Episode Three – Martin Luther King, Jr. versus Yemelyan Pugachev

Today’s matchup comes from the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket and it pits the American civil rights leader from the south Martin Luther King, Jr versus the Russian rebel peasant, Yemelyan Pugachev.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, as Martin King Jr. His father, Martin King Sr., only added the middle name of Luther to his son’s name in 1934 after attending the Fifth Baptist World Conference in Berlin, Germany as an honor to the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther. 

Growing up in the Deep South in the 1930’s and 40’s was hard on people of color, which is not to say it wasn’t a struggle in the North as well, but Georgia was very segregated at the time. Living through this era was to make a mark on Martin. One incident in 1942, coming back from a speech contest on a bus, angered him greatly. He and his teacher were told to give up their seats for white passengers. He would talk about this in his book, The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Volume One with Clayborne Carson. In it, he said that it was “the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

King was an excellent student, so much so that he skipped both ninth and twelfth grades heading to Morehead College at the age of 15. By 18, he decided to head to a seminary at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here he showed his leadership skills being elected student body president.

In 1953, he married Coretta Scott and in 1954 became the Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, he received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University.  

Here is a place where we see some controversy in his life that was to plague him from time to time. Twenty-three years after his assassination, in 1991, it was found that much of his doctoral thesis was plagiarized. 

It was in 1955 that the now Dr. King began his role as a spokesperson for the civil rights movement. The catalyst was Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 5. To protest, Dr. King, along with Dr. Ralph Abernathy helped to lead the boycott of the bus system in the town until it stopped being segregated. The protest lasted for over one year ending with the court ruling in the case of Browder vs. Gayle which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The boycott elevated Dr. King to national prominence and gave rise to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The list of the men and women who helped start the SCLC is a who’s who list of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

On September 20, 1958, a black woman, Izola Curry, stabbed Dr. King during a book signing in Harlem, New York City. It was a serious attack by a deranged person which landed him in the hospital for several weeks. 

Moving forward to the early 1960’s, we have Dr. King becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of reform that the Kennedy administration was taking. The reaction of the President was to have his brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, begin an investigation of King. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover believed that Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a front for the communist party, so he conducted behind the scene investigations of them as well. 

Despite all of this, King continued leading marches against the Jim Crow laws of the south and segregationist policies throughout the country. He did this by using Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violent protest theory. This, of course, did not endear him to many fellow African-Americans like Malcolm X who favored a more violent course of action.

On August 28, 1963, he was one of the leaders of the March on Washington where he delivered one of the most inspirational speeches of all time, known today as “I Have a Dream.” If you have not heard it, or want to replay the memory, go to YouTube and watch it as it is very stirring. It still gives me goosebumps to this day.

His schedule of protests and interviews with the media kept him in the forefront of American politics. Dr. King’s reputation was stellar until he decided to make his opposition to the Vietnam War public in a speech at the Riverside Church in New York on April 7, 1967. The lecture was entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” One of his bones of contention was how much was being spent on the war effort at the cost of social programs to help the poor. Dr. King’s strong-worded criticism of the US government created a rift in his popularity.  

On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the black sanitary public works employees where he gave another of his great speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” on April 3rd. The next day, while standing outside his hotel room at the Loraine Motel, he was shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 39 years of age.

Now would be the time for Putting it Into Perspective but as with all of the events and people of the 20th Century, I’m going to bypass that.

The next person up is a Russian peasant named Yemelyan Pugachev. Born in 1742 to a Don Cossack family, little is known about his early life until he joined the Russian army in 1760 during the Seven Years’ War. Empress Elizabeth I was the Russian leader, and under her rule, Russia sided with France and the Holy Roman Empire against Great Britain and Prussia. This was to flip after her death with the elevation of Peter III who admired the Prussian leader Fredrick the Great.

In 1770, Pugachev asked to be released from military duty due to illness. When that was denied, he decided to desert but was captured the next year. Forty-eight hours after his imprisonment, he escaped fleeing towards the Terek River. He became a leader of a protest movement which caused him to head towards the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg to deliver an official complaint. While on his way, the authorities found out he was a wanted fugitive and arrested him. Yet again. Pugachev found a way to escape.

In July 1762, Tsar Peter III was assassinated by conspirators trying to put his wife Catherine on the throne. This was an important development in the life of Yemelyan as he was to try to impersonate the dead tsar. This is a very Russian thing, the impersonation of dead nobility. As an example, during the period known as the Time of Troubles in the 1600’s, there were no fewer than three False Dmitri’s, impersonators of the dead youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. 

At the time, there were numerous seeds of dissent throughout Russia, none stronger than those voiced by the Old Believers. Changes in the Russian Orthodox Church brought on by the reformist Patriarch Nikon in 1652-1666 were very unpopular. Many Old Believers thought that the reforms were heretical and would not allow them in their churches. There were mass suicides and revolts for years afterward in protest. 

Another dissatisfied group was a large one, the Russian serf. Most peasants in Russia at the time were slaves to the land and their owners. There were numerous rebellions against this repressive form of bondage such as the uprisings of Ivan Bolotnikov, Stenka Razin, Kondraty Bulavin (1707–09). If you would like to learn more about these and a detailed account of the Pugachev rebellion, you can head over to my old podcast Russian Rulers History Podcast and check out episodes 124 through 128.

In the years between 1762 and 1772, there were around 160 revolts in Russia. Taxes were a major burden on the lowly serf as was the mandatory military service for many able-bodied male peasants. The continuous wars with the Ottoman Empire strained the populace who saw no personal benefit to the fighting.

It was under these circumstances that Pugachev began to lead a small group of rebels that swelled into the largest peasant revolt in Russian history to that date. The estimates of the number of people who took place in the rebellion vary, but Pugachev led at least a few hundreds of thousands.

Pugachev’s rebellion shook Russia’s nobility and especially Catherine the Great to their core. The Empress wanted to reform much of the provincial governments, but the massive revolt put a quick halt to it. 

Pugachev’s wins over government forces in Samara and Kazan in 1773 were impressive, but the armies they faced were poorly equipped and lacked discipline. When a more able force attacked the rebels, they were soundly defeated. By 1774, Pugachev’s men turned on him and gave him up to the Russian authorities. He was publicly executed on January 21, 1775.

Time to Put it Into Perspective.

During Pugachev’s lifetime, Fredrick the Great assumed power in Prussia. The ruins of Pompeii are rediscovered. The Seven Years War begins, ending in 1763. It is the first truly global war, and Joseph Birkenstock makes his first sandals.

Now it’s time to get to the scoring. 

Dr. King’s effect can be measured in the changes of segregationist laws in America and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pugachev forced the Russian government to look at how it was treating its serf’s and peasants for the first time. It would take almost a hundred years until 1861 for Tsar Alexander II to free the tens of millions of slaves. The first 40 points, is for the effect each person had on their country, Dr. King on this count gets 40 points with Pugachev receiving 30.

The next criteria are for their lasting effect on history. When it comes to Dr. King, all I have to say is Barak Obama. I seriously doubt that a black man could have ever hoped to become President of the United States of America without the influence and actions of Dr. King. Pugachev, while unsuccessful in his attempt to free the serfs, did set the wheel in motion. Still, we must give King the 25 points and Pugachev, 15. 

Twenty points go to the effect of each man on the rest of the world. Neither one had a substantial influence on the rest of the world aside from their country, but since this is a winner take all category and the points need to be doled out, I’m going with Dr. King getting a slight edge 20 to 19.

Next up it the length of time they were rebels and yet again, Dr. King racks up the maximum points. Pugachev only lasted for two years while Dr. King went for 13. King 15, Pugachev 5. 

The final score between these two rebels is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sweeping each category getting the full 100 points with Yemelyan Pugachev getting 69.

So, there you have it with Dr. King moving on to the second round and us saying goodbye to the Russian peasant, Pugachev. Dr. King will face off against the winner of the following matchup… Leonardo di Vinci and Arminius.

Join me next time when we match up two villains from the past, another Russian, Ivan the Terrible against one of the American Mafia’s most notorious leaders, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. 

Once again, I’d like to remind everyone to please head over to iTunes or whatever podcatcher you are using to give this podcast a review. Additionally, head over to battlegroundhistory.com to read some additional material on todays and previous battles. Leave me a comment which I will likely share with other listeners. If you see to it, a donation would also be greatly appreciated. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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