African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68)
|African-American Civil Rights Movement|
|Date||1954–1968 (15 years)|
|Location||United States, especially the Southern region|
|African American topics|
The Civil Rights Movement or 1960s Civil Rights Movement (sometimes referred to as the "African-American Civil Rights Movement" although the term "African American" was not widely used in the 1950s and 1960s) encompasses social movements in the United States whose goals were to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1954 and 1968, particularly in the South. The leadership was African American, and much of the political and financial support came from labor unions (led by Walter Reuther), major religious denominations, and prominent white Democratic Party politicians such as Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon B. Johnson and white Republican Party politicians such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Everett Dirksen.
The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations and productive dialogues between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to these situations, which highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts such as the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–56) in Alabama; "sit-ins" such as the influential Greensboro sit-ins (1960) in North Carolina; marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama; and a wide range of other nonviolent activities.
This phase of the Civil Rights Movement witnessed the passage of several major pieces of federal legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, expressly banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment practices and ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights for minorities. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 removed racial and national barriers and opened the way for black immigrants from Africa and the Western Hemisphere. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and across the country young people were inspired to take action.
A wave of inner city riots in black communities from 1964 through 1970 undercut support from the white community. The emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from about 1966 to 1975, challenged the established black leadership for its cooperative attitude and its nonviolence, and instead demanded political and economic self-sufficiency.
Many popular representations of the movement are centered on the leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the movement. But, some scholars note that the movement was too diverse to be credited to one person, organization, or strategy.
Before the American Civil War, almost four million blacks were enslaved in the South, only white men of property could vote, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. Following the Civil War, three constitutional amendments were passed, including the 13th Amendment (1865) that ended slavery; the 14th Amendment (1868) that gave African-Americans citizenship, adding their total population of four million to the official population of southern states for Congressional apportionment; and the 15th Amendment (1870) that gave African-American males the right to vote (only males could vote in the U.S. at the time). From 1865 to 1877, the United States underwent a turbulent Reconstruction Era trying to establish free labor and civil rights of freedmen in the South after the end of slavery. Many whites resisted the social changes, leading to insurgent movements such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose members attacked black and white Republicans to maintain white supremacy. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant, the U.S. Army, and U.S. Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, initiated a campaign to repress the KKK under the Enforcement Acts. Some states were reluctant to enforce the federal measures of the act; by the early 1870s, other white supremacist and paramilitary groups arose that violently opposed African-American legal equality and suffrage. However, if the states failed to implement the acts, the laws allowed the Federal Government to get involved. Many Republican governors were afraid of sending black militia troops to fight the clan in fear of war.
After the disputed election of 1876 resulted in the end of Reconstruction and federal troops were withdrawn, whites in the South regained political control of the region's state legislatures by the end of the century, after having intimidated and violently attacked blacks before and during elections.
From 1890 to 1908, southern states passed new constitutions and laws to disenfranchise African Americans and many poor whites by creating barriers to voter registration; voting rolls were dramatically reduced as blacks and poor whites were forced out of electoral politics. While progress was made in some areas, this status of excluding African Americans from the political system lasted in most southern states until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s to provide federal enforcement of constitutional voting rights. For more than 60 years, blacks in the South were not able to elect anyone to represent their interests in Congress or local government. Since they could not vote, they could not serve on local juries.
During this period, the white-dominated Democratic Party maintained political control of the South. With whites controlling all the seats representing the total population of the South, they had a powerful voting block in Congress. The Republican Party—the "party of Lincoln"—which had been the party that most blacks belonged to, shrank to insignificance as black voter registration was suppressed. Until 1965, the "solid South" was a one-party system under the Democrats. Outside a few areas (usually in remote Appalachia), the Democratic Party nomination was tantamount to election for state and local office. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, making him the first African American to attend an official dinner there. "The invitation was roundly criticized by southern politicians and newspapers." Washington persuaded the president to appoint more blacks to federal posts in the South and to try to boost African-American leadership in state Republican organizations. However, this was resisted by both white Democrats and white Republicans as an unwanted federal intrusion into state politics.
During the same time as African Americans were being disenfranchised, white Democrats imposed racial segregation by law. Violence against blacks increased, with numerous lynchings through the turn of the century. The system of de jure state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged from the post-Reconstruction South became known as the "Jim Crow" system. The United States Supreme Court, made up almost entirely of Northerners, upheld the constitutionality of those state laws that required racial segregation in public facilities in its 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, legitimizing them through the "separate but equal" doctrine.
Segregation remained intact into the mid-1950s, when many states began to gradually integrate their schools following the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. The early 20th century is a period often referred to as the "nadir of American race relations". While tensions and civil rights violations were most intense in the South, social discrimination affected African Americans in other regions as well. At the national level, the Southern bloc controlled important committees in Congress, defeated passage of laws against lynching, and exercised considerable power beyond the number of whites in the South.
Characteristics of the post-Reconstruction period:
- Racial segregation. By law, public facilities and government services such as education were divided into separate "white" and "colored" domains. Characteristically, those for colored were underfunded and of inferior quality.
- Disenfranchisement. When white Democrats regained power, they passed laws that made voter registration more restrictive, essentially forcing black voters off the voting rolls. The number of African-American voters dropped dramatically, and they were no longer able to elect representatives. From 1890 to 1908, Southern states of the former Confederacy created constitutions with provisions that disfranchised tens of thousands of African Americans, and U.S. states such as Alabama disenfranchised poor whites as well.
- Exploitation. Increased economic oppression of blacks through the convict lease system, Latinos, and Asians, denial of economic opportunities, and widespread employment discrimination.
- Violence. Individual, police, paramilitary, organizational, and mob racial violence against blacks (and Latinos in the Southwest and Asians in California).
African Americans and other ethnic minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it in numerous ways and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations, political redress, and labor organizing (see the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954)). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. It fought to end race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying efforts. Its crowning achievement was its legal victory in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when the Court rejected separate white and colored school systems and, by implication, overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896.
The integration of Southern public libraries involved many of the same characteristics seen in the larger Civil Rights Movement. This includes sit-ins, beatings, and white resistance. For example, in 1963 in the city of Anniston, Alabama, two black ministers were brutally beaten for attempting to integrate the public library. Though there was resistance and violence, the integration of libraries was generally quicker than integration of other public institutions.
Black veterans of the military after both World Wars pressed for full civil rights and often led activist movements. In 1948 they gained integration in the military under President Harry Truman, who issued Executive Order 9981 to accomplish it. The situation for blacks outside the South was somewhat better (in most states they could vote and have their children educated, though they still faced discrimination in housing and jobs). From 1910 to 1970, African Americans sought better lives by migrating north and west out of the South. Nearly seven million blacks left the South in what was known as the Great Migration. So many people migrated that the demographics of some previously black-majority states changed to white majority (in combination with other developments).
Housing segregation was a nationwide problem, persistent well outside the South. Although the federal government had become increasingly involved in mortgage lending and development in the 1930s and 1940s, it did not reject the use of race-restrictive covenants until 1950. Suburbanization was already connected with white flight by this time, a situation perpetuated by real estate agents' continuing discrimination. In particular, from the 1930s to the 1960s the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) issued guidelines that specified that a realtor "should never be instrumental in introducing to a neighborhood a character or property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in a neighborhood."
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation. They were faced with "massive resistance" in the South by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, African-American activists adopted a combined strategy of direct action, nonviolence, nonviolent resistance, and many events described as civil disobedience, giving rise to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of 1954–1968.
Mass action replacing litigation
The strategy of public education, legislative lobbying, and litigation that had typified the civil rights movement during the first half of the 20th century broadened after Brown to a strategy that emphasized "direct action": boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches, and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience. This mass action approach typified the movement from 1960 to 1968.
Churches, local grassroots organizations, fraternal societies, and black-owned businesses mobilized volunteers to participate in broad-based actions. This was a more direct and potentially more rapid means of creating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges used by the NAACP and others.
In 1952, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), led by T. R. M. Howard, a black surgeon, entrepreneur, and planter, organized a successful boycott of gas stations in Mississippi that refused to provide restrooms for blacks. Through the RCNL, Howard led campaigns to expose brutality by the Mississippi state highway patrol and to encourage blacks to make deposits in the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Nashville which, in turn, gave loans to civil rights activists who were victims of a "credit squeeze" by the White Citizens' Councils.
Although considered and rejected after Claudette Colvin's arrest for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in March, 1955, after Rosa Parks' arrest in December Jo Ann Gibson-Robinson of the Montgomery Women's Political Council put a long-considered Bus Boycott protest in motion. Late that night, she, two students, and John Cannon, chairman of the Business Department at Alabama State University, mimeographed and distributed approximately 52,500 leaflets calling for a boycott of the buses.
The leaflet read, "Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped...We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of school for one day if you have not other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday."
The first day of the boycott having been successful, King, E.D. Nixon, and other civic and religious leaders created the Montgomery Improvement Association—so as to continue the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The MIA managed to keep the boycott going for over a year until a federal court order required Montgomery to desegregate its buses. The success in Montgomery made its leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a nationally known figure. It also inspired other bus boycotts, such as the successful Tallahassee, Florida, boycott of 1956–57.
In 1957 Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, joined with other church leaders who had led similar boycott efforts, such as Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee and Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge; and other activists such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, did not attempt to create a network of chapters as the NAACP did. It offered training and leadership assistance for local efforts to fight segregation. The headquarters organization raised funds, mostly from Northern sources, to support such campaigns. It made nonviolence both its central tenet and its primary method of confronting racism.
In 1959, Septima Clarke, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, with the help of Myles Horton's Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, began the first Citizenship Schools in South Carolina's Sea Islands. They taught literacy to enable blacks to pass voting tests. The program was an enormous success and tripled the number of black voters on Johns Island. SCLC took over the program and duplicated its results elsewhere.
Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
In the spring of 1951, black students in Virginia protested their unequal status in the state's segregated educational system. Students at Moton High School protested the overcrowded conditions and failing facility. Some local leaders of the NAACP had tried to persuade the students to back down from their protest against the Jim Crow laws of school segregation. When the students did not budge, the NAACP joined their battle against school segregation. The NAACP proceeded with five cases challenging the school systems; these were later combined under what is known today as Brown v. Board of Education.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that mandating, or even permitting, public schools to be segregated by race was unconstitutional. The Court stated that the
"segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."
The lawyers from the NAACP had to gather plausible evidence in order to win the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Their method of addressing the issue of school segregation was to enumerate several arguments. One pertained to having exposure to interracial contact in a school environment. It was argued that interracial contact would, in turn, help prepare children to live with the pressures that society exerts in regards to race and thereby afford them a better chance of living in democracy. In addition, another argument emphasized how "'education' comprehends the entire process of developing and training the mental, physical and moral powers and capabilities of human beings".
Risa Goluboff wrote that the NAACP's intention was to show the Courts that African American children were the victims of school segregation and their futures were at risk. The Court ruled that both Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had established the "separate but equal" standard in general, and Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), which had applied that standard to schools, were unconstitutional.
The federal government filed a friend of the court brief in the case urging the justices to consider the effect that segregation had on America's image in the Cold War. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was quoted in the brief stating that "The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination in this country."
The following year, in the case known as Brown II, the Court ordered segregation to be phased out over time, "with all deliberate speed". Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) did not overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Plessy v. Ferguson was segregation in transportation modes. Brown v. Board of Education dealt with segregation in education. Brown v. Board of Education did set in motion the future overturning of 'separate but equal'.
On May 18, 1954 Greensboro, North Carolina became the first city in the South to publicly announce that it would abide by the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. "It is unthinkable,' remarked School Board Superintendent Benjamin Smith, 'that we will try to [override] the laws of the United States." This positive reception for Brown, together with the appointment of African American Dr. David Jones to the school board in 1953, convinced numerous white and black citizens that Greensboro was heading in a progressive direction. Integration in Greensboro occurred rather peacefully compared to the process in Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia where "massive resistance" was practiced by top officials and throughout the states. In Virginia, some counties closed their public schools rather than integrate, and many white Christian private schools were founded to accommodate students who used to go to public schools. Even in Greensboro, much local resistance to desegregation continued, and in 1969, the federal government found the city was not in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Transition to a fully integrated school system did not begin until 1971.
Many Northern cities also had de facto segregation policies, which resulted in a vast gulf in educational resources between black and white communities. In Harlem, New York for example, neither a single new school was built since the turn of the century, nor did a single nursery school exist – even as the Second Great Migration was causing overcrowding. Existing schools tended to be dilapidated and staffed with inexperienced teachers. Brown helped stimulate activism among New York City parents like Mae Mallory who, with support of the NAACP, initiated a successful lawsuit against the city and state on Brown's principles. Mallory and thousands of other parents bolstered the pressure of the lawsuit with a school boycott in 1959. During the boycott, some of the first freedom schools of the period were established. The city responded to the campaign by permitting more open transfers to high-quality, historically-white schools. (New York's African-American community, and Northern desegregation activists generally, now found themselves contending with the problem of white flight, however.)
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956
Civil rights leaders began focusing on Montgomery, Alabama, highlighting extreme forms of segregation occurring there. On December 1, 1955, local black leader Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger. She was arrested and received national publicity, hailed as the "mother of the civil rights movement". Parks was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and had recently returned from a meeting at the Highlander Center in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy was taught. African-Americans gathered and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to demand a bus system in which passengers would be treated equally. After the city rejected many of their suggested reforms, the NAACP, led by E. D. Nixon, pushed for full desegregation of public buses. With the support of most of Montgomery's 50,000 African Americans, the boycott lasted for 381 days, until the local ordinance segregating African Americans and whites on public buses was repealed. Ninety percent of African Americans in Montgomery partook in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue significantly, as they comprised the majority of the riders. In November 1956, a federal court ordered Montgomery's buses desegregated and the boycott ended.
Local leaders established the Montgomery Improvement Association to focus their efforts. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected President of this organization. The lengthy protest attracted national attention for him and the city. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood and American idealism created a positive impression on people both inside and outside the South.
Desegregating Little Rock Central High School, 1957
A crisis erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas when Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent entry to the nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High School. The nine students had been chosen to attend Central High because of their excellent grades.
On the first day of school, only one of the nine students showed up because she did not receive the phone call about the danger of going to school. She was harassed by white protesters outside the school, and the police had to take her away in a patrol car for her protection. Afterward, the nine students had to carpool to school and be escorted by military personnel in jeeps.
Faubus was not a proclaimed segregationist. The Arkansas Democratic Party, which then controlled politics in the state, put significant pressure on Faubus after he had indicated he would investigate bringing Arkansas into compliance with the Brown decision. Faubus then took his stand against integration and against the Federal court ruling.
Faubus' resistance received the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the Federal courts. Critics had charged he was lukewarm, at best, on the goal of desegregation of public schools. But, Eisenhower federalized the National Guard in Arkansas and ordered them to return to their barracks. Eisenhower deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.
The students attended high school under harsh conditions. They had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to arrive at school on their first day, and to put up with harassment from other students for the rest of the year. Although federal troops escorted the students between classes, the students were teased and even attacked by white students when the soldiers were not around. One of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown, was suspended for spilling a bowl of chili on the head of a white student who was harassing her in the school lunch line. Later, she was expelled for verbally abusing a white female student.
Only Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine graduated from Central High School. After the 1957–58 school year was over, Little Rock closed its public school system completely rather than continue to integrate. Other school systems across the South followed suit.
The method of Nonviolence and Nonviolence Training
During the time period considered to be the "African-American Civil Rights" era, the predominant use of protest was nonviolent, or peaceful. Often referred to as pacifism, the method of nonviolence is considered to be an attempt to impact society positively. Although acts of racial discrimination have occurred historically throughout the United States, perhaps the most violent regions have been in the former Confederate states. During the 1950s and 1960s, the nonviolent protesting of the Civil Rights Movement caused definite tension, which gained national attention.
In order to prepare for protests physically and psychologically, demonstrators received training in nonviolence. According to former Civil Rights activist Bruce Hartford, there are two main branches of nonviolence training. There is the philosophical method, which involves understanding the method of nonviolence and why it is considered useful, and there is the tactical method, which ultimately teaches demonstrators "how to be a protestor—how to sit-in, how to picket, how to defend yourself against attack, giving training on how to remain cool when people are screaming racist insults into your face and pouring stuff on you and hitting you" (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement). The philosophical method of nonviolence, in the American Civil Rights Movement, was largely inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's "non-cooperation" with the British colonists in India, which was intended to gain attention so that the public would either "intervene in advance," or "provide public pressure in support of the action to be taken" (Erikson, 415). As Hartford explains it, philosophical nonviolence training aims to "shape the individual person's attitude and mental response to crises and violence" (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement). Hartford and activists like him, who trained in tactical nonviolence, considered it necessary in order to ensure physical safety, instill discipline, teach demonstrators how to demonstrate, and form mutual confidence among demonstrators (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement).
For many, the concept of nonviolent protest was a way of life, a culture. However, not everyone agreed with this notion. James Forman, former SNCC (and later Black Panther) member and nonviolence trainer, was among those who did not. In his autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman revealed his perspective on the method of nonviolence as "strictly a tactic, not a way of life without limitations." Similarly, Robert Moses, who was also an active member of SNCC, felt that the method of nonviolence was practical. When interviewed by author Robert Penn Warren, Moses said "There's no question that he [Martin Luther King, Jr.] had a great deal of influence with the masses. But I don't think it's in the direction of love. It's in a practical direction . . ." (Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren).
Robert F. Williams and the debate on nonviolence, 1959–1964
The Jim Crow system employed "terror as a means of social control," with the most organized manifestations being the Ku Klux Klan and their collaborators in local police departments. This violence played a key role in blocking the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s. Some black organizations in the South began practicing armed self-defense. The first to do so openly was the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP led by Robert F. Williams. Williams had rebuilt the chapter after its membership was terrorized out of public life by the Klan. He did so by encouraging a new, more working-class membership to arm itself thoroughly and defend against attack. When Klan nightriders attacked the home of NAACP member Dr. Albert Perry in October 1957, Williams' militia exchanged gunfire with the stunned Klansmen, who quickly retreated. The following day, the city council held an emergency session and passed an ordinance banning KKK motorcades. One year later, Lumbee Indians in North Carolina would have a similarly successful armed stand-off with the Klan (known as the Battle of Hayes Pond) which resulted in KKK leader James W. "Catfish" Cole being convicted of incitement to riot.
After the acquittal of several white men charged with sexually assaulting black women in Monroe, Williams announced to United Press International reporters that he would "meet violence with violence" as a policy. Williams' declaration was quoted on the front page of The New York Times, and The Carolina Times considered it "the biggest civil rights story of 1959." NAACP National chairman Roy Wilkins immediately suspended Williams from his position, but the Monroe organizer won support from numerous NAACP chapters across the country. Ultimately, Wilkins resorted to bribing influential organizer Daisy Bates to campaign against Williams at the NAACP national convention and the suspension was upheld. The convention nonetheless passed a resolution which stated: "We do not deny, but reaffirm the right of individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults." Martin Luther King Jr. argued for Williams' removal, but Ella Baker and WEB Dubois both publicly praised the Monroe leader's position.
Williams – along with his wife, Mabel Williams – continued to play a leadership role in the Monroe movement, and to some degree, in the national movement. The Williamses published The Crusader, a nationally circulated newsletter, beginning in 1960, and the influential book Negroes With Guns in 1962. Williams did not call for full militarization in this period, but "flexibility in the freedom struggle." Williams was well-versed in legal tactics and publicity, which he had used successfully in the internationally known "Kissing Case" of 1958, as well as nonviolent methods, which he used at lunch counter sit-ins in Monroe – all with armed self-defense as a complementary tactic.
Williams led the Monroe movement in another armed stand-off with white supremacists during an August 1961 Freedom Ride; he had been invited to participate in the campaign by Ella Baker and James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The incident (along with his campaigns for peace with Cuba) resulted in him being targeted by the FBI and prosecuted for kidnapping; he was cleared of all charges in 1976. Meanwhile, armed self-defense continued discreetly in the Southern movement with such figures as SNCC's Amzie Moore, Hartman Turnbow, and Fannie Lou Hamer all willing to use arms to defend their lives from nightrides. Taking refuge from the FBI in Cuba, the Willamses broadcast the radio show "Radio Free Dixie" throughout the eastern United States via Radio Progresso beginning in 1962. In this period, Williams advocated guerilla warfare against racist institutions, and saw the large ghetto riots of the era as a manifestation of his strategy.
University of North Carolina historian Walter Rucker has written that "the emergence of Robert F Williams contributed to the marked decline in anti-black racial violence in the US…After centuries of anti-black violence, African-Americans across the country began to defend their communities aggressively – employing overt force when necessary. This in turn evoked in whites real fear of black vengeance…" This opened up space for African-Americans to use nonviolent demonstration with less fear of deadly reprisal. Of the many civil rights activists who share this view, the most prominent was Rosa Parks. Parks gave the eulogy at Williams' funeral in 1996, praising him for "his courage and for his commitment to freedom," and concluding that "The sacrifices he made, and what he did, should go down in history and never be forgotten."
In July 1958, the NAACP Youth Council sponsored sit-ins at the lunch counter of a Dockum Drug Store in downtown Wichita, Kansas. After three weeks, the movement successfully got the store to change its policy of segregated seating, and soon afterward all Dockum stores in Kansas were desegregated. This movement was quickly followed in the same year by a student sit-in at a Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City led by Clara Luper, which also was successful.
Mostly black students from area colleges led a sit-in at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four students, Ezell A. Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, an all-black college, sat down at the segregated lunch counter to protest Woolworth's policy of excluding African Americans from being served there. The four students purchased small items in other parts of the store and kept their receipts, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. After being denied service, they produced their receipts and asked why their money was good everywhere else at the store, but not at the lunch counter.
The protesters had been encouraged to dress professionally, to sit quietly, and to occupy every other stool so that potential white sympathizers could join in. The Greensboro sit-in was quickly followed by other sit-ins in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia. The most immediately effective of these was in Nashville, where hundreds of well organized and highly disciplined college students conducted sit-ins in coordination with a boycott campaign. As students across the south began to "sit-in" at the lunch counters of local stores, police and other officials sometimes used brutal force to physically escort the demonstrators from the lunch facilities.
The "sit-in" technique was not new—as far back as 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia library. In 1960 the technique succeeded in bringing national attention to the movement. On March 9, 1960 an Atlanta University Center group of students released An Appeal for Human Rights as a full page advertisement in newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal, and Atlanta Daily World. Known as the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR), the group initiated the Atlanta Student Movement and began to lead sit-ins starting on March 15, 1960. By the end of 1960, the process of sit-ins had spread to every southern and border state, and even to facilities in Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio that discriminated against blacks.
Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but also on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public facilities. In April 1960 activists who had led these sit-ins were invited by SCLC activist Ella Baker to hold a conference at Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina. This conference led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC took these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further, and organized the freedom rides. As the constitution protected interstate commerce, they decided to challenge segregation on interstate buses and in public bus facilities by putting interracial teams on them, to travel from the North through the segregated South.
Freedom Rides, 1961
Freedom Rides were journeys by Civil Rights activists on interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960) 364 U.S., which ruled that segregation was unconstitutional for passengers engaged in interstate travel. Organized by CORE, the first Freedom Ride of the 1960s left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.
During the first and subsequent Freedom Rides, activists traveled through the Deep South to integrate seating patterns on buses and desegregate bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains. That proved to be a dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives.
In Birmingham, Alabama, an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor gave Ku Klux Klan members fifteen minutes to attack an incoming group of freedom riders before having police "protect" them. The riders were severely beaten "until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them." James Peck, a white activist, was beaten so badly that he required fifty stitches to his head.
In a similar occurrence in Montgomery, Alabama, the Freedom Riders followed in the footsteps of Rosa Parks and rode an integrated Greyhound bus from Birmingham. Although they were protesting interstate bus segregation in peace, they were met with violence in Montgomery as a large, white mob attacked them for their activism. They caused an enormous, 2-hour long riot which resulted in 22 injuries, five of whom were hospitalized.
Mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham temporarily halted the rides. SNCC activists from Nashville brought in new riders to continue the journey from Birmingham to New Orleans. In Montgomery, Alabama, at the Greyhound Bus Station, a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded James Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth.
On May 24, 1961, the freedom riders continued their rides into Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested for "breaching the peace" by using "white only" facilities. New freedom rides were organized by many different organizations and continued to flow into the South. As riders arrived in Jackson, they were arrested. By the end of summer, more than 300 had been jailed in Mississippi.
...When the weary Riders arrive in Jackson and attempt to use "white only" restrooms and lunch counters they are immediately arrested for Breach of Peace and Refusal to Obey an Officer. Says Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in defense of segregation: "The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him." From lockup, the Riders announce "Jail No Bail"—they will not pay fines for unconstitutional arrests and illegal convictions—and by staying in jail they keep the issue alive. Each prisoner will remain in jail for 39 days, the maximum time they can serve without loosing [sic] their right to appeal the unconstitutionality of their arrests, trials, and convictions. After 39 days, they file an appeal and post bond...
The jailed freedom riders were treated harshly, crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100 °F heat. Others were transferred to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where they were treated to harsh conditions. Sometimes the men were suspended by "wrist breakers" from the walls. Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.
Public sympathy and support for the freedom riders led John F. Kennedy's administration to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue a new desegregation order. When the new ICC rule took effect on November 1, 1961, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they chose on the bus; "white" and "colored" signs came down in the terminals; separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated; and lunch counters began serving people regardless of skin color.
The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, a single-minded activist; James Lawson, the revered "guru" of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Bob Moses, pioneer of voting registration in Mississippi; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer, strategist, and facilitator. Other prominent student activists included Charles McDew, Bernard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Hosea Williams, and Stokely Carmichael.
Voter registration organizing
After the Freedom Rides, local black leaders in Mississippi such as Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, and others asked SNCC to help register black voters and to build community organizations that could win a share of political power in the state. Since Mississippi ratified its new constitution in 1890 with provisions such as poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests, it made registration more complicated and stripped blacks from voter rolls and voting. In addition, violence at the time of elections had earlier suppressed black voting.
By the mid-20th century, preventing blacks from voting had become an essential part of the culture of white supremacy. In the fall of 1961, SNCC organizer Robert Moses began the first voter registration project in McComb and the surrounding counties in the Southwest corner of the state. Their efforts were met with violent repression from state and local lawmen, the White Citizens' Council, and the Ku Klux Klan. Activists were beaten, there were hundreds of arrests of local citizens, and the voting activist Herbert Lee was murdered.
White opposition to black voter registration was so intense in Mississippi that Freedom Movement activists concluded that all of the state's civil rights organizations had to unite in a coordinated effort to have any chance of success. In February 1962, representatives of SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP formed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). At a subsequent meeting in August, SCLC became part of COFO.
In the Spring of 1962, with funds from the Voter Education Project, SNCC/COFO began voter registration organizing in the Mississippi Delta area around Greenwood, and the areas surrounding Hattiesburg, Laurel, and Holly Springs. As in McComb, their efforts were met with fierce opposition—arrests, beatings, shootings, arson, and murder. Registrars used the literacy test to keep blacks off the voting roles by creating standards that even highly educated people could not meet. In addition, employers fired blacks who tried to register, and landlords evicted them from their rental homes. Despite these actions, over the following years, the black voter registration campaign spread across the state.
Similar voter registration campaigns—with similar responses—were begun by SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in Louisiana, Alabama, southwest Georgia, and South Carolina. By 1963, voter registration campaigns in the South were as integral to the Freedom Movement as desegregation efforts. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protecting and facilitating voter registration despite state barriers became the main effort of the movement. It resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had provisions to enforce the constitutional right to vote for all citizens.
Integration of Mississippi universities, 1956–65
Beginning in 1956, Clyde Kennard, a black Korean War-veteran, wanted to enroll at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) under the G.I. Bill at Hattiesburg. Dr. William David McCain, the college president, used the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, in order to prevent his enrollment by appealing to local black leaders and the segregationist state political establishment.
The state-funded organization tried to counter the Civil Rights Movement by positively portraying segregationist policies. More significantly, it collected data on activists, harassed them legally, and used economic boycotts against them by threatening their jobs (or causing them to lose their jobs) to try to suppress their work.
Kennard was twice arrested on trumped-up charges, and eventually convicted and sentenced to seven years in the state prison. After three years at hard labor, Kennard was paroled by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. Journalists had investigated his case and publicized the state's mistreatment of his colon cancer.
McCain's role in Kennard's arrests and convictions is unknown. While trying to prevent Kennard's enrollment, McCain made a speech in Chicago, with his travel sponsored by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. He described the blacks' seeking to desegregate Southern schools as "imports" from the North. (Kennard was a native and resident of Hattiesburg.) McCain said:
"We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society...In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting...The Negroes prefer that control of the government remain in the white man's hands."
Note: Mississippi had passed a new constitution in 1890 that effectively disfranchised most blacks by changing electoral and voter registration requirements; although it deprived them of constitutional rights authorized under post-Civil War amendments, it survived US Supreme Court challenges at the time. It was not until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that most blacks in Mississippi and other southern states gained federal protection to enforce the constitutional right of citizens to vote.
In September 1962, James Meredith won a lawsuit to secure admission to the previously segregated University of Mississippi. He attempted to enter campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26. He was blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who said, "[N]o school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor." The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Barnett and Lieutenant Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. in contempt, ordering them arrested and fined more than $10,000 for each day they refused to allow Meredith to enroll.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in a force of U.S. Marshals. On September 30, 1962, Meredith entered the campus under their escort. Students and other whites began rioting that evening, throwing rocks and firing on the U.S. Marshals guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall. Two people, including a French journalist, were killed; 28 marshals suffered gunshot wounds; and 160 others were injured. President John F. Kennedy sent regular US Army forces to the campus to quell the riot. Meredith began classes the day after the troops arrived.
Kennard and other activists continued to work on public university desegregation. In 1965 Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong became the first African-American students to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. By that time, McCain helped ensure they had a peaceful entry. In 2006, Judge Robert Helfrich ruled that Kennard was factually innocent of all charges for which he had been convicted in the 1950s.
Albany Movement, 1961–62
The SCLC, which had been criticized by some student activists for its failure to participate more fully in the freedom rides, committed much of its prestige and resources to a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia, in November 1961. King, who had been criticized personally by some SNCC activists for his distance from the dangers that local organizers faced—and given the derisive nickname "De Lawd" as a result—intervened personally to assist the campaign led by both SNCC organizers and local leaders.
The campaign was a failure because of the canny tactics of Laurie Pritchett, the local police chief, and divisions within the black community. The goals may not have been specific enough. Pritchett contained the marchers without violent attacks on demonstrators that inflamed national opinion. He also arranged for arrested demonstrators to be taken to jails in surrounding communities, allowing plenty of room to remain in his jail. Prichett also foresaw King's presence as a danger and forced his release to avoid King's rallying the black community. King left in 1962 without having achieved any dramatic victories. The local movement, however, continued the struggle, and it obtained significant gains in the next few years.
Birmingham Campaign, 1963
The Albany movement was shown to be an important education for the SCLC, however, when it undertook the Birmingham campaign in 1963. Executive Director Wyatt Tee Walker carefully planned the early strategy and tactics for the campaign. It focused on one goal—the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown merchants, rather than total desegregation, as in Albany.
The movement's efforts were helped by the brutal response of local authorities, in particular Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety. He had long held much political power, but had lost a recent election for mayor to a less rabidly segregationist candidate. Refusing to accept the new mayor's authority, Connor intended to stay in office.
The campaign used a variety of nonviolent methods of confrontation, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a drive to register voters. The city, however, obtained an injunction barring all such protests. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the campaign defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963.
While in jail, King wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on the margins of a newspaper, since he had not been allowed any writing paper while held in solitary confinement. Supporters appealed to the Kennedy administration, which intervened to obtain King's release. King was allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and was released early on April 19.
The campaign, however, faltered as it ran out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest. James Bevel, SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education, then came up with a bold and controversial alternative: to train high school students to take part in the demonstrations. As a result, in what would be called the Children's Crusade, more than one thousand students skipped school on May 2 to meet at the 16th Street Baptist Church to join the demonstrations. More than six hundred marched out of the church fifty at a time in an attempt to walk to City Hall to speak to Birmingham's mayor about segregation. They were arrested and put into jail.
In this first encounter the police acted with restraint. On the next day, however, another one thousand students gathered at the church. When Bevel started them marching fifty at a time, Bull Connor finally unleashed police dogs on them and then turned the city's fire hoses water streams on the children. National television networks broadcast the scenes of the dogs attacking demonstrators and the water from the fire hoses knocking down the schoolchildren.
Widespread public outrage led the Kennedy administration to intervene more forcefully in negotiations between the white business community and the SCLC. On May 10, the parties announced an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters and other public accommodations downtown, to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, to arrange for the release of jailed protesters, and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders.
Not everyone in the black community approved of the agreement— the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was particularly critical, since he was skeptical about the good faith of Birmingham's power structure from his experience in dealing with them. Parts of the white community reacted violently. They bombed the Gaston Motel, which housed the SCLC's unofficial headquarters, and the home of King's brother, the Reverend A. D. King. In response, thousands of blacks rioted, burning numerous buildings and one of them stabbed and wounded a police officer.
Kennedy prepared to federalize the Alabama National Guard if the need arose. Four months later, on September 15, a conspiracy of Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls.
"Rising tide of discontent" and Kennedy's Response, 1963
Birmingham was only one of over a hundred cities rocked by chaotic protest that spring and summer, some of them in the North. During the March on Washington, Martin Luther King would refer to such protests as "the whirlwinds of revolt." In Chicago, blacks rioted through the South Side in late May after a white police officer shot a fourteen-year-old black boy who was fleeing the scene of a robbery. Violent clashes between black activists and white workers took place in both Philadelphia and Harlem in successful efforts to integrate state construction projects. On June 6, over a thousand whites attacked a sit-in in Lexington, North Carolina; blacks fought back and one white man was killed. Edwin C. Berry of the National Urban League warned of a complete breakdown in race relations: "My message from the beer gardens and the barbershops all indicate the fact that the Negro is ready for war."
In Cambridge, Maryland, a working‐class city on the Eastern Shore, Gloria Richardson of SNCC led a movement that pressed for desegregation but also demanded low‐rent public housing, job‐training, public and private jobs, and an end to police brutality. On June 14, struggles between blacks and whites escalated to the point where local authorities declared martial law, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy directly intervened to negotiate a desegregation agreement. Richardson felt that the increasing participation of poor and working-class blacks was expanding both the power and parameters of the movement, asserting that "The people as a whole really do have more intelligence than a few of their leaders.ʺ
In their deliberations during this wave of protests, the Kennedy administration privately felt that militant demonstrations were ʺbad for the countryʺ and that "Negroes are going to push this thing too far." On May 24, Robert Kennedy had a meeting with prominent black intellectuals to discuss the racial situation. The blacks criticized Kennedy harshly for vacillating on civil rights, and said that the African-American community's thoughts were increasingly turning to violence. The meeting ended with ill will on all sides. Nonetheless, the Kennedys ultimately decided that new legislation for equal public accommodations was essential to drive activists "into the courts and out of the streets."
On June 11, 1963, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, tried to block the integration of the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy sent a military force to make Governor Wallace step aside, allowing the enrollment of Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood. That evening, President Kennedy addressed the nation on TV and radio with his historic civil rights speech, where he lamented "a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety." He called on Congress to pass new civil rights legislation, and urged the country to embrace civil rights as "a moral issue...in our daily lives." In the early hours of June 12, Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated by a member of the Klan. The next week, as promised, on June 19, 1963, President Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
March on Washington, 1963
A. Philip Randolph had planned a march on Washington, D.C. in 1941 to support demands for elimination of employment discrimination in defense industries; he called off the march when the Roosevelt administration met the demand by issuing Executive Order 8802 barring racial discrimination and creating an agency to oversee compliance with the order.
Randolph and Bayard Rustin were the chief planners of the second march, which they proposed in 1962. In 1963, the Kennedy administration initially opposed the march out of concern it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation. However, Randolph and King were firm that the march would proceed. With the march going forward, the Kennedys decided it was important to work to ensure its success. Concerned about the turnout, President Kennedy enlisted the aid of additional church leaders and the UAW union to help mobilize demonstrators for the cause.
The march was held on August 28, 1963. Unlike the planned 1941 march, for which Randolph included only black-led organizations in the planning, the 1963 march was a collaborative effort of all of the major civil rights organizations, the more progressive wing of the labor movement, and other liberal organizations. The march had six official goals:
- meaningful civil rights laws
- a massive federal works program
- full and fair employment
- decent housing
- the right to vote
- adequate integrated education.
Of these, the march's major focus was on passage of the civil rights law that the Kennedy administration had proposed after the upheavals in Birmingham.
National media attention also greatly contributed to the march's national exposure and probable impact. In his section "The March on Washington and Television News," William Thomas notes: "Over five hundred cameramen, technicians, and correspondents from the major networks were set to cover the event. More cameras would be set up than had filmed the last presidential inauguration. One camera was positioned high in the Washington Monument, to give dramatic vistas of the marchers". By carrying the organizers' speeches and offering their own commentary, television stations framed the way their local audiences saw and understood the event.
"I Have a Dream"
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The march was a success, although not without controversy. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While many speakers applauded the Kennedy administration for the efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation protecting the right to vote and outlawing segregation, John Lewis of SNCC took the administration to task for not doing more to protect southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South.
After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House. While the Kennedy administration appeared sincerely committed to passing the bill, it was not clear that it had the votes in Congress to do it. However when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the new President Lyndon Johnson decided to use his influence in Congress to bring about much of Kennedy's legislative agenda.
Malcolm X joins the movement, 1964–1965
In March 1964, Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz), national representative of the Nation of Islam, formally broke with that organization, and made a public offer to collaborate with any civil rights organization that accepted the right to self-defense and the philosophy of Black nationalism (which Malcolm said no longer required Black separatism). Gloria Richardson–head of the Cambridge, Maryland chapter of SNCC, leader of the Cambridge rebellion and an honored guest at The March on Washington – immediately embraced Malcolm's offer. Mrs. Richardson, "the nation's most prominent woman [civil rights] leader," told The Baltimore Afro-American that "Malcolm is being very practical…The federal government has moved into conflict situations only when matters approach the level of insurrection. Self-defense may force Washington to intervene sooner." Earlier, in May 1963, James Baldwin had stated publicly that "the Black Muslim movement is the only one in the country we can call grassroots, I hate to say it…Malcolm articulates for Negroes, their suffering…he corroborates their reality..." On the local level, Malcolm and the NOI had been allied with the Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) since at least 1962.
On March 26, 1964, as the Civil Rights Act was facing stiff opposition in Congress, Malcolm had a public meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Capitol building. Malcolm had attempted to begin a dialog with Dr. King as early as 1957, but King had rebuffed him. Malcolm had responded by calling King an "Uncle Tom" who turned his back on black militancy in order to appease the white power structure. However, the two men were on good terms at their face-to-face meeting. There is evidence that King was preparing to support Malcolm's plan to formally bring the US government before the United Nations on charges of human rights violations against African-Americans. Malcolm now encouraged Black nationalists to get involved in voter registration drives and other forms of community organizing to redefine and expand the movement.
Civil rights activists became increasingly combative in the 1963 to 1964 period, owing to events such as the thwarting of the Albany campaign, police repression and Ku Klux Klan terrorism in Birmingham, and the assassination of Medgar Evers. Mississippi NAACP Field Director Charles Evers–Medgar Evers' brother–told a public NAACP conference on February 15, 1964 that "non-violence won't work in Mississippi…we made up our minds…that if a white man shoots at a Negro in Mississippi, we will shoot back." The repression of sit-ins in Jacksonville, Florida provoked a riot that saw black youth throwing Molotov cocktails at police on March 24, 1964. Malcolm X gave extensive speeches in this period warning that such militant activity would escalate further if African-Americans' rights were not fully recognized. In his landmark April 1964 speech "The Ballot or the Bullet", Malcolm presented an ultimatum to white America: "There's new strategy coming in. It'll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It'll be ballots, or it'll be bullets."
As noted in Eyes on the Prize, "Malcolm X had a far reaching effect on the civil rights movement. In the South, there had been a long tradition of self reliance. Malcolm X's ideas now touched that tradition". Self-reliance was becoming paramount in light of the 1964 Democratic National Convention's decision to refuse seating to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and to seat the state delegation elected in violation of the party's rules through Jim Crow law instead. SNCC moved in an increasingly militant direction and worked with Malcolm X on two Harlem MFDP fundraisers in December 1964. When Fannie Lou Hamer spoke to Harlemites about the Jim Crow violence that she'd suffered in Mississippi, she linked it directly to the Northern police brutality against blacks that Malcolm protested against; When Malcolm asserted that African-Americans should emulate the Mau Mau army of Kenya in efforts to gain their independence, many in SNCC applauded. During the Selma campaign for voting rights in 1965, Malcolm made it known that he'd heard reports of increased threats of lynching around Selma, and responded in late January with an open telegram to George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, stating: "if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans…you and your KKK friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not handcuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence." The following month, the Selma chapter of SNCC invited Malcolm to speak to a mass meeting there. On the day of Malcolm's appearance, President Johnson made his first public statement in support of the Selma campaign. Paul Ryan Haygood, a co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, credits Malcolm with a role in stimulating the responsiveness of the federal government. Haygood noted that "shortly after Malcolm's visit to Selma, a federal judge, responding to a suit brought by the Department of Justice, required Dallas County, Alabama registrars to process at least 100 Black applications each day their offices were open."
St. Augustine, Florida, 1963–64
St. Augustine, on the northeast coast of Florida, was famous as the "Nation's Oldest City", founded by the Spanish in 1565. It became the stage for a great drama leading up to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. A local movement, led by Dr. Robert B. Hayling, a black dentist and Air Force veteran, and affiliated with the NAACP, had been picketing segregated local institutions since 1963, as a result of which Dr. Hayling and three companions, James Jackson, Clyde Jenkins, and James Hauser, were brutally beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the fall of that year.
Nightriders shot into black homes, and teenagers Audrey Nell Edwards, JoeAnn Anderson, Samuel White, and Willie Carl Singleton (who came to be known as "The St. Augustine Four") spent six months in jail and reform school after sitting in at the local Woolworth's lunch counter. It took a special action of the governor and cabinet of Florida to release them after national protests by the Pittsburgh Courier, Jackie Robinson, and others.
In response to the repression, the St. Augustine movement practiced armed self-defense in addition to nonviolent direct action. In June 1963, Dr. Hayling publicly stated that "I and the others have armed. We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers." The comment made national headlines. When Klan nightriders terrorized black neighborhoods in St. Augustine, Hayling's NAACP members often drove them off with gunfire, and in October, a Klansman was killed.
In 1964, Dr. Hayling and other activists urged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to St. Augustine. The first action came during spring break, when Hayling appealed to northern college students to come to the Ancient City, not to go to the beach, but to take part in demonstrations. Four prominent Massachusetts women—Mrs. Mary Parkman Peabody, Mrs. Esther Burgess, Mrs. Hester Campbell (all of whose husbands were Episcopal bishops), and Mrs. Florence Rowe (whose husband was vice president of John Hancock Insurance Company) came to lend their support. The arrest of Mrs. Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, for attempting to eat at the segregated Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in an integrated group, made front page news across the country, and brought the movement in St. Augustine to the attention of the world.
Widely publicized activities continued in the ensuing months, as Congress saw the longest filibuster against a civil rights bill in its history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964, the only place in Florida he was arrested. He sent a "Letter from the St. Augustine Jail" to a northern supporter, Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, urging him to recruit others to participate in the movement. This resulted, a week later, in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history—while conducting a pray-in at the Monson.
A well-known photograph taken in St. Augustine shows the manager of the Monson Motel pouring muriatic acid in the swimming pool while blacks and whites are swimming in it. The horrifying photograph was run on the front page of the Washington newspaper the day the Senate went to vote on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964
In the summer of 1964, COFO brought nearly 1,000 activists to Mississippi—most of them white college students—to join with local black activists to register voters, teach in "Freedom Schools," and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
Many of Mississippi's white residents deeply resented the outsiders and attempts to change their society. State and local governments, police, the White Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan used arrests, beatings, arson, murder, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.
On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared. James Chaney, a young black Mississippian and plasterer's apprentice; and two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student; and Michael Schwerner, a CORE organizer from Manhattan's Lower East Side, were found weeks later, murdered by conspirators who turned out to be local members of the Klan, some of them members of the Neshoba County sheriff's department. This outraged the public, leading the U.S. Justice Department along with the FBI (the latter which had previously avoided dealing with the issue of segregation and persecution of blacks) to take action. The outrage over these murders helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (See Mississippi civil rights workers murders for details).
From June to August, Freedom Summer activists worked in 38 local projects scattered across the state, with the largest number concentrated in the Mississippi Delta region. At least 30 Freedom Schools, with close to 3,500 students were established, and 28 community centers set up.
Over the course of the Summer Project, some 17,000 Mississippi blacks attempted to become registered voters in defiance of the red tape and forces of white supremacy arrayed against them—only 1,600 (less than 10%) succeeded. But more than 80,000 joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), founded as an alternative political organization, showing their desire to vote and participate in politics.
Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of people's isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers. The progression of events throughout the South increased media attention to Mississippi.
The deaths of affluent northern white students and threats to other northerners attracted the full attention of the media spotlight to the state. Many black activists became embittered, believing the media valued lives of whites and blacks differently. Perhaps the most significant effect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers, almost all of whom—black and white—still consider it to have been one of the defining periods of their lives.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Although President Kennedy had proposed civil rights legislation and it had support from Northern Congressmen and Senators of both parties, Southern Senators blocked the bill by threatening filibusters. After considerable parliamentary maneuvering and 54 days of filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate, President Johnson got a bill through the Congress.
On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin" in employment practices and public accommodations. The bill authorized the Attorney General to file lawsuits to enforce the new law. The law also nullified state and local laws that required such discrimination.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964
Blacks in Mississippi had been disfranchised by statutory and constitutional changes since the late 19th century. In 1963 COFO held a Freedom Vote in Mississippi to demonstrate the desire of black Mississippians to vote. More than 80,000 people registered and voted in the mock election, which pitted an integrated slate of candidates from the "Freedom Party" against the official state Democratic Party candidates.
In 1964, organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white official party. When Mississippi voting registrars refused to recognize their candidates, they held their own primary. They selected Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for Congress, and a slate of delegates to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The presence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was inconvenient, however, for the convention organizers. They had planned a triumphant celebration of the Johnson administration's achievements in civil rights, rather than a fight over racism within the Democratic Party. All-white delegations from other Southern states threatened to walk out if the official slate from Mississippi was not seated. Johnson was worried about the inroads that Republican Barry Goldwater's campaign was making in what previously had been the white Democratic stronghold of the "Solid South", as well as support that George Wallace had received in the North during the Democratic primaries.
Johnson could not, however, prevent the MFDP from taking its case to the Credentials Committee. There Fannie Lou Hamer testified eloquently about the beatings that she and others endured and the threats they faced for trying to register to vote. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, "Is this America?"
Johnson offered the MFDP a "compromise" under which it would receive two non-voting, at-large seats, while the white delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would retain its seats. The MFDP angrily rejected the "compromise."
The MFDP kept up its agitation at the convention, after it was denied official recognition. When all but three of the "regular" Mississippi delegates left because they refused to pledge allegiance to the party, the MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic delegates and took the seats vacated by the official Mississippi delegates. National party organizers removed them. When they returned the next day, they found convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there the day before. They stayed and sang "freedom songs".
The 1964 Democratic Party convention disillusioned many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement, but it did not destroy the MFDP. The MFDP became more radical after Atlantic City. It invited Malcolm X to speak at one of its conventions and opposed the war in Vietnam.
King awarded Nobel Peace Prize
On December 10, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest man to receive the award; he was 35 years of age.
Boycott of New Orleans by American Football League players, January 1965
After the 1964 professional American Football League season, the AFL All-Star Game had been scheduled for early 1965 in New Orleans' Tulane Stadium. After numerous black players were refused service by a number of New Orleans hotels and businesses, and white cabdrivers refused to carry black passengers, black and white players alike lobbied for a boycott of New Orleans. Under the leadership of Buffalo Bills' players, including Cookie Gilchrist, the players put up a unified front. The game was moved to Jeppesen Stadium in Houston.
The discriminatory practices that prompted the boycott were illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been signed in July 1964. This new law likely encouraged the AFL players in their cause. It was the first boycott by a professional sports event of an entire city.
Selma Voting Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act, 1965
"Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act"
"Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act"
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SNCC had undertaken an ambitious voter registration program in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, but by 1965 had made little headway in the face of opposition from Selma's sheriff, Jim Clark. After local residents asked the SCLC for assistance, King came to Selma to lead several marches, at which he was arrested along with 250 other demonstrators. The marchers continued to meet violent resistance from police. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a resident of nearby Marion, was killed by police at a later march in February 17, 1965. Jackson's death prompted James Bevel, director of the Selma Movement, to initiate and organize a plan to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
On March 7, 1965, acting on Bevel's plan, Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC led a march of 600 people to walk the 54 miles (87 km) from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Only six blocks into the march, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and local law enforcement, some mounted on horseback, attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, and bull whips. They drove the marchers back into Selma. Lewis was knocked unconscious and dragged to safety. At least 16 other marchers were hospitalized. Among those gassed and beaten was Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was at the center of civil rights activity at the time.
The national broadcast of the news footage of lawmen attacking unresisting marchers' seeking to exercise their constitutional right to vote provoked a national response, as had scenes from Birmingham two years earlier. The marchers were able to obtain a court order permitting them to make the march without incident two weeks later.
The evening of a second march on March 9 to the site of Bloody Sunday, local whites attacked Rev. James Reeb, a voting rights supporter. He died of his injuries in a Birmingham hospital March 11. On March 25, four Klansmen shot and killed Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma at night after the successfully completed march to Montgomery.
Eight days after the first march, but before the final march, President Johnson delivered a televised address to support the voting rights bill he had sent to Congress. In it he stated:
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6. The 1965 act suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subjective voter registration tests. It authorized Federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. African Americans who had been barred from registering to vote finally had an alternative to taking suits to local or state courts, which had seldom prosecuted their cases to success. If discrimination in voter registration occurred, the 1965 act authorized the Attorney General of the United States to send Federal examiners to replace local registrars. Johnson reportedly told associates of his concern that signing the bill had lost the white South as voters for the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future.
The act had an immediate and positive effect for African Americans. Within months of its passage, 250,000 new black voters had been registered, one third of them by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout at 74% and led the nation in the number of black public officials elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout among black voters; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.
Several whites who had opposed the Voting Rights Act paid a quick price. In 1966 Sheriff Jim Clark of Alabama, infamous for using cattle prods against civil rights marchers, was up for reelection. Although he took off the notorious "Never" pin on his uniform, he was defeated. At the election, Clark lost as blacks voted to get him out of office.
Blacks' regaining the power to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only about 100 African Americans held elective office, all in northern states. By 1989, there were more than 7,200 African Americans in office, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county (where populations were majority black) in Alabama had a black sheriff. Southern blacks held top positions in city, county, and state governments.
Atlanta elected a black mayor, Andrew Young, as did Jackson, Mississippi, with Harvey Johnson, Jr., and New Orleans, with Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, elected as a Representative from Texas in Congress, and President Jimmy Carter appointed Andrew Young as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia State Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War prevented him from taking his seat until 1967. John Lewis represents Georgia's 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987.
Fair housing movements, 1966–1968
The first major blow against housing segregation in the era, the Rumford Fair Housing Act, was passed in California in 1963. It was overturned by white California voters and real estate lobbyists the following year with Proposition 14, a move which helped precipitate the Watts Riots. In 1966, the California Supreme Court invalidated Proposition 14 and reinstated the Fair Housing Act.
Struggles for fair housing laws became a major project of the movement over the next two years, with Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, and Al Raby leading the Chicago Freedom Movement around the issue in 1966. In the following year, Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council also attracted national attention with a fair housing campaign in Milwaukee. Both movements faced violent resistance from white homeowners and legal opposition from conservative politicians.
The Fair Housing Bill was the most contentious civil rights legislation of the era. Senator Walter Mondale, who advocated for the bill, noted that over successive years, it was the most filibustered legislation in US history. It was opposed by most Northern and Southern senators, as well as the National Association of Real Estate Boards. A proposed "Civil Rights Act of 1966" had collapsed completely because of its fair housing provision. Mondale commented that:
- A lot of civil rights [legislation] was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace, [but] this came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal.
Memphis, King assassination and the Poor People's March 1968
"I've Been to the Mountaintop"
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Rev. James Lawson invited King to Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968 to support a sanitation workers' strike. These workers launched a campaign for union representation after two workers were accidentally killed on the job, and King considered their struggle to be a vital part of the Poor People's Campaign he was planning.
A day after delivering his stirring "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon, which has become famous for his vision of American society, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Riots broke out in black neighborhoods in more than 110 cities across the United States in the days that followed, notably in Chicago, Baltimore, and in Washington, D.C.
The day before King's funeral, April 8, Coretta Scott King and three of the King children led 20,000 marchers through the streets of Memphis, holding signs that read, "Honor King: End Racism" and "Union Justice Now". Armed National Guardsmen lined the streets, sitting on M-48 tanks, to protect the marchers, and helicopters circled overhead. On April 9, Mrs. King led another 150,000 people in a funeral procession through the streets of Atlanta. Her dignity revived courage and hope in many of the Movement's members, cementing her place as the new leader in the struggle for racial equality.
[Martin Luther King, Jr.] gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam. The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy succeeded King as the head of the SCLC and attempted to carry forth King's plan for a Poor People's March. It was to unite blacks and whites to campaign for fundamental changes in American society and economic structure. The march went forward under Abernathy's plainspoken leadership but did not achieve its goals.
Civil Rights Act of 1968
As 1968 began, the fair housing bill was being filibustered once again, but two developments revived it. The Kerner Commission report on the 1967 ghetto riots was delivered to Congress on March 1, and it strongly recommended "a comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing law" as a remedy to the civil disturbances. The Senate was moved to end their filibuster that week.
- some Senators and Representatives publicly stated they would not be intimidated or rushed into legislating because of the disturbances. Nevertheless, the news coverage of the riots and the underlying disparities in income, jobs, housing, and education, between White and Black Americans helped educate citizens and Congress about the stark reality of an enormous social problem. Members of Congress knew they had to act to redress these imbalances in American life to fulfill the dream that King had so eloquently preached.
The House passed the legislation on April 10, and President Johnson signed it the next day. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, and national origin. It also made it a federal crime to "by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone…by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin."
Despite the common notion that the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Black Power only conflicted with each other and were the only ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement, there were other sentiments felt by many blacks. Fearing the events during the movement were occurring too quickly, there were some blacks who felt that leaders should take their activism at a slower pace. Others had reservations on how focused blacks were on the movement and felt that such attention was better spent on reforming issues within the black community.
While most popular representations of the movement are centered on the leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., some scholars note that the movement was too diverse to be credited to one person, organization, or strategy. Sociologist Doug McAdam has stated that, "in King's case, it would be inaccurate to say that he was the leader of the modern civil rights movement...but more importantly, there was no singular civil rights movement. The movement was, in fact, a coalition of thousands of local efforts nationwide, spanning several decades, hundreds of discrete groups, and all manner of strategies and tactics—legal, illegal, institutional, non-institutional, violent, non-violent. Without discounting King's importance, it would be sheer fiction to call him the leader of what was fundamentally an amorphous, fluid, dispersed movement."
Those who blatantly rejected integration usually had a legitimate rationale for doing so, such as fearing a change in the status quo they had been used to for so long, or fearing for their safety if they found themselves in environments where whites were much more present. However, there were also those who defended segregation for the sake of keeping ties with the white power structure from which many relied on for social and economic mobility above other blacks. Based on her interpretation of a 1966 study made by Donald Matthews and James Prothro detailing the relative percentage of blacks for integration, against it or feeling something else, Lauren Winner asserts that:
"Black defenders of segregation look, at first blush, very much like black nationalists, especially in their preference for all-black institutions; but black defenders of segregation differ from nationalists in two key ways. First, while both groups criticize NAACP-style integration, nationalists articulate a third alternative to integration and Jim Crow, while segregationists preferred to stick with the status quo. Second, absent from black defenders of segregation's political vocabulary was the demand for self-determination. They called for all-black institutions, but not autonomous all-black institutions; indeed, some defenders of segregation asserted that black people needed white paternalism and oversight in order to thrive."
Oftentimes, African-American community leaders would be staunch defenders of segregation. Church ministers, businessmen and educators were among those who wished to keep segregation and segregationist ideals in order to retain the privileges they gained from patronage from whites, such as monetary gains. In addition, they relied on segregation to keep their jobs and economies in their communities thriving. It was feared that if integration became widespread in the South, black-owned businesses and other establishments would lose a large chunk of their customer base to white-owned businesses, and many blacks would lose opportunities for jobs that were presently exclusive to their interests. On the other hand, there were the everyday, average black people who criticized integration as well. For them, they took issue with different parts of the Civil Rights Movement and the potential for blacks to exercise consumerism and economic liberty without hindrance from whites.
For Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and other leading activists and groups during the movement, these opposing viewpoints acted as an obstacle against their ideas. These different views made such leaders' work much harder to accomplish, but they were nonetheless important in the overall scope of the movement. For the most part, the black individuals who had reservations on various aspects of the movement and ideologies of the activists were not able to make a game-changing dent in their efforts, but the existence of these alternate ideas gave some blacks an outlet to express their concerns about the changing social structure.
Avoiding the "Communist" label
On December 17, 1951, the Communist Party–affiliated Civil Rights Congress delivered the petition We Charge Genocide: "The Crime of Government Against the Negro People", often shortened to We Charge Genocide, to the United Nations in 1951, arguing that the U.S. federal government, by its failure to act against lynching in the United States, was guilty of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. The petition was presented to the United Nations at two separate venues: Paul Robeson, concert singer and activist, to a UN official in New York City, while William L. Patterson, executive director of the CRC, delivered copies of the drafted petition to a UN delegation in Paris.
Patterson, the editor of the petition, was a leader in the Communist Party USA and head of the International Labor Defense, a group that offered legal representation to communists, trade unionists, and African-Americans in cases involving issues of political or racial persecution. The ILD was known for leading the defense of the Scottsboro boys in Alabama in 1931, where the Communist Party had considerable influence among African Americans in the 1930s. This had largely declined by the late 1950s, although they could command international attention. As earlier Civil Rights figures such as Robeson, Du Bois and Patterson became more politically radical (and therefore targets of Cold War anti-Communism by the US. Government), they lost favor with both mainstream Black America and the NAACP.
In order to secure a place in the mainstream and gain the broadest base, the new generation of civil rights activists believed they had to openly distance themselves from anything and anyone associated with the Communist party. According to Ella Baker, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adopted "Christian" into its name to deter charges of Communism. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had been concerned about communism since the early 20th century, and continued to label as "Communist" or "subversive" some of the civil rights activists, whom it kept under close surveillance. In the early 1960s, the practice of distancing the Civil Rights Movement from "Reds" was challenged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who adopted a policy of accepting assistance and participation by anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who supported the SNCC program and was willing to "put their body on the line." At times this political openness put SNCC at odds with the NAACP.
Kennedy administration, 1961–63
During the years preceding his election to the presidency, John F. Kennedy's record of voting on issues of racial discrimination had been minimal. Kennedy openly confessed to his closest advisors that during the first months of his presidency, his knowledge of the civil rights movement was "lacking".
For the first two years of the Kennedy administration, civil rights activists had mixed opinions of both the president and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy. Many viewed the administration with suspicion. A well of historical cynicism toward white liberal politics had left African Americans with a sense of uneasy disdain for any white politician who claimed to share their concerns for freedom. Still, many had a strong sense that the Kennedys represented a new age of political dialogue.
Although observers frequently assert the phrases "The Kennedy administration" or "President Kennedy" when discussing the executive and legislative support of the Civil Rights movement between 1960 and 1963, many of the initiatives resulted from Robert Kennedy's passion. Through his rapid education in the realities of racism, Robert Kennedy underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney-General. The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters; the Attorney-General succeeded in urging the president to address the issue in a speech to the nation.
Robert Kennedy first became seriously concerned with civil rights in mid-May 1961 during the Freedom Rides, when photographs of the burning bus and savage beatings in Anniston and Birmingham were broadcast around the world. They came at an especially embarrassing time, as President Kennedy was about to have a summit with the Soviet premier in Vienna. The White House was concerned with its image among the populations of newly independent nations in Africa and Asia, and Robert Kennedy responded with an address for Voice of America stating that great progress had been made on the issue of race relations. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the administration worked to resolve the crisis with a minimum of violence and prevent the Freedom Riders from generating a fresh crop of headlines that might divert attention from the President's international agenda. The Freedom Riders documentary notes that, "The back burner issue of civil rights had collided with the urgent demands of Cold War realpolitik."
On May 21, when a white mob attacked and burned the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where King was holding out with protesters, Robert Kennedy telephoned King to ask him to stay in the building until the U.S. Marshals and National Guard could secure the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy's commanding the force to break up an attack, which might otherwise have ended King's life.
With a very small majority in Congress, the president's ability to press ahead with legislation relied considerably on a balancing game with the Senators and Congressmen of the South. Without the support of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, a former Senator who had years of experience in Congress and longstanding relations there, many of the Attorney-General's programs would not have progressed.
By late 1962, frustration at the slow pace of political change was balanced by the movement's strong support for legislative initiatives: housing rights, administrative representation across all US Government departments, safe conditions at the ballot box, pressure on the courts to prosecute racist criminals. King remarked by the end of the year,
This administration has reached out more creatively than its predecessors to blaze new trails, [notably in voting rights and government appointments]. Its vigorous young men [had launched] imaginative and bold forays [and displayed] a certain élan in the attention they give to civil-rights issues.
From squaring off against Governor George Wallace, to "tearing into" Vice-President Johnson (for failing to desegregate areas of the administration), to threatening corrupt white Southern judges with disbarment, to desegregating interstate transport, Robert Kennedy came to be consumed by the Civil Rights movement. He continued to work on these social justice issues in his bid for the presidency in 1968.
On the night of Governor Wallace's capitulation to African-American enrollment at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy gave an address to the nation, which marked the changing tide, an address that was to become a landmark for the ensuing change in political policy as to civil rights. In it President Kennedy spoke of the need to act decisively and to act now:
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.
Assassination cut short the life and careers of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The essential groundwork of the Civil Rights Act 1964 had been initiated before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The dire need for political and administrative reform was driven home on Capitol Hill by the combined efforts of the Kennedy brothers, Dr. King (and other leaders) and President Lyndon Johnson.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy undertook a tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-apartheid movement. His tour gained international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the black population. He was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with LOOK Magazine he said:
At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. "But suppose God is black", I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" There was no answer. Only silence.
American Jewish community and the Civil Rights Movement
Many in the Jewish community supported the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, statistically Jews were one of the most actively involved non-black groups in the Movement. Many Jewish students worked in concert with African Americans for CORE, SCLC, and SNCC as full-time organizers and summer volunteers during the Civil Rights era. Jews made up roughly half of the white northern volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project and approximately half of the civil rights attorneys active in the South during the 1960s.
Jewish leaders were arrested while heeding a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964, where the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history took place at the Monson Motor Lodge—a nationally important civil rights landmark that was demolished in 2003 so that a Hilton Hotel could be built on the site. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a writer, rabbi, and professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, was outspoken on the subject of civil rights. He marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. In the Mississippi civil rights workers' murders of 1964, the two white activists killed, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were both Jewish.
Brandeis University, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college university in the world, created the Transitional Year Program (TYP) in 1968, in part response to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. The faculty created it to renew the university's commitment to social justice. Recognizing Brandeis as a university with a commitment to academic excellence, these faculty members created a chance to disadvantaged students to participate in an empowering educational experience.
The program began by admitting 20 black males. As it developed, two groups have been given chances. The first group consists of students whose secondary schooling experiences and/or home communities may have lacked the resources to foster adequate preparation for success at elite colleges like Brandeis. For example, their high schools do not offer AP or honors courses nor high quality laboratory experiences.
Students selected had to have excelled in the curricula offered by their schools. The second group of students includes those whose life circumstances have created formidable challenges that required focus, energy, and skills that otherwise would have been devoted to academic pursuits. Some have served as heads of their households, others have worked full-time while attending high school full-time, and others have shown leadership in other ways.
While Jews were very active in the civil rights movement in the South, in the North, many had experienced a more strained relationship with African Americans. In communities experiencing white flight, racial rioting, and urban decay, Jewish Americans were more often the last remaining whites in the communities most affected. With Black militancy and the Black Power movements on the rise, Black Anti-Semitism increased leading to strained relations between Blacks and Jews in Northern communities. In New York City, most notably, there was a major socio-economic class difference in the perception of African Americans by Jews. Jews from better educated Upper Middle Class backgrounds were often very supportive of African American civil rights activities while the Jews in poorer urban communities that became increasingly minority were often less supportive largely in part due to more negative and violent interactions between the two groups.
Despite large Jewish organisations such as the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the ADL being actively involved in the Movement, many Jewish individuals in the Southern states who supported civil rights for African-Americans tended to keep a low profile on "the race issue", in order to avoid attracting the attention of the anti-Black and antisemitic Ku Klux Klan. However, Klan groups exploited the issue of African-American integration and Jewish involvement in the struggle to launch acts of violent antisemitism. As an example of this hatred, in one year alone, from November 1957 to October 1958, temples and other Jewish communal gatherings were bombed and desecrated in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, and dynamite was found under synagogues in Birmingham, Charlotte, and Gastonia, North Carolina. Some rabbis received death threats, but there were no injuries following these outbursts of violence.
Fraying of alliances
King reached the height of popular acclaim during his life in 1964, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His career after that point was filled with frustrating challenges. The liberal coalition that had gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to fray.
King was becoming more estranged from the Johnson administration. In 1965 he broke with it by calling for peace negotiations and a halt to the bombing of Vietnam. He moved further left in the following years, speaking of the need for economic justice and thoroughgoing changes in American society. He believed change was needed beyond the civil rights gained by the movement.
King's attempts to broaden the scope of the Civil Rights Movement were halting and largely unsuccessful, however. King made several efforts in 1965 to take the Movement north to address issues of employment and housing discrimination. SCLC's campaign in Chicago publicly failed, as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley marginalized SCLC's campaign by promising to "study" the city's problems. In 1966, white demonstrators holding "white power" signs in notoriously racist Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, threw stones at marchers demonstrating against housing segregation.
Johnson administration: 1963–1968
Lyndon Johnson made civil rights one of his highest priorities, coupling it with a whites war on poverty. However in creasing the shrill opposition to the War in Vietnam, coupled with the cost of the war, undercut support for his domestic programs.
Under Kennedy, major civil rights legislation had been stalled in Congress his assassination changed everything. On one hand president Lyndon Johnson was a much more skillful negotiator than Kennedy but he had behind him a powerful national momentum demanding immediate action on moral and emotional grounds. Demands for immediate action originated from unexpected directions, especially white Protestant church groups. The Justice Department, led by Robert Kennedy, moved from a posture of defending Kennedy from the quagmire minefield of racial politics to acting to fulfill his legacy. The violent death and public reaction dramatically moved the moderate Republicans, led by Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, whose support was the margin of victory for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act immediately ended de jure (legal) segregation and the era of Jim Crow.
With the civil rights movement at full blast, Lyndon Johnson coupled black entrepreneurship with his war on poverty, setting up special program in the Small Business Administration, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and other agencies. This time there was money for loans designed to boost minority business ownership. Richard Nixon greatly expanded the program, setting up the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (OMBE) in the expectation that black entrepreneurs would help defuse racial tensions and possibly support his reelection .
Race riots, 1963–70
By the end of World War II, more than half of the country's black population lived in Northern and Western industrial cities rather than Southern rural areas. Migrating to those cities for better job opportunities, education and to escape legal segregation, African Americans often found segregation that existed in fact rather than in law.
Beginning in the 1950s, deindustrialization and restructuring of major industries: railroads and meatpacking, steel industry and car industry, markedly reduced working-class jobs, which had earlier provided middle-class incomes. As the last population to enter the industrial job market, blacks were disadvantaged by its collapse. At the same time, investment in highways and private development of suburbs in the postwar years had drawn many ethnic whites out of the cities to newer housing in expanding suburbs. Urban blacks who did not follow the middle class out of the cities became concentrated in the older housing of inner city neighborhoods, among the poorest in most major cities.
Because jobs in new service areas and parts of the economy were being created in suburbs, unemployment was much higher in many black than in white neighborhoods, and crime was frequent. African Americans rarely owned the stores or businesses where they lived. Many were limited to menial or blue-collar jobs, although union organizing in the 1930s and 1940s had opened up good working environments for some. African Americans often made only enough money to live in dilapidated tenements that were privately owned, or poorly maintained public housing. They also attended schools that were often the worst academically in the city and that had fewer white students than in the decades before WWII.
The racial makeup of most major city police departments, largely ethnic white (especially Irish), was a major factor in adding to racial tensions. Even a black neighborhood such as Harlem had a ratio of one black officer for every six white officers. The majority-black city of Newark, New Jersey had only 145 blacks among its 1322 police officers. Police forces in Northern cities were largely composed of white ethnics, descendants of 19th-century immigrants: mainly Irish, Italian, and Eastern European officers. They had established their own power bases in the police departments and in territories in cities. Some would routinely harass blacks with or without provocation.
Harlem riot of 1964
When police shot an unarmed black teenager in Harlem in July 1964, tensions escalated out of control. Residents were frustrated with racial inequalities. Rioting broke out, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, a major black neighborhood in Brooklyn erupted next. That summer, rioting also broke out in Philadelphia, for similar reasons. The riots were on a much smaller scale than what would occur in 1965 and later.
Washington responded with a pilot program called Project Uplift. Thousands of young people in Harlem were given jobs during the summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto. HARYOU was given a major role in organizing the project, together with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community organizations. Permanent jobs at living wages were still out of reach of many young black men.
Watts riot (1965)
The new Voting Rights Act of 1965 had no immediate effect on living conditions for poor blacks. A few days after the act became law, a riot broke out in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Like Harlem, Watts was an impoverished neighborhood with very high unemployment. Its residents confronted a largely white police department that had a history of abuse against blacks.
While arresting a young man for drunk driving, police officers argued with the suspect's mother before onlookers. The spark triggered a massive destruction of property through six days of rioting. Thirty-four people were killed and property valued at about $30 million was destroyed, making the Watts Riots among the most expensive in American history.
With black militancy on the rise, ghetto residents directed acts of anger at the police. Black residents growing tired of police brutality continued to riot. Some young people joined groups such as the Black Panthers, whose popularity was based in part on their reputation for confronting police officers. Riots among blacks occurred in 1966 and 1967 in cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, Seattle, Tacoma, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Newark, Chicago, New York City (specifically in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx), and worst of all in Detroit.
Detroit riot of 1967
In Detroit, a large black middle class had begun to develop among those African-Americans who worked at unionized jobs in the automotive industry; these workers still complained of racist practices, concerns which the United Auto Workers channeled into bureaucratic and ineffective grievance procedures. White mobs enforced the segregation of housing up through the 1960s; upon learning that if a new homebuyer was black, whites would congregate outside the home picketing, often breaking windows, committing arson, and attacking their new neighbors. Blacks who were not upwardly mobile were living in substandard conditions, subject to the same problems as African-Americans in Watts and Harlem.
When white police officers shut down an illegal bar and arrested a large group of patrons during the hot summer, furious residents rioted. Blacks looted and destroyed property for five days, and National Guardsmen and federal troops patrolled in tanks through the streets. Residents reported that police officers shot at black people before even determining if the suspects were armed or dangerous. After five days, 43 people had been killed, hundreds injured, and thousands left homeless. $40 to $45 million worth of damage was caused.
State and local governments responded to the riot with a dramatic increase in minority hiring. Mayor Cavanaugh in May 1968 appointed a Special Task Force on Police Recruitment and Hiring, and by July 1972, blacks made up 14 percent of the Detroit police, more than double their percentage in 1967. The Michigan government used its reviews of contracts issued by the state to secure a 21 percent increase in nonwhite employment. In the aftermath of the turmoil, the Greater Detroit Board of Commerce launched a campaign to find jobs for ten thousand "previously unemployable" persons, a preponderant number of whom were black.
Prior to the disorder, Detroit enacted no ordinances to end housing segregation, and few had been enacted in the state of Michigan at all. Governor George Romney immediately responded to the riot of 1967 with a special session of the Michigan legislature where he forwarded sweeping housing proposals that included not only fair housing, but "important relocation, tenants' rights and code enforcement legislation." Romney had supported such proposals in 1965, but abandoned them in the face of organized opposition. White conservative resistance was powerful in 1967 as well, but this time Romney did not relent and once again proposed the housing laws at the regular 1968 session of the legislature.
The governor publicly warned that if the housing measures were not passed, "it will accelerate the recruitment of revolutionary insurrectionists." The laws passed both houses of the legislature. Historian Sidney Fine writes that: "The Michigan Fair Housing Act, which took effect on November 15, 1968, was stronger than the federal fair housing law…and than just about all the existing state fair housing acts. It is probably more than a coincidence that the state that had experienced the most severe racial disorder of the 1960s also adopted one of the strongest state fair housing acts."
Detroit's decline had begun in the 1950s, during which the city lost almost a tenth of its population. It has been argued – including by Mayor Coleman Young – that the riot was the primary accelerator of "white flight", an ethnic succession by which white residents moved out of inner-city neighborhoods into the suburbs. In contrast, urban affairs experts largely blame a Supreme Court decision against NAACP lawsuits on school desegregation – 1974's Milliken v. Bradley case – which maintained the suburban schools as a lily-white refuge. In his dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that the Milliken decision perpetuated "restrictive covenants" that "maintained...black ghettos." (Detroit lost 12.8% of its white population in the 1950s, 15.2% of its white population in the 1960s, and 21.2% of its white population in the 1970s.)
Nationwide riots of 1967
In addition to Detroit, over 100 US cities experienced riots in 1967, including Newark, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Washington D.C. President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967. The commission's final report called for major reforms in employment and public assistance for black communities. It warned that the United States was moving toward separate white and black societies.
King riots (1968)
In April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, rioting broke out in cities across the country from frustration and despair. These included Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City and Louisville, Kentucky. As in previous riots, most of the damage was done in black neighborhoods. In some cities, it has taken more than a quarter of a century for these areas to recover from the damage of the riots; in others, little recovery has been achieved.
Programs in affirmative action resulted in the hiring of more black police officers in every major city. Today blacks make up a proportional majority of the police departments in cities such as Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, and Detroit. Civil rights laws have reduced employment discrimination.
The conditions that led to frequent rioting in the late 1960s have receded, but not all the problems have been solved. With industrial and economic restructuring, hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs disappeared since the later 1950s from the old industrial cities. Some moved South, as has much population following new jobs, and others out of the U.S. altogether. Civil unrest broke out in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, and in Cincinnati in 2001.
Black power, 1966
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During the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, numerous tensions within the Civil Rights Movement came to the forefront. Many blacks in SNCC developed concerns that white activists from the North were taking over the movement. The massive presence of white students was also not reducing the amount of violence that SNCC suffered, but seemed to be increasing it. Additionally, there was profound disillusionment at Lyndon Johnson's denial of voting status for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Meanwhile, during CORE's work in Louisiana that summer, that group found the federal government would not respond to requests to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or to protect the lives of activists who challenged segregation. For the Louisiana campaign to survive it had to rely on a local African-American militia called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who used arms to repel white supremacist violence and police repression. CORE's collaboration with the Deacons was effective against breaking Jim Crow in numerous Louisiana areas.
In 1965, SNCC helped organize an independent political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), in the heart of Alabama Klan territory, and permitted its black leaders to openly promote the use of armed self-defense. Meanwhile, the Deacons for Defense and Justice expanded into Mississippi and assisted Charles Evers' NAACP chapter with a successful campaign in Natchez. The same year, the Watts Rebellion took place in Los Angeles, and seemed to show that most black youth were now committed to the use of violence to protest inequality and oppression.
During the March Against Fear in 1966, SNCC and CORE fully embraced the slogan of "black power" to describe these trends towards militancy and self-reliance. In Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael declared, "I'm not going to beg the white man for anything that I deserve, I'm going to take it. We need power."
Several people engaging in the Black Power movement started to gain more of a sense in black pride and identity as well. In gaining more of a sense of a cultural identity, several blacks demanded that whites no longer refer to them as "Negroes" but as "Afro-Americans." Up until the mid-1960s, blacks had dressed similarly to whites and straightened their hair. As a part of gaining a unique identity, blacks started to wear loosely fit dashikis and had started to grow their hair out as a natural afro. The afro, sometimes nicknamed the "'fro," remained a popular black hairstyle until the late 1970s.
Black Power was made most public, however, by the Black Panther Party, which was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed the ideology of Malcolm X, a former member of the Nation of Islam, using a "by-any-means necessary" approach to stopping inequality. They sought to rid African American neighborhoods of police brutality and created a ten-point plan amongst other things.
Their dress code consisted of black leather jackets, berets, slacks, and light blue shirts. They wore an afro hairstyle. They are best remembered for setting up free breakfast programs, referring to police officers as "pigs", displaying shotguns and a raised fist, and often using the statement of "Power to the people".
Black Power was taken to another level inside prison walls. In 1966, George Jackson formed the Black Guerrilla Family in the California San Quentin State Prison. The goal of this group was to overthrow the white-run government in America and the prison system. In 1970, this group displayed their dedication after a white prison guard was found not guilty of shooting and killing three black prisoners from the prison tower. They retaliated by killing a white prison guard.
"Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud"
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Numerous popular cultural expressions associated with black power appeared at this time. Released in August 1968, the number one Rhythm & Blues single for the Billboard Year-End list was James Brown's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud". In October 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while being awarded the gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Summer Olympics, donned human rights badges and each raised a black-gloved Black Power salute during their podium ceremony.
King was not comfortable with the "Black Power" slogan, which sounded too much like black nationalism to him. When King was murdered in 1968, Stokely Carmichael stated that whites murdered the one person who would prevent rampant rioting and that blacks would burn every major city to the ground.
Gates v. Collier
Conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, then known as Parchman Farm, became part of the public discussion of civil rights after activists were imprisoned there. In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders came to the South to test the desegregation of public facilities. By the end of June 1963, Freedom Riders had been convicted in Jackson, Mississippi. Many were jailed in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Mississippi employed the trusty system, a hierarchical order of inmates that used some inmates to control and enforce punishment of other inmates.
In 1970 the civil rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from inmates. He collected 50 pages of details of murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses suffered by the inmates from 1969 to 1971 at Mississippi State Penitentiary. In a landmark case known as Gates v. Collier (1972), four inmates represented by Haber sued the superintendent of Parchman Farm for violating their rights under the United States Constitution.
Federal Judge William C. Keady found in favor of the inmates, writing that Parchman Farm violated the civil rights of the inmates by inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. He ordered an immediate end to all unconstitutional conditions and practices. Racial segregation of inmates was abolished, as was the trusty system, which allowed certain inmates to have power and control over others.
The prison was renovated in 1972 after the scathing ruling by Judge Keady, who wrote that the prison was an affront to "modern standards of decency." Among other reforms, the accommodations were made fit for human habitation. The system of trusties was abolished. (The prison had armed lifers with rifles and given them authority to oversee and guard other inmates, which led to many abuses and murders.)
In integrated correctional facilities in northern and western states, blacks represented a disproportionate number of the prisoners, in excess of their proportion of the general population. They were often treated as second-class citizens by white correctional officers. Blacks also represented a disproportionately high number of death row inmates. Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice was written from his experiences in the California correctional system; it contributed to black militancy.
There was an international context for the actions of the U.S. Federal government during these years. It had stature to maintain in Europe and a need to appeal to the people in the Third World. In Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, the historian Mary L. Dudziak wrote that Communists critical of the United States accused the nation for its hypocrisy in portraying itself as the "leader of the free world," when so many of its citizens were subjected to severe racial discrimination and violence; she argued that this was a major factor in moving the government to support civil rights legislation.
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Historiography and memory
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- Dann, Jim. Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers, Memories of Mississippi 1964–65. Baraka Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-926824-87-1.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to History of civil rights in the United States.|
- Civil Rights Greensboro provides access to archival resources documenting the modern civil rights era in Greensboro, North Carolina, from the 1940s to the early 1980s
- St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Trail marking its sites.
- Civil Rights Resource Guide, from the Library of Congress
- The Civil Rights Era Library of Congress
- Civil Rights Digital Library Digital Library of Georgia
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans ~ Movement history, personal stories, documents, and photos.
- Civil Rights Movement 1955–1965
- Civil Rights as a People's Movement American University Course Syllabus
- Let Justice Roll Down: The Civil Rights Movement Through Film Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
- University of Southern Mississippi's Civil Rights Documentation Project, includes an extensive Timeline
- President Kennedy's Address to the nation on Civil Rights
- What Was Jim Crow? (The racial caste system that precipitated the Civil Rights Movement)
- History and images of the sit-in movement
- WDAS Radio's Enduring Impact on the Civil Rights Movement
- The Georgia Movement
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- The Albany Movement (entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia)
- Materials relating to the desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962
- Images of the Civil Rights Movement in Florida from the State Archives of Florida