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Today we're going to learn about perhaps the best-known leader in the Civil Rights Era, Martin Luther King, Jr. From his rise to notoriety during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the March on Washington in 1963, his work toward the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, and his assassination in 1968, Dr. King is very broadly known. But maybe he isn't that well understood. Like many extremely famous people, Martin Luther King can sometimes be drawn as a bit of a flat character, and his ideas can be reduced to platitudes. Today we'll try to give you a fuller picture of the man and leader he was.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Rustin, “Montgomery Diary,” Liberation (April 1956): 7–10.
D’Emilio, Lost Prophet, 2003.
King to Edward P. Gotlieb, 18 March 1960, in Papers 5:390–391.

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CC Kids:

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Hi, I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History. Perhaps the most notable figure of modern civil rights movement is Dr.

Martin Luther King Junior. Dr. King has become a symbol of peace, courage, sacrifice, and impeccable leadership, but it's important to remember that he didn't do this alone.

Together with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King played a pivotal role in changing the tide of civil right legislation in the United States from 1956 to 1968.  Another important thing is that we are often taught about Dr. King in a two-dimensional sort of way that often flattens and oversimplifies, or just ignores the totality of his political beliefs.

But we're not going to do that today, so let's start the show.  (?~0:46) Crash Course Theme through to (?~0:55) Martin Luther King Junior was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.

At just 15 years old King was admitted into Morehouse College which is a HBCU in Atlanta. There he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorportate, the oldest black fraternity in the United States and one that I joined when I was in college too. At Morehouse he studied law and medicine.

At first, he had no intention of following in the footsteps of his father who was a minister, that is until he met Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays.

Mays was then the president of Morehouse College and he was also a minister. He established a reputation of advocating for racial equality and his work had an enormous influence on the young Martin. So after graduating from Morehouse King received a Bachelor's Degree in Divinity and Theology from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, and then a PhD in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955. 

While in Boston he met the woman that would become his wife, Miss Coretta Scott, and they married and soon settled down in (?~2:00). 

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 Not even a year settling into their new home, the city began to bubble with tension because of the monumental Brown v. Board decision that declared key tenets of Plessey v. Ferguson unconstitutional. The desegregation of schools sparked unrest among black citizens in Montgomery who wanted to see Jim Crow segregation undone in all areas of life, and this is how Martin met Rosa Parks. The black citizens of Montgomery had long waited an opportunity to launch an attack on the horrid abuse that took place within the segregationist system of public transportation. The 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks was the last straw. While community members and leaders were ready to take action, they sought out a leader who and as someone new in town, King also had the benefit of having a clean slate to work with. So Doctor King got his first taste of leadership when he was asked to head the Montgomery Improvement Association and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Soon after the successful boycott, King was invited to Atlanta, Georgia to create an effort, similar to the Monthomery Bus Boycott, that could be executed across the South. Over January 10th and 11th of 1957, 60 black ministers and civil rights leaders convened in Atlanta at the renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church to replicate the successful Montgomery strategy. This group would soon become known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC. As an organization inextricably linked to the black church, it is no surprise that the SCLC regarded churches as pivotal organizing spaces for civil rights activism. The ministers of the SCLC soon chose Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to be their first president. And in it's later years, the SCLC would address other pressing issues like war and poverty. Reverend Ralph Abernathy Sr. co-founded the SCLC and served as the organization's treasurer.

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Another individual key to the success of Dr King was Bayard Rusti, while he did not hold a specific leadership position, he served as King's advisor and right-hand man since the Montgomery Bus Boycott During the Montgomery demonstrations, Rustin helped King develop the movement's non-violent rhetoric that became, the foundation of the SCLC's work. From the beginning, the SCLC identified, non-violence as their cornerstone strategy, they also soon decided to make the SCLC movement open to all individuals regardless of race, religion or back ground. King and the SCLC grew determined to bring national attention to the plight of black Americans in Birmingham. A city that was regarded as the most segregated places in all of the United Staes. The objective of this campaign was to end discriminatory practices and hiring, desegregate stores and accelerate the desegregation of schools. In a direct violation of a ruling against protests, King held a Good Friday demonstration on April, 12th, 1953. That day, he and 50 others were arrested and later a smuggled a copy of the local newspaper to Dr King while he was in his cell. He opened the paper to find that eight white clergymen had published a essay that criticized the march that he had led and other similar demonstrations against racial inequality. In the piece entitled "A Call for Unity", the clergymen urged black locals to refrain from letting "outsiders" sway them toward "unwise and untimely" behaviours that might incite violence and told them to "stick to petitioning the local courts" for their rights. Deeply frustrated by what he had just read, King in that moment began to write a response, doing so in the margins in the very newspaper he had read the column, and King didn't hold back. And this document became one of the most central documents of the entire civil rights movement.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King rejected the idea that what was happening in Birmingham wasn't his business. Quote "I cannot sit idly by Atlanta and not concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." He pushed back against the idea that if black people were just patient, equality would soon come. Quote "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" had almost always meant "Never". And then he made his famous assertion that the white moderate was a immense danger to the success of the civil rights movement. Quote "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom.". He had written nearly 7000 words and with the help of his attorney, those words were smuggled out of the jail and printed in newspapers and magazines across the country.

 (08:00) to (10:00)

King's letter is not just speak directly to the clergymen, it was also an appeal to America's soul. The SCLC was not the only organization working toward the desegregation of public services in search of racial equality. So too was the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee also known as SNCC. These two organizations were largely working toward a similar set of goals but often had different ideas of how to get there. You see, the SCLC strictly applied a model of propping up one charismatic central leader adn in this case, it was Dr King. SNCC emphasized group-centred leadership, but despite their differences in approach, there are also times when the two organizations worked together, like the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1965 March on Selma. The combined effort of SNCC, the SCLC, black and white citizens and ministers from across the country proved successful. Finally applying enough pressure to get Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In late 1967, the SCLC opened a new chapter with it's Poor People's Campaign, it was launched to close the wealth cap between whites and blacks and to combat the growing and racialized threat of poverty in the United States. As Dr. King put it "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?". Just as King was pivoting SCLC's work toward economic justice, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessese on April, 4th, 1968. Unfortunately, the Poor People's Campaign collapsed in his absence. After King's death, the SCLC remained active in aiding black voter registration and supporting protests across the South. But the late 1960s met the growth of a more militant sect of protesters, leaders and intellectuals.

 (10:00) to (12:00)

The burgeoning Black Power Movement was taking root and people were becoming disillusioned with the idea of non-violent, peaceful protest. Speaking of non-violence, there is am another important point to make here, sometimes people can turn Dr King into a sort of caricature of himself that strips him of any political complexity that was actually central to who he was. People love to cite his line "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not judged byb the color of their skin, but by the content of their character", and in doing so they basically turn him into a single line, and the "I have a dream" speech make him out to be some sort of non-violent, kumbaya teddy bear. And while it is true that Dr King was deeply committed to non-violence, a deeper analysis of his work, writing and speeches revealed King's political views were often more radical and more expansive than they have often been made out to be. For example, King advocated for a guaranteed Universal Basic Income and guaranteed employment for anyone willing wanting to work. One of his basic principles was that "No one should be forced to live in poverty while others live in luxury." Additionally he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and American imperialism more broadly. In a 1967 speech, he called the United States government, quote "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world". And while King seems to be widely loved and respected today, it wasn't always that way. In 1966, just two years after he was killed, according to Gallup polls two-thirds of Americans didn't approve of him or his work. All of this is a reminder that advocating for social change, pushing against the status quo and fighting against those in positions of power, doesn't mean you'll be popular when you're doing it, in fact you might vilified just like King was. 

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But attempting to build a better society has never been about being popular or being well-liked. It;s about trying to build the sort of world that we all deserve to live in. Even if it means you won't get to see that world yourself, and King, more than anyone, he knew this. He famously said, in the last speech he ever delivered, on the day before he was assassinated, quote "I've been to the mountain top... I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.". Thanks for watching, I'll see you next time. Crash Course is made with the help of all these nice people and our animation team is Thought Café. Crash Course is made possibly by all of our viewers and supporters. Thanks to those of you who bought the 2021 Crash Course 2021 Learner coin and thank you to our patrons on Patreon.