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Martin Luther King and the SCLC

Although it was a much more diffuse and diverse phenomenon than is sometimes appreciated, the undoubted figurehead of the American Civil Rights Movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1955-9 King led the organised protests against segregated seating on public transport known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that segregated transportation was unconstitutional. In 1957 he helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was elected its first president. The SCLC, and King in particular, polarised attitudes to the struggle for equality on both sides. His insistence on involving the church in direct action and protest alarmed and alienated the traditionalist black Christian community and his insistence on non-violence frustrated the younger student activists. He was idolised by liberal white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and became a hate-figure for an anxious, mainly southern, white population which believed its way of life was threatened by the campaign for racial equality.

King aligned himself with neither Republican nor Democratic party, believing that both had betrayed America’s black population at various times. He also believed that civil disobedience was the most potent weapon in the protesters’ armoury, and was himself arrested 29 times. In 1963 the SCLC and five other civil rights organizations joined together to lead the largest protest yet in the March on Washington. For the next five years, King continued to lead protests primarily in the southern states, after an unsuccessful excursion into the north in Chicago in 1966. On 4 April 1968, King and other activists were in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike by black sanitation workers. That evening, a single shot fired by James Earl Ray killed King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. At his side when he died were his long-time colleague and fellow-activist Ralph Abernethy and, according to his own account, the young leader of the SCLC’s economic arm, Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson and his bids for the presidency

Jesse Jackson came to the attention of the leadership of the SCLC during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. His organisational abilities quickly brought him considerable responsibility in the movement, although his obvious ambition was also noted. After King’s assassination, Jackson continued to push for greater responsibility in the SCLC, bringing him into conflict and finally break-up with Abernethy, who had become its senior figure. From early on, Jackson departed from the view of the struggle for civil rights as entirely to do with race and framed it in economic and social terms: “When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game”.

In 1971, Jackson formed his own organisation People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) which aimed at improving opportunities for disadvantaged people in the areas of business, education and employment. He also argued the importance of the civil rights movement engaging in mainstream politics, even to the extent of calling for closer relationships with the Republican Party. By the mid-1980s, blacks had made progress in mainstream politics with several black mayors in major cities and more than 30 black Congressmen and Congresswomen. In 1984, supported by a campaign coalition of activist groups that he called the Rainbow Coalition, Jackson moved to bring what were still often regarded as minority interests into presidential politics by running for nomination as Democratic Party candidate for president. He was the second black American to seek the nomination after Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and, although unsuccessful, his campaign increased levels of voter registration among blacks and he won 21% of the popular vote. A second campaign for the nomination in 1988 garnered more voter registrations and votes and victories in several primaries and caucuses, as well as indicating increased levels of support among some white Americans.

The Rainbow effect

Jackson’s unsuccessful campaigns and his involvement in a number of controversies, not least those arising from his association with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, a black political-religious movement, have left him on the edges of mainstream politics. However, many commentators consider that his campaigns prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the USA in 2008. In addition, Jackson has continued to make contributions to social and political issues through his leadership of the multi-ethnic Rainbow PUSH organisation. It is in his broadening of constituency to include not only black Americans, but also Asian and Hispanic minorities that Jackson may have demonstrated most foresight in showing the way for mainstream politics. Obama’s 2012 election victory was built on securing very high levels of support from ethnic minorities. These minorities made up 33% of the US population in 2010; by 2050, they will make up 54%.

More information

Key moments in Jesse Jackson’s life and career


Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson
Speeches, interviews, memoirs and other resources from TV series.

An overview of the American Civil Rights Movement


Key events and figures in the American Civil Rights Movement


The March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s famous speech


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The history of African Americans in the twentieth century
Comprehensive information and resources about the history of African Americans in the twentieth century with three modules: 1919 – 1953, 1954 – 1975 and 1976 to the present.

US social and economic issues in the AD1980s-1990s


Biographies of US presidents from an African American perspective by Christopher B. Booker, Howard University


Next section: A bigger picture

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