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Civil Rights Did Not Start With Martin Luther King

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Jan 26, 2006

I totally agree with with Matt:

Surely nobody wants to take anything away from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s impressive achievements. Nevertheless, I always feel that the cult of King serves in an unfortunate way to obscure the fact that the Civil Rights movement wasn’t something one dude dreamed up in mid-1950s Alabama and achieved over the next ten years. We’re looking at a long, long, long struggle, dating back to the 19th century, involving the work of many, many, many noteworthy figures.

This issue is even more of a problem for those of us in new civil rights movements (*coughyouthrightscough*) when some people think the civil rights movement began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This gives people wildly high expectations for a new movement. They think that the youth rights movement can sweep onto the scene and get everything they ask for in 10 years or so. Ya know, how King did it.

Except that’s not how King did it. King came onto the scene more than 50 years after the ball started rolling and built upon past gains. Heck if you really want to make a good comparison you could date the Civil Rights Movement back to the Civil War. While not universally enforced or respected, the 14th & 15th Amendments gave the Civil Rights Movement a significant edge over the Youth Rights Movement. They were protesting for the government to enforce current laws. We have to work to get brand new laws passed, and then enforced. Twice as much work (or 10 times as much work).

But even putting that aside, the premier civil rights organization, the NAACP was founded in 1909, and the movement didn’t even start with them. Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, maybe you could consider that the beginning. Maybe earlier yet. Martin Luther King built on decades and decades of aggitation for civil rights, lawsuits, and general awareness and organizing in the movement. He helped put the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, but it was already on its way out when he arrived on the scene.

A more accurate telling of our history with civil rights in this country would help individuals and onlookers involved in youth rights to learn some patience and understand things as ambitious as what Dr. King, the NAACP and NYRA attempt to accomplish do not happen overnight. Or in 10 years. Or in 50 years. As Matthew said, it takes a long, long, long struggle.

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