APUSH Discussion Groups: Was MLK essential to the success of the Civil Rights Movement? (No)

For this debate, I was in charge of the misconceptions about MLK’s role and motives in the Civil Rights Movement while my partner was in charge of what he actually did (or didn’t do) so I only have half the argument.

Synthesis and Thesis:

Abraham Lincoln is named the Great Emancipator in honor of his Emancipation Proclamation that freed most of the slaves during the Civil War as well as the passage of the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery, both during his presidency. However, the decision to make slavery the center of American politics was not a simple one and Lincoln was far from doing it for moral reasons. Sure, he thought slavery was morally wrong but he was not willing to risk it being a national issue until the Civil War in which he used slavery as a moral weapon against foreign countries seeking to weaken the United States by supporting the secessionist Southern states. This sort of oversimplification of character is also seen in portrayals of Martin Luther King Jr. He was seen as the spiritual and moral leader of the movement and often the effectiveness of the movement is attributed to him alone. However, this is not true. The black civil rights movement was already under way when MLK became known as a leader. He was in a time when the social pressures were just right for him to exhibit his full abilities as an orator and an intellectual and his role as a leader didn’t mean that other more locally-based leaders of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t as essential to the movement. Rather, King put a face on the Movement and people looked up to him but he was far from being the universal leader everyone thinks he is.


  • Rise to fame
    • Montgomery speech
    • Arranged by Rosa Parks and EB Nixon
    • Was chosen to give speech
    • Became famous for it
  • Social Factors
    • The counterculture of the 1950s and 60s were ripe for change
    • Protests as early as the 1930s gave black community the foundation for further change
      • They knew that organised protest often worked to get legislation passed faster
      • Ex. Brown v Board of Education: segregated but not equal
  • Not well-liked by everyone
    • People thought he was working too slow due his insistence on nonviolent protest and some started their own militant group in opposition to this
    • Even to his supporters, he was seen more as a role model rather than a leader
      • They were determined to make their own efforts for the Movement and not to rely on MLK, therefore the Movement was less about MLK and more about the grassroots nature of locally-based protests nationwide
  • Nonviolent Protest
    • Used as a PR tactic to garner sympathy
    • Gave the Movement good press
    • More of a strategy rather than a moral decision
  • Wasn’t only a spiritual and moral leader
    • He was an intellectual who knew that just moving oratory wasn’t going to change anything
    • He didn’t rely just on emotional appeal, he was highly practical and was involved in organising community efforts through “black community institutions, financial resources and grassroots leaders”
  • Wasn’t as magnanimous or as omnipotent as he’s shown to be
    • Admitted his own limitations multiple times throughout the duration of Movement
    • Was initially fearful of harm being done to his family for being a prominent figure of the Movement
    • Encouraged local leaders to take their own initiatives
  • Concluding statement: King didn’t make the Civil Rights Movement; the Civil Rights Movement made him.

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