Often labeled the “American Gandhi,” Dr. Martin Luther King freely credited Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi's strategies of personal commitment, nonviolence, and passive resistance for the effectiveness of his own campaigns in areas such as integration and voting rights.
What was Dr. King's philosophy in dealing with the federal government? It evolved over time. From the middle of the 1950s until the fateful 1965 voter-registration drive in Selma, Alabama, King, a shrewd tactician, carefully avoided antagonizing or defying the federal courts or their representatives, which had been key allies of the civil rights movement since the Brown v. Board of Education decision. (He routinely ignored racist state court decrees and police orders.) In the later years of his life, however, King's public pronouncements grew more openly critical of federal policies, especially in the areas of economic inequality and the war in Vietnam.
Like Gandhi, King put himself on the line. In response to death threats, King's aides sometimes attempted to convince the reverend not to march prominently at the front of protest gatherings. King ignored their pleas, leaving his aides to improvise security measures to the best of their ability. (Once, they put as many men with a similar build to King's as they could find at the front of the march, and equipped them with suits that matched his.)
A powerful and compelling orator, King contributed something unique and enduring to the entire American family when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. Of greater long-term impact than his eloquence, though, was his example of personal courage in the face of constant intimidation and covert operations from individual racists, paramilitary organizations, state governments, and a hostile FBI. (Those who are inclined to think of the Kennedy Administration as an unyielding ally of civil rights should consider its willingness to place wiretaps on Dr. King's phone lines.)
The Significance of Selma
On March 7, 1965, 600 demonstrators attempted to hold a voter-registration march that was to begin in Selma, Alabama, and conclude 54 miles later in Montgomery. The marchers, whose sense of political theater had to be admired, intended to march down route 80—otherwise known as the Jefferson Davis Highway—and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Shock troops under the command of local law enforcement and the governor of Alabama were waiting for them. After the demonstrators ignored an order to disperse, state troopers and local lawmen tore into the group, assaulting them with clubs and whips. They turned back the protesters—but network news cameras captured the violence, and the image of the beatings provoked outrage around the country (and the world).