrisy tainted by state secrecy (no violation by a pastor can be said to seek greater benefit in the context of religious freedom or civil rights).
This is not to say that his flaws contradict the struggle for rights, but they do leave an unremovable stain on a leader who inspired generations for decades to come