The Range of Civil Rights Activism
The term “institutional racism” perhaps needs elaboration; it can best be explained via the concept of segregation. While it may seem unbelievable now, southern states enforced segregation of all public facilities, and many states across the nation did so as well. At bottom, this enforcement meant public facilities were marked with humiliating signs that were daily reminders of the distance between the citizenship of whites and that of blacks. A simple list of segregated facilities is poignantly stark: Schools, churches, restaurants, hotels, public transportation, theaters, professional sports and sporting events, water fountains, bathrooms, and even playgrounds! The experience of segregation was only one of the degrading influences on race relations in the South. The North experienced periodic waves of racial violence.
The Civil Rights Movement got its start in 1954 as a result of yet another act of violence. Emmett Till, a young black boy from Chicago, was murdered by whites while on a visit to family in the South. He had accepted a dare from local black youths to speak to a white woman at a store, and as the woman left he said to her, “Bye, baby.” That night the woman’s husband and her brother-in-law took Till from his Uncle’s home, beat him, shot him, tied his body to a cotton gin fan, and dumped it in a river. What outraged people both black and white across the nation most was the trial of the murderers. An all-white jury found the men innocent. Later the two men sold the story of how they killed Emmett Till to a reporter.
Next came the “stand” taken by Rosa Parks in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Contrary to popular belief, Ms. Parks did not sit down in the front of a bus and rudely defy the relegation of blacks to the back. She sat down in the front of the black section at the back of the bus. The rule said that blacks could sit at the back of the bus unless the white section filled up. If the overflow of whites was large enough, blacks were simply forced to exit the bus altogether. Rosa Parks was abiding by the rules until enough whites boarded the bus to cause a white man to tell her to yield her seat; this she refused to do, and she was arrested. Encouraged by her actions, blacks in Montgomery organized a boycott of public transportation under the leadership of 27-year-old Baptist minister Martin Luther King. Blacks walked or carpooled to work and seriously hurt the income of the city transportation system because they made up the bulk of the riders under normal circumstances. The resolve of the black activists of Montgomery led the Warren Court to uphold the rulings of lower courts that the buses should be integrated.
Thus began the career of Martin Luther King. During the conflict, his house was bombed and his church machine-gunned (I have seen the bullet holes myself). King’s techniques took on a distinct pattern which would be repeated over and over again by him and by other activists. As the focus of tension, King was arrested, tried, and fined for disturbing the peace. Refusing to pay the fine, he appealed the case which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court which had just taken its landmark stance against segregation in schools.
King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize demonstrations across the South. The NAACP cooperated, but already a splintering of the efforts of activists was revealed. King advocated a strictly non-violent approach that combined passive resistance modeled after Gandhi and Thoreau with fiery preaching in black churches. King and SCLC staged confrontations by ignoring laws, customs, court orders, fines, etc. in an attempt to draw an audience. Remaining non-violent, the black demonstrators forced the authorities to arrest or disperse the crowds; neither looked good on television.
Four black members of another organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) staged “sit-ins” from 1960-61 at segregated lunch counters. They picked the Woolworth department store because it was a national chain that would attract national attention, and their first confrontation was staged in Greensboro, North Carolina. Inspired by their bravery, students in Nashville, Tennessee, organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “Snick”) to spread the sit-in technique. After having practiced being abused with the help of consultants, the students marched to a downtown lunch counter and filled the stools with students. Enough SNCC demonstrators came to keep the lunch counter full despite beatings, invectives, and arrests.
By the summer of 1961, Northerners sympathetic to the cause of black civil rights came on Freedom Rides which were bus tours of the South. CORE used these additional demonstrators to stage sit-ins where more beatings were caught on camera. Some of the buses involved in transporting the activists were bombed, and the National Guard was needed to restore order. NAACP coordinator for Mississippi, Medgar Evers, organized boycotts of stores with segregated lunch counters in Jackson before being the first major Civil Rights leader to be assassinated. He was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle in the carport of his home.
SCLC turned its attention to Birmingham, Alabama, otherwise known as “Bombingham” for its racial violence. In the spring of 1963, King led marches to protest the civil rights abuses of blacks and was arrested. From within the Birmingham Jail, he wrote a letter in response to local ministers who criticized his actions and said, “Justice too long denied is not justice.” He posted bond to get out of jail and encouraged children to march to avoid the economic repercussions of adult blacks’ activism. Over 500 students responded by skipping school and holding marches and demonstrations. “Bull” Connor, the local Sheriff, responded by dispersing the crowd with fire hoses, dogs, nightsticks, and arrests. John Kennedy intervened by giving his famous, “Race has no place. . .” speech on television, and the Supreme Court nullified Alabama’s laws (Earl Warren was out, now, by the way).
Martin Luther King’s brother’s house was bombed touching off a “long, hot summer” of riots. By late summer, several Civil Rights organizations cooperated to hold a March on Washington similar to that of Coxey’s Army back in the Great Depression. This event was the context of MLK’s most famous speech before a crowd of 250,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial. While nearly everyone knows King said, “I have a dream,” few remember what he said that dream was. He said, “. . . my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As protest has become so popular in America, many activists of all races, creeds, and sexes have unfortunately forgotten the character part.
For lasting change the Civil Rights Movement turned to voter registration drives and “freedom schools.” These were widespread efforts across the South done by both northern and southern activists usually during the summer. There was a concerted effort to both reverse the Jim Crow disenfranchisement policies of southern states as well as to educate black children about black history and civic duty. These efforts met with local resistance but began to make inroads.
A final showdown and homecoming for Martin Luther King occurred in March of 1965 in Selma, Alabama. When the local activists organized an attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, local authorities and state troopers stopped the marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of town. The resulting melee was caught on film and clearly showed the use of tear gas and the beatings black demonstrators received. Coverage of the event ironically broke into a television movie called Judgment at Nuremberg which was about the trials of Nazi and Japanese war criminals for crimes against humanity. Martin Luther King traveled to Selma to help the local Civil Rights leaders, but the KKK had already killed a black woman and a white Catholic priest. With the nation watching, the march was re-done and allowed by order of the President to go to Montgomery. By August of 1965 LBJ had signed the Voting Rights Act into law and used the words in a televised speech of a theme song of the Civil Rights Movement, “We shall overcome.”
If the story of the Civil Rights Movement stopped there (as it does in the film I like to show), racial tensions in this country might have been long over. Unfortunately yet understandably, not all blacks could stomach King’s non-violent approach. Could you remain passive while someone shouted curses and epithets at you while pouring ketchup and salt in your hair before beating and kicking you? Three other Civil Rights organizations need to be mentioned to balance the story.
The Black Muslim Movement in America was started by Elijah Mohammed but most ably articulated by Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was a thug and robber who converted to Islam in jail. He took his unusual moniker to emphasize the anonymity of his race in world history (please don’t read it, “Malcolm Ten”). Malcolm X advocated Black Separatism, the notion that some territory should be granted to American blacks, say, the State of Alabama, in reparations for slavery. Then, all white people would be driven out of Alabama and all blacks would move there. Even Malcolm X eventually realized how racist a position this was, and he began to tone down his violent rhetoric. This reversal outraged certain Black Muslims who machine-gunned him to death while he was giving a speech in 1965.
Another advocate of a more aggressive style of protest was Stokely Carmichael who left SNCC to lead a movement he called Black Power. Adopting the symbolic gesture of a raised fist, Carmichael also returned to the slogan, “Black is Beautiful” of Marcus Garvey from the 1920s. He encouraged blacks to express black pride and to reject white culture including white dress. He took the name Kwame Ture and moved to Africa where he died of cancer.
The most aggressive black activists hailed from California and started the Black Panther Party, which Stokely Carmichael joined. The Black Panthers were led, however, by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. State laws in California permitted citizens to carry weapons, and the Black Panthers began the practice of shadowing police cars while heavily armed. When the police, whom they called, “Pigs,” pulled a black person over, the Black Panthers would stop their cars and get out, brandishing their weapons. As we shall see, this type of activism clearly drew its inspiration from the communist leader of China, Chairman Mao, who said, “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” and the organization began to openly advocate violent revolution. As you can imagine, shoot-outs with police occurred, and many of the leaders of the Black Panthers went to jail. Eldridge Cleaver was converted to Christianity while in jail and disavowed his membership in the Black Panthers, and through his influence Huey Newton and Bobby Seale both renounced violence as a political tool. Cleaver went on to write in a New York Times article, “With all its faults, the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world.” I have a dream that one day Americans of all races, creeds, and sexes will realize this before our country goes the way of all flesh. / YOUR NOTES: