describe the impact of dr martin luther king jr s assassination on the effort to expand civil rights for african americans how might the struggle for civil rights have evolved differently if dr king had not been killed


Describe the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the effort to expand civil rights for African Americans. How might the struggle for civil rights have evolved differently if Dr. King had not been killed?

  • What were one or two specific consequences of Dr. King’s assassination?
  • Do you think these events would have taken place even if Dr. King had not been assassinated? Why or why not?


The Struggle for Civil Rights

From the earliest colonial days, American history has been haunted by the specter of African slavery. Even after its legal abolition in 1865 America’s “original sin,” as James Madison first called it, lived on through a deeply entrenched system of legal, social, and economic discrimination against African Americans. (Madison, 1820)The movement to overturn that systemic discrimination has been ongoing for more than 150 years. The most blatant form of racial discrimination—the system of modern Civil Rights Movement had ended. While African Americans, as a group, have made significant gains in income and educational attainment over the last 50 years, de facto segregation continues to affect many aspects of American life. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012; National Center for Education Statistics, 2012)

In this theme, we will focus on the modern Civil Rights Movement, looking at efforts to affirm and expand African-American rights in two specific areas that have been central to the overall civil rights struggle: voting and public education. The fight to end the disenfranchisement of African-American voters and secure their right to vote, free from intimidation and legal obstruction, culminated with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The struggle to desegregate public schools and win equal educational opportunities for African-American children—first affirmed in the landmark Supreme Court case, Civil War Amendments. But the end of slavery did not bring equality for the former slaves.

While the southern states had to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition of their readmission to the Union, most of them quickly enacted laws to close off opportunities to the newly freed slaves and deny them the rights of citizenship. The postwar Black Codes—based on older southern laws that sought to limit the freedoms of freed blacks in the years before the Civil War—barred African Americans from voting, denied them most legal rights, and restricted their ability to find work outside of plantations. Such laws laid the groundwork for the later Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized segregation in all walks of life throughout the South. (Dunning, 1907)In response to the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which formally made African Americans citizens. To further safeguard the citizenship rights of the freed slaves, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. The Reconstruction Acts, passed in 1867 and 1868, essentially placed the southern states under military rule for a decade, allowing for a brief period in which freed African Americans in the South enjoyed political rights.

The profound significance of the Fourteenth Amendment was that, through its Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, it prohibited the states from abridging the rights and liberties guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution. In reality, however, for African Americans through the end of the 19th century (and well beyond), the promise of equal protection and due process went unrealized. The southern states flouted the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Supreme Court refused to interpret it as making the Bill of Rights binding on the states. (Foner, 1988)

The Black Codes also led Congress to pass the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870), which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. It did so by decreeing that citizens’ right to vote could not be denied or abridged based on race, color, or prior slave status. Despite the Fifteenth Amendment, southern states continued to deprive blacks of their voting rights by imposing voter-qualification restrictions (e.g., literacy tests and property-ownership requirements) that effectively disenfranchised African Americans. (Valelly, 2009)

The Fifteenth Amendment divided the pioneering women’s rights movement, which sought the franchise for women as well as for African Americans. As we saw in Theme: Communicating Historical Ideas, some leaders in the nascent woman suffrage movement opposed ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment because it did not also extend the voting right to women. Women did not gain the right to vote until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Jim Crow Laws and the Segregated South

Unyielding southern resistance to black equality led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial segregation in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, and transportation. It also barred the exclusion of African Americans from jury service. But when the federal government ended its military occupation of the South in 1877, marking the end of Reconstruction, the southern states further defied federal efforts to guarantee the civil rights of blacks. (Foner, 1988)Southern state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws, which discriminated against African Americans by requiring racial segregation of schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, and other public accommodations. Under Jim Crow laws, the southern states created separate facilities for whites and blacks in every walk of life, covering all public accommodations. This institutionalization of race-based separation throughout the South, which endured for a hundred years after the Civil War, was known as lynching and other white mob violence committed against blacks. And the federal courts, well into the 1900s, proved unwilling or unable to uphold the civil rights of blacks. (Equal Justice Initiative, 2015)

Disenfranchisement Despite the Fifteenth Amendment

After Reconstruction, the southern states devised obstacles to block African Americans from voting despite the Fifteenth Amendment, which decreed that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race or color. To circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment’s intent, southern states employed devices for determining voter eligibility which, though not expressly racial, had the particular effect of disenfranchising blacks, who were overwhelmingly poor and uneducated.

A poll tax receipt. Image courtesy of the African American Intellectual History Society.

These devices included literacy tests, poll taxes (a tax paid as a qualification for voting), and property-ownership requirements. Many states in the South also imposed a so-called grandfather clause, which restricted voting to those whose grandfathers had voted before Reconstruction (i.e., pre 1867). Grandfather clauses effectively denied the descendants of slaves the right to vote. (Valelly, 2009) All of these legally enacted devices represented forms of de jure segregation—as opposed to de facto segregation, which lacked the force of law.

Black disenfranchisement continued in one form or another throughout the South for a century after the Civil War.

Separate but Equal

Legal segregation in the South was validated by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision at the close of the 1800s. Homer Plessy, an African American, defied a Louisiana segregation law by riding in a “whites only” railroad car. He was arrested when he refused to move to a car reserved for blacks as mandated by the state law. Plessy challenged the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court rejected this challenge, ruling in Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of black voters directly.

More militant African-American leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, with the mission of actively fighting against racial prejudice. The organization focused in its early years largely on efforts to prevent lynchings in the South and on mounting legal challenges to Jim Crow legislation. (Finch, 1981)

The return of thousands of African-American veterans of World War I highlighted the huge divide between America’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and individual freedom and the reality of segregation, disenfranchisement, and anti-black violence in the South. This gave rise to the New Negro movement, which sparked the larger cultural and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (Gates, H.L., 1988) Beginning shortly before World War I, the Great Migration saw an estimated six million African Americans move from the deep South to the North, Midwest, and West over the next 60 years. Fleeing segregation and poverty, many of these African Americans found work in industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. While many African Americans had previously been suspicious of organized labor, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, became the leading voice for black workers within the labor movement. As the number of African Americans working in industrial jobs swelled, organized labor became increasingly outspoken in its advocacy for black workers’ rights; in the 1950s and 1960s, labor would be a powerful ally of the civil rights movement. (Lemann, 1992)

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit African Americans disproportionally hard; the collapse of cotton prices drove thousands of Southern sharecroppers to the brink (Thompson and Clarke, 1935), and the scarcity of factory jobs led to increased racial tensions in Northern industrial cities. The unemployment rate among African Americans was estimated to exceed 50 percent—more than twice the rate among whites. (Wolters, 1970)

African Americans, traditionally supporters of the Republican Party because of its historical opposition to slavery, were initially skeptical of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, who had won the Presidency with strong backing from the South. Early New Deal programs were not aimed toward the African-American community, and some, such as the Federal Housing Authority, initially reinforced existing patterns of segregation. But other programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, provided jobs to substantial numbers of African Americans, especially in the North. By the end of the decade, many African Americans in the North were strongly behind the New Deal, and urban black voters began a major shift that would eventually make them an integral part of the Democratic electoral coalition. (Reed, 2008)

America’s entry into World War II effectively ended the Depression, as factories geared up for the war effort. At the same, time, more than a million African Americans joined the armed forces; when they returned from war in 1945, they embodied the argument that African Americans were entitled to the same freedoms for which America had fought in Europe and the Pacific. (Taylor, 2014)

While resistance to the campaign for African-American civil rights was still deeply entrenched, the late 1940s saw a couple of notable victories: Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s “Color Line” in 1947, and in 1948, President Harry S Truman issued an executive order that desegregated the U.S. military. While these breakthroughs were largely symbolic, more substantive gains were just over the horizon.

A Word on Assassinations

I have skimped on brief or short-term events, although there is no shortage of supremely important instances. In 1865, for example, crucial to the Republicans’ emergence as the country’s main opposition party were the so-called “Sack of Lawrence [Kansas]” by a pro-slavery mob and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. “These two acts, one on top of the other, traumatized the nation.” In the 1960s, key to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the Birmingham and Selma confrontations—the police dogs and the rest—that riveted national attention on deep-southern practices courtesy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as impresario.

But assassination may deserve a special word. Not easily subjected to systematic treatment—they are nearly in a category with the Nicaragua and Mexico earthquakes—they have been neglected as causal factors….I do not want to take up familiar speculations here on the order of: what if Lincoln had served out his full second term? I will stop at addressing two particularly energetic bouts of national policymaking—in fact, possibly the two most consequential exercises of American lawmaking since World War II.

One was the “Reagan Revolution” of 1981—that is, the Republicans’ program of unprecedented tax and spending cuts enacted that year…[A]s of March 1981 the plan seemed to be headed for the rocks on Capitol Hill. Then John W. Hinckley, Jr. shot and nearly killed President Reagan. That brought on a “display of jaunty courage” by the president (as in his “Honey, I forgot to duck!”), which “turned Reagan into a national hero and immeasurably helped the passage of his fiscal program.” His survey ratings soared. “The legislative payoff was dramatic”: Moderate and conservative Democrats, hearing messages from home, signed on. The cuts were approved in a series of showdown votes that spring and summer. All this is entirely believable. Without the assassination episode: no Reagan Revolution.

The other was the Great Society—or, more broadly, the extraordinary harvest of legislation enacted by a left-centered coalition on Capitol Hill during calendar 1964 and in the wake of the 1964 election during 1965. President Kennedy’s legislative record had been so-so, but then he was assassinated in November 1963. The impact was enormous, “All that Kennedy had tried to do, all that he stood for, became in some sense sanctified.” Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency with a “Let us continue” appeal: “We would be untrue to the trust he reposed in us, if we did not remain true to the tasks he relinquished when God summoned him.” As the new president, Johnson “possessed an enormous advantage that liberal predecessors had been denied since the late 1930s: a national mood so eager for strong presidential leadership that even Congress and interest groups had to take heed.” That advantage owed chiefly to “the impact of Kennedy’s assassination.” It helped make 1964 possibly the most productive legislative year since the 1930s….It is certainly plausible that, given the strong impulse toward state expansion in the 1960s and 1970s in this country and elsewhere, much of the content of the Great Society would have found its way into American policy sooner or later anyway. But we cannot know how much or when, and quite possibly a good deal of it would not have.


Describe the historical event that you selected. Why is this event significant? II. Describe at least two secondary sources that you could use to research your historical event. Your sources must be relevant to your event and must be of an appropriate academic nature. In your description, consider questions such as: What are the similarities and differences in the content of your sources? What makes these sources appropriate and relevant for investigating your event? What was your thought process when you were searching for sources? How did you make choices? III. Describe at least two primary sources that you could use to research your historical event. Your sources must be relevant to your event and must be of an appropriate academic nature. In your description, consider questions such as: How do these sources relate to your secondary sources? What do they add to your understanding of the event? What makes them appropriate and relevant for investigating your event? IV. Based on your review of primary and secondary sources, develop a research question related to the historical event you selected. In other words, what would you like to know more about? V. Identify an audience that would be interested in your historical event and research question. For example, who would benefit most from hearing your message? VI. Describe how and why you can tailor your message to your audience, providing specific examples. For example, will your audience understand historical terminology and principles associated with your event, or will you need to explain these? How will you communicate effectively with your audience?


Introduction: In this section of your essay, you will introduce your readers to the historical event you selected. Specifically, you should: A. Provide a brief overview of your historical event. For instance, what background information or context does the reader of your essay need?

Based on your research question, develop a thesis statement that states your claim about the historical event you selected. Your thesis statement should be clear, specific, and arguable, as it will give direction to the rest of your essay.

"Looking for a Similar Assignment? Get Expert Help at an Amazing Discount!"
Looking for a Similar Assignment? Our Experts can help. Use the coupon code SAVE30 to get your first order at 30% off!

Hi there! Click one of our representatives below and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Chat with us on WhatsApp