Martin Luther King and the Fight against Racial Discrimination


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

On 5 December 1955—the day of Rosa Parks’s trial—African American leaders, including a young minister new to town by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., gathered in the Mt. Zion Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and decided to boycott city buses. The campaign drew such overwhelming support that Black leaders extended the boycott for 381 days.

Image of Martin Luther King at a public march in Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King’s boycott of city buses was in protest of the racial segregation in public transport. (Image: Rowland Scherman/National Archives at College Park/Public domain)

Who Was Rosa Parks?

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was taking the bus home from her job as a department store seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, when a white man boarded, and the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat. Rosa Parks and her husband had served in various roles at the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had investigated sexual assault cases during the 1940s. 

Now, she refused to relinquish her seat on the full bus. She was arrested and taken into custody, outraging the local Black community. Martin Luther King argued that the boycott was an effective method of passive resistance. He said, “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”

Brave Mothers Led the Way

Rosa Parks’ fingerprints being taken by a policeman
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her chair on a bus led to her arrest and the subsequent boycott of buses. (Image: Associated Press/Adam Cuerden/Public domain)

In order to propel the Black freedom struggle forward, sustained commitment on the part of countless activists was needed. That was the source of the civil rights movement’s revolutionary power. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley is an example of this. 

A few months before the Montgomery boycott began, Till-Mobley’s 14-year-old son Emmett Till was murdered, allegedly for whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. The mother brought her son’s mutilated body home to Chicago and opened his casket for the photographers of the Chicago Defender and Jet magazine. 

She said she wanted the world to see for themselves the violence done to her child. Jet magazine printed the photos with the headline, ‘Negro Boy Killed for Wolf Whistle’. The sight horrified Black and white Americans alike. And yet a white jury acquitted the accused murders after a brief trial.

Meanwhile, the promoters of the Montgomery boycott carried their demands for equal treatment to the Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation of public buses was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King, Jr., and fellow civil rights activists celebrated by boarding an integrated bus in Montgomery. But Rosa Parks and her husband lost their jobs for their supposed impertinence.

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The Little Rock Nine

Civil Rights activists needed to find allies outside of the South to win equal rights and justice. Enforcing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling provided such an opportunity. In 1957, nine Black teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas, put the Supreme Court ruling to the test when they enrolled at the city’s most prestigious high school, Central High. 

Protest at Central High after the prevention of Black students entering
When nine Black students were prevented from entering a school by authorities, the Supreme Court’s rulings had to be put into practice. (Image: John T. Bledsoe/Public domain)

On the first day of school, the Black students—who became known as the Little Rock Nine—faced crowds of angry whites and Arkansas National Guardsmen, whom the governor, Orval Faubus, deployed to block their entrance. A group of NAACP lawyers obtained an injunction from a federal district court to halt the governor’s obstruction of federal law.

With the two sides at an impasse, Martin Luther King, Jr., urged President Dwight Eisenhower to intervene. Eisenhower dispatched 1200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and Little Rock’s Central High School was integrated. Soldiers remained in place throughout the year to ensure the Black students’ safety. But one student, Carlotta Walls LaNier, recalled that for anything more than that, “I was pretty much on my own.”

Equal rights remained elusive and hard-won. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a grassroots organization formed by Martin Luther King and others in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, and devoted to civil rights, declared that ‘all Black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently’. This was now the mission’s motive and its model.

Black Youths Join Martin Luther King’s Cause

Beginning in February 1960, a group of Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, started taking seats at a Woolworth’s general store lunch counter that, until then, had served only whites. One of the cooks, Geneva Tisdale, an African American who worked in the restaurant for more than 40 years, said, “Every time somebody would pass by…they would ask if they could be served. They asked for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee.” 

White servers told the Black students they couldn’t be served. But they kept coming back. “More and more people. Soon they took every seat in the store,” the cook said. “They took the whole lunch counter, and they just [sat] there with books, studying… So the store closed down for a period of time to decide what they were going to do.” When the Woolworth’s store reopened, a female manager invited three Black employees—Geneva Tisdale, among them—to be the first served at the counter.

During the Woolworth’s sit-in, a new group was formed in nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, to give Black youths their own platform to engage in the civil rights movement. This was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Its founder, Ella Baker, believed that ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders’, just grassroots members and support. 

Common Questions about Martin Luther King and the Fight against Racial Discrimination

Q: What was the result of the boycott of city buses?

Martin Luther King and other African American leaders called for people to boycott city buses in protest of the racial segregation on public transport. Eventually, the demands were taken all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the segregation was unconstitutional.

Q: Why was Rosa Parks arrested?

Rosa Parks was a member of the NAACP, who had fought for the civil rights movement. One day when she was taking the bus on her way home, the driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white man who had just boarded the bus. She refused to give up her seat which ultimately led to her arrest and Martin Luther King’s boycott of city buses.

Q: What happened to the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school?

The governor deployed guardsmen to block the nine boys’ entry to the school. The boys were also faced with angry whites. At the same time, NAACP lawyers obtained an injunction to halt the governor’s efforts. After Martin Luther King urged the president, Dwight Eisenhower dispatched soldiers to maintain the safety of the students.

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