Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Few Who Rose Above the Rest

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Rights and Responsibilities, this term can be taken into several aspects, it could refer to nations coming together to defend the rights of their people, or factions forming out of responsibility to further what they believe in, or even in some cases, a brave individual, standing up against all odds, realizing his or her responsibility to improve the situation and rights of themselves and of their people. In the 150s and 160s a movement caught the attention of the United States, and threw our normally stable country into upheaval. Opinions clashed across the nation, racist whites, accustomed to the “normalcy” of treating blacks as inferior were against a group looking for change; a group of liberal and compassionate whites, joined with African-American men and women with their minds set on becoming equal, or in some cases the superiors. Although many men and women contributed to this fight for equality or superiority, almost none had the influential ability of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These two men were without a doubt the driving force behind their respective organizations and beliefs. They were in many ways very different, from how they lived, to what they actually believed in and wanted, but in many ways, they both had the same major goal to improve the current situation, and gain more RIGHTS for their people. Martin Luther King was recognized around the world, in America, Europe, and Asia he was supported for his courageous efforts, and incredible oratorical ability. Malcolm X was a major religious figure to most militant blacks in the 150s and 160s, his words reached thousands by way of his incredible speeches and lectures given at mosques and in crowded halls all over the United States, like King, Malcolm X had and uncanny ability to passionately give speeches. Throughout history, many different movements have been made, anti-war in the Vietnam War era as well as today, anti-imperialism as seen with Gandhi in India, and the aforementioned Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s; and throughout all of these movements people have stepped up to stand for what they believe in. In the Civil Rights movement, two of the most memorable and important figures to do this were Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through protests such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or being the spokesperson for an entire religion in the United States, these two men, through their own means not only established a foundation for others to show bravery and fight for equality on, but they also paid the ultimate price, their beliefs ended up costing them their lives.

Segregation on public buses had started in Baton Rouge, Louisiana however after it was stopped there, the new main spot for racism on buses was in Montgomery, Alabama, and in most of the rest of the South, segregation on buses was legal. Whites would sit in the front of the bus, with a “no man’s land” in the middle seats of the bus, and then the blacks could sit in the back of the bus, the whole time a moveable barrier was pushed back, giving the blacks even less room. And in the so-called “no man’s land” if a white felt like sitting down in a row where all blacks were sitting, then the entire row of blacks would be forced to stand up, and the one white could sit down. However segregation was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the horrible way the blacks were treated on the buses, the bus drivers in many cases were racist; they would call the blacks “nigger”, “black ape”, or “black cow”. Even if the front seats were empty, a black person couldn’t sit in them, even if the rest of the bus was full. Another common happening was for the bus driver to take the fare from a black at the front of a bus tell them to board on the back of the bus, and when they got there, the driver would speed away, with the already paid fare. Very few times, people had tried to stand up to the extreme racism that took place on these buses. Claudette Colvin was arrested in 155 for sitting in the front of the bus, however, black leaders found this to be the wrong time to use an example to get rid of segregation; Colvin was not their “perfect victim” because she was pregnant at the age of 15. Even before then, in 14, Jo Ann Robinson sat in the front of an empty bus, but ran from the bus crying after the driver screamed at her. Also, Vernon Johns, a black man, tried to get other blacks to leave a bus after being forced to give up his seat; he failed, and was told by another black “You ought to know better”. The black leaders could not find their “poster child” that all changed on December 1st, 155. A seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama named Rosa Parks stepped onto the bus, she had a spotless criminal record when she walked on, and when she walked off she would not. Parks was going home after a long day of work, her feet were tired, and when she boarded the bus, she had no intention of having to stand the whole time, she took a seat and the bus driver rode away. Soon after a white man would board the bus, he walked over to Parks and told her to move, she refused, and the bus driver, James F. Blake, who had evicted Parks from the bus in 145, called the police and she was arrested for not giving up her seat. E.D. Nixon found out what had happened, and called Martin Luther King Jr., he informed him of the situation, and also planted the idea of a boycott in King’s mind. King met the next day with Nixon, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Jo Ann Robinson to talk about how to handle the situation, they decided upon a boycott. On December 4th, a meeting was to be held for the blacks of Montgomery to attend, 40,000 handbills were passed out. On December 4th, King delivered a speech that he would go on to call “The most decisive speech of my life”, he convinced the people of Montgomery that the bus boycott was the logical solution to their problems of segregation. King rolled the idea in his mind and thought that if 60% of the blacks stayed off of the buses, then it would be a successful boycott, however, the next day his wife called him over to the window, and he saw empty buses, rolling down the streets. The boycott was almost a total success on the first day, 0% of blacks stayed off of the buses. The boycott continued into the next year, people were using mules, carpools, and going by foot to wherever they had to go. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon’s homes were bombed during the boycott, however, they continued to push the movement. Whites made many attempts to stop the boycott. The “Get Tough” policy was enacted, allowing police to stop cars for no reason. The officers would harass carpool drivers for going one mile per hour faster than the allowed speed limit, they would also pull them over for going “too slow”. The whites also would start rumors questioning the dignity of the leaders, at one point they claimed that King had purchased a new Buick for his wife, along with a Cadillac, and both of these were false. Also, important whites would tell the protest leaders that if King weren’t in charge, things could change overnight. King offered his resignation because of these claims, but that was denied by other members of the group, saying that they would follow him to the end. Whites also falsely claimed a meeting had been held that called the boycott to an end to try to get blacks on the bus. King and other leaders new that the boycott would break soon, so they offered suggestions for change on the bus, such as polite bus drivers, first come-first serve seating, and black drivers on black routes. The city denied these offerings, so the blacks looked to the Federal Court to sue for full integration, the Federal Court ruled in favor of them -1. The city appealed, and the case made it to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court upheld the decision, and declared bus segregation unconstitutional, the boycott was over. The Bus Boycott is known as the start of the Civil Rights movement. Not only did it integrate the buses in one of the most racist parts of the nation, but it also gave hope to the blacks that they could accomplish full equality, while at the same time giving Martin Luther King national recognition.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most known Civil Rights leaders around the world. His efforts in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and his speeches have been used as examples of true human good. He was the president of the Montgomery Improvements Agency (MIA) and was one of the founding ministers and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As mentioned before, he was a part of the committee that decided on the Montgomery Bus Boycott that gained integration on the buses in Montgomery and at the end of the boycott, he was the first person to board a Montgomery bus under the new integration. His non-violent Gandhi-like methods of resistance gained him support from different countries around the world, such as Japan, Switzerland, and England. Back in America however, he was harassed and attacked often. He would receive obscene phone calls between thirty and forty times a day. His house was bombed during the bus boycott, however he kept his calm and kept hundreds of blacks from rioting afterwards. The white police officers who were trying to keep them back would later say that King saved their lives. Through all of this, he still led the great 16 March on Washington, which ended with his famous “I Have a dream” speech. Between 50,000 and 400,000 people, black and white were in the audience outside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to hear that speech. King’s major ideas for the Civil Rights movement were in the direction of becoming equal socially and economically, he did a lot of focusing on education. He also looked to help the black people believe that they were not inferior to the white man. Many had been so oppressed by the idea of inferiority, that they actually believed that they were lesser beings than the whites, they were not nearly educated as well as whites, and they were not in political situations in which they could have any control over material resources. His aforementioned oratorical abilities gained him worldwide recognition, he is still known today is one of the most passionate speakers in history. His work in gaining equality for blacks won him a Nobel Prize and now his birthday is even celebrated in the form of a national day of service. On April 4th, 168 King was looking to assist a garbage worker’s strike in Memphis. He was shot and killed, James Earl Ray was later apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to years in prison for killing King. King is seen as one of the fathers of civil rights by setting the tone of the movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and following through on his quest for equality until the very end of his short life. However King is not the only man to step and realize his responsibilities. Another man did too, with methods and motives of entirely different types.

Malcolm X is one of the most recognizable names in Black history today. Born in Omaha, Nebraska with the name Malcolm Little. He moved to Lansing, Michigan where he would see his house burned down at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, two years later his father, a large supporter of the ideals of moving the blacks away from racist America back to the homeland of Africa, was murdered, Malcolm’s father was the fifth death in his family caused by racism, three uncles were beaten by whites, one was lynched, subsequently, his mother was placed in a mental institution. He would later move to Boston, and in 146, while in prison, he would convert to the Black Muslim faith, a religion that believed that blacks should not just be equal, but regarded as superior to the evil white man. He met with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of this religious sect upon being released from prison. After this meeting, he would change his name to Malcolm X, due to the belief that his given name was the name of his slaveholders, and therefore, evil. He would go on speaking tours throughout the nation, and people would soon see his incredible ability to move hundreds even thousands with his words. He soon became the most popular speaker in the religious sect. He spoke extremely eloquently against the white man, and a large following grew behind Malcolm, instead of the religion. His speaking helped gain large numbers of people to join the militant movement for black power. He is even considered the cause of converting Cassius Clay to the religion, Clay would later become known to many as Muhammad Ali. Due to his popularity, the Nation of Islam’s hierarchy felt threatened by him, and suspended him from the movement. During his suspension, Malcolm would make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Muslim holy land. As a result he would leave the Black Muslim faith and create his own religion, in which he stated that whites were not inherently evil, but able to join with blacks and form worldwide brotherhood. His new views agreed more with those of Martin Luther King Jr. and gained him even more support. His new followers that believed in equality however began to rival those of the Black Muslim faith, who were still obsessed with their ideal of black power and white inferiority. The rivalry between the two groups led up to February 1st, 165. Malcolm was in a ballroom in Harlem, giving a speech to his followers when a man stood up with a sawed-off shotgun and fired shots into Malcolm’s chest, two other men ran to the stage where Malcolm was lying and emptied their .45 guns into his chest. Malcolm would die later at New York hospital. Three Black Muslims would later be charged in the killing of Malcolm X and convicted. In his short life, Malcolm converted thousands to the Black Muslim faith, and then eventually to his own faith and orthodox Islam. His original message of black power and superiority put confidence in many black men who were once afraid to stand up against their white oppressors. His advocating of the ideas of equality and world brotherhood helped to join people together instead of fueling the fire for an all out race war. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest men in Civil Rights history.

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Through the long fight that was the Civil Rights movement, many had to make sacrifices for their beliefs, be it Blacks giving up riding the bus and walking throughout Montgomery, Alabama for 84 days, or Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving up their lives, being killed for believing in and hoping for equality. It is difficult to imagine how things would have played out differently had Dr. King and Malcolm X not lived to allow people to realize their true bravery, without these two men, and the thousands that risked their lives walking the streets of Montgomery, the racist normalcy may have never changed, and we could be living in an entirely different world.

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