ABSTRACT

The period from June 1963 to August 1965 was one of extraordinary influence for Martin Luther King, Jr. By utopian standards, he fell short, but by any reasonable gauge of human attainment, he advanced the cause of freedom against the odds. The American political elite remained apprehensive on civil rights, and this impelled King to stage dramatic nonviolent demonstrations to stiffen their resolve. At the same time, prominent politicians feared that further protests might send the already tense state of race relations into a freefall of violence, which would jeopardize President Johnson’s newly announced War on Poverty. The racial disturbances in Birmingham, Harlem, and then Los Angeles in successive summers, even while they exposed the need for this war, frightened the white majority. Against this backdrop, the introduction of a civil rights bill by President Kennedy in June 1963, and the passage of both a strong Civil Rights Act in July 1964 and a Voting Rights Act in August 1965 under President Johnson, cannot be fully explained without reference to King’s leadership. However misrepresentative of his overall philosophy, King’s nationally broadcast “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in late August 1963 fixed him in public memory more than any other event. But it did so in a selectively idealistic way at odds with his necessarily calculated protest style (Dyson 2000: 15). While he continued to be deeply detested by segregationists, fiercely resented by powerful federal officials, and vehemently criticized by African American rivals, his status as America’s preeminent racial diplomat was most assured during this twenty-six-month period. International recognition came with 142the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, just short of King’s 36th birthday. If any period warrants Taylor Branch’s label of a King era, this short interval was it (Branch 1988, 1998).