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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The Civil Rights Movement:
Kenneth R. Janken
Professor, Department of African and Afro-American Studies and
Director of Experiential Education, Office of Undergraduate Curricula
University of North Carolina
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center
When most Americans think of the Civil Rights Movement, they have in mind a span of time beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated education, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott and culminated in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The movement encompassed both ad hoc local groups and established organizations like the
Much of our memory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is embodied in dramatic photographs, newsreels, and recorded speeches, which America encountered in daily papers and the nightly news. As the movement rolled across the nation, Americans absorbed images of hopeful, disciplined, and dedicated young people shaping their destinies. They were met with hostility,federal ambivalence and indifference, as well as mob and police violence. African Americans fought back with direct action protests and keen political organizing, such as voter registration drives and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The crowning achievements were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The images are alternately angering and inspiring, powerful, iconic even. However, by themselves they cannot tell the history of the Civil Rights Movement. They need to be contextualized.
The drama of the mid-twentieth century emerged on a foundation of earlier struggles. Two are particularly notable: the NAACP’s campaign against lynching, and the NAACP’s legal campaign against segregated education, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision.
The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s combined widespread publicity about the causes and costs of lynching, a successful drive to defeat Supreme Court nominee John J. Parker for his white supremacist and anti-union views and then defeat senators who voted for confirmation, and a skillful effort to lobby Congress and the Roosevelt administration to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Southern senators filibustered, but they could not prevent the formation of a national consensus against lynching; by 1938 the number of lynchings declined steeply. Other organizations, such as the left-wing National Negro Congress, fought lynching, too, but the NAACP emerged from the campaign as the most influential civil rights organization in national politics and maintained that position through the mid-1950s.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Houston was unabashed: lawyers were either social engineers or they were parasites. He desired equal access to education, but he also was concerned with the type of society blacks were trying to integrate. He was among those who surveyed American society and saw racial inequality and the ruling powers that promoted racism to divide black workers from white workers. Because he believed that racial violence in Depression-era America was so pervasive as to make mass direct action untenable, he emphasized the redress of grievances through the courts.
The designers of the Brown strategy developed a potent combination of gradualism in legal matters and advocacy of far-reaching change in other political arenas. Through the 1930s and much of the 1940s, the NAACP initiated suits that dismantled aspects of the edifice of segregated education, each building on the precedent of the previous one. Not until the late 1940s did the NAACP believe it politically feasible to challenge directly the constitutionality of “separate but equal” education itself. Concurrently, civil rights organizations backed efforts to radically alter the balance of power between employers and workers in the United States. They paid special attention to forming an alliance with organized labor, whose history of racial exclusion angered blacks. In the 1930s, the National Negro Congress brought blacks into the newly formed United Steel Workers, and the union paid attention to the particular demands of African Americans. The NAACP assisted the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest black labor organization of its day. In the 1940s, the United Auto Workers, with NAACP encouragement, made overtures to black workers. The NAACP’s successful fight against the Democratic white primary in the South was more than a bid for inclusion; it was a stiff challenge to what was in fact a regional one-party dictatorship. Recognizing the interdependence of domestic and foreign affairs, the NAACP’s program in the 1920s and 1930s promoted solidarity with Haitians who were trying to end the American military occupation and with colonized blacks elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. African Americans’ support for WWII and the battle against the Master Race ideology abroad was matched by equal determination to eradicate it in America, too. In the post-war years blacks supported the decolonization of Africa and Asia.
Henry A. Wallace
The Cold War and McCarthyism put a hold on such expansive conceptions of civil/human rights. Critics of our domestic and foreign policies who exceeded narrowly defined boundaries were labeled un-American and thus sequestered from Americans’ consciousness. In a supreme irony, the Supreme Court rendered the Brown decision and then the government suppressed the very critique of American society that animated many of Brown’s architects.
White southern resistance to Brown was formidable and the slow pace of change stimulated impatience especially among younger African Americans as the 1960s began. They concluded that they could not wait for change—they had to make it. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted the entire year of 1956, had demonstrated that mass direct action could indeed work. The four college students from Greensboro who sat at the Woolworth lunch counter set off a decade of activity and organizing that would kill Jim Crow.
Elimination of segregation in public accommodations and the removal of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs was no mean feat. Yet from the very first sit-in, Ella Baker, the grassroots leader whose activism dated from the 1930s and who was advisor to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pointed out that the struggle was “concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” Far more was at stake for these activists than changing the hearts of whites. When the sit-ins swept Atlanta in 1960, protesters’ demands included jobs, health care, reform of the police and criminal justice system, education, and the vote. (See: “An Appeal for Human Rights.”) Demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 under the leadership of Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was affiliated with the SCLC, demanded not only an end to segregation in downtown stores but also jobs for African Americans in those businesses and municipal government. The 1963 March on Washington, most often remembered as the event at which Dr. King proclaimed his dream, was a demonstration for “Jobs and Justice.”
Movement activists from SNCC and CORE asked sharp questions about the exclusive nature of American democracy and advocated solutions to the disfranchisement and violation of the human rights of African Americans, including Dr. King’s nonviolent populism, Robert Williams’ “armed self-reliance,” and Malcolm X’s incisive critiques of worldwide white supremacy, among others. (See: Dr. King, “Where Do We Go from Here?”; Robert F. Williams, “Negroes with Guns”; and Malcolm X, “Not just an American problem, but a world problem.”) What they proposed was breathtakingly radical, especially in light of today’s political discourse and the simplistic ways it prefers to remember the freedom struggle. King called for a guaranteed annual income, redistribution of the national wealth to meet human needs, and an end to a war to colonize the Vietnamese. Malcolm X proposed to internationalize the black American freedom struggle and to link it with liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thus the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was not concerned exclusively with interracial cooperation or segregation and discrimination as a character issue. Rather, as in earlier decades, the prize was a redefinition of American society and a redistribution of social and economic power.
Guiding Student Discussion
Students discussing the Civil Rights Movement will often direct their attention to individuals’ motives. For example, they will question whether President Kennedy sincerely believed in racial equality when he supported civil rights or only did so out of political expediency. Or they may ask how whites could be so cruel as to attack peaceful and dignified demonstrators. They may also express awe at Martin Luther King’s forbearance and calls for integration while showing discomfort with Black Power’s separatism and proclamations of self-defense. But a focus on the character and moral fiber of leading individuals overlooks the movement’s attempts to change the ways in which political, social, and economic power are exercised. Leading productive discussions that consider broader issues will likely have to involve debunking some conventional wisdom about the Civil Rights Movement. Guiding students to discuss the extent to which nonviolence and racial integration were considered within the movement to be hallowed goals can lead them to greater insights.
Nonviolence and passive resistance were prominent tactics of protesters and organizations. (See: SNCC Statement of Purpose and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.) But they were not the only ones, and the number of protesters who were ideologically committed to them was relatively small. Although the name of one of the important civil rights organizations was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, its members soon concluded that advocating nonviolence as a principle was irrelevant to most African Americans they were trying to reach. Movement participants in Mississippi, for example, did not decide beforehand to engage in violence, but self-defense was simply considered common sense. If some SNCC members in Mississippi were convinced pacifists in the face of escalating violence, they nevertheless enjoyed the protection of local people who shared their goals but were not yet ready to beat their swords into ploughshares.
Armed self-defense had been an essential component of the black freedom struggle, and it was not confined to the fringe. Returning soldiers fought back against white mobs during the Red Summer of 1919. In 1946, World War Two veterans likewise protected black communities in places like Columbia, Tennessee, the site of a bloody race riot. Their self-defense undoubtedly brought national attention to the oppressive conditions of African Americans; the NAACP’s nationwide campaign prompted President Truman to appoint a civil rights commission that produced To Secure These Rights, a landmark report that called for the elimination of segregation. Army veteran Robert F. Williams, who was a proponent of what he called “armed self-reliance,” headed a thriving branch of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, in the early 1950s. The poet Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” dramatically captures the spirit of self-defense and violence.
Often, deciding whether violence is “good” or “bad,” necessary or ill-conceived depends on one’s perspective and which point of view runs through history books. Students should be encouraged to consider why activists may have considered violence a necessary part of their work and what role it played in their overall programs. Are violence and nonviolence necessarily antithetical, or can they be complementary? For example the Black Panther Party may be best remembered by images of members clad in leather and carrying rifles, but they also challenged widespread police brutality, advocated reform of the criminal justice system, and established community survival programs, including medical clinics, schools, and their signature breakfast program. One question that can lead to an extended discussion is to ask students what the difference is between people who rioted in the 1960s and advocated violence and the participants in the Boston Tea Party at the outset of the American Revolution. Both groups wanted out from oppression, both saw that violence could be efficacious, and both were excoriated by the rulers of their day. Teachers and students can then explore reasons why those Boston hooligans are celebrated in American history and whether the same standards should be applied to those who used arms in the 1960s.
An important goal of the Civil Rights Movement was the elimination of segregation. But if students, who are now a generation or more removed from Jim Crow, are asked to define segregation, they are likely to point out examples of individual racial separation such as blacks and whites eating at different cafeteria tables and the existence of black and white houses of worship. Like most of our political leaders and public opinion, they place King’s injunction to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin exclusively in the context of personal relationships and interactions. Yet segregation was a social, political, and economic system that placed African Americans in an inferior position, disfranchised them, and was enforced by custom, law, and official and vigilante violence.
The discussion of segregation should be expanded beyond expressions of personal preferences. One way to do this is to distinguish between black and white students hanging out in different parts of a school and a law mandating racially separate schools, or between black and white students eating separately and a laws or customs excluding African Americans from restaurants and other public facilities. Put another way, the civil rights movement was not fought merely to ensure that students of different backgrounds could become acquainted with each other. The goal of an integrated and multicultural America is not achieved simply by proximity. Schools, the economy, and other social institutions needed to be reformed to meet the needs for all. This was the larger and widely understood meaning of the goal of ending Jim Crow, and it is argued forcefully by James Farmer in “Integration or Desegregation.”
A guided discussion should point out that many of the approaches to ending segregation did not embrace integration or assimilation, and students should become aware of the appeal of separatism. W. E. B. Du Bois believed in what is today called multiculturalism. But by the mid-1930s he concluded that the Great Depression, virulent racism, and the unreliability of white progressive reformers who had previously expressed sympathy for civil rights rendered an integrated America a distant dream. In an important article, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Du Bois argued for the strengthening of black pride and the fortification of separate black schools and other important institutions. Black communities across the country were in severe distress; it was counterproductive, he argued, to sacrifice black schoolchildren at the altar of integration and to get them into previously all-white schools, where they would be shunned and worse. It was far better to invest in strengthening black-controlled education to meet black communities’ needs. If, in the future, integration became a possibility, African Americans would be positioned to enter that new arrangement on equal terms. Du Bois’ argument found echoes in the 1960s writing of Stokely Carmichael (“Toward Black Liberation”) and Malcolm X (“The Ballot or the Bullet”).
Any brief discussion of historical literature on the Civil Rights Movement is bound to be incomplete. The books offered—a biography, a study of the black freedom struggle in Memphis, a brief study of the Brown decision, and a debate over the unfolding of the movement—were selected for their accessibility variety, and usefulness to teaching, as well as the soundness of their scholarship.
Walter White: Mr. NAACP, by Kenneth Robert Janken, is a biography of one of the most well known civil rights figure of the first half of the twentieth century. White made a name for himself as the NAACP’s risk-taking investigator of lynchings, riots, and other racial violence in the years after World War I. He was a formidable persuader and was influential in the halls of power, counting Eleanor Roosevelt, senators, representatives, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, union leaders, Hollywood moguls, and diplomats among his circle of friends. His style of work depended upon rallying enlightened elites, and he favored a placing effort into developing a civil rights bureaucracy over local and mass-oriented organizations. Walter White was an expert in the practice of “brokerage politics”: During decades when the majority of African Americans were legally disfranchised, White led the organization that gave them an effective voice, representing them and interpreting their demands and desires (as he understood them) to those in power. Two examples of this were highlighted in the first part of this essay: the anti-lynching crusade, and the lobbying of President Truman, which resulted in To Secure These Rights. A third example is his essential role in producing Marian Anderson’s iconic 1939 Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which drew the avid support of President Roosevelt and members of his administration, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. His style of leadership was, before the emergence of direct mass action in the years after White’s death in 1955, the dominant one in the Civil Rights Movement.
There are many excellent books that study the development of the Civil Rights Movement in one locality or state. An excellent addition to the collection of local studies is Battling the Plantation Mentality, by Laurie B. Green, which focuses on Memphis and the surrounding rural areas of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi between the late 1930s and 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated there. Like the best of the local studies, this book presents an expanded definition of civil rights that encompasses not only desegregation of public facilities and the attainment of legal rights but also economic and political equality. Central to this were efforts by African Americans to define themselves and shake off the cultural impositions and mores of Jim Crow. During WWII, unionized black men went on strike in the defense industry to upgrade their job classifications. Part of their grievances revolved around wages and working conditions, but black workers took issue, too, with employers’ and the government’s reasoning that only low status jobs were open to blacks because they were less intelligent and capable. In 1955, six black female employees at a white-owned restaurant objected to the owner’s new method of attracting customers as degrading and redolent of the plantation: placing one of them outside dressed as a mammy doll to ring a dinner bell. When the workers tried to walk off the job, the owner had them arrested, which gave rise to local protest. In 1960, black Memphis activists helped support black sharecroppers in surrounding counties who were evicted from their homes when they initiated voter registration drives. The 1968 sanitation workers strike mushroomed into a mass community protest both because of wage issues and the strikers’ determination to break the perception of their being dependent, epitomized in their slogan “I Am a Man.” This book also shows that not everyone was able to cast off the plantation mentality, as black workers and energetic students at LeMoyne College confronted established black leaders whose positions and status depended on white elites’ sufferance.
Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Waldo E. Martin, Jr., contains an insightful 40-page essay that places both the NAACP’s legal strategy and 1954 Brown decision in multiple contexts, including alternate approaches to incorporating African American citizens into the American nation, and the impact of World War II and the Cold War on the road to Brown. The accompanying documents affirm the longstanding black freedom struggle, including demands for integrated schools in Boston in 1849, continuing with protests against the separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, and important items from the NAACP’s cases leading up to Brown. The documents are prefaced by detailed head notes and provocative discussion questions.
Debating the Civil Rights Movement, by Steven F. Lawson and Charles Payne, is likewise focused on instruction and discussion. This essay has largely focused on the development of the Civil Rights Movement from the standpoint of African American resistance to segregation and the formation organizations to fight for racial, economic, social, and political equality. One area it does not explore is how the federal government helped to shape the movement. Steven Lawson traces the federal response to African Americans’ demands for civil rights and concludes that it was legislation, judicial decisions, and executive actions between 1945 and 1968 that was most responsible for the nation’s advance toward racial equality. Charles Payne vigorously disagrees, focusing instead on the protracted grassroots organizing as the motive force for whatever incomplete change occurred during those years. Each essay runs about forty pages, followed by smart selections of documents that support their cases.
Kenneth R. Janken is Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and Director of Experiential Education, Office of Undergraduate Curricula at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP and Rayford W. Loganand theDilemma of the African American Intellectual. He was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 2000-01.
Address comments or questions to Professor Janken through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”
To cite this essay:
Janken, Kenneth R. “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.