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After his success with the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King was receiving national attention, receiving job offers, calls to speak, and interviews with magazines like Time Magazine and Playboy. He even parts of Africa and Europe. Of course, he also took time to deliver speeches and attend functions in the U.S. King’s life was as hectic as ever.
Still, KING worked diligently to help blacks around the country. Meanwhile, senator Lyndon B. Johnson was pushing the new civil-rights bill through the Senate. Despite it being the first civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction, King thought the 1957 Civil Rights Act too weak, especially in school desegregation, to make any significant difference. Therefore, King and 15 other black leaders went to Montgomery to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was immediately chosen president. The SCLC’s main goal was to bring the black masses into the freedom struggle across the South. In this way did it differ from the NAACP, which focused on legal actions, and CORE, which was too disorganized and focused mainly in the North. As always, King’s schedule was hectic, but he did take time in October to go see his new-born son, Martin Luther King III, or “Little Marty.”
The SCLC’s first item on its agenda was the Crusade for Citizenship, designed to double the number of black voters in the South by 1960, to begin in’58. In November, King had begun plans to visit India and publish his Montgomery boycott book, detailing and discussing King’s own view of the bus boycotts, his major life events, and his insights into everything from Communism to blacks in the South. With the Crusade for Citizenship underway, King finally finished his book, Stride for Freedom. All the while King continued speaking about the Civil Rights movement. The book was mostly well-received and helped boost King’s popularity.
Another incident which helped further King’s prominence was an incident arose in Montgomery, in June of 1958. King had been arrested for trying to get into a courthouse at which his friend Abernathy was involved with a case. His arrest, trial and conviction made national headlines. Taking a leaf from Gandhi’s book, King decided to serve his 14-day sentence in jail instead of paying a fine. To avoid any more bad publicity, the commissioner of the police station paid it himself to foul up King’s “publicity stunt.” If that made national headlines, however, it was nothing compared to the attempted assassination of King later that September. Izola Curry stabbed him with a sharpened letter opener at a book signing in New York. The attack incited thousands of well-wishers for King, who felt that somehow this too was in God’s plan for him. The incident only strengthened his faith and resolve.
After his ordeal, King decided it was finally time for him to take his trip to India in February of ’59, two years removed from his initial plans. In India, he was impressed with the way the Indian government was handling its own version of the American Negro: the untouchables. Indeed, it seemed as if the prevailing spirit of Gandhi was still very much alive. After taking a month to enjoy and learn from India, King returned to Montgomery. Having just only returned, King now had the difficult task of keeping the SCLC and its mission afloat. To do so, King decided to move back to Atlanta, as close to the SCLC headquarters as he could be, to maximize the use of his time, although the established black leadership in Atlanta did not allow him to become actively involved in the city’s civil rights moment.
Then, on Feb. 2, 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, N.C., had a sit-in at a white restaurant, galvanizing students on campus and across the south to do the same. Indeed, the movement preceded the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped coordinate sit-ins to combat segregation across the U.S. Black students had finally started to become involved with the movement. In fact, the movement had started to become so powerful that the city of Montgomery, in order to attack King’s character, indicted him of falsifying his tax returns and improperly using the money he received as head of the SCLC, although he was later found not guilty in May.
Meanwhile, the SCLC’s financial problems had become less severe, harboring new growth, although this directly led to clashes with the NAACP, many of whom were jealous of King’s leadership. King had also taken up meeting with a young senator by the name of John F. Kennedy, discussing the potential ways the Democratic Party could help blacks in America. All of this was happening while the SNCC was clashing with the established blacks in Atlanta. They didn’t want the SNCC to continue its sit-ins in Atlanta for fear of the damage it would to the city’s reputation. Still, King lent his support to the group and was arrested along with them at the sit-ins. Although shortly after members of the SNCC were released, King was forced to stay on account of him violating traffic probation he received the spring before for driving with expired Alabama license plates. King was sentenced to four months of hard labor with no bail, and whisked away to DeKalb County and eventually to Reidsville, a Ku Klux Klan “safe haven.” King’s luck changed, however, as he was allowed release on $2,000 bond. He later found out that Senator Kennedy was instrumental in his release. Later, Kennedy’s administration capitalized on the incident to garner three fourths of the black community’s vote, giving him a narrow edge in the presidential election.
King continued his busy work schedule, including fundraising, speaking and debating. Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration was making good on some of its promises to help in the civil rights movement. In May of ’61, CORE announced it would be launching Freedom Rides across the South. The act outraged many in the South, and white mobs mercilessly beat the interracial Freedom Riders in Montgomery and even set one bus ablaze in Anniston. Having seen this on television, King decided then and there he was going to support them. Upon arriving, King spoke at a mass meeting in support of the Freedom Rider at his friend Abernathy’s church. During the meeting, a white mob had formed outside and threatened violence to those in the meeting, even threatening to bomb the church itself. It took a contingency of federal marshals, state police and Alabama National Guardsmen to disband the mob. Afterward, King decided not to participate in the rides, lest he should be arrested again in Georgia. The decision hurt his image, and many called his leadership into question. Still, the Riders dealt a death blow to segregation in bus facilities. The Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations in interstate bus stations that ended segregation, albeit only after two years.
Meanwhile, King was still negotiating partnerships and raising money for the SCLC, most recently with the AFL-CIO, the nation’s most powerful labor organization. Thanks to King, the organization unanimously passed a resolution barring segregation and allowing all Americans to participate in the union, though they couldn’t bring forth an uncompromising campaign concerning the matter. Then King travelled to Albany, Georgia to help the SNCC in its demands for local desegregation to public facilities. However, King and his followers couldn’t garner enough media attention because they couldn’t remain in jail after being arrested (someone kept paying their bond) and the non-violent tactics of the police commissioner, as well as poor planning on the SCLC’s part. King had suffered a huge defeat, and again his leadership was called into question. What’s more, King’s criticism of the federal agents’ way they treated the case had made him a new enemy in J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI.
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