Thanks to the legislative victories of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, African-Americans can vote, sit anywhere on a bus or in a movie theater, use all public water fountains and sleep in the hotel bed of their choosing.
The achievements of the freedom movement, whose most famous leader was Martin Luther King Jr., changed the country and influenced the world. The movement delegitimized overt racism and bolstered America’s ideals of freedom and equality.
But today, exactly 50 years since King’s assassination, public schools are more segregated than they were in the late 1960s and the achievement gap remains large, a disproportionate number of black men are killed by police and poverty among African-Americans remains entrenched.
“He moved the needle,” said Jon Hale, an education professor at the College of Charleston who specializes in civil rights history. “He raised our consciousness to know that (racism) was wrong.” But racism was not vanquished; it evolved to assume more nuanced forms, Hale said. “We missed the opportunity to eradicate the problem.”
It was King’s assassination that cut short the effort, Hale said. The civil rights leader, today mostly known for his great oratory and devotion to the philosophy of nonviolence, had become by 1967 a radical agitator determined to take big risks.
His focus on economic justice — on broad-based human rights rather than narrowly focused civil rights, as King put it — is less appreciated today than his desegregation successes, Hale noted.
At the end of his life, King advocated for dismantling the superstructure of American white supremacy. He was fighting on behalf of the working poor and calling for a redistribution of wealth. He recognized that manifestations of racism would persist unless banks ended discriminatory loan practices and governments put an end to housing discrimination. He argued that money should be spent on domestic social programs, not war in Southeast Asia.
“King’s own circle thought he was too radical,” Hale said. “He was unpopular man. We don’t remember that.”
A new HBO documentary, “King in the Wilderness,” now is available that looks at King’s tumultuous final years. Executive Producer Taylor Branch, author of the seminal trilogy “America in the King Years,” characterized the civil rights leader as “driven.”
“He challenges every citizen to uphold the democratic experiment, seeking nothing less than to ‘redeem the soul of America’ from mankind’s triple scourges of bigotry, war, and poverty,” Branch wrote in an email promoting the new film.
Today, as Americans struggle with many of the same issues that plagued the nation in 1968, King’s words and deeds — and especially the efforts he made in the last two years of his life — are worth recalling, Hale said.
Housing discrimination persists. The public schools are in trouble. Adequate health care services are not widely accessible or affordable. Crime plagues poor urban neighborhoods. Non-violent offenders continue to be incarcerated at high rates. And African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by each of these problems.
More than 6 million Americans cannot now vote because of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project. “One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.”
Forty-eight states prohibit felons from voting while incarcerated; 33 states ban probationers or parolees from voting, according to a University of North Carolina report.
“To put this issue into perspective, in the 2004 presidential election, incumbent President George W. Bush won the state of Florida by 350,000 votes,” the UNC report states. “During that election it is estimated that 960,000 people in Florida were prohibited from voting due to felony convictions.”
These ongoing problems are difficult to eliminate without confronting issues of race and making the connection between civil rights era activism and contemporary protest, Hale said.
The legacy of 1960s nonviolent marching was evident on March 24 when an estimated 800,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the “March for Our Lives.”
“That’s taking a page out of King’s playbook,” Hale said. “It’s a unique American form of protest, but King popularized that. Unfortunately, we miss the connection to black radical politics.”
It is worth noting that the famous civil rights rally, which included King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Economic justice already was a major component of the civil rights movement in 1963.
By 1967, King was concerned with discriminatory housing, banking and retail business practices — the economic underbelly of a racist system.
“He was ahead of the curve in his intellectual analysis,” Hale said. But that wasn’t winning many new admirers.
When King, shot by a sniper in 1968, fell bleeding to death outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he had been organizing sanitation workers in a strongly anti-union state — an unpopular strategy for a leader many thought should remain within the boundaries of “civil rights.”
But before King became so controversial within the movement, he was perceived by many activists as a charismatic and inspirational figure. Dave Dennis, a Summerville resident, first met King in May 1961 at the home of a dentist in Montgomery, Ala., where activists were plotting the continuation of the Freedom Rides, which had been interrupted by a fire-bombing.
Dennis, then a student at Dillard University in New Orleans, was among those who demanded the riders continue, despite the risks.
“We all converged on Montgomery where I, with other students, met with Dr. King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement,” Dennis said. “As mobs of white racists roamed the streets outside, we met at the home of Dr. Harris, a local civil rights leader. My life would never again be the same.”
Dennis was starstruck in the presence of King, he said.
“I remember thinking that there was something special going on. To hear the man speak was like being in a space where time stood still. I was not afraid, although I was aware of the danger. I was not sure if I wanted to continue the rides, but the more I heard Dr. King speak, the more I knew this was a special time in my life.”
Dennis boarded the first bus from Montgomery to Jackson, and soon after became a full-time field secretary for CORE, working in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I met Dr. King again at the Penn Center on St. Helena and the Highlander Center in Tennessee, during a couple of week-long voter-registration trainings for civil rights workers, and again during the marches in Mississippi in protest of the deaths of (James) Chaney, (andrew) Goodman and (Michael) Schwerner.” The three young men, driving Dennis’ station wagon, had been murdered by Ku Klux Klan members at the onset of “Freedom Summer,” a massive voter registration effort, in 1964.
When he heard about King’s assassination, Dennis was angry and hurt, he said, but also a little numbed by all the violence he’d witnessed.
“The times I had an opportunity to be in Dr. King’s presence, I was revitalized,” Dennis said. “His love for mankind and the sacrifices he made in an attempt to make the (promise of) the constitution of this country a reality were immeasurable.”
Charles “Bud” Ferillo, a Charleston native, met King twice, first at Emanuel AME Church in April 1962 and later in Kingstree in May 1966.
“Because I had organized white youth to help make sandwiches and signs for the protesters who were sitting in the movie theaters on King Street, where my father was the business manager, I had been adopted by Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins as a youth leader who they brought into the movement’s many rallies and events,” Ferillo said. “When he died, I really felt his loss personally as he had begun to speak out against the Vietnam War, where I was headed that July. I served as a squad leader and platoon sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division from July 1968 to July 1969.”
Among King’s many accomplishments was that he energized young people, Ferillo said.
“Dr. King, only 39 years old when he died, inspired a whole generation of blacks and whites to be active in our communities for social justice, to build his vision of ‘the beloved community.’ ”
‘Just like the 1960s’
The Rev. Kylon Middleton was born in 1969, while his Charleston family still was mourning the death of King.
“King was such an inspiration not just to the nation, but to my family,” he said. “I had heard about him as a liberator, as someone who provided hope.” He became a principal influence as young Middleton began to preach at age 8, then pastor more formally by age 16, he said.
It was the violence that afflicted participants in the freedom movement — and King’s ability to draw attention to it — that helped to transform a regional fight into a national concern, he said. So when Americans watching television saw children in Birmingham, Ala., assaulted by whites wielding fire hoses in early 1963, or when they witnessed later that year the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four little girls, the civil rights movement became more urgent and the cause more righteous, Middleton said.
Many adults accustomed to pervasive discrimination, and often beholden to whites for their paycheck, were understandably ambivalent about the activism of the 1960s, but their children often were not so tentative, Middleton noted.
“Just like young people now,” he said. “They were energized, speaking out, not bound by political correctness and partisanship.”
And just like now, opponents of the civil rights movement tried to foster division among the activists, he said. But King was able “to galvanize the collective will of all of those constituent groups so that everybody rises.”
King fingered the perpetrators of injustice and shined a light on the atrocities, Middleton said. Today, young people involved in the #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NeverAgain and Black Lives Matter movements are doing the same thing.
“Lawmakers can no longer hide behind their inactivity, because (students) are calling them out by name,” he said. “This climate since 2016 has become just like the 1960s.”
Instead of writing a letter from a Birmingham jail, they are using social media, which amplifies their voices, Middleton said.
“For some people, they feel that the civil rights movement has moved on, and we are on the back side of the Dream,” he said. “But social justice work has to be life work.”