The Civil Rights Movement
Davarian L. Baldwin – Trinity College
At the midpoint of the twentieth century, African Americans once again answered the call to transform the world. The social and economic ravages of Jim Crow era racism were all-encompassing and deep-rooted. Yet like a phoenix rising from the ashes of lynch mobs, debt peonage, residential and labor discrimination, and rape, the black freedom movement raised a collective call of "No More"!
The maintenance of white power had been pervasive and even innovative, and hence those fighting to get out from under its veil had to be equally unrelenting and improvisational in strategies and tactics. What is normally understood as the Civil Rights movement was in fact a grand struggle for freedom extending far beyond the valiant aims of legal rights and protection. From direct-action protests and boycotts to armed self-defense, from court cases to popular culture, freedom was in the air in ways that challenged white authority and even contested established black ways of doing things in moments of crisis.
Dixie and Beyond
By the middle of the twentieth century, black people had long endured a physical and social landscape of white supremacy, embedded in policy, social codes, and both intimate and spectacular forms of racial restriction and violence. The social and political order of Jim Crow—the segregation of public facilities—meant schools, modes of transportation, rest rooms, and even gravesites were separate and unequal.
Yet the catch-all phrase "Jim Crow" hardly accounts for the extralegal dictates of black professionals working cotton fields, landholders thrown off their property, black women fending off sexual assault and rape, and the constant threats of public humiliation and the lynch rope. All of these day-to-day constraints were justified by myths about inferior black character and intelligence, reproduced in films, books, radio programs, and magazine ads. Jim Crow violence and racial restriction are often thought be specific to Dixie. However Jim Crow cut across the boundaries of North and South. Between 1940 and 1960 the Great Migration brought over six million African Americans to industrial centers in the urban North and West, where migrants were met with new forms of racial containment. They were often restricted to domestic and retail service work. Those who found industrial employment were kept out of labor unions.
Further, African Americans did not have the freedom to choose where and how to live due to the effects of state-sponsored restrictive covenants—legally binding contracts making it illegal to rent, sell, or lease housing to black people (in some regions it included other "nonwhites"). These restrictions were placed on both private real-estate sales and public housing provisions. Ultimately, the absence of a "free" housing market found black residents earning the lowest wages and paying the highest prices for the worst housing stock.
The crystallization of black ghettos left residents to the politics of gerrymandering. Voting districts cut through black neighborhoods to undermine the possibility of political power. At the same time, neighborhood school districts were redrawn in unorthodox ways so that white students could have the best facilities and keep them all white.
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The "Double V"
World War II helped to lift the nation out the Great Depression. Yet African Americans found themselves on the margins of wartime prosperity. Federal defense spending did not desegregate jobs, public housing, or the armed forces. The United States entered the wartime world as the self-professed face of democracy, but African Americans began to make links between Nazi racism, European imperialism, and American white supremacy.
Veteran activist and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) A. Philip Randolph threatened to lead a 100,000-person March on Washington Movement (MOWM) in November 1941 if wartime production was not desegregated. President Roosevelt responded by signing Executive Order 8802 that summer. This mandate for fair employment did not desegregate the defense industries but did create a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Randolph called off the march, but black activists pressed on.
Two months after the United States entered the war, the African-American Pittsburgh Courier newspaper announced a "Double V" campaign for victory against fascism abroad and racism at home. The emerging black working class grew frustrated with its marginal position in a time of prosperity. Black leaders made considerable strides by employing a largely legal approach. The NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, whose members included Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, waged battles against all-white voting primaries (Smith v. Allwright) and segregated transportation (Morgan v. Virginia), housing (Shelley v. Kraemer), and education (Brown v. Board of Education). Yet legal protection was gradual and did not address growing economic concerns.
Across the country black organizations, including the National Negro Congress, the MOWM, and the BCSP joined forces with labor unions and politicians. They fought racism within the labor movement, brought economic concerns to the statehouse, and demanded equal access to New Deal social welfare benefits. At the same time, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin helped form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. CORE used a decentralized and nonviolent, direct-action approach to politics, enacting Freedom Rides in the South to challenge segregated interstate transportation and sit-ins to protest northern discrimination.
President Roosevelt had proclaimed the Four Freedoms (want, fear, worship, and speech) yet black activists made clear that ghettos were in Berlin and also in Boston. Between 1942 and 1945 industrial centers, military camps, and port cities, including Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, exploded with race riots. Ongoing white civilian, military, and police attempts to constrain black life erupted in violent riots in more than forty cities.
American citizenship provided little security. In 1947 W. E. B. Du Bois placed the grievances of African Americans before the newly formed United Nations in his famous "Appeal to the World" address. The United States held itself up as a beacon in a sea of totalitarianism, and black people seized the opportunity to realign democracy with anti-racism instead of white supremacy.
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Cold War Civil Rights
The African-American experience remained a central component of the geopolitical struggle during the Cold War. The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) continually challenged America's self-proclaimed "Leader of the Free World" status by highlighting anti-black racism in the United States. In response, the United States both publicly endorsed gradual integration and fostered a stifling climate of anti-communism.
Following Du Bois, singer and activist Paul Robeson signed a U.S.S.R. petition to the United Nations, "We Charge Genocide," documenting a series of human rights abuses against African Americans. Communist activist Claudia Jones organized in Harlem for jobs, housing, and humane immigration policies. Both Robeson's and Du Bois's passports were revoked until 1958 while the Trinidadian Jones was deported to Britain. In the Cold War context, black struggles for freedom were largely denounced as un-American.
The segregation of black children in inferior schools, however, brought special criticism. Worldwide charges of American hypocrisy certainly played some part in the Brown decision. But the climate of anti-communism largely constrained most political battles to the legal arena while displacing the larger calls for freedom that included jobs, housing, land, and wealth. At the same time, courtroom success was quickly followed by waves of "massive resistance" by whites. Less than a year after the Brown decision, fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till was found murdered in Mississippi's Tallahatchie River. He had been shot and his body mutilated because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Yet his death was simply the most spectacular manifestation of white terror and racial containment.
White citizens councils organized in Mississippi, using tax dollars from both blacks and whites to support their intimidation and harassment strategies. Southern states shifted the populations of public housing from all-white to all-black and in segregated neighborhoods to stem the tide of Brown. At the same time, federally subsidized suburban developments were built with racial restrictive covenants written into their foundation, helping cement the stark contrast between impoverished "Chocolate Cities" and prosperous "Vanilla Suburbs."
During the Cold War the federal government funded both white prosperity and black containment. Yet African Americans kept on pushing with organized political strategies and social protest movements.
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"Nobody Turn Me Around"
At least since Plessy v Ferguson (1896), public transportation was a vital site of struggle over racial justice. Black paying customers were relegated to the back of city buses, and black women in particular endured assault, humiliation, and even gunplay at the hands of white bus drivers and customers. But blacks found ways to respond to the shoving and pushing of white passengers: they boldly sat next to white women, refused to pay fares, and rang the bell for every stop with no one getting off. These subversive acts provided the infrastructure for more formal kinds of political action. As early as 1953, black church and social organizations had organized a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Students at the all-black Alabama State University briefly organized a boycott in the spring of 1954. Then in December 1955, the Women's Political Council in Montgomery, Alabama, seized on the arrest of Rosa Parks to ignite a full-blown, citywide boycott of the buses. This was not even Parks's first violation of racial seating laws. Her calculated act was part of a burgeoning black social protest movement. She was the wife of gun-toting NAACP activist Ray Parks and had been trained in nonviolent direct action. Together they had long fought racial injustices in Alabama.
A one-day boycott of buses turned into a protest that lasted more than one year. The Women's Political Council urged everyone to attend a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to hear the words of a very young and politically ambivalent Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Leaders, including peace activist Bayard Rustin, E. D. Nixon of the BSCP, clergy members, and radical organizer Ella Baker offered key strategies, but the protest's full effect was achieved through the feet and resiliency of riders and fellow travelers, who organized carpools and walked miles to work. Even with threats of job loss and violence, the largely poor black masses effectively crippled a bus system that received 65 percent of its revenue from black riders.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 helped push toward the desegregation of buses all over the South while thrusting King into the rough-and-tumble world of political organizing. Nonviolent direct action had won the day and became the dominant mode of resistance for the movement. Moreover, the boycott took place the same year as the Bandung Conference of newly liberated African and Asian nations, situating Montgomery within a worldwide moment of freedom struggles.
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"Flow Like a Mighty River"
In 1957 King was urged to create the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) to help coordinate local efforts among church, student, and community organizations and train them in the strategies of nonviolent protest. While the SCLC worked with all groups, its strategy highlighted a changing tide. The NAACP resented the attention and resources taken away from what it deemed more effective court cases to defend and support protesters.
While Brown had desegregated the schools on the law books, it would take more to make integrated schools a lived reality. In 1957 Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used National Guard troops outside Little Rock's Central High School to prevent nine black youth from entering the building. President Eisenhower uttered not a word. The advent of television helped transport images of racial violence against black children into living rooms around the globe, visually demonstrating the racial terms of American democracy. After Faubus removed the troops and left the children vulnerable to the whims of an angry and violent adult white mob, Eisenhower placed the National Guard under the authority of federal troops ordered to protect black students.
Black protest seemed to stoke the fires of white bloodlust and callousness directed against adults and children alike. Black residents were sentenced to prison and murdered, and homes were firebombed all across the South if the owners dared assert their constitutional rights. Racial violence escalated, and the NAACP was not the only organization that grew frustrated with nonviolent direct-action politics.
Robert F. Williams was president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP. But his frustration with nonviolent protest stemmed not from a preference for courtroom battles. He advocated armed self-defense, responding to white violence with bullets and barricades. Williams looked out over America's social landscape and saw little recourse in nonviolent protest or legal statutes. As a case in point, the federal government passed the first Civil Rights Act in 1957, but it was hardly enforced. Williams was part of a growing body of activists from within traditional organizations who were critical of both nonviolence and top-down leadership approaches from the start. Their presence reveals that the meaning of civil rights activism was not set in stone but constantly contested and reconstructed.
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Sit In to Stand Up
In 1959 and 1960 black students in Nashville, Tennessee, and Greensboro, North Carolina, valiantly defied Jim Crow by "sitting in" at all-white lunch counters. Students were influenced by images of Montgomery and Little Rock, going on to inspire sit-ins at restaurants, churches, libraries, and waiting rooms across the South. Many were yelled at, kicked, burned with cigarettes, and yet they stood firm.
The early 1960s saw civil rights veterans and union organizers joining students to both train people in the discipline of nonviolence and reproduce sit-ins across the country. Under the inspiration of Ella Baker, the SCLC sponsored the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1961 members of SNCC and CORE joined forces to reignite Freedom Rides in the South as a way to test the 1955 Browder decision that officially outlawed segregated interstate transportation. Students faced an overwhelming flourish of violent attacks by whites. Activists were beaten, riders were caught in burning buses, and it was all broadcast across the world. Freedom Riders had achieved success, but white resistance was resilient.
James Meredith defiantly enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962, provoking a vital power struggle between states rights and federal power. Governor Ross Barnett flaunted the dictates of federal law until President Kennedy was pushed to mount a federal military occupation of 31,000 troops to enforce the law. The movement pushed forward and began to focus on the important terrain of voter registration in 1961 and 1962. Harvard graduate student Robert Moses, local volunteer Henry Lee, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, local activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and Medgar Evers, who pushed to enroll Meredith at the university and investigated the death of Till, played significant roles in voter registration. For their efforts both Lee and Evers were murdered and Hammer and her husband were beaten and lost their jobs, but a voting campaign had been established.
In 1963 SCLC turned its attention to the notorious stronghold of white power, Birmingham, Alabama, to inaugurate the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The city was known as "Bombingham" because more than fifty bombings afflicted the black community between World War II and 1965. When SCLC members organized a series of mass protests, marchers were attacked and jailed and many local ministers called for an end to the demonstrations. While in jail, King penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," to respond to his critics. In a controversial decision, arrested adults were replaced on the streets with young children. Images of small children attacked by dogs and police clubs and knocked off their feet by fire hoses shocked the world.
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"Oh, Freedom over me!"
The day after W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana, 250,000 people descended on the nation's capital, where King's "I Have a Dream" speech took on mythic proportions. Not a month later, white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, leaving four little girls dead. Central Intelligence Agency director J. Edgar Hoover identified the attackers but disliked the Civil Rights movement, so he did nothing.
Robert Moses and Amzie Moore offered their own response in 1964 by inviting northern white students to Mississippi for a "Freedom Summer" to register black workers and set up "Freedom Schools." Black Mississippian James Chaney and white northerners Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered. Unlike the countless murders of local black people, these killings received international attention.
The real triumph of that summer was the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Eighty-three delegates were elected, but they were denied access to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Fannie Lou Hamer told cameras that they were the true democratically elected representatives of the state, not those sponsored by all-white state elections. The convention seated the white elected delegates, while the MFDP rejected the offer of two at-large seats.
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, fought hard to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the most far-reaching and comprehensive civil rights legislation Congress had ever passed. It banned discrimination in public accommodations and the workplace but did not address police brutality or racist voting tests. To fight against black voter discrimination, the SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The six hundred protestors reached the Pettus Bridge but were pushed back by police violence and tear gas. The attack was dubbed Bloody Sunday. President Johnson was ultimately forced into action, calling on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yet race riots in Harlem (1964) and Watts (1965) reminded people of the sage insights of World War II activists: it was one thing to sit at the counter but another to be able to afford a meal. Racism had excluded black people from the accumulation of wealth and resources, a historical reality that could not be addressed by legal protection in the present. In fact, the federal government did turn its attention to the economic question with a limited "war on poverty." What became the Economic Opportunity Act of 1965 included Head Start, work-study funding for college students, an end to the largely whites-only access to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and Community Action Programs (CAPs) that, in theory, transferred the power of policymaking from experts to the poor themselves. These programs were radical in their reach but radically underfunded and undermined by black and white resistance from the start.
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Black Power South
The link between race and class, however, could not be severed, especially during a Vietnam War that sent largely poor people of color to its bloody front lines. Even Martin Luther King began to see the links between unfettered funding for the war machine and the sea of poverty washing over America's domestic landscape. These insights set the stage for King's infamous "Time to Break Silence" speech of 1967 and his bridging of the gap between civil rights and economic justice.
At the same time, SNCC supported black draft evaders and grew critical of the rights-based approach to black freedom that seemed to be the terms on which white support was offered. In 1966 James Meredith was shot during his one-man March Against Fear, and SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael joined others in Mississippi to complete the march. It was in Mississippi where Carmichael, frustrated with the continued violence and the limits of legal protection, popularized the slogan "Black Power." He explained its meaning by referring to SNCC's organizing experiences in Lowndes County, Alabama, where voter fraud and intimidation guaranteed the total exclusion of black people from the franchise and where, by 1965, more whites were registered to vote than the 1,900 who were eligible. Local blacks began a voter drive that caught the attention of SNCC and together they formed a third party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO).
The LCFO was dubbed the Black Panther Party because its state-required ballot symbol was a black panther, a direct retort to the white rooster of the state's Democratic Party and its logo of "white supremacy." From the start, the LCFO went beyond voting and advocated political education, deemphasized the focus on political expertise over lived experience, and fought for the redistribution of wealth through major tax reform, all in the face of constant violence.
The battle waged in "Bloody Lowndes" was lost, but the efforts of a grassroots southern movement for Black Power speaks to the full range of experiences that encompassed the fight for freedom. The movement fought southern Jim Crow and northern ghetto formation. Led by charismatic individuals and grassroots collectivities, its members turned to nonviolent action and armed self-defense, waging battle in courtrooms and on the streets. Understood in their full depth and scope, visions of the black freedom movement have yet to be fully realized.
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Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye, and V. P. Franklin, eds. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Dudziak, Mary. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Gilmore, Glenda. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
Payne, Charles. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Singh, Nikhil. Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Theoharis, Jean, and Komozi Woodward, eds. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940–1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Tyson, Timothy. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865), Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners, and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the Democratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, and these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during Reconstruction. To that end, they began to pass local and state laws that specified certain places “For Whites Only” and others for “Colored.” Blacks had separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crow signs went up to separate the races in every possible place.
The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who were very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these hurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates because they were open only to whites in most Southern states.
Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating all aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination in public accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. The ability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crow signs, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southern society. Segregation was an all encompassing system.
Conditions for blacks in Northern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent of blacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very few blacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, but there were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregated facilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually denied entrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usually integrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the most difficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination against blacks. They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants for job opportunities and almost always lost.
Early Black Resistance to Segregation
Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blacks sued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states’ disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal, but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for the next 50 years.
To protest segregation, blacks created new national organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara Movement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to help blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life.
The NAACP became one of the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied mainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks. An early leader of the NAACP was the historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 made powerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. NAACP lawyers won court victories over voter disfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to have lynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregation although they did little to change everyday life. In 1935 Charles H. Houston, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, won the first Supreme Court case argued by exclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. This win invigorated the NAACP’s legal efforts against segregation, mainly by convincing courts that segregated facilities, especially schools, were not equal. In 1939 the NAACP created a separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that had a nonprofit, tax-exempt status that was denied to the NAACP because it lobbied the U.S. Congress. Houston’s chief aide and later his successor, Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant young lawyer who would become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, began to challenge segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
World War I
When World War I (1914-1918) began, blacks enlisted to fight for their country. However, black soldiers were segregated, denied the opportunity to be leaders, and were subjected to racism within the armed forces. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks migrated northward in 1916 and 1917 to take advantage of job openings in Northern cities created by the war. This great migration of Southern blacks continued into the 1950s. Along with the great migration, blacks in both the North and South became increasingly urbanized during the 20th century. In 1890, about 85 percent of all Southern blacks lived in rural areas; by 1960 that percentage had decreased to about 42 percent. In the North, about 95 percent of all blacks lived in urban areas in 1960. The combination of the great migration and the urbanization of blacks resulted in black communities in the North that had a strong political presence. The black communities began to exert pressure on politicians, voting for those who supported civil rights. These Northern black communities, and the politicians that they elected, helped Southern blacks struggling against segregation by using political influence and money.
The Great Depression of the 1930s increased black protests against discrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal of white-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons. Using the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” these campaigns persuaded blacks to boycott those businesses and revealed a new militancy. During the same years, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protest discriminatory treatment of black children.
The black protest activities of the 1930s were encouraged by the expanding role of government in the economy and society. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the federal government created federal programs, such as Social Security, to assure the welfare of individual citizens. Roosevelt himself was not an outspoken supporter of black rights, but his wife Eleanor became an open advocate for fairness to blacks, as did other leaders in the administration. The Roosevelt Administration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciary away from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporations and toward the protection of individual rights, especially those of the poor and minority groups. Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights. As early as 1938, the courts displayed a new attitude toward black rights; that year the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide access to a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites-a new emphasis on the equal part of the Plessy doctrine. Blacks sensed that the national government might again be their ally, as it had been during the Civil War.
World War II
When World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded better treatment than they had experienced in World War I. Black newspaper editors insisted during 1939 and 1940 that black support for this war effort would depend on fair treatment. They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military roles and that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries at home.
In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union whose members were mainly black railroad workers, planned a March on Washington to demand that the federal government require defense contractors to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites. To forestall the march, President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it. The FEPC did not prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson to blacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitments to civil rights.
During World War II, blacks composed about one-eighth of the U.S. armed forces, which matched their presence in the general population. Although a disproportionately high number of blacks were put in noncombat, support positions in the military, many did fight. The Army Air Corps trained blacks as pilots in a controversial segregated arrangement in Tuskegee, Alabama. During the war, all the armed services moved toward equal treatment of blacks, though none flatly rejected segregation.
In the early war years, hundreds of thousands of blacks left Southern farms for war jobs in Northern and Western cities. In fact more blacks migrated to the North and the West during World War II than had left during the previous war. Although there was racial tension and conflict in their new homes, blacks were free of the worst racial oppression, and they enjoyed much larger incomes. After the war blacks in the North and West used their economic and political influence to support civil rights for Southern blacks.
Blacks continued to work against discrimination during the war, challenging voting registrars in Southern courthouses and suing school boards for equal educational provisions. The membership of the NAACP grew from 50,000 to about 500,000. In 1944 the NAACP won a major victory in Smith v. Allwright, which outlawed the white primary. A new organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation in public accommodations in the North.
During the war, black newspapers campaigned for a Double V, victories over both fascism in Europe and racism at home. The war experience gave about one million blacks the opportunity to fight racism in Europe and Asia, a fact that black veterans would remember during the struggle against racism at home after the war. Perhaps just as important, almost ten times that many white Americans witnessed the patriotic service of black Americans. Many of them would object to the continued denial of civil rights to the men and women beside whom they had fought.
After World War II the momentum for racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination to have full civil rights. President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policy favoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.S. Congress rejected his proposals.
In the postwar years, the NAACP’s legal strategy for civil rights continued to succeed. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged and overturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equal educational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the Supreme Court decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school. Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge the Plessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary- and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was unconstitutional.
White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shock and, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white opposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders. It was believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order, it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed willingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather than desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. The White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation all over the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks who favored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation of private, all-white schools.
Virtually no schools in the South were desegregated in the first years after the Brown decision. In Virginia one county did indeed close its public schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to Central High School, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce desegregation. The event was covered by the national media, and the fate of the Little Rock Nine, the students attempting to integrate the school, dramatized the seriousness of the school desegregation issue to many Americans. Although not all school desegregation was as dramatic as in Little Rock, the desegregation process did proceed-gradually. Frequently schools were desegregated only in theory, because racially segregated neighborhoods led to segregated schools. To overcome this problem, some school districts in the 1970s tried busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods.
As desegregation progressed, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew. The KKK used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and murder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klan activities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that did receive national attention was the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with a white woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accused of Till’s murder were covered in the national media, demonstrating the continuing racial bigotry of Southern whites.
Montgomery Bus Boycott: Despite the threats and violence, the struggle quickly moved beyond school desegregation to challenge segregation in other areas. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, was told to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. When Parks refused to move, she was arrested. The local NAACP, led by Edgar D. Nixon, recognized that the arrest of Parks might rally local blacks to protest segregated buses. Montgomery’s black community had long been angry about their mistreatment on city buses where white drivers were often rude and abusive. The community had previously considered a boycott of the buses, and almost overnight one was organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was an immediate success, with virtually unanimous support from the 50,000 blacks in Montgomery. It lasted for more than a year and dramatized to the American public the determination of blacks in the South to end segregation. A federal court ordered Montgomery’s buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph.
A young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protest made King a national figure. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood and American idealism created a positive impression on people both inside and outside the South. King became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when it was founded in 1957. SCLC wanted to complement the NAACP legal strategy by encouraging the use of nonviolent, direct action to protest segregation. These activities included marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The violent white response to black direct action eventually forced the federal government to confront the issues of injustice and racism in the South.
In addition to his large following among blacks, King had a powerful appeal to liberal Northerners that helped him influence national public opinion. His advocacy of nonviolence attracted supporters among peace activists. He forged alliances in the American Jewish community and developed strong ties to the ministers of wealthy, influential Protestant congregations in Northern cities. King often preached to those congregations, where he raised funds for SCLC.
On February 1, 1960, four black college students at North Carolina A&T University began protesting racial segregation in restaurants by sitting at “white-only” lunch counters and waiting to be served. This was not a new form of protest, but the response to the sit-ins in North Carolina was unique. Within days sit-ins had spread throughout North Carolina, and within weeks they were taking place in cities across the South. Many restaurants were desegregated. The sit-in movement also demonstrated clearly to blacks and whites alike that young blacks were determined to reject segregation openly.
In April 1960 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, to help organize and direct the student sit-in movement. King encouraged SNCC’s creation, but the most important early advisor to the students was Ella Baker, who had worked for both the NAACP and SCLC. She believed that SNCC should not be part of SCLC but a separate, independent organization run by the students. She also believed that civil rights activities should be based in individual black communities. SNCC adopted Baker’s approach and focused on making changes in local communities, rather than striving for national change. This goal differed from that of SCLC which worked to change national laws. During the civil rights movement, tensions occasionally arose between SCLC and SNCC because of their different methods.
After the sit-ins, some SNCC members participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The Freedom Riders, both black and white, traveled around the South in buses to test the effectiveness of a 1960 Supreme Court decision. This decision had declared that segregation was illegal in bus stations that were open to interstate travel. The Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C. Except for some violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the trip southward was peaceful until they reached Alabama, where violence erupted. At Anniston one bus was burned and some riders were beaten. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the riders when they got off the bus. They suffered even more severe beatings by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama.
The violence brought national attention to the Freedom Riders and fierce condemnation of Alabama officials for allowing the violence. The administration of President John Kennedy interceded to protect the Freedom Riders when it became clear that Alabama state officials would not guarantee safe travel. The riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary, ending the protest. The Freedom Rides did result in the desegregation of some bus stations, but more importantly, they demonstrated to the American public how far civil rights workers would go to achieve their goals.
SCLC’s greatest contribution to the civil rights movement was a series of highly publicized protest campaigns in Southern cities during the early 1960s. These protests were intended to create such public disorder that local white officials and business leaders would end segregation in order to restore normal business activity. The demonstrations required the mobilization of hundreds, even thousands, of protesters who were willing to participate in protest marches as long as necessary to achieve their goal and who were also willing to be arrested and sent to jail.
The first SCLC direct-action campaign began in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, where the organization joined local demonstrations against segregated public accommodations. The presence of SCLC and King escalated the Albany protests by bringing national attention and additional people to the demonstrations, but the demonstrations did not force negotiations to end segregation. During months of protest, Albany’s police chief continued to jail demonstrators without a show of police violence. The Albany protests ended in failure.
In the spring of 1963, however, the direct-action strategy worked in Birmingham, Alabama. SCLC joined the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local civil rights leader, who believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would meet protesters with violence. In May the SCLC staff stepped up antisegregation marches by persuading teenagers and school children to join. The singing and chanting adolescents who filled the streets of Birmingham caused Connor to abandon restraint. He ordered police to attack demonstrators with dogs and firefighters to turn high-pressure water hoses on them. The ensuing scenes of violence were shown throughout the nation and the world in newspapers, magazines, and most importantly, on television. Much of the world was shocked by the events in Birmingham, and the reaction to the violence increased support for black civil rights. In Birmingham white leaders promised to negotiate an end to some segregation practices. Business leaders agreed to hire and promote more black employees and to desegregate some public accommodations. More important, however, the Birmingham demonstrations built support for national legislation against segregation.
Desegregating Southern Universities
In 1962 a black man from Mississippi, James Meredith, applied for admission to University of Mississippi. His action was an example of how the struggle for civil rights belonged to individuals acting alone as well as to organizations. The university attempted to block Meredith’s admission, and he filed suit. After working through the state courts, Meredith was successful when a federal court ordered the university to desegregate and accept Meredith as a student. The governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, defied the court order and tried to prevent Meredith from enrolling. In response, the administration of President Kennedy intervened to uphold the court order. Kennedy sent federal marshals with Meredith when he attempted to enroll. During his first night on campus, a riot broke out when whites began to harass the federal marshals. In the end, 2 people were killed, and about 375 people were wounded.
When the governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, threatened a similar stand, trying to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963, the Kennedy Administration responded with the full power of the federal government, including the U.S. Army, to prevent violence and enforce desegregation. The showdowns with Barnett and Wallace pushed Kennedy, whose support for civil rights up to that time had been tentative, into a full commitment to end segregation.
The March on Washington
The national civil rights leadership decided to keep pressure on both the Kennedy administration and the Congress to pass civil rights legislation by planning a March on Washington for August 1963. It was a conscious revival of A. Philip Randolph’s planned 1941 march, which had yielded a commitment to fair employment during World War II. Randolph was there in 1963, along with the leaders of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, the Urban League, and SNCC. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the keynote address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the giant sculpture of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, became famous for how it expressed the ideals of the civil rights movement.
Partly as a result of the March on Washington, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law. After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, strongly urged its passage as a tribute to Kennedy’s memory. Over fierce opposition from Southern legislators, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. It prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment. It also gave the executive branch of government the power to enforce the act’s provisions.
The year 1964 was the culmination of SNCC’s commitment to civil rights activism at the community level. Starting in 1961 SNCC and CORE organized voter registration campaigns in heavily black, rural counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. SNCC concentrated on voter registration, believing that voting was a way to empower blacks so that they could change racist policies in the South. SNCC worked to register blacks to vote by teaching them the necessary skills-such as reading and writing-and the correct answers to the voter registration application. SNCC worker Robert Moses led a voter registration effort in McComb, Mississippi, in 1961, and in 1962 and 1963 SNCC worked to register voters in the Mississippi Delta, where it found local supporters like the farm-worker and activist Fannie Lou Hamer. These civil rights activities caused violent reactions from Mississippi’s white supremacists. Moses faced constant terrorism that included threats, arrests, and beatings. In June 1963 Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in front of his home.
In 1964 SNCC workers organized the Mississippi Summer Project to register blacks to vote in that state. SNCC leaders also hoped to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism. They recruited Northern college students, teachers, artists, and clergy-both black and white-to work on the project, because they believed that the participation of these people would make the country more concerned about discrimination and violence in Mississippi. The project did receive national attention, especially after three participants, two of whom were white, disappeared in June and were later found murdered and buried near Philadelphia, Mississippi. By the end of the summer, the project had helped thousands of blacks attempt to register, and about 1000 had actually become registered voters.
The Summer Project increased the number of blacks who were politically active and led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). When white Democrats in Mississippi refused to accept black members in their delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Hamer and others went to the convention to challenge the white Democrats’ right to represent Mississippi. In a televised interview, Hamer detailed the harassment and abuse experienced by black Mississippians when they tried to register to vote. Her testimony attracted much media attention, and President Johnson was upset by the disturbance at the convention where he expected to be nominated for president. National Democratic Party officials offered the black Mississippians two convention seats, but the MFDP rejected the compromise offer and went home. Later, however, the MFDP challenge did result in more support for blacks and other minorities in the Democratic Party.
In early 1965 SCLC employed its direct-action techniques in a voting-rights protest initiated by SNCC in Selma, Alabama. When protests at the local courthouse were unsuccessful, protesters began a march to Montgomery, the state capital.