ABSTRACT

Martin Luther King may have been one of the most visible black leaders in the United States by the beginning of 1960 but few whites at this time understood the intellectual basis for his evolving philosophy of nonviolence - this in spite of the fact that King set down his largely derivative ideas in several journal articles in the late 1950s as well as in his partly ghost-written account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom. Still less did most observers comprehend the growing impatience felt by most Mrican Americans at a time when decolonisation was proceeding apace outside the United States. Only a handful of Americans, moreover, could have predicted that the early 1960s would one day be labelled 'the King years' or, indeed, that the same period would witness the genesis and rapid maturation of a mass-based campaign designed to secure equal rights for African Americans. l The rash of student sit-ins which occurred in the spring of 1960, however, transformed the cautious civil rights coalition of the late 1950s into a genuine social movement. King himself had nothing to do with the original sit-in staged in Greensboro, but through a process of trial and error, he and his organisation - the SCLC - harnessed the new grass-roots energy behind a broad-based struggle to procure federal intervention against southern segregation. Although this process was frequently frustrating and should not be allowed to define the civil rights movement in its entirety, it culminated in the final collapse of the caste system via the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The victory was certainly not King's alone but it owed much to the Atlanta minister's remarkable appeal among whites as well as blacks and to the SCLC's dramatic

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use of nonviolent direct action in the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Selma.