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A BO U T The Struggle For Freedom, based on the American civil rights movement within the twentieth century, looks closely at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its prominent leader, Martin Luther King Jr. This research piece will examine their cause and success while using a combination of historical, sociological and comparative perspectives.

Writing & Direction / Esther Koh For Lee


Context & Climate 04 SCLC 06 Martin Luther King Jr. 08 The Movement 10 à Birmingham à A Dream Evaluation 14 à The Body à Gandhi Bibliography 18


The struggle for equality

Americans in the early twentieth-century were described as a ‘melting pot’, racial groups and nationalities being fused together. However there had been racial tension between the white majority and the minority of racial groups. This was as a result of the common hostility between another country, race or culture – the idea of someone being ‘different’. (Sanders, 2008)

In the famous case of Plessey v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation, the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, was legal in 1896. This meant that African-Americans were denied equal access to public facilities, were unable to participate in the economic sphere and were excluded from voting (Evans et al., 2007). The marginalisation created an inferiority complex among African-Americans, however this brought to attention racial equality in the light of the injustice. Campaigns run by African-Americans begin to surface in efforts to change this social stratification. As the rest of America progressed, civil rights movements were concentrated in the south as segregation was still dense. This raised many challenges in undergoing protest, as they were confronted with hostility, which ultimately became a big test of endurance.


Organisation Structure After the Montgomery Bus Boycott had ended the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited about 60 black ministers and leaders to Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. The SCLC’s main objective was to advance the cause of civil rights in America through a non-violent approach. The group was initially titled ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference’ but eventually chose ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’, for it did not imply an exclusion of other races to being on board and because church had played a major role in the lives of AfricanAmericans.

The SCLC had three main objectives: For white Americans to not stand by and watch while wrongs were being committed against the black community. Black Americans were encouraged to seek justice and reject all injustice. All those associated with SCLC had to accept the principle of non-violence regardless of provocation. The strategy was that the SCLC was a body that could develop the work done by other civil groups in the southern states. Martin Luther King was elected as its president as he was the most suitable for leading such an organisation. (Truman, HLS)

The reason for the launch of SCLC was that it offered direct non-violent action in the south, another being an alternative to NAACP’s litigation strategy. It wanted to be the missing gap in the civil rights movement, for example, CORE lacked dynamism when attempted nonviolence in the north. As well as the National Urban League already began improving life in the north. This shall begin to evaluate if this was an essential time for the SCLC to establish, and by looking at its achievements, will be able to determine its effectiveness. (Sanders, 2008)


Life in retrospect Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. In 1944-8 he studied at Morehouse College and was ordained as a minister. In 1957 King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1964 he received a Nobel Peace Prize and in 1968 at the age of 39, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

A calling King recalled a racial issue being apparent as a young child, when he was with is white friend: “His father had demanded hat he would play with me no more. I will never forget what a great shock this was to me… For the first time, I was made aware of the existence of a race problem.” Many threats on his life and family had resulted from King’s involvement in the 1956 bus boycott, and so he was urged by his family to give up activism. At first, he had rejected a church career for he had believed it did not focus on working to improve life in the world. à

“‘Martin Luther, stand-up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world’”. An inner voice spoke. (Sanders, 2008) King felt secure in his heart yet he lacked reliable legal protection, where some whites would attempt to blow up his home, and a mad woman stabbed him (the blade was millimetres away from his aorta). However these dangers did not deter King “My cause, my race, is worth dying for.” (Sanders, 2008) He also became increasingly pessimistic by the constant fear for his life, immense efforts, progress at a slow rate, and the rise of black and white extremists. Under this overt passion and drive was stressful perseverance, a room of doubts and vulnerability.

U nder this overt passion and drive was stressful perseveranc e, a room of doubts and vulnerability

It verifies that his motivations were not shallow, glory seeking, or easily shaken. In fact, the outcome of near death encounters and of ‘being human’ had strengthened not only his works but also his hope in attaining equality for all. As he was a widely respected man who was a key figure in leading the civil rights movements he was also widely resented and criticised. Some blacks thought he moved too slowly, some whites thought of him too extreme. He knew that he raised people’s hopes and sometimes failed to fulfill them. He understood that it was impossible to be all things to all people. “King’s early life illustrates black problems and opportunities in mid-twentieth century USA. The story of his activism reads like a history of the civil rights movement.” King’s life had depicted the uncertain, fluctuating nature of activism of putting one’s life and others’ on the line.

Role in the movement “King’s campaign depended greatly upon convincing people of the morality of the racial equality he sought.” For the civil rights movement to gain momentum there had to be a strong cause that was pushed forward to the public. To exercise this, King was presented has the moral figure who was to highlight the injustice and deliver a solution. The contradicting nature of publicising the cause is that it is either interpreted as being helpful to the cause or attention seeking. King had to counter criticisms of being a glory seeker, though deeply it was the required attention by sensationalising an issue. (Sanders, 2008)


Publicity & Solidarity The media became a powerful component during the civil rights movements as television was introduced in America. By 1960, 90 percent of American homes had television which meant this was an incentive for widespread change ( Rather than injustice as something that had to be personally witnessed, it now came as a form of televised news. National awareness was the first step to creating social change and legislation reform. The SCLC, along with other civil rights organisations, had used this medium to gain widespread support and the solidarity of blacks. Martin Luther King publicised actions and gave speeches. The media was the driving force of peaceful demonstrations and was crucial to sustaining progress.

Birmingham These peaceful demonstrations were organised by King in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Birmingham was chosen for the reason that it had the worst segregation record in the south and Black Nationalism was becoming increasingly attractive. This was an opportunity to demonstrate it could be dynamic and successful. Demonstrations included sit-ins in white only facilities, marches and economic boycotts. As the white oppositions believed that their protest was posing a threat to them, the protester’s concern was that there were bound to be violent provocation despite the non-violent demonstration. Targeting intensive Birmingham brought an intense response of violent attacks; people were struck by high-pressure fire hoses and by police dogs. Yet the SCLC had anticipated this and believed to adhere to the objectives. These protesters were imprisoned and once King was released, he went on a protest march consisting of African youth and children with the intentions of shaming the Birmingham city officials by filling the overcrowded prisons with black youth. The publicity of the protests successfully drew nationwide and international wide attention to black problems. (Field, 2002; Sanders, 2008)

Birmingham protests

Birmingham Police reaction

I Have A Dream, King

Letter from a Birmingham Jail In prison, King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ in response to a public statement issued by white religious leaders who believed that the present activity was unwise and untimely. The lengthy text, though quite necessary, justifies the presence of ‘direct action’ and delivers a poignant insight to the persecution and hostility Negros encounter almost averagely in their life. King desires for others to look past the superficial social analyst and to face the underlying causes than just the effects. This firsthand letter is important in understanding the motivations of King and how the SCLC operated. “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification and 4) Direct action” They were mindful of the hardship involved and prepared for it. King establishes the purpose of ‘nonviolent direct action’ as a confrontational force where the issue becomes apparent and unavoidable,

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” There is tension in different respects; violence that compels submission and nonviolence that brings attention to the truth. I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Growth is defined as a social progress; people being lifted out of injustice and to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. King opposes that the move was untimely for he believed justice too long delayed is justice denied. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. (King, 1963)

I have a dream: A national c onversation

On August 28 1963, in the same day of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd of 250,000 and delivered his speech, I Have A Dream. “It wasn't a black speech. It wasn't just a Christian speech. It was an all-American speech.” Says Andrew Young. King’s powerful string of prose had captivated not just whom rights were demanded for. He collectively addressed the white America with references to the Declaration of Independence and made biblical parallels to the long position of the Negro awaiting freedom. (Younge, The Guardian, 2013) James Baldwin, a skeptic of that day’s march later wrote “That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real.” The speech was not only presented as a declaration of the struggle and demand for equality but a conversation with American society.

This conversation was evident in the way King addressed and communicated to the audience. “Dr. King’s speech was not only the heart and emotional cornerstone of the March on Washington, but also a testament to the transformative powers of one man and the magic of his words” (Kakutani, NY Times, 2013). King was an excellent communicator and knew how to connect with his audience on a personal level. Part of it comes from his moral imagination and the ability to draw the audience to identify with his insight, avoiding alienation. Another sense of identification was through historical and biblical references, “Quotations from the Bible, along with its vivid imagery, suffused his writings, and he used them to put the sufferings of AfricanAmericans in the context of Scripture — to give black audience members encouragement and hope, and white ones a visceral sense of identification.” (Kakutani, NY Times, 2013)

One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. 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 even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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 that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." From every mountainside, let freedom ring.


I Have A Dream, M.L.K Curated for reference

E V A LU A TION A new means of success? The major success of the March on Washington had facilitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. SCLC and Martin Luther King Jr. enacted a change in legislation that granted black Americans the ability to vote, as well as opened citizenship schools. In many ways, we can comment on how SCLC and King have been successful and unsuccessful in executing change. Therefore we may be quick to speak of their success of which can be at odds. This research does not aim to measure their works with the success of the movement, but rather look at its individual success and how it arrived. For this reason, the context focuses on primary sources such as Letter from a Birmingham Jail and I Have A Dream speech. These texts are useful for its authenticity, without revision, allowing room for our own interpretations. Providing a realistic portrait of King and SCLC’s motivations and the attitude towards the public, with its significance being its place within the historical period.

The progress of the movement was essentially composed of SCLC, King and the media. Notably King and SCLC, they had to cooperate as one body in order for growth despite being seen as two personalities. In this ‘marriage’, SCLC was responsible for executing direct nonviolent action and making strategic decisions in consensus; where King would deliver the cause to the public, which was to be well communicated as a means of effect and to promote change. SCLC colleague Ella Baker insisted ‘the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement’ however: “His actions and involvement always gained national attention and sometimes provided the vital impetus for some reform. His organisation skills were limited, but his ability to inspire was peerless.” (Sanders, 2008) King being the bridge between SCLC’s objectives and the public influenced the way the public saw the movement and themselves. King extended an invitation to not only black Americans but the rest of America regardless of their race or socio-economic. This was powerful in creating unity. “Rustin always said that King's genius was that he could simultaneously talk to a black audience about why they needed to achieve their freedom and address a white audience about why they should support that freedom,” (Younge, The Guardian, 2013)

Gandhi arriving in London

They’re nonviolent approach to the movement is what sets apart from world means of attaining justice. Nonviolence brought attention to the truth, resulting with the conviction of adversaries. Ironically, direct action yet without violence is required for effect rather than passive action. The demonstrations such as sit-ins were a direct violation of the law to which reveals its absurdity. “So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the location and national community.” – MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Though in order for nonviolence to be in full effect, its broadcast has a decent job of doing so. Besides witnesses in the scene most sympathisers and supporters are gained from news media, those who are otherwise in other parts of America. The group enduring violence was an added poignancy to being nonviolent, which attracted people’s attention increasingly.

SCLC’s methods and approach to civil rights has evident parallels to India’s independence movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi. We could even see the likeness between King and Gandhi as political and pastoral leaders. Indeed it was a fact that Gandhi’s revolution was a scaffold to the American progress, with the zest of King. “King was a convert to Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent civil resistance. More than any other person, he was responsible for establishing this as the fundamental philosophical grounds of the American civil rights movement.” (Evans et al., 2007) In Gandhi’s rendition, this was known as Satyagraha, meaning truth force; and Ahimsa, meaning no harm. Another parallel to the civil rights movement was power manifested by a collective nation. A collective nation required people to identify with the same issue. In the cases of India and America, both were met with a national freedom struggle, a situation of ‘exiles in his own land’.

“A nd through our pain we will make them see their injustic e, and it will hurt -- as all fighting hurts.” – G andhi

Demonstrations like the bus boycott and sit-ins were reflective of India’s civil disobedience in response to the denial of rights. The 1930 salt march took place after the British had a monopoly on salt, a staple ingredient in India. These actions were symbolic of claiming victory in the now and empowered others to do so. Gandhi and King had similar leadership characteristics – both were anti-war, had a paternal relationship towards the people, and were regarded as a moral figure to which their underpinning philosophies had religious influence. Gandhi and King’s greatest definer of difference would be the duration in which they led and so, the extent of change and reform occurring in their time. Perhaps this could be a stable measure of success. King led for 11 years before he was assassinated whereas Gandhi led for 34 years before he was killed. Both reached to a change in the country’s legislation: India was independent and America was desegregated. Despite the similarities in the outcome Gandhi and King were fighting for separate causes. Both being a national injustice, India’s struggle for freedom was mainly a legislative issue where independence was not entirely given.

In America, racism and discrimination is still apparent through individual attitude even after desegregation of the law. “Fifty years on, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation – not racism, but formal, codified discrimination – the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus. The speech's appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic and public articulation of that victory.” (Younge, The Guardian, 2013) India’s independence is a secure achievement in the constitution while America’s lingering issue is difficult to eliminate. Nevertheless through King’s ambitions in his shared dream, a resonating hope for the future is presented to all. “King's speech at the March on Washington offers a positive prognosis on the apparently chronic American ailment of racism.” (Younge, The Guardian, 2013)

A fterword

The execution and pursue of nonviolence all string from a strong belief. To live with a confidence that we do not expect to receive the right treatment as we put ourselves forth, but rather expect a deliverance which will taste as good through it all. In the same way, black Americans saw freedom as an inheritance that was given through firm hope and not through the oppression of adversaries. “Do not repay evil with evil, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” – 1 Peter 3:9 Nonviolence in the literal is no action as opposed to action or say, force. Yet throughout history people like Gandhi and King have shown nonviolence to be an active and relentless powerhouse for justice. At its core, the simplest, unconditional and freely given: “At the centre of nonviolence stands the principle of love.” – MLK

BIBLIOGRAPHY [1] King, M, 1963, Letter From A Birmingham Jail (primary source) The text, a letter written by King, summarises the motivations and intentions of the SCLC in an environment of persecution and hostility and ultimately justifies their demonstrations with the rejection of injustice in the south (hence written from a Birmingham jail). This text is useful for its authenticity, not revised or interpreted, but from a primary source. Written directly from King himself, this a realistic portrait of what the group endured. Limitations are that the type of text is persuasive and subjective rather than neutral. This primary source provides an insight to the climate of that particular time and helps to understand King and the SCLC’s struggle for freedom on a personal level. This will be used as a reference material throughout the research.

[2] Evans, P, et. al., 2007, Twentieth Century History: 1945-2000, Collingwood, HTAV (P60-166) The authors describe the struggle for equality for black Americans in the 20th century. And by presenting mostly facts, the tone is neutral. The use of evidence identifies the injustice and presents the progressive works of the organisations that creates a benchmark for history. As overall neutral, the text bases much on the events and leaves the readers to create the insight and/or to witness the injustice. It limits a certain emotional depth where the reader and truly understand the not just physical but mental processes of the movement. It provides a foundation or context to the area of study, which allows interpretations to be made and to stem further research.

[3] Field, R, 2002, Civil Rights in America: 1865-1980, Cambridge University Press (P90, 102) The author elaborates on the non-violent demonstrations the SCLC participates in. The text examines King’s imprisonment and letter he wrote called ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, and this quietly expresses the effectiveness of their principle. The author details the appeal and response: the intentional submission and emergence of their cry brought a natural response of mortification. This was their desired outcome. By elaborating events in detail enables a deeper analysis for there is more substance to work with. This is a neutral text, so there is little to no historical interpretation of the event. The text documents and approaches minor events with detail, which allows one streamline the context and analysis followed after.

[4] Sanders, V, 2008, Civil Rights in the USA: 1945-1968, Hodder Education The author summarises Martin Luther King’s early life and life in leading the movement in an objective manner. The text provides the cause and effect - The emergence of the group as a result of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It also provides an in-depth profile of Martin Luther King, his early life, ministry, and internal issues such as disillusionment, hypocrisy and glory seeking. The text consists of a two-sided interpretation, detailing both problematic and heroic matters of King and the movement. By raising both sides, the text presents as a realistic reference for a holistic analysis. This is useful for understanding even the inner details and struggles of King and how this affected the way he conducted demonstrations and delivered his message.

[5] Sanders, B, 2015, Remarks by Sanders at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference The author wishes to pursue the need to simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists America, and highlights King’s days where he addressed race with taking on the larger issue of equality, particularly in the economy. The author points out the injustices of the criminal system and builds his argument on King’s principle: Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. This text despite being contemporary, revises the larger issue of economic equality addressed by King. This contributes to the idea that America had a structural problem which was what the SCLC had also advocated.

[6] Truman, C N, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, History Learning Site The author focuses on the organisation structure and how it contributed to the effectiveness of the campaign. The text provides the SCLC’s main objectives, which was firstly the inclusion of all Americans such as white Americans to not watch the wrongs being committed, for black Americans to seek justice and reject all injustice and finally that all associations of the SCLC will adopt the principle of non-violence. The motto of the SCLC was “not one hair of one head of one white person shall be harmed”. The text elaborates on the construction of the organisation therefore being quite factual, however little insight is given on the outcome of these structures and how they developed over time.

[7] Younge, G, 2013, Martin Luther King: the story behind his ‘I have a dream’ speech, The Guardian The author elaborates on how Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech made a powerful appeal to white America. King addressed the whole of America, where he simultaneously talk to a black audience why they need to achieve freedom and address a white audience about supporting that freedom. The text offers the story behind his speech, a background to the March on Washington and insight to the overall atmosphere of the time. The author evaluates how King’s speech was received and responded by the audience.

[8] Kakutani, M, 2013, The Lasting Power of Dr. King’s Dream Speech, The New York Times The author describes the lasting power of the I Have A Dream speech and highlights King’s ability to communicate as a gift. King makes references and allusions, such as the declaration of independence and the bible, as a form of identification. The commentary enables us to understand the transformative words of King that understood American society as one body. It also breaks down the biblical allusions embedded in the speech, and explains its significance.

[9] King, M, 1963, I Have A Dream Speech (primary source) This is a valuable reference for it is a primary source of King’s transcript of I Have A Dream. From this, we are able to gather King’s desires not only for the black community but the whole of America. Biblical parallels and historical references influenced the ideas of the speech, which gave an invitation to the audience. This speech is cited as an important aspect in America’s civil rights movement.

IMAGES Cover: Mandalyn Renicker Black slavery - P5 (source unknown) SCLC front - P7 (Lewis Boyd 1944) MLK portrait - P8 (Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer) Birmingham - P10 (Left: Bill Hudson | Right: Charles Moore) I Have A Dream speech - P11 (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS) Civil rights law article clipping - P14 (Chicago Tribune) Gandhi arriving in London - P15 (

Esther Koh, 2015

The Struggle For Freedom  

An evaluative journey of Martin Luther King Jr and SCLC based in the American civil rights movement.

The Struggle For Freedom  

An evaluative journey of Martin Luther King Jr and SCLC based in the American civil rights movement.