King Maker

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Civil rights reforms eventually would have been enacted even without King’s fateful decision in Birmingham, but his demonstration of the power of nonviolence undoubtedly shaped the course of America’s racial transformation.

Without King’s courageous action and ultimate triumph in Birmingham, it is unlikely that he would have had been given the chance to deliver his famous “I have a dream” speech. The march itself, if it had occurred at all that summer, would have been much less high-hearted and much more subdued if King had just suffered a major defeat. It is also unlikely that a defeated King would have been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in December 1963 or would have received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Of course King’s moral leadership might have survived a setback in Birmingham, but in 1963 there were other leaders, including Malcolm X, who were prepared to challenge King’s preeminence, and there was considerable black support for more militant alternatives. King’s current stature as one of his whole nation’s great leaders honored with a national holiday should not blind us to the possibility that the struggle for racial justice in America might well have taken a far more destructive course if King had failed in Birmingham.