As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen.
Less visible today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
Also that year, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully. In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (who was, at the time, a Democrat) and Southern delegates bolted the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, Truman was re-elected.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were congruent with our most fundamental national principles.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and author of “After the Cold War.”