Martin Luther King was extremely significant in improving the civil rights of blacks, influencing the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He improved the attitude towards blacks by gaining a large amount of national attention. The March on Washington shows how he had a positive significance in changing race relations, the ‘I Have a Dream’1 speech being a momentous success. However in events such as the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Chicago, retaliation from whites was expected and wanted, so the world could see the horrible extent of how blacks were treated, with King being named as a “paid agitator”. Many historians and contemporaries have stated King improved the treatment of blacks and successfully gained media attention, but they also agree that he focused too much on personal media attention, by ‘taking too many bows’2. Therefore I believe that King’s significance was both positive and negative.
During the Freedom Rides black activists travelled across the South testing rulings against segregation on interstate transport. An image3, from life magazine, of King in a safe house shows his involvement actually had a detrimental effect, not only on race relations generally but to King himself. Growing publicity for the movement led to increasing opposition from whites, damaging race relations by creating opposition. On the other hand King gained large amounts of support for the movement as the public learnt how bad segregation and attitudes towards blacks really were within certain areas. This photograph was not published meaning that it was taken from an objective point of view and does not lose its weight although it originated from a magazine. When seen in conjunction with the Director of CORE’s views, white activism was expected as he stated ‘‘we were counting on the bigots in the South to do our work for us”4. King was President of the Freedom Riders, and also stated that the riders would endure a “season of suffering”5, showing that he supported creating violence and expected it so he could prove a point for the movement. King manipulated riots and encouraged retaliating violence. This was negative for white race relations, but certainly positive publicity wise. The CORE director, the creator of the Freedom Riders, and King the President clearly shared tactics and views for their expectation of violence, thus holding weight and value as of their close positions in the group. Another image of Martin Luther King6 shows that although he actively opposed segregation on buses and was a lead figure within the organisation, this may have been for personal media attention with King being “bent on making a fortune”7. King’s personal involvement did inspire a nationwide interest in Freedom Riders, the image gaining media attention, with members of the press in the background. Though it is a small frame and does not show the whole image, this photograph holds a fair amount of weight and value. These photos were not published and did not gain magazine sales so they can be viewed as being more objective, however originate from a very liberal magazine which would easily support King and the black activist movement. Alternatively King may have allowed these pictures to be taken, to encourage white retaliation. When linked with historian Julian Bond the former chairman of the NAACP, King is described as having a minimal role, Bond expressed when ‘asked to join…he chooses not to go”8. Consequently King did gain media attention for the Freedom Riders, but his involvement is likely to have been for personal gain, the media attention being more important than partaking in the rides themselves. Kings increased media attention caused more white extremist opposition worsening his significance on race relation changes. Bond did take part in the Freedom Rides, but this interview was years later suggesting that its weight