3: The Civil Rights Movement
Social reform movements begin when a large group of people, feeling frustrated and unhappy with some aspects of society, join together to create change. A number of social reform movements greatly altered American society during the twentieth century. In particular, the civil rights movement achieved dramatic and significant gains. It not only changed the way African Americans live, but also affected the thoughts and beliefs of mainstream white America. It prompted many citizens to demand that the government live up to its principles, uphold standards of fairness, and provide equal protection to all.
The main civil rights movement in America took place throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It involved displays of extraordinary courage and determination on the part of the movement's leaders and millions of activists. For opponents of equal rights for African Americans, the civil rights movement brought on intense feelings of fear, resentment, and rage. This often led to acts of hostility and outright violence. On many occasions, civil rights activists placed themselves in the midst of heated confrontations. They risked their jobs, their homes, and their personal safety to fight for justice. The conflicts of that era were played out on the streets and in the schools, in courthouses, and in the halls of government, both state and federal. Victories were achieved with great difficulty, and the setbacks and obstacles were numerous.
However, progress was made slowly and a nation was changed. The civil rights movement helped improve African Americans' access to education and jobs. It also safeguarded voting rights and provided equal protection under the law. The struggle against racism (the belief that race determines traits and abilities, and the discrimination based on race) continues today. Yet the victories of the civil rights movement provided the framework for ongoing progress.
Civil rights are basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (the laws and principles of the nation) to all citizens. These freedoms include Page 66 | Top of Articlethe right to have a fair trial, to vote, and to choose where to live and where to go to school. When historians discuss the civil rights movement, they note its origins in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified, or formally approved, in 1865, abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, states that any person born in the United States—or any person naturalized, or admitted to citizenship—is a citizen. All citizens, as written in the Fourteenth Amendment, are guaranteed "the equal protection of the laws."
In addition, no one can be deprived of "life, liberty, or property" without due process, which means a strict upholding of the rules of a legal proceeding, like a trial. Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment states that all U.S. citizens have the right to vote, regardless of race. The Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to African Americans, but it applied only to men.
Many historians mark the beginning of the civil rights movement with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This ruling outlawed segregation in schools. The end of the movement, although difficult to pinpoint exactly, is thought by many to be during the summer of 1965. During that summer, the last significant civil rights law of that era, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was passed. Also, several of the major organizations behind the civil rights movement began to splinter, weakening the movement. The battle for equality and freedom did not suddenly end during the summer of 1965, and in fact it continues today. Similarly, the American civil rights movement did not suddenly begin with a single court case in 1954. It had been building momentum for decades.
Slavery and Reconstruction
In the early history of America, most Africans came to the country not by choice but rather in chains. They arrived on slave ships beginning in the 1600s. Slavery thrived in the United States for more than two hundred years. The practice of owning and selling slaves was gradually outlawed in northern states. However, it remained legal in the South until the Thirteenth Amendment banned the practice in 1865. Slavery, an explosive issue between the northern and southern states, was one of the major causes of the American Civil War (1861–65). At the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) began a program known as Reconstruction. This program was a plan to reunite a divided nation and help the South cope with its postwar status. But Lincoln never saw this plan take shape as he was assassinated just days after the war ended. His successor, Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), continued with the Reconstruction.
During the post-Civil War period, the U.S. Congress was controlled by northern lawmakers. These politicians helped pass constitutional amendments and civil rights laws that outlined and protected the rights of the newly freed slaves. The Fourteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the rights of citizenship and legal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave all citizens the right to vote, became the basis for Civil Rights Acts in 1866, 1871, and 1875. These laws attempted to protect African Americans from racially motivated discrimination and violence. Many black men voted for the first time during this period. However, women of all races were prevented from voting nationally until Page 68 | Top of Article1920. As a result of the new voting power, a number of black politicians were elected to local, state, and even some national offices.
Despite the legal protections offered to blacks, their daily lives continued to be marked by brutality and restrictions. After the slaves were freed, many southerners were afraid the free blacks would rise up in a violent rebellion against their former masters. In addition, southern landowners were concerned that they would no longer have laborers to work their fields. In response to these fears, many southern states passed Black Codes. These rules placed severe limitations on the liberty of black citizens and imposed harsh penalties for criminal acts committed by blacks. The Black Codes were designed to keep blacks fearful of whites and constantly aware of their status as second-class citizens.
Blacks' fears were further heightened by random and brutal attacks by gangs of white southern men. These groups, including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and several others, terrorized black citizens. African Americans were subjected to kidnappings, beatings, fires being set to destroy their homes, and in some cases murder. Such murders, also known as lynchings, often involved hanging the victim from a tree and leaving his/her body in a public place to serve as a warning to other blacks.
The few freedoms granted to blacks following the Civil War faded away with the end of Reconstruction. The conclusion of the Reconstruction Era occurred after an 1877 political compromise between northern and southern lawmakers. Following Reconstruction, the federal government's role as protector of African American civil rights ended for many decades.
Supreme Court reversals and Jim Crow laws
The legal protections offered by the civil rights laws and constitutional amendments crafted after the Civil War were weakened in the South. Widespread opposition had formed on the part of ordinary citizens, state and local lawmakers, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was supposed to guarantee black citizens equal access to public places like hotels, theaters, and trains, many whites simply refused to comply. Blacks were routinely turned away from inns or forced to sit in black-only train compartments. In 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court allowed such refusals to be legal when it overturned part of the 1875 law, ruling that it was unconstitutional.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been based on the rights guaranteed by the recently drafted Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment offered citizenship and equal protection under the law to all citizens, Page 69 | Top of Articleregardless of race. The U.S. Supreme Court argued that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination by the government and its officials. The court decided, however, that private companies or citizens who owned businesses used by the public could do as they wished.
A few years later, with the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another ruling supporting racial discrimination. This 1896 decision supported a Louisiana law that mandated separate railway cars for black and white passengers. The court ruled that the law was not discriminatory. The judges stated that the law allowed all passengers access to the railway cars, but in separate facilities. The Plessy v. Ferguson case gave rise to the expression "separate but equal." It became the basis for widespread legal discrimination throughout the South for many decades to come. The separate but equal ruling offered a way out for governments wishing to adhere to the Constitution but wanting to continue segregation, or separation of the races. In reality, facilities for blacks, whether in railway cars, schools, or hospitals, were far from equal to those for whites.
Decisions like that of Plessy v. Ferguson allowed state and local governments in the South to make numerous laws that restricted or denied blacks access to places like beaches and parks. Known as Jim Crow laws, these regulations provided for strict separation of the races. Blacks had to use separate bathrooms and water fountains. They were sent to separate schools. Many restaurants and hotels barred African Americans completely, while hospitals treated black patients in segregated areas. Even in death, the races could not mix. Blacks could only be buried in all-black cemeteries. Everywhere they turned, African Americans received the message that they were not just separate, but somehow lower class. The Jim Crow laws remained in place for decades, until they were overturned by civil rights laws in the 1960s.
One of the most significant ways southern states prevented black citizens from achieving equality was to reduce their political power. Technically, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote. However, the governments of southern states became skilled at drafting laws that lessened that right for African Americans. One such law, the poll tax, effectively denied many black voters the ability to cast their ballots. The poll tax required voters to pay a fee to vote. Most black southerners, barred from finding quality jobs, were extremely poor and could not afford to pay a poll tax. Some states started residency requirements, demanding that voters live in one place Page 70 | Top of Articlefor two years prior to an election in order to vote. African Americans generally did not own homes and moved around frequently, preventing them from meeting residency requirements.
Most southern blacks were illiterate, or unable to read. Some states in the South required voters to pass a literacy test, an impossibility for many blacks. Literacy tests often required voters to read and explain the meaning of a complicated document, such as the state constitution. Many southern whites would have had difficulty with the literacy test as well, but most were able to get around that requirement through a 'grandfather clause. ' This clause stated that a voter did not have to pass the literacy test if Page 71 | Top of Articlehe was the descendant of someone who had been able to vote prior to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. All such descendants were white, since blacks could not vote prior to that amendment's passage.
In some southern states, black votes were made meaningless by a policy known as the white primary. A primary is an election that determines the candidate of a political party who will later run in the general election. The Democrats had overwhelming power in the South. This meant that the winner of the Democratic primary was virtually guaranteed to win the general election. By 1915 every southern state had instituted the white primary, excluding blacks from voting in the primary elections. Once the white voters had chosen their Democratic candidate in the primary, it wouldn't matter which person black citizens voted for in the general election because whites outnumbered blacks. The Democrat was sure to win.
In addition to poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries, many southern whites relied on violence and intimidation to prevent black voters from having a voice in politics. Black citizens who tried to register to vote faced the threat of being fired from their jobs, being beaten by angry mobs, or having their homes set on fire. Some were even threatened with the prospect of being lynched.
In his book The Civil Rights Movement, John M. Dunn points out that the combined impact of these tactics effectively erased black political power. In Louisiana alone, the number of black voters went from 130,334 to just 1,342 between 1896 and 1904. With most blacks prevented from voting, it didn't take long for the few African Americans who had been elected to local or national office to be voted out. The modest gains of the Reconstruction Era had been completely reversed.
The beginnings of a movement
The decades following the end of Reconstruction in the South were marked by poverty, humiliation, and violence for African Americans. Many former slaves continued working as farm laborers in a system known as sharecropping. White landowners allowed black laborers to farm a portion of their land and share in the profits made from selling the crop. The sharecroppers borrowed money from the landowners for seed and living expenses. This system, often corrupt, kept many black workers in constant debt to the landowners. The sharecroppers could never repay their debts after receiving their portion of the crop's profits. Thus, they began each new planting season in debt to the landowners and were Page 72
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continually unable to pay off that debt. The law said that they had been freed from slavery, but their daily lives had changed little since the Civil War ended.
Southern blacks also lived with constant reminders that the larger society considered them inferior and even unclean. Blacks could not drink from the same water fountains as whites, nor could they sit near whites on trains or boats. In addition to these daily assaults on their self-esteem, African Americans in the South also faced the threat of physical violence. Black people, particularly men, were expected to behave in a certain way around white people. They were to address whites as "sir" or "ma'am," keep their eyes lowered, and generally act in a submissive, or obedient, way. Any violations of this unwritten code of conduct could result in a scolding at best, a beating, or even murder at worst.
Angry white mobs terrorized black communities. They usually attacked at night, under the cover of darkness. They took victims from their homes and then beat and tortured them. Many such victims were hung from tree branches, a crime known as lynching. A common excuse given for a lynching was that the black man had raped or otherwise assaulted a white woman. However, few of these supposed offenses were ever officially reported to the police. Other excuses for lynchings included lesser "crimes," such as speaking to a white woman or showing disrespect to a white person. Regardless of the imagined or real offenses committed by the victims of lynchings, the white gangs that conducted these murders were acting outside of the law. They were rarely, however, brought to trial. Lynchings usually went completely unpunished. Between 1889 and 1918, more than three thousand people, most of them black, were killed by lynching.
The Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's declaration on January 1, 1863, that all slaves shall be free, had held great promise for African Americans. But the reality of post-Civil War life in America was very disappointing. The hope of someday achieving equality among the races still burned brightly for many, however. Significant civil rights organizations took shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Afro-American Council (AAC) is considered the first civil rights organization in the United States. Founded by black journalist T. Thomas Fortune (1856–1928) in 1898 in New York City, the AAC focused primarily on the issue of racially motivated violence. The organization lasted only a few years, but it gained attention and historical importance, in part, for its Anti-Lynching Bureau. The head of this bureau, a black journalist named Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), investigated and reported on the problem of lynchings at great personal risk.
Booker T. Washington
Early civil rights activists differed in their goals and in their means of accomplishing them. One of the most influential and controversial civil rights leaders of that era was Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). Washington suggested that acceptance and cooperation on the part of blacks would be the most effective path to improving their condition. Washington was a former slave and the founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (also known simply as the Tuskegee Institute) in Alabama. The institute trained black students to be teachers and schooled them in farming methods or in a trade such as carpentry or plumbing. Washington believed that the first Page 74 | Top of Articlegoal for African Americans should be receiving a moral and practical education that would help them become part of the American economy. Only then, he felt, would they have any hope of achieving social equality.
In 1895 Washington gave a famous speech, known as the Atlanta Compromise. Speaking at the white-organized Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington urged white people to offer blacks economic opportunities. He suggested they donate money to black schools and make jobs available to trained black workers. He also suggested that black people give up their hopes for social and political equality, for the time being. Washington's recommendations met with approval by most whites. They agreed with the suggestion that black people accept their second-class status. Some blacks agreed with Washington's views, believing that any progress, even if it just meant better education and job training, would improve their lives. Washington did earn the financial support of a number of wealthy northerners, enabling many poor students to attend the institute. And he quietly worked behind the scenes to make changes to the laws that so restricted African Americans' lives.
W. E. B. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement
Many prominent black citizens felt strongly that Washington did great harm to the cause of black equality by publicly urging blacks to give in to the wishes of the white majority and to passively accept their situation. John Hope (1868–1936), an African American and later the president of Atlanta University, responded angrily. As quoted in Sanford Wexler's The Civil Rights Movement: "If we are not striving for equality, in heaven's name for what are we living?"
One of the best-known critics of Washington's policies was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced due-BOYZ; 1868–1963), better known as W. E. B. Du Bois. A professor and writer, Du Bois was the first black person to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He objected to Washington's suggestion that black people accept their fate.
In his landmark 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois argued that "Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism [backwards and primitive], and that black boys need education as well as white boys." (Du Bois left it to later activists to defend the importance of girls having the right to vote and Page 75
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be educated.) He also pointed out a flaw in Washington's reasoning. He contended that even the smallest goals of Washington's compromise, simply economic progress, could not be met without political equality and access to higher education.
During the summer of 1905, Du Bois arranged a meeting with twenty-eight other black leaders at Niagara Falls, in Ontario, Canada. The purpose of this secret meeting was to forge a plan for working toward complete civil rights and the end of racial discrimination. Known as the Niagara Movement, this organization marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. The Niagara Movement soon began recruiting members, setting up chapters throughout the United States. The organization struggled financially, however, and only lasted about five years.
However, several key members of the Niagara Movement, including Du Bois and Wells-Barnett, joined together with black ministers and a Page 76 | Top of Articlegroup of whites sympathetic to the African American cause to form the National Negro Committee in 1909. The following year, that organization changed its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. This institution continues to have a prominent role in the ongoing struggle for civil rights today.
The civil rights movement grows
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the NAACP and other civilrights organizations worked to achieve gains for African Americans primarily through legal challenges. One of the first goals of the NAACP was to lobby Congress for the passage of federal antilynching laws. This legislation to make lynching a federal crime was supported by many in Congress. However, a number of southern lawmakers prevented the bills from passing.
A number of court cases from that period met with greater success. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the grandfather clause that allowed many southern states to limit the voting rights of African Americans. The grandfather clause forced black citizens to pass a difficult literacy test in order to vote, while white voters could register as their grandfathers had done—without passing any such test. Two years later, in 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional any city ordinances that dictated where blacks could live. In 1923 the court overturned a murder conviction against a black man, saying his trial had been unfair because none of the jurors were black. One aspect of a fair trial involves being tried by a jury of one's peers, meaning people of similar social standing. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that a black man facing an all-white jury would be less likely to meet with justice than if some of the jurors had been black.
World War I and its aftermath
When the United States entered World War I (1914–18) in 1917, many African Americans enlisted in the military. Despite the fact that they were placed in segregated units and assigned menial, or low-skill tasks that no one else wanted, more than 360,000 black American soldiers served during the war. They risked their lives fighting to ensure freedom and democracy abroad, only to return home to a nation that continued to deny them opportunities.
Returning black soldiers expected fellow citizens to be grateful to them for their service. Instead, these veterans were treated the same way they had been before the war: as inferior, and even dangerous, citizens. Page 77 | Top of ArticleSome whites feared that black soldiers, having experienced the importance and power associated with being a soldier during wartime, would rebel against their low social status at home. White citizens' fear, along with the raised expectations of the black soldiers, increased tensions between the two races.
One source of conflict between blacks and whites involved job opportunities. During the pre-World War I military buildup, jobs in northern defense industries had been plentiful, and many southern blacks moved north in search of work. After the war, when American soldiers returned home and the defense industries were no longer flourishing, competition for jobs increased. Many blacks were forced out of their jobs, a situation that only worsened the problems of poverty and overcrowding in northern cities. In many U.S. cities, north and south, hostility between the races continued to grow in the years following World War I. Lynchings and other violent crimes against African Americans rose. In 1919, in some twenty-five cities all across the country, blacks responded to violence with violence. Riots erupted in cities like Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
During the 1920s, black citizens, particularly in the North, did find some reasons to celebrate. Blacks in the North were free to vote. They exercised that right, resulting in increasing political power. In 1928 Oscar De Priest became the first black U.S. congressman of the twentieth century. He represented a district in Chicago and served three terms. The 1920s also brought a period of extraordinary accomplishment among African American artists and writers. It was a time known as the Harlem Renaissance. African Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage, a welcome change from past pressures to accept second-class status in white society.
The Great Depression and the New Deal
The end of the 1920s marked the beginning of a period of terrible hardship for many Americans as well as much of the industrialized world. With the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, the Great Depression began. Many Americans were plunged into poverty, losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Unemployment rates were high, with as many as 25 percent of Americans out of work. For blacks, the consequences of the Depression were even more severe. As many as 50 percent of black laborers could not find work.
With the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) in 1932 came some promise of aid. Roosevelt Page 78
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spearheaded an aggressive plan of economic recovery and relief for the poor. He called his program the New Deal. The Roosevelt administration launched dozens of programs in an attempt to stabilize the U.S. economy, get as many people as possible back to work, and provide some government support for those hit hardest by the Depression. With his New Deal programs and strong leadership at a time of crisis, Roosevelt earned widespread admiration.
Roosevelt was popular with African Americans in part because he organized an unofficial advisory committee known as the Black Cabinet. Unlike his official Cabinet, a group of presidential advisers including the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, the members of the Black Cabinet were not actually part of the executive branch of the government. Many were community leaders and some held important roles in various Page 79 | Top of ArticleNew Deal agencies. Roosevelt consulted with the Black Cabinet periodically on issues significant to the African American community.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the president's wife, also earned the respect of African Americans for her dedication to civil rights. In 1939 opera singer Marian Anderson was invited by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a patriotic women's organization, to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. When the DAR realized that Anderson was black, they canceled the performance. Furious with this act of racial discrimination, Eleanor Roosevelt ended her membership in the DAR. She later staged a free outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at which Anderson performed for an audience of seventy-five thousand people. Their admiration for the Roosevelts prompted many black voters to change their political loyalty from the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the president who had freed the slaves, to the Democratic Party.
Court victories chip away at school segregation
In the mid-1930s, just as it had done twenty years earlier, the NAACP achieved some measure of racial justice through the nation's court system. Led by the organization's chief legal counsel, Charles Houston (1895–1950), the NAACP launched a campaign to end school segregation. Houston's ultimate goal was to end segregation for black students of all ages. He chose to begin this effort by addressing inequalities at the graduate-school level. He felt that the integration of graduate schools would be less threatening to whites than the integration of elementary schools. In addition, he believed that the inequality was far more obvious at the graduate-school level.
For school-age black children in the South, all-black schools, though inferior to the all-white schools, were always provided. Many black students wishing to pursue graduate studies, however, had no options. They were not admitted to the all-white programs, and in many states there were no black graduate schools. Houston felt this circumstance obviously violated the "separate but equal" principle established by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Houston enlisted the help of a talented young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), a man who later became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice. In 1935 Houston and Marshall took on the case of Donald Gaines Murray, a black man who had been denied admission to the all-white law school at the University of Maryland. The lawyers argued that the university must admit Murray to the white law school because the state offered no black law school as an Page 80 | Top of Articlealternative. The Baltimore city court agreed, ordering the University of Maryland to admit Murray to its law school.
A few years later, in 1938, Houston and Marshall took a similar case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A black student named Lloyd Lionel Gaines had been denied admission to the all-white law school at the University of Missouri. After more than two years of court battles, the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered the University of Missouri law school to admit Gaines. These legal victories weakened the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the basis for all segregationist laws. The next step for the NAACP was to address segregation in public elementary and secondary schools and to try to bring down Plessy v. Ferguson completely.
World War II
As the lawyers of the NAACP fought for school desegregation, other civil rights activists tackled inequalities elsewhere. When it became clear that the United States might be drawn into another largescale war, jobs in defense-related industries became abundant. Still, such jobs were primarily reserved for white workers. African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) approached the U.S. government with a demand. He called for an end to discrimination against black workers in the defense plants. In 1925, Randolph had founded the first black union in the United States. He had organized railroad porters into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
In 1941, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II (1939–45), Randolph announced that if his demand for defense jobs for blacks was not met, he would organize a massive march on Washington, D.C. He promised that tens of thousands of protesters would gather in the nation's capital to demand equality in the workplace. President Roosevelt was concerned that such a protest would be too disruptive at a time when the nation was preparing for war. So, he agreed to Randolph's demand. The march was canceled, and Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. The order desegregated defense-related industries with government contracts.
During World War II, about one million African Americans served in the military. Randolph had tried to achieve desegregation of the military, but he had not succeeded. As they had done during World Page 82
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War I, black soldiers served in segregated units and were often stuck with the jobs no white soldiers wanted. They were prevented from combat positions, except in cases where the need for additional soldiers was particularly high. Black soldiers risked their lives and performed heroic acts, but they received few medals for their service.
As with World War I, African Americans played a significant role in the fight for democracy overseas, but they returned home to the dreary Page 83 | Top of Articlerealities of racial discrimination. It wasn't until three years after the end of World War II that the military was desegregated. In 1948 President Harry S Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) issued Executive Order 9981, calling for the desegregation of armed forces and government agencies.
Brown case marks beginning of new era
The NAACP's modest victories in the 1930s that led to the integration of some all-white graduate schools had little impact on the lives of black schoolchildren in the South. Many southern states had increased spending on black schools to head off any lawsuits stating that their school systems were separate and unequal. But the segregation of elementary and secondary schools was still the law in many states. The situation seemed nearly impossible to change. The NAACP, however, became determined to prove that school segregation was unconstitutional.
In the early 1950s the NAACP filed lawsuits in several states attacking segregation. Unsuccessful in the lower courts, five such cases earned the right in 1952 to be heard by the nation's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court. The court combined these cases under the name of one case that had originated in Kansas, one of four western states that permitted school segregation. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas had originated from the frustration of an African American named Oliver Brown. He was unhappy that his seven-year-old daughter Linda had to take a bus across town to attend a black school when they lived just a few blocks from a white school. So, Brown filed a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education.
Arguments in the Brown case, as well as the four other related cases, were presented to the Supreme Court in December 1952. The attorneys in each case argued that the separate school facilities for black and white children were grossly unequal. They contended that the situation violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law for all citizens. In addition, the lawyers said racial segregation of Page 85 | Top of Articleschools was psychologically damaging to the black children. They noted that black students clearly understood society's message that they were considered inferior to white children.
More than a year later, on May 17, 1954, the court issued its decision. It declared that school segregation was unconstitutional. As quoted in Eyes on the Prize, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Brown decision came to be considered one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases of the twentieth century. Although it took many years before southern schools were truly integrated, the Brown case set in motion a movement that altered nearly every aspect of life for African Americans in the South.
Fear and fury in the South
It soon became clear that the Brown decision would not bring a swift end to school segregation. The southern states that bordered northern states generally held moderate views. However, many in the so-called Deep South (states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia) clung to Civil War-era beliefs. They felt that individual states should make their own rules, and the federal government should have little power over their lives.
The growing civil rights movement and court rulings like the Brown decision struck fear into the hearts of many southerners. Supporters of segregation became increasingly nervous that their way of life was being threatened. They feared any change to the balance of power between whites and blacks. They worried that the black population would rise up in revolt and try to dominate southern society. Large numbers of southern citizens and lawmakers reacted to the Brown decision with a furious determination to ignore the ruling.
Many white southerners responded to the potential changes in their lifestyle with a sense of angry rebellion and determination to preserve the old ways. Citizens' Councils, made up of middle class and professional whites, arose throughout the South with the purpose of economically intimidating any black citizens who supported desegregation. The councils threatened to take away the jobs and homes of African Americans who defied their will. And if such tactics failed to intimidate, then the KKK would be called into service to terrorize blacks through physical violence. The number of lynchings and other violent acts toward blacks Page 86 | Top of Articlerose during the mid-1950s. One case in particular represented the powerlessness of blacks in the Jim Crow South, and the lengths some people would go to prevent change.
Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old African American visiting relatives in a small Mississippi town in August of 1955. He came from Chicago, where he lived in a black neighborhood and attended an all-black public school. But while Till understood the realities of a segregated community, he was unfamiliar with the social customs in the South. Visiting a country market with his cousin and some friends one evening, Till whistled at the white woman behind the counter. He said "Bye, baby" on his way out the door. That small act of teenage rebellion in a region where blacks were expected to keep their distance from whites, especially white women, would cost Emmett Till his life.
Three days after the incident, the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and another man, J. W. Milam, showed up at the house where Till was staying and abducted the boy. They beat him severely, shot him in the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. The two men were arrested and tried for murder, but an all-white jury acquitted them after deliberating for just about one hour. The men later admitted their guilt to a journalist who paid them $4,000 for their story. They claimed that the boy needed to be taught a lesson for his bold behavior.
Millions of people, particularly in the North, reacted with outrage and disgust that such a crime had occurred and that the perpetrators had gone unpunished. Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Bradley, insisted on an open casket at her son's funeral. She wanted all to see the horrifying evidence of her son's brutal murder. Thousands lined up to view the body over a four-day period. The tragedy of the Emmett Till case awakened many in the North, both black and white, of the need for change.
In Eyes on the Prize, Juan Williams reflected on the incident's impact. "It is difficult to measure just how profound an effect the public viewing of Till's body created. But without question it moved black America in a way the Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation could not match." Bradley, as quoted in Eyes on the Prize, explained how her son's murder changed her own perspective: "When something happened to the Negroes in the South [before the murder] I said, 'That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.'
The Montgomery bus boycott
After the Brown case delivered its blow to school segregation, more and more African Americans began to feel it was possible to get rid of segregation in other aspects of their lives. In Montgomery, Alabama, a highly segregated city, the treatment blacks received on the city bus lines became a focus of their frustration. African American passengers were forced to sit in "colored" sections at the back of the bus. If a bus became too crowded, black passengers were required to give up seats in the colored section for white riders. In addition, black passengers had to pay at the front of the bus, then exit and re-enter through the rear door. Those who dared break these rules faced arrest and, in some cases, severe beatings from angry white passengers.
Black citizens of Montgomery became increasingly fed up with the system. Some began to speak of a boycott. Three-quarters of the city's bus riders were black. Thus, if they banded together and refused to ride the buses, the bus company would suffer a significant loss of income. Jo Ann Robinson, the president of a black women's organization called the Women's Political Council, began to plan for a citywide boycott. She and other black community leaders waited for an incident to take place that would inspire enough anger and frustration on the part of black citizens to unite them behind the boycott. On December 1, 1955, that incident occurred.
On that day, a forty-three-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks (1913–2005) boarded a bus after work. Parks had been active in the NAACP for many years, working at one time as secretary of the Montgomery chapter. She had run into trouble on a city bus twelve years earlier, in 1943, getting kicked off for refusing to enter through the rear door. On this Thursday in December 1955, Parks took a seat in the colored section. Later, as the bus became more crowded, the driver ordered Parks and three others to give up their seats for white riders. The others complied, but Parks refused to get up. The bus driver called the police, and Parks was arrested. Immediately, black community activists like Robinson began to spread the word that a one-day bus boycott would be held the following Monday to protest bus segregation in general and Parks's arrest in particular.
The one-day boycott was a huge success, with most black bus riders finding other ways to reach their destinations that day. Many walked, some carpooled, others took taxis or rode bicycles. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), a group of religious and community Page 88
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leaders, formed to plan the next steps. They elected as their leader a young, educated, charismatic minister who had recently moved to Montgomery and who would become the civil rights movement's most visible leader: Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990), another major force in the movement, was also an instrumental figure in the MIA. With the support of the black community, the MIA voted to extend the boycott.
The bus company, as well as many downtown businesses, quickly began to lose money. The city's white leaders tried various measures to force the boycott to end, including arresting King and dozens of others. Montgomery's black citizens faced tremendous pressure, including Page 89 | Top of Articleharassment, beatings, and the threat of losing their jobs. Yet they continued to stay off the city's buses. King's home and that of another black leader, E. D. Nixon (1899–1987), were bombed by mobs of angry white citizens. But in spite of the risks, the boycott continued. What had begun as a one-day demonstration stretched into a year-long movement.
In addition to the boycott, the MIA and NAACP attempted to end segregation of the city bus lines through the court system. After months of legal battles, the Montgomery City Lines bus company was forced to end its policy of racial segregation on December 20, 1956. Black passengers could enter through whichever door they wished and sit wherever they wanted. The Montgomery bus boycott ended the next day.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC
Through his role in the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. became known as a gifted and inspiring civil rights leader. He had the ability to persuade reluctant citizens to become dedicated activists, passing along his considerable passion for justice to all who heard him speak. Soon after the bus boycott ended, Ella Jo Baker (1903–1986), a dedicated civil rights activist, approached King about forming a new organization that would coordinate civil rights activities throughout the South. In early January 1957, King and a group of more than sixty black ministers gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the church led by King's father. The ministers created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and elected King as its president. Ella Jo Baker spent more than two years as the SCLC's master organizer and strategist, lending her years of experience as an activist to the new organization and its young leader.
The SCLC played a significant role in the early years of the civil rights movement. Its basic mission involved ending segregation and pursuing social justice through nonviolent means. King and other SCLC leaders preached repeatedly about the importance of fighting hate with love. The SCLC worked with local organizations all over the South, staging demonstrations, marches, and voter registration drives. By coordinating the activities of numerous other groups, the SCLC helped to build a massive grassroots, or locally based, movement throughout the southern states.
Conflict in Little Rock
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling declared that school segregation had to end. But the Supreme Court and other Page 90 | Top of Articlebranches of the federal government gave no guidance as to how, or how quickly, to achieve integration. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) disagreed with the ruling. Although he did not make his views known to the public, he never voiced any support for the ruling either. His silence on the subject was interpreted by southern segregationists as an opposition to school integration, leading them to feel more comfortable defying the ruling.
In addition, the Supreme Court issued a 1955 ruling known as Brown v. Board of Education II that further confused the situation. Stating that schools should desegregate with "all deliberate speed," the decision allowed for school boards to come up with plans for gradual integration. While "speed" suggests quickness, "deliberate" means to come to a decision carefully and even slowly. In states where integration was strongly opposed, Brown II was interpreted as a victory. The Supreme Court seemed to approve of long delays for school desegregation.
The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, became one of the first in the nation to come up with a plan to gradually integrate the public schools. The plan initially called for the voluntary integration of one all-white high school, meaning that any black student brave enough to attend the white school could choose to do so. Only nine black students agreed to step forward. The integration of Little Rock's Central High School was supposed to begin in early September 1957, but in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, politicians and citizens scrambled to block the black students from entering the school.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had not expressed strong views about segregation. However, in 1957 he became a staunch supporter of separate facilities for blacks and whites. His political opponents were gaining followers with their segregationist views, and Faubus worried that he would lose the re-election if he didn't express the same views. Two days before the first day of school, Governor Faubus announced on television that he had called in 250 National Guard troops to keep the black students out of Central High. Claiming to be concerned about violence and rioting, Faubus declared that if the troops were not there to block the black students, blood would "run in the streets" of Little Rock.
The first day of school was September 4. The school board had cautioned the parents of the nine black students not to take their children to school that day out of concern that their presence might spark a riot. The parents complied. Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas NAACP chapter, agreed to accompany the students in place of their Page 91
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parents. Unable to reach one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, the night before, Bates met the other eight at an intersection in Little Rock, where two police cars waited to drive the children to school.
Eckford approached the school alone, enduring threats and racist jeers shouted at her from the white crowd. She made her way toward the line of guards, thinking they would protect her. Instead, the guards raised their weapons and closed ranks, preventing her from entering the school. She made her way back through the crowd, away from the school. With the help of some sympathetic whites, she boarded a city bus and rode away. The other black students met with similar resistance from the crowd and the guards, and they, too, were turned away from the school.
A federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department intervened and forced Governor Faubus to call off the National Guard troops. On September 23, the Little Rock Nine, as the students came to be called, entered Central High with a police escort. The victory was short-lived, however. The threat of violence from students inside the school and Page 92 | Top of Articleangry white mobs outside convinced the authorities that the students were not safe and should be taken home. The following day, after President Eisenhower got involved, the students returned to the school accompanied by one thousand U.S. Army paratroopers. Eisenhower had also put the Arkansas National Guard under federal control, enlisting them to keep the peace in Little Rock. For the remainder of the school year, armed National Guardsmen patrolled the hallways of Central High.
Much of the conflict in Little Rock was captured by television news cameras. Many people around the world were shocked by the level of racial hatred shown there. But even some who supported integration in theory wondered if the results were worth all the trouble.
The rise of the student movement
In the years following the Little Rock crisis, school integration continued to proceed very slowly. Even in Little Rock, the gains made in 1957 were reversed in 1958, when Governor Faubus closed down the public schools altogether. A number of southern states took similar actions to avoid complying with the Brown decision. By 1960, six years after Brown, very few schools had desegregated. African Americans who had been schoolchildren in 1954, the year of Brown, were now young adults. As each year passed and they realized they would not personally reap the benefits of the momentous Supreme Court decision, many of these young people decided to become activists and attempt to bring about change on their own. Although victories in courts and legislatures were significant, this growing group of activists realized there were other ways to achieve social justice.
Civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the SCLC and NAACP held training sessions to teach young activists about the principles of nonviolence. They explained the application of those principles to civil disobedience, or the peaceful violation of a law that many consider unjust or immoral. In early 1960, a new organization formed that embodied the restless, activist spirit of many young African Americans. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced "snick"), adhered to the principles of nonviolence supported by the more established civil rights groups. But SNCC took a more aggressive approach to civil rights than the older groups had, expressing the energy and idealism of the student members.
SNCC was formed in the midst of a successful series of demonstrations held throughout the South. Activists were attempting to make lunch counters in department stores and drugstores open to people of all races. Many such businesses would sell clothing or other items to black customers but denied them service at the lunch counters within the stores. During the late 1950s, a few incidents were staged to challenge lunch-counter segregation. Activists undertook sit-ins at white-only counters. A sit-in involved black customers sitting at a lunch counter, asking to be served, and remaining in their seats after being denied service. On occasion, sympathetic whites joined the sit-in.
In February 1960, a group of four black students from North Carolina A & T (Agricultural and Technical) College, an all-black school in Greensboro, took action. They decided to stage a sit-in at the lunch counter of Woolworth's drugstore. They were refused service but stayed in their seats until the store closed. The following day, the Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, returned with nineteen black students to stage another sit-in. By the end of the week, several hundred students, including many white supporters, were taking turns occupying the seats of Woolworth's lunch counter.
Word spread quickly of the actions of the Greensboro Four, thanks in part to television coverage of the sit-ins. In the following weeks, Page 94 | Top of Articlestudent demonstrators staged sit-ins in cities throughout the South. Over the next year and a half, tens of thousands of black and white students participated in sit-ins at lunch counters, movie theaters, public swimming pools, hotels, and other places that served the public. Often conducted in conjunction with a boycott of those businesses and large demonstrations in the streets, the sit-ins proved extremely effective. They forced the integration of businesses in more than one hundred communities throughout the South.
In the wake of the Brown decision and many other court rulings that banned segregation, civil rights activists learned that legal victories did not always bring real change. The U.S. Supreme Court could declare that a certain kind of segregation was illegal, but without the support of law enforcement officials, such rulings were ineffective. In much of the South, particularly the states known as the Deep South, there was strong opposition to integration. Most state officials refused to honor the authority of the nation's courts. Many black southerners kept quiet about instances of illegal segregation, fearing physical assault and other forms of intimidation.
A 1947 U.S. Supreme Court ruling had banned segregation on interstate buses and trains. At that time, the civil rights group CORE had sent black and white volunteers on bus rides in the South to determine if that ruling was being enforced. The riders found that segregation remained the custom, if not the law, and they were harassed and ultimately arrested. In 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court expanded on the 1947 ruling. The court specified that the waiting areas for interstate buses and trains could not be segregated either. Once again, CORE, under the leadership of James Farmer (1920–1999), set out to test the South's compliance with this ruling.
In May 1961, white and black CORE volunteers began a journey from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Louisiana. The plan involved black riders sitting in the front of the bus and refusing to move if ordered to do so. At rest stops, the black volunteers would enter the all-white waiting rooms. These volunteers, who came to be known as Freedom Riders, knew that their actions would provoke outcry and possibly violence from white southerners. In fact, the activists intended to spark a reaction. They figured that assaults on the Freedom Riders would force the U.S. government to acknowledge that federal laws were being ignored in the South. In turn, the government would have to step in to remedy the situation.
The Freedom Riders met with minor resistance in Virginia and North Carolina. They suffered a beating from a group of white men in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Dedicated to the principles of nonviolence, they refused to fight back. On May 14 the Freedom Riders split into two groups in Atlanta, Georgia, with some riding on a Trailways bus and others on a Greyhound bus. They then began the most dangerous leg of their journey as they approached Alabama and Mississippi, two of the states most hostile to civil rights efforts.
When the Greyhound bus pulled into the station in Anniston, Mississippi, an angry crowd threw stones at the bus and slashed its tires. The driver hastily pulled away, driving a few miles outside town until the flat tires forced him to stop. Many of those in the mob at the bus station followed in cars. When the bus stopped, one of them threw a firebomb through a window of the bus. As smoke filled the vehicle, the passengers were forced to leave through an emergency exit. The bus became consumed with flames, and the fleeing passengers were beaten by the waiting mobs. The beatings stopped due to the actions of an undercover Alabama patrolman, who had boarded the bus in Atlanta. Feeling duty-bound to prevent murder, he fired his gun into the air and threatened to shoot anyone who continued.
The Trailways bus also encountered attacks in Anniston and met with similar violence in Birmingham, Alabama. There, the riders were assaulted by a large crowd of people, many of whom beat the riders with metal pipes. In both Anniston and Birmingham, in spite of advance warnings that violence might take place, the local police departments were absent. Although they endured beatings, the Freedom Riders were determined to continue, prepared to give their lives to the cause. After the incidents in Anniston and Birmingham, however, no bus driver would agree to transport them.
Inspired by the bravery of the Freedom Riders, hundreds of volunteers traveled to the South to try to continue the journey. When Alabama Governor John Patterson promised to protect the riders, the Freedom Rides resumed. On May 20, in Montgomery, Alabama, it became clear that the governor had not kept his promise. Hundreds of angry whites surrounded the buses of the Freedom Riders, rioting in the streets and brutally attacking the civil rights workers. The state of Alabama seemed to have come unhinged. The situation improved when President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) ordered hundreds of federal marshals to the state to restore order.
Volunteers continued to show up for duty as the Freedom Riders prepared to enter Mississippi. Fearful for the riders' safety and concerned about alienating southern Democrats, the Kennedy administration chose the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), to negotiate an agreement with Mississippi officials. The state would guarantee that the Freedom Riders would not be attacked in Mississippi. And the U.S. government would allow Mississippi to enforce its segregation laws and arrest the black passengers who attempted to integrate waiting areas. Although the federal government controlled interstate travel, individual states retained control of bus stations within their state lines. The state laws permitting segregation conflicted with federal anti-segregation laws. Kennedy allowed Mississippi's state laws to prevail in the case of the Freedom Riders. Hundreds of Freedom Riders were subsequently arrested.
The Freedom Rides did not achieve the dramatic changes to the enforcement of desegregation laws like the riders had hoped would occur. However, by autumn of 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had issued new rules forcing bus and train companies to integrate waiting rooms. In communities throughout the South, Freedom Rides and other methods of confronting segregation laws continued. The original Freedom Riders, revered for their courage in the face of certain danger, were viewed as heroes by blacks throughout the South for many years to come.
The Albany Movement
In late November 1961, civil rights workers from SNCC, the SCLC, and the NAACP, among others, converged on Albany, Georgia. They were attempting to reverse segregation laws in that city. They faced an uphill battle, in part because the various civil rights groups working in Albany could not always agree about what goals or methods to use. In spite of their differences, numerous organizations banded together to form the Albany Movement, an umbrella organization to oversee civil rights activities in that city.
For the next several months, the Albany Movement coordinated a flurry of protest actions. These included sit-ins at transportation terminals, libraries, and restaurants, as well as protest marches and prayer vigils. The hope in Albany, as with civil rights actions in other cities, was to provoke a violent and angry reaction from the white community and Albany police, drawing the attention of the press and the sympathy of supporters from around the country. The Albany police, however, under the guidance of police chief Laurie Pritchett, undermined that effort. They treated the protesters courteously and protected them from angry white crowds.
Many demonstrators were arrested by the Albany police, but the clashes remained largely nonviolent. Albany officials stated publicly that the arrests were for such violations as parading without a permit, trespassing, or loitering. They carefully avoided using inflammatory language about the racial issues behind the protests. The Albany police kept tabs on the Albany Movement through informers. Once they learned of the tension within the movement, they exploited that weakness.
In July 1962 the Albany Movement was dealt a blow when a federal judge issued a restraining order prohibiting further demonstrations in Albany. A few days later, an appeals court judge reversed the order. Protesters responded by staging a huge march through the streets of Albany. The march eventually broke into violence on the part of protesters, some of whom threw rocks and bricks at police. That event was a great disappointment to the civil rights leaders who had long argued for nonviolent resistance.
Although the Albany Movement continued until 1965, it became clear by the end of the summer of 1962 that the movement had lost much of its steam. Civil rights organizations turned their efforts elsewhere. Some observers suggested that the Albany Movement had been a failure, but many of those involved disagreed. The demonstrations in Albany had Page 99 | Top of Articleinvolved numerous African Americans who had never stood up for their rights before, and the experience profoundly changed them. In addition, the civil rights groups in Albany learned many valuable lessons about waging a successful campaign, lessons they applied to future efforts.
Conflict erupts in Birmingham
Like many other cities in the Deep South, Birmingham, Alabama, was thoroughly segregated and extremely hostile to African Americans working for change. The city's public safety commissioner, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor (1897–1973), had repeatedly expressed his contempt for civil rights activists and made no secret of his racist views. Between 1957 and 1963, eighteen bombs had exploded in Birmingham's black neighborhoods. None of the bombing cases had been solved, primarily because the Birmingham police had no interest in investigating the incidents. The city had thus earned the nickname "Bombingham."
Many of the city's leaders were involved in the KKK, which attracted broad support from Birmingham's white citizens. Segregation in Birmingham was the law and the custom. When a federal desegregation order came through in 1962, the city closed down its parks, playgrounds, public pools, and golf courses rather than comply with the order. Alabama Governor George Wallace (1919–1998) was one of segregation's most vocal supporters. He brought cheers from the crowds at his inauguration speech. As quoted in The Washington Post, Wallace said: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
In early 1963, the SCLC, along with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, began planning its strategy for desegregating Birmingham. Their plan was dubbed "Project C," with the "C" standing for "confrontation." It involved a variety of protest tactics, including sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and other types of demonstrations. The civil rights groups focused on downtown department stores. Such businesses allowed black customers to enter but refused to serve them at lunch counters and discouraged them from trying on clothes before buying. Black customers had to use separate bathrooms and fitting rooms. And, black employees served in menial positions, never allowed to advance to higher jobs.
On April 3 the protests began. The police responded by arresting hundreds of demonstrators at a time. On Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), April 6, Martin Luther King Jr.'s brother, A. D. King, Page 100
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led a march through the streets. The protesters were attacked by the police with batons and dogs. A few days later, a circuit court judge issued an order banning King and more than one hundred other leaders from participating in any demonstrations. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to violate the order, knowing it would result in his arrest. He led a march on April 12, which was Good Friday, the Friday before Easter. King and others were immediately arrested, and King was put in solitary confinement.
A number of moderate white religious leaders criticized King's actions in a full-page advertisement in one of Birmingham's newspapers. Page 101 | Top of ArticleDisappointed by their lack of support, King quickly wrote a lengthy response, scribbling on toilet paper scraps and in the margins of the newspaper. His essay, titled "Letter from Birmingham Jail," was soon published as a pamphlet and distributed widely. King's "Letter" became one of the best-known writings of the civil rights movement. In it, he wrote, "We know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
After weeks of demonstrations and mass arrests, the campaign in Birmingham had lost many supporters, some of whom feared getting arrested and losing their jobs. In a controversial move, the leaders of the campaign decided to stage a children's march, noting that an aggressive police response to young protesters would be unacceptable to the American public. On May 2, hundreds of young people age six to eighteen marched through the streets. The Birmingham police arrested more than 950 of them, carting them off in school buses. The following day, more than one thousand children showed up to march. Bull Connor, desperate to halt the march, ordered firefighters to turn their hoses on the marchers. Children crouched in the street and were sent tumbling into curbs and parked cars by streams of water powerful enough to take bark off trees.
The nation was outraged by footage of the young marchers being attacked by the police. African Americans in Birmingham turned out in full force to continue the demonstrations, many of which then turned violent. As the protests threatened to become out of control, the civil rights leaders and white business owners, who had suffered economic setbacks during the weeks of protests, forged a secret deal. On May 10, the deal was announced. The protests would end, and the downtown stores would desegregate, with black store employees promised better positions.
The fragile truce began to unravel when angry members of the KKK bombed the hotel where King was staying as well as the home of his brother, A. D. King. Riots erupted, and the chaos was only brought under control when President Kennedy threatened to send in federal troops. The events in Birmingham brought civil rights to the forefront of the Kennedy administration's agenda. In June 1963 Kennedy announced that he would send a bill to Congress ending segregation in places that served the public. This included restaurants, hotels, libraries, and stores, as well as buses and trains.
The March on Washington
Leaders of the civil rights movement rejoiced at the possibility of a sweeping law to protect the rights of African Americans. They had been planning a large-scale, peaceful march in Washington, D.C., the seat of the federal government, to demand their rights. When President Kennedy sent the civil rights bill to Congress, the goals of the march expanded to include a show of support for the legislation. A number of organizations came together to plan the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, scheduled for August 28, 1963. Black civil rights groups, as well as white activists and representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths, joined forces to coordinate the massive demonstration. The principal planners were A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (c. 1910–1987), both of whom had been involved in many significant civil rights actions.
Initially, President Kennedy opposed the march. He was concerned that it might turn violent and would be seen as threatening to the white lawmakers. Faced with the insistence of civil rights leaders that the march take place, Kennedy agreed to offer his support.
The planners expected, and hoped for, about 100,000 attendees. On the morning of August 28, more than 250,000 people showed up in the nation's capital, including some 60,000 white people. The marchers had come from all over the country, traveling to Washington by train, bus, car, and even on foot. They marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where they gathered for an afternoon of stirring music and rousing speeches. Folksingers and gospel singers including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Mahalia Jackson performed.
The leaders of the movement, including Randolph, John Lewis (1940–) of SNCC, and Martin Luther King Jr., spoke of their views of the future—a future that held unparalleled opportunities for African Americans. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, one of his most moving and famous orations. The audience at the Lincoln Memorial and those watching the events on television listened intently as King spoke of his dream of a day "when little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." In his passionate and emotional delivery, King asked the entire nation to "let freedom ring."
The largest demonstration for human rights in American history to that point, the March on Washington showed the world that African Americans would not accept second-class citizenship any longer. It also Page 103
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demonstrated that harmony between the races was possible, with whites and blacks marching, singing, and praying side by side.
Victories mingled with tragedies
While the March on Washington stood out as a high point of the civil rights era, the movement also endured many dark days at that time. Two months before the march, Medgar Evers (1925–1963), the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, had been murdered in his own driveway. Evers's murder, in addition to the troubles in Birmingham, sparked hundreds of protests and riots in towns throughout the South during the summer of 1963. Less than three weeks after the March on Washington, on September 15, a bomb exploded inside Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a black church. Four black girls, at the church for Sunday school, were killed. Later that day, a black teenage boy Page 104 | Top of Articlewas shot and killed by the police, and another teenage boy was murdered by white teenagers who had earlier attended a segregationist rally.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin. The nation mourned the loss of the young president, and civil rights activists worried about the future. Kennedy had been the first president of the modern era to actively promote civil rights. His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69), was a southerner. Black leaders feared that he would be less likely to support the civil rights bill. However, Johnson quieted their fears a few days later when he announced his support for the bill during an address to a joint session of Congress.
Several months later, after intense lobbying from supporters and detractors of the bill and a lively debate in Congress, the bill became law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on July 2. It marked the end of Jim Crow segregationist laws, prohibiting racial discrimination in places serving the public, in schools, and in the workplace. The law also banned discrimination based on gender. It established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the law as it relates to employment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the most significant civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
Although the passage of the Civil Rights Act was celebrated by activists, the law failed to guarantee African Americans the right to vote, a freedom that had become the primary focus of the civil rights movement. SNCC and other organizations zeroed in on Mississippi, a state that had rigidly resisted any attempts at desegregation. They sought to raise the number of black voters there. Blacks made up 45 percent of the population in that state, but only 5 percent of the black population was registered to vote in 1960. The state officials were hard-line segregationists, and the state had the highest number of lynchings, beatings, and unexplained disappearances of blacks in the South. Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation, and black residents were the poorest of the poor.
Black and white SNCC workers, many of whom dropped out of college to devote themselves full-time to the movement, had been risking their lives to increase voter registration in Mississippi since 1960. In 1962 SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the NAACP, and several local civil rights groups joined forces to create the Council of Federated Organizations, or Page 105 | Top of ArticleCOFO. The civil rights activists working to register black voters in Mississippi were threatened, beaten, and arrested. At that time, they had very little to show for their efforts. Black voter registration increased by less than 2 percent between 1960 and the summer of 1963.
Although the number of registered voters did not change dramatically, the civil rights workers felt they achieved a great deal in terms of education. Many poor blacks had been denied an education and did not even know they had the right to vote. The civil rights activists spoke to Page 106 | Top of Articleworkers in the fields and in the factories, informing them of their rights. They spread the notion that black voters could potentially elect black officials, who could then effect real change in Mississippi.
Activists planned to renew their efforts during the summer of 1964, which came to be known as Freedom Summer. They called for volunteers to travel to Mississippi that summer. Hundreds responded. They knew that their activism came with great personal risk. Many of the volunteers were white, and many came from northeastern upper-middle-class families. Their average age was twenty-one. A primary goal for the summer was to register black voters and prepare them for the upcoming presidential election.
On June 20, the first group of volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The following day, one of the volunteers, a white man named Andrew Goodman, disappeared, along with two CORE workers: Michael Schwerner, a white man, and James Chaney, a black Mississippi native. After driving to the town of Lawndale to investigate the burning of a black church, the three men had been arrested and then later released. Soon after they were let go, they disappeared. When they failed to check in at Freedom Summer headquarters, fellow activists became greatly concerned.
The bodies of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were found later that summer. All three men had been shot, and Chaney had also been brutally beaten. The families wanted the three men to be buried together, but Mississippi officials denied the request. They would only allow Chaney's body to be buried in an all-black cemetery.
The nation was outraged over the murder of the three young men, a detail that many southern blacks attributed to the fact that two of the victims were white. Time and again black people had disappeared and were later found murdered. However, those crimes failed to attract attention or sympathy from the rest of the country. Twenty-one men were eventually arrested in connection with the murder of the three civil rights workers, though the murder charges were later dropped. Twelve of the suspects later faced federal charges of civil rights violation, and seven were convicted.
But the quest to bring the killers to justice did not end. In June 2005 a jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the slayings. An ordained minister and a member of the KKK, Killen was in his late thirties when the murders occurred. He had been tried in 1967, but the jury became deadlocked because one juror could not bring herself to convict a minister. At his retrial in 2005, Killen was eighty and suffering from ill health. His conviction occurred forty-one years after the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
In addition to educating African Americans about voter registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers also set up "freedom schools" to educate black children, health clinics to provide free medical advice and care, and legal clinics to help protect the rights of blacks. Volunteers also worked to sign people up as
members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). An official, legal political party, it was set up as an alternative to the all-white Democratic party in Mississippi. By the end of the summer, 80,000 African Americans had signed up for the MFDP.
One of MFDP's most visible and inspiring activists was a black woman named Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977). The youngest of twenty children, Hamer had worked in the fields alongside her parents from the age of six. She had endured terrible poverty and never received much education. At the age of forty-four, Hamer attended a voter registration meeting held by the SNCC and soon became a full-time activist. She worked tirelessly to register African Americans to vote.
Activists had been campaigning to have delegates from the MFDP replace the white delegates from the Democratic party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August of 1964. Each state would be sending delegates to the party's national convention to determine the Democrats' nominee for president. MFDP members argued that they more accurately represented the people of Mississippi and that their political views were more in line with the national party than the white Mississippi Democrats.
Although the MFDP gained considerable support from Democrats in many states, President Johnson and many other Democrats opposed the idea of MFDP delegates replacing the traditional Democrats at the convention. Eventually the MFDP was offered a compromise: the white Democratic delegates from Mississippi would be seated and have a vote at the convention, while just two MFDP delegates would be allowed to attend but would not be associated with Mississippi. The compromise also stated that in the future, the Mississippi delegation would have to be integrated.
Some in the MFDP urged acceptance of the compromise, but others felt it was an all-or-nothing situation. The differences among members of the party pointed to a growing rift between the civil rights movement's "old guard," represented by Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, and Page 110 | Top of Articlethe more aggressive members of SNCC. SCLC members preached patience, insisting that change could only happen slowly. However, SNCC members were tired of waiting and felt ready to demand their rights rather than politely requesting them.
The MFDP lost its bid to gain political strength at the convention, but it did lay the groundwork for the integration of Mississippi's Democratic party. In addition, the many other projects of Freedom Summer continued on. President Johnson provided federal funding for health clinics, schools, nutrition programs, and legal clinics in rural Mississippi. And Johnson's Head Start, the national preschool program for low-income families, evolved from activities begun during Freedom Summer. Perhaps most important, numerous poor blacks developed a sense of empowerment and dignity through their participation in the political process.
A power struggle in Selma
In early 1965 King and the SCLC joined SNCC for a campaign for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. The two groups set out to increase pressure on the federal government to pass a law protecting voting rights for all. They hoped to stage demonstrations, provoke a hostile response from law enforcement, and compel the federal government to step in and make changes. Like many other cities in the Deep South, Selma had a large black population, about 15,000, which was half of the city's total population. Nevertheless, it had very few registered voters. Only 156 blacks were registered to vote in Selma as of 1963. Also like many other southern cities, the law enforcement and political officials were deeply opposed to integration in any form and readily used violence to crush signs of activism.
The Johnson administration had already begun writing legislation that would eliminate obstacles to voting imposed by southern states. However, civil rights activists felt that Johnson was acting too slowly and that voting rights needed to be a higher priority for the president. On January 18, King and the SCLC began conducting marches to the courthouse in an attempt to register voters. The marchers were prevented from registering. A series of marches followed over the next several days, with hundreds of protesters being arrested. King himself was arrested on February 1, an act that guaranteed the national spotlight would remain on Selma. A few days later, the controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X (1925–1965) traveled to Selma to make a speech in support of King. He suggested that white people should be grateful to King for preaching Page 111 | Top of Articlepeaceful protest, suggesting that not all civil rights leaders urged their followers to refrain from violence.
In early March, civil rights leaders announced an upcoming march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to present a list of complaints to the governor. Alabama Governor George Wallace had no intention of receiving this list and tried to prevent the march from taking place. Determined, hundreds of marchers set out for Montgomery on March 7. They marched without being harassed at first. But when they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma, they saw the Selma police as well as one hundred state troopers, all decked out in riot gear. The marchers were ordered to disperse. But before they could react, the police were upon them. The activists were attacked with batons, chains, electric cattle prods, and tear gas. Dozens of marchers were injured, some seriously. The entire incident was captured on film by television news reporters. Once again, the nation reacted with shock to the scenes of police brutality directed toward civil rights activists. That day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
On March 9, fifteen hundred marchers again attempted to reach Montgomery. When they arrived at the bridge, a crowd of state troopers awaited them and ordered them to turn around. The marchers sang "We Shall Overcome," the song that had become the anthem of the civil rights movement. King and other leaders knelt in prayer. Then, to the surprise of many, King turned the crowd around and headed back. He wished to avoid further beatings. He felt they had made their point, revealing again that peaceful demonstration was being met with the threat of violence. Many of his followers felt betrayed, however, wondering why King had refused to confront the police. That night, a group of three white ministers who supported the civil rights movement were attacked by white thugs in Selma. One of them, James Reeb, was beaten with a club and later died of his injuries.
A few days later, President Johnson announced at a press conference that he would send a voting rights bill to Congress that would prevent states from restricting a person's right to vote. The following day, a federal judge ruled that the march from Selma to Montgomery could legally take place. Governor Wallace refused to provide the marchers with police protection from angry white mobs. President Johnson stepped in and placed the Alabama National Guard under federal control, ordering the troops to protect the marchers. Johnson also called in two thousand soldiers Page 112
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from the U.S. Army as well as hundreds of other federal agents. Some four thousand marchers left Selma on March 25, 1965. Five days and fifty-four miles later, twenty-five thousand people reached Montgomery. A few months later, on August 6, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing such voting restrictions as poll taxes and literacy tests.
A divided movement
The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a meaningful victory for the civil rights movement. Within months, black voter registration had increased significantly throughout the South. Black voters soon began electing black officials, primarily for local offices. And more and more blacks occupied positions of importance in the federal government. Thurgood Marshall, for example, was appointed the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
Legislative victories, however, were not enough to satisfy restless, frustrated urban blacks. While many of the legal methods of discrimination had been prohibited, overwhelming numbers of blacks still suffered from crushing poverty and faced considerable obstacles to jobs, housing, and education. A massive race riot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Page 115 | Top of ArticleWatts in August 1965 left dozens dead and hundreds injured. Over the next three years, 150 race riots tore apart cities all over the nation.
The leaders of the civil rights movement seemed unsure of how to address the needs of a diverse population of African Americans. The movement became weakened by strong differences of opinion among its leaders. Some continued to advocate nonviolent resistance, while others, like Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998), leader of SNCC from 1966 to 1967, took a more militant stance. He roused crowds with chants of "Black Power." Leaders like King had always worked toward integration. However, a number of younger black community leaders, including Malcolm X and Carmichael, supported separatism, a rejection of white culture and the embrace of African American heritage.
Another development that weakened the civil rights movement was the assassination of some of its most powerful leaders. Malcolm X was gunned down on February 21, 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968. Without the leadership of these charismatic men, many of their followers drifted away from the cause. In addition, growing opposition to the Vietnam War (1954–75), especially among the nation's youth, drew attention and energy away from African American issues.
A mixed legacy
The civil rights movement unquestionably brought about vast and important changes, particularly in the American South. Over time, the Jim Crow laws were overturned and racially discriminating voting restrictions were prohibited. The lives of many southern blacks changed significantly in the span of a few decades. A major blow was dealt to institutional racism—racism that is woven into the fabric of a government or organization.
Legislation cannot overcome personal racism, however, and outlawing discrimination does not make it disappear. Millions of blacks, particularly in urban areas, remain in ghettoes, poor neighborhoods where residents struggle with inadequate housing and dead-end jobs. Black inmates far outnumber white inmates in the nation's prisons. The United States has yet to achieve the equality and justice envisioned by participants in the civil rights movement. However, the gains of the movement continue to demonstrate the power ordinary people possess in achieving social reform.
For More Information
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Dunn, John M. The Civil Rights Movement. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1998.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994.
McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. The Civil Rights Movement in America from 1865 to the Present. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Meltzer, Milton. There Comes a Time: The Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Landmark Books, 2001.
Powledge, Fred. Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
Stein, R. Conrad. The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Children's Press, 1996.
Turck, Mary C. The Civil Rights Movement for Kids: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000.
Wexler, Sanford. The Civil Rights Movement. New York: Facts on File, 1999.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1987.
Winters, Paul A., ed. The Civil Rights Movement. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. http://www.bcri.org/index.html (accessed on May 21, 2006).
The History of Jim Crow. http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/home.htm (accessed on May 21, 2006).
"The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project." Stanford University. http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/mlkpapers/ (accessed on May 21, 2006).
Pearson, Richard. "Former Ala. Gov. George C. Wallace Dies" (September 14, 1998). Washingtonpost.com. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/daily/sept98/wallace.htm (accessed on May 21, 2006).
We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement. http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/ (accessed on May 21, 2006).
Eyes on the Prize. 14 vols. VHS. Turner Home Entertainment, 1995.