The 1960s: A decade of racial turbulence

Merdies Hayes | 2/8/2012, 5 p.m.

"We both knew he was going to die," said his widow, Myrlie Evers, herself a Los Angeles civil rights activist in the 1970s and '80s. "Medgar didn't want to be a martyr. But if he had to die to get us that far, he was going to do it." Another sense of purpose, though, replaced common apprehension with anger and provided an opening for more militant Black voices (Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Clever and Maulana "Ron" Karenga) to criticize the national White power structure.

Baptist preacher, social activist, driver behind the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Dr. King never wanted to be famous beyond spreading the Good News at his pulpit at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. King accepted this public role reluctantly, mostly by virtue of his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who fought against racial prejudice, because the elder King believed racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will.

King's leadership was fundamental to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Conversely, his steadfast adherence to nonviolent protest by then had many detractors because the "sweltering heat of oppression" nationwide by the mid-1960s saw no immediate decline and only increased because of constant Black marches and sit-ins, a disingenuous [northern] condemnation of the southern White "red neck" and daily television reports of violence and police brutality.

By 1965, the philosophy of nonviolence had largely reached its tipping point among some Blacks.

In August that year, riots erupted in the Watts region of Los Angeles.

What began as an act of police brutality at 120th Street and Avalon Boulevard led to 65 deaths and tens of millions of dollars in property damage throughout South Los Angeles. Stunningly, the influence of a popular disc jockey, the "Magnificent Montague" of radio station KGFJ, would be unfairly attached to the violence because of his catchphrase "burn, baby, burn" which was spray-painted on looted and burned-out buildings. Also, popular talk-radio host Louis Lomax was falsely implicated in inciting the violence. The press asked for an assessment of the damage to the community; Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker responded: "Like monkeys in a zoo . . . once one of them starts, they all jump in." Another race riot occurred in Newark, N.J., in the summer of 1967, this time in rebellion of the White school board there which would not share power with Black educators.

King once told his followers that "... nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist ... it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding." Thus, it was the pragmatism of the African American Protestant church that was most resilient in fostering within the Black community the will not to foolishly match blow for blow with White racism.

King, in 1964, received the Nobel Peace Prize and, that year, was on hand at the White House to see President Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act, and the following year to see the Voting Rights Act be enacted, thereby providing federal and local "teeth" to the precepts of the 14th and 15th amendments.