Fight for equality

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am

This week Free at Last! The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr by Angela Bull

Martin Luther King was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He fought for equal rights for black people in the US at a time when they faced great prejudice and discrimination.

He was a very special kind of leader because he did not believe in violence. All his protests were peaceful, yet powerful. He was assassinated in 1965, but his memory lives on.

Slavery in the US

King was born in Atlanta, a Southern American state, in 1929. Only 70 years earlier there had still been black slaves in the south - people seized in Africa, shipped to the US, then sold into slavery.

Although slavery was abolished in 1865, the memory lingered on. Many white people still considered themselves superior to blacks. There were laws that made this a reality.

There were separate seats on buses and trains for black people. They were not allowed to attend the same schools or swim in the same pools as whites. As a boy, King had first-hand experience of this discrimination.

Preacher King

King had a strong Christian faith, and in 1948, he began training as a Baptist pastor. He also studied the writing and actions of Indian politician Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi struggled to gain his country's independence from the British through peaceful resistance. King was very much influenced by his success.

The bus boycott

By 1955 King was the pastor of a church in Alabama. He was earning a reputation as a powerful speaker and defender of black people.

He tasted his first victory in the Rosa Parks case. She was a black woman who had refused to move from her seat in a whites only section on a bus. The driver called the police and she was arrested.

King organised a boycott of buses by black people. As 70 per cent of the passengers were black, this would soon hit the finances of the bus companies. It was such a success that it angered many white people. Even a bomb was thrown at King's house.

King himself was arrested on grounds that organising boycotts was illegal. However, the US Supreme Court decided that segregation of black and white passengers on buses violated the country's constitution and it was declared illegal. King had won his first battle.

The war continues

King won his first battle, but the war against discrimination continued. Many cafes and restaurants still served only white people. King organised sit-ins so that black people filled all the seats and refused to move until they were served. They peacefully challenged all other forms of segregation.

White groups responded with violence, beating up many black people. At one peaceful protest, police dogs were set on black children and powerful water hoses were used against them.

President Kennedy

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy introduced a law into the American Congress banning all types of segregation and giving black people equal rights.

That year, King organised a huge celebration in Washington. A quarter of a million people gathered to hear him make one of the most famous speeches in history. 'I have a dream,' he thundered, 'that one day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down together as brothers. They would join hands and sing 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last'!'

The struggle continues

Even though laws were passed against discrimination, it took a lot longer to change public attitudes and behaviour. The laws did not tackle all the problems, and they were not always enforced.

Moreover, black people still had the worst jobs and worst housing. King realised that poor white Americans were also badly treated and did not really have equal rights, so he continued to organise his campaigns.

Tragic ending

It was while he was engaged in one such campaign in Memphis in 1968 that he was shot by James Earl Ray, a white man who hated blacks. The great civil rights leader was dead.

He had achieved a great deal and is now honoured in the US with a national holiday. Do you think he won the war completely? Does everyone in the US now have equal rights? How about Hong Kong? These are questions worth tackling in your presentation.