The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring voting rights to them. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1955 and 1968, particularly in the South. The emergence of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975, enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.
The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to these situations that highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts such as the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) in Alabama; “sit-ins” such as the influential Greensboro sit-ins (1960) in North Carolina; marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama; and a wide range of other nonviolent activities.
Noted legislative achievements during this phase of the Civil Rights Movement were passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and across the country young people were inspired to action.
After the disputed election of 1876 resulted in the end of Reconstruction, Whites in the South regained political control of the region, after mounting intimidation and violence in the elections. Systematic disfranchisement of African Americans took place in Southern states from 1890 to 1908 and lasted until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s. For more than 60 years, for example, blacks in the South were not able to elect anyone to represent their interests in Congress or local government.
During this period, the white-dominated Democratic Party regained political control over the South. The Republican Party—the “party of Lincoln”—which had been the party that most blacks belonged to, shrank to insignificance as black voter registration was suppressed. By the early 20th century, almost all elected officials in the South were Democrats.
During the same time as African Americans were being disfranchised, white Democrats imposed racial segregation by law. Violence against blacks increased. The system of overt, state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged out of the post-Reconstruction South became known as the “Jim Crow” system. It remained virtually intact into the early 1950s. Thus, the early 20th century is a period often referred to as the “nadir of American race relations“. While problems and civil rights violations were most intense in the South, social tensions affected African Americans in other regions as well.
Characteristics of the post-Reconstruction period:
- Racial segregation. By law, public facilities and government services such as education were divided into separate “white” and “colored” domains. Characteristically, those for colored were underfunded and of inferior quality.
- Disfranchisement. When white Democrats regained power, they passed laws that made voter registration more inaccessible to blacks. Black voters were forced off the voting rolls. The number of African American voters dropped dramatically, and they no longer were able to elect representatives. From 1890 to 1908, Southern states of the former Confederacy created constitutions with provisions that disfranchised tens of thousands of African Americans.
- Exploitation. Increased economic oppression of blacks, Latinos, and Asians, denial of economic opportunities, and widespread employment discrimination.
- Violence. Individual, police, organizational, and mass racial violence against blacks (and Latinos in the Southwest and Asians in California).
African Americans and other racial minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it in numerous ways and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations, political redress, and labor organizing (see the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954)). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. It fought to end race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying efforts. Its crowning achievement was its legal victory in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that rejected separate white and colored school systems and by implication overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The situation for blacks outside the South was somewhat better (in most states they could vote and have their children educated, though they still faced discrimination in housing and jobs). From 1910 to 1970, African Americans sought better lives by migrating north and west. A total of nearly seven million blacks left the South in what was known as the Great Migration.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation. They were faced with “massive resistance” in the South by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, African Americans adopted a combined strategy of direct action with nonviolent resistance known as civil disobedience, giving rise to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of 1955–1968.
Mass action replacing litigation
The strategy of public education, legislative lobbying, and litigation in the court system that typified the Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the 20th Century broadened after Brown to a strategy that emphasized “direct action”—primarily boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. This mass action approach typified the movement from 1960 to 1968.
Churches, the centers of their communities, local grassroots organizations, fraternal societies, and black-owned businesses, mobilized volunteers to participate in broad-based actions. This was a more direct and potentially more rapid means of creating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges.
In 1952, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), led by T. R. M. Howard, a black surgeon, entrepreneur, and planter, organized a successful boycott of gas stations in Mississippi that refused to provide restrooms for blacks. Through the RCNL, Howard led campaigns to expose brutality by the Mississippi state highway patrol and to encourage blacks to make deposits in the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Nashville which, in turn, gave loans to civil rights activists who were victims of a “credit squeeze” by the White Citizens’ Councils.
The Montgomery Improvement Association—created to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott managed to keep the boycott going for over a year until a federal court order required Montgomery to desegregate its buses. The success in Montgomery made its leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a nationally known figure. It also inspired other bus boycotts, such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida, boycott of 1956–1957.
In 1957 Dr. King and Rev. John Duffy, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, joined with other church leaders who had led similar boycott efforts, such as Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee and Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge; and other activists such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, did not attempt to create a network of chapters as the NAACP did. It offered training and leadership assistance for local efforts to fight segregation. The headquarters organization raised funds, mostly from Northern sources, to support such campaigns. It made non-violence both its central tenet and its primary method of confronting racism.
In 1959, Septima Clarke, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, with the help of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, began the first Citizenship Schools in South Carolina‘s Sea Islands. They taught literacy to enable blacks to pass voting tests. The program was an enormous success and tripled the number of black voters on Johns Island. SCLC took over the program and duplicated its results elsewhere.
Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
Spring 1951 was the year in which great turmoil was felt amongst Black students in reference to Virginia state’s educational system. At the time in Prince Edward County, Moton High School was segregated and students had decided to take matters into their own hands to fight against two things: the overpopulated school premises and the unsuitable conditions in their school. This particular behavior coming from Black people in the South was most likely unexpected and inappropriate as White people had expectations for Blacks to act in a subordinate manner. Moreover, some local leaders of the NAACP had tried to persuade the students to back down from their protest against the Jim Crow laws of school segregation. When the students did not accept the NAACP’s demands, the NAACP automatically joined them in their battle against school segregation. This became one of the five cases that made up what is known today as Brown v. Board of Education.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding the case called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the plaintiffs charged that the education of black children in separate public schools from their white counterparts was unconstitutional. The opinion of the Court stated that the “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group.”
The lawyers from the NAACP had to gather some plausible evidence in order to win the case of Brown vs. Education. Their way of addressing the issue of school segregation was to enumerate several arguments. One of them pertained to having an exposure to interracial contact in a school environment. It was said that it would, in turn, help to prevent children to live with the pressures that society exerts in regards to race. Therefore, having a better chance of living in democracy. In addition, another was in reference to the emphasis of how “‘education’ comprehends the entire process of developing and training the mental, physical and moral powers and capabilities of human beings”. In Goluboff’s book, it has been stated that the goals of the NAACP was to bring to the Court’s awareness the fact that African American children were the victims of the legalization of school segregation and were not guaranteed a bright future. Without having the opportunity to be exposed to other cultures, it impedes on how Black children will function later on as adults trying to live a normal life.
The Court ruled that both Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had established the segregationist, “separate but equal” standard in general, and Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), which had applied that standard to schools, were unconstitutional. The following year, in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered segregation to be phased out over time, “with all deliberate speed”. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) did not overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Plessy v. Ferguson was segregation based on transportation. Brown v. Board of Education dealt with segregation in education. Brown v. Board of Education did set in motion the future overturning of ‘separate but equal’.
On May 18, 1954 Greensboro became the first city in the South to publicly announce that it would abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling which declared racial segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional. ‘It is unthinkable,’ remarked School Board Superintendent Benjamin Smith, ‘that we will try to [override] the laws of the United States.’ In agreement with Smith’s position, the school board voted six to one to support the court’s ruling. This positive reception for Brown, together with the appointment of African American Dr. David Jones to the school board in 1953, convinced numerous white and black citizens that Greensboro was heading in a forward direction and would likely emerge as a leader in school integration. Integration in Greensboro occurred rather peacefully compared to that of other Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia where “massive resistance” took hold.
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement”) refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger. She was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and had recently returned from a meeting at the Highlander Center in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy had been discussed. Parks was arrested, tried, and convicted for disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. After word of this incident reached the black community, 50 African-American leaders gathered and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to demand a more humane bus transportation system. However, after many reforms were rejected, the NAACP, led by E.D. Nixon, pushed for full desegregation of public buses. With the support of most of Montgomery’s 50,000 African Americans, the boycott lasted for 381 days until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was lifted. Ninety percent of African Americans in Montgomery partook in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue by 80% until a federal court ordered Montgomery’s buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended.
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.
Desegregating Little Rock, 1957
Little Rock, Arkansas, was in a relatively progressive Southern state. A crisis erupted, however, when Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent entry to the nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High School. The nine students had been chosen to attend Central High because of their excellent grades. On the first day of school, only one of the nine students showed up because she did not receive the phone call about the danger of going to school. She was harassed by white protesters outside the school, and the police had to take her away in a patrol car to protect her. Afterward, the nine students had to carpool to school and be escorted by military personnel in jeeps.
Faubus was not a proclaimed segregationist. The Arkansas Democratic Party, which then controlled politics in the state, put significant pressure on Faubus after he had indicated he would investigate bringing Arkansas into compliance with the Brown decision. Faubus then took his stand against integration and against the Federal court order that required it.
Faubus’ order received the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the Federal courts. Critics had charged he was lukewarm, at best, on the goal of desegregation of public schools. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and ordered them to return to their barracks. Eisenhower then deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.
The students were able to attend high school. They had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to arrive at school on their first day, and to put up with harassment from fellow students for the rest of the year. Although federal troops escorted the students between classes, the students were still teased and even attacked by white students when the soldiers were not around. One of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown, was suspended for spilling a bowl of chili on the head of a white student who was harassing her in the school lunch line. Later, she was expelled for verbally abusing a white female student.
Only one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, got the chance to graduate; after the 1957–58 school year was over, the Little Rock school system decided to shut public schools completely rather than continue to integrate. Other school systems across the South followed suit.
The Civil Rights Movement received an infusion of energy with a student sit-in at a Woolworth‘s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four students Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, an all-black college, sat down at the segregated lunch counter to protest Woolworth’s policy of excluding African Americans. The four students purchased small items in other parts of the store and kept their receipts, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. After being denied service, they produced their receipts and asked why their money was good everywhere else at the store, but not at the lunch counter. These protesters were encouraged to dress professionally, to sit quietly, and to occupy every other stool so that potential white sympathizers could join in. The sit-in soon inspired other sit-ins in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia.
As students across the south began to “sit-in” at the lunch counters of a few of their local stores, local authority figures sometimes used brute force to physically escort the demonstrators from the lunch facilities.
The “sit-in” technique was not new—as far back as 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia library. In 1960 the technique succeeded in bringing national attention to the movement. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns throughout the South. Probably the best organized, most highly disciplined, the most immediately effective of these was in Nashville, Tennessee.
On March 9, 1960 an Atlanta University Center group of students released An Appeal for Human Rights  as a full page advertisement in newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal, and Atlanta Daily World. This student group, known as the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR), initiated the Atlanta Student Movement  and began to lead in Atlanta  with sit-ins starting on March 15, 1960.
Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but also on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places. Upon being arrested, student demonstrators made “jail-no-bail” pledges, to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest, thereby saddling their jailers with the financial burden of prison space and food.
In April, 1960 activists who had led these sit-ins held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC took these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further, to the freedom rides.
Freedom Rides, 1961
Freedom Rides were journeys by Civil Rights activists on interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960) 364 U.S. that ended segregation for passengers engaged in interstate travel. Organized by CORE, the first Freedom Ride of the 1960s left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.
During the first and subsequent Freedom Rides, activists traveled through the Deep South to integrate seating patterns and desegregate bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains. That proved to be a dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Birmingham, Alabama, an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor gave Ku Klux Klan members fifteen minutes to attack an incoming group of freedom riders before having police “protect” them. The riders were severely beaten “until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them.” James Peck, a white activist, was beaten so hard he required fifty stitches to his head.
Mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham temporarily halted the rides, but SNCC activists from Nashville brought in new riders to continue the journey from Birmingham. In Montgomery, Alabama, at the Greyhound Bus Station, a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded Jim Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth.
On 24 May 1961, the freedom riders continued their rides into Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested for “breaching the peace” by using “white only” facilities. New freedom rides were organized by many different organizations. As riders arrived in Jackson, they were arrested. By the end of summer, more than 300 had been jailed in Mississippi.
The jailed freedom riders were treated harshly, crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended by “wrist breakers” from the walls. Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.
Public sympathy and support for the freedom riders led the Kennedy administration to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue a new desegregation order. When the new ICC rule took effect on November 1, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they chose on the bus; “white” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals; separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated; and lunch counters began serving people regardless of skin color.
The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, a single-minded activist; James Lawson, the revered “guru” of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Bob Moses, pioneer of voting registration in Mississippi; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer and facilitator. Other prominent student activists included Charles McDew, Bernard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Hosea Williams, and Stokely Carmichael.
Voter registration organizing
After the Freedom Rides, local black leaders in Mississippi such as Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, and others asked SNCC to help register black voters and to build community organizations that could win a share of political power in the state. Since Mississippi ratified its constitution in 1890, with provisions such as poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests, it made registration more complicated and stripped blacks from the polls. After so many years, the intent to stop blacks from voting had become part of the culture of white supremacy. In the fall of 1961, SNCC organizer Robert Moses began the first such project in McComb and the surrounding counties in the Southwest corner of the state. Their efforts were met with violent repression from state and local lawmen, White Citizens’ Council, and Ku Klux Klan resulting in beatings, hundreds of arrests and the murder of voting activist Herbert Lee.
White opposition to black voter registration was so intense in Mississippi that Freedom Movement activists concluded that all of the state’s civil rights organizations had to unite in a coordinated effort to have any chance of success. In February 1962, representatives of SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP formed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). At a subsequent meeting in August, SCLC became part of COFO.
In the Spring of 1962, with funds from the Voter Education Project, SNCC/COFO began voter registration organizing in the Mississippi Delta area around Greenwood, and the areas surrounding Hattiesburg, Laurel, and Holly Springs. As in McComb, their efforts were met with fierce opposition—arrests, beatings, shootings, arson, and murder. Registrars used the literacy test to keep blacks off the voting roles by creating standards that even highly educated people could not meet. In addition, employers fired blacks who tried to register and landlords evicted them from their homes. Over the following years, the black voter registration campaign spread across the state.
Similar voter registration campaigns—with similar responses—were begun by SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in Louisiana, Alabama, southwest Georgia, and South Carolina. By 1963, voter registration campaigns in the South were as integral to the Freedom Movement as desegregation efforts. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protecting and facilitating voter registration despite state barriers became the main effort of the movement. It resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Integration of Mississippi universities, 1956–1965
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Beginning in 1956, Clyde Kennard, a black Korean War-veteran, tried to enroll at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) under the GI Bill at Hattiesburg. Dr. William David McCain, the college president, tried to prevent his enrollment by appealing to local black leaders and the segregationist state political establishment. He used the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, of which he was a member. It was a state-funded organization that tried to counter the civil rights movement by positively portraying segregationist policies. More significantly, it collected data on activists, harassed them legally, and used economic boycotts against them by threatening their jobs (or causing them to lose their jobs) to try to suppress their work.
Kennard was twice arrested on trumped-up charges, and eventually convicted and sentenced to seven years in the state prison. After three years at hard labor, Kennard was paroled by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. Journalists had investigated his case and publicized the state’s mistreatment of his colon cancer.
McCain’s role in Kennard’s arrests and convictions is unknown. While trying to prevent Kennard’s enrollment, McCain made a speech in Chicago, with his travel sponsored by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. He described the blacks’ seeking to desegregate Southern schools as “imports” from the North. (Kennard was a native and resident of Hattiesburg.)
“We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society. … In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting,” he said. “The Negroes prefer that control of the government remain in the white man’s hands.”
Note: Mississippi had passed a new constitution in 1890 that effectively disfranchised most blacks by changing electoral and voter registration requirements; although it deprived them of constitutional rights authorized under post-Civil War amendments, it survived US Supreme Court challenges at the time. It was not until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that most blacks in Mississippi and other southern states gained federal protection to enforce their right to vote.
In September 1962, James Meredith won a lawsuit to secure admission to the previously segregated University of Mississippi. He attempted to enter campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26. He was blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who said, “[N]o school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor.” The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Barnett and Lieutenant Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. in contempt, with fines of more than $10,000 for each day they refused to allow Meredith to enroll.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in a force of U.S. Marshals. On September 30, 1962, Meredith entered the campus under their escort. Students and other whites began rioting that evening, throwing rocks and then firing on the U.S. Marshals guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall. Two people, including a French journalist, were killed; 28 marshals suffered gunshot wounds; and 160 others were injured. After the Mississippi Highway Patrol withdrew from the campus, President John F. Kennedy sent regular US Army forces to the campus to quell the riot. Meredith began classes the day after the troops arrived.
Kennard and other activists continued to work on public university desegregation. In 1965 Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong became the first African-American students to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. By that time, McCain helped ensure they had a peaceful entry. In 2006, Judge Robert Helfrich ruled that Kennard was factually innocent of all charges for which he had been convicted in the 1950s.
Albany Movement, 1961–1962
The SCLC, which had been criticized by some student activists for its failure to participate more fully in the freedom rides, committed much of its prestige and resources to a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia, in November 1961. King, who had been criticized personally by some SNCC activists for his distance from the dangers that local organizers faced—and given the derisive nickname “De Lawd” as a result—intervened personally to assist the campaign led by both SNCC organizers and local leaders.
The campaign was a failure because of the canny tactics of Laurie Pritchett, the local police chief, and divisions within the black community. The goals may not have been specific enough. Pritchett contained the marchers without violent attacks on demonstrators that inflamed national opinion. He also arranged for arrested demonstrators to be taken to jails in surrounding communities, allowing plenty of room to remain in his jail. Prichett also foresaw King’s presence as a danger and forced his release to avoid King’s rallying the black community. King left in 1962 without having achieved any dramatic victories. The local movement, however, continued the struggle, and it obtained significant gains in the next few years.
Birmingham Campaign, 1963–1964
Alabama governor George Wallace stands against desegregation at the University of Alabama and is confronted by US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbachat in 1963.
The Albany movement was shown to be an important education for the SCLC, however, when it undertook the Birmingham campaign in 1963. Executive Director Wyatt Tee Walker carefully planned strategy and tactics for the campaign. It focused on one goal—the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants, rather than total desegregation, as in Albany. The movement’s efforts were helped by the brutal response of local authorities, in particular Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety. He had long held much political power, but had lost a recent election for mayor to a less rabidly segregationist candidate. Refusing to accept the new mayor’s authority, Connor intended to stay in office.
The campaign used a variety of nonviolent methods of confrontation, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a drive to register voters. The city, however, obtained an injunction barring all such protests. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the campaign defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963.
While in jail, King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail“ on the margins of a newspaper, since he had not been allowed any writing paper while held in solitary confinement. Supporters appealed to the Kennedy administration, which intervened to obtain King’s release. King was allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and was released early on April 19.
The campaign, however, was faltering because the movement was running out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest. James Bevel, SCLC’s Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education, came up with a bold and controversial alternative, to train high school students to take part in the demonstrations. As a result, more than one thousand students skipped school on May 2 to meet at the 16th Street Baptist Church to join the demonstrations, in what would come to be called the Children’s Crusade. More than six hundred ended up in jail. This was newsworthy, but in this first encounter, the police acted with restraint. On the next day, however, another one thousand students gathered at the church. When they started marching, Bull Connor unleashed police dogs on them, then turned the city’s fire hoses water streams on the children. Television cameras broadcast to the nation the scenes of water from fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and dogs attacking individual demonstrators.
Congress of Racial Equality march in Washington DC on 22 September 1963 in memory of the children killed in the Birmingham bombings.
Widespread public outrage led the Kennedy administration to intervene more forcefully in negotiations between the white business community and the SCLC. On May 10, the parties announced an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters and other public accommodations downtown, to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, to arrange for the release of jailed protesters, and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders.
Not everyone in the black community approved of the agreement— the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was particularly critical, since he was skeptical about the good faith of Birmingham’s power structure from his experience in dealing with them. Parts of the white community reacted violently. They bombed the Gaston Motel, which housed the SCLC’s unofficial headquarters, and the home of King’s brother, the Reverend A. D. King.
Kennedy prepared to federalize the Alabama National Guard if the need arose. Four months later, on September 15, a conspiracy of Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls.
Other events of the summer of 1963:
On June 11, 1963, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, tried to block the integration of the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy sent a force to make Governor Wallace step aside, allowing the enrollment of two black students. That evening, President Kennedy addressed the nation on TV and radio with his historic civil rights speech. The next day, Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. The next week, as promised, on June 19, 1963, President Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
March on Washington, 1963
A. Philip Randolph had planned a march on Washington, D.C. in 1941 to support demands for elimination of employment discrimination in defense industries; he called off the march when the Roosevelt administration met the demand by issuing Executive Order 8802 barring racial discrimination and creating an agency to oversee compliance with the order.
Randolph and Bayard Rustin were the chief planners of the second march, which they proposed in 1962. The Kennedy administration applied great pressure on Randolph and King to call it off but without success. The march was held on August 28, 1963.
Unlike the planned 1941 march, for which Randolph included only black-led organizations in the planning, the 1963 march was a collaborative effort of all of the major civil rights organizations, the more progressive wing of the labor movement, and other liberal organizations. The march had six official goals:
- meaningful civil rights laws,
- a massive federal works program,
- full and fair employment,
- decent housing,
- the right to vote, and
- adequate integrated education.
Of these, the march’s major focus was on passage of the civil rights law that the Kennedy administration had proposed after the upheavals in Birmingham.
National media attention also greatly contributed to the march’s national exposure and probable impact. In his section “The March on Washington and Television News,” William Thomas notes: “Over five hundred cameramen, technicians, and correspondents from the major networks were set to cover the event. More cameras would be set up than had filmed the last presidential inauguration. One camera was positioned high in the Washington Monument, to give dramatic vistas of the marchers”. By carrying the organizers’ speeches and offering their own commentary, television stations literally framed the way their local audiences saw and understood the event.
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The march was a success, although not without controversy. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. While many speakers applauded the Kennedy administration for the efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation protecting the right to vote and outlawing segregation, John Lewis of SNCC took the administration to task for not doing more to protect southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South.
After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House. While the Kennedy administration appeared sincerely committed to passing the bill, it was not clear that it had the votes in Congress to do it. However when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the new President Lyndon Johnson decided to use his influence in Congress to bring about much of Kennedy’s legislative agenda.
St. Augustine, Florida, 1963–1964
St. Augustine, on the northeast coast of Florida was famous as the “Nation’s Oldest City,” founded by the Spanish in 1565. It became the stage for a great drama leading up to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. A local movement, led by Dr. Robert B. Hayling, a black dentist and Air Force veteran, had been picketing segregated local institutions since 1963, as a result of which Dr. Hayling and three companions, James Jackson, Clyde Jenkins, and James Hauser, were brutally beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the fall of that year. Nightriders shot into black homes, and teenagers Audrey Nell Edwards, JoeAnn Anderson, Samuel White, and Willie Carl Singleton (who came to be known as “The St. Augustine Four”) spent six months in jail and reform school after sitting in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. It took a special action of the governor and cabinet of Florida to release them after national protests by the Pittsburgh Courier, Jackie Robinson, and others.
In 1964, Dr. Hayling and other activists urged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to St. Augustine. The first action came during spring break, when Hayling appealed to northern college students to come to the Ancient City, not to go to the beach, but to take part in demonstrations. Four prominent Massachusetts women—Mrs. Mary Parkman Peabody, Mrs. Esther Burgess, Mrs. Hester Campbell (all of whose husbands were Episcopal bishops), and Mrs. Florence Rowe (whose husband was vice president of John Hancock Insurance Company)came to lend their support, and the arrest of Mrs. Peabody, the 72 year old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, for attempting to eat at the segregated Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in an integrated group, made front page news across the country, and brought the civil rights movement in St. Augustine to the attention of the world.
Widely publicized activities continued in the ensuing months, as Congress saw the longest filibuster against a civil rights bill in its history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964, the only place in Florida he was arrested. He sent a “Letter from the St. Augustine Jail” to a northern supporter, Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, urging him to recruit others to participate in the movement. This resulted, a week later, in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history—while conducting a pray-in at the Monson.
A famous photograph taken in St. Augustine shows the manager of the Monson Motel pouring acid in the swimming pool while blacks and whites are swimming in it. The horrifying photograph was run on the front page of the Washington newspaper the day the senate went to vote on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964
In the summer of 1964, COFO brought nearly 1,000 activists to Mississippi—most of them white college students—to join with local black activists to register voters, teach in “Freedom Schools,” and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
Many of Mississippi’s white residents deeply resented the outsiders and attempts to change their society. State and local governments, police, the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan used arrests, beatings, arson, murder, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.
On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared. James Chaney, a young black Mississippian and plasterer’s apprentice; and two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student; and Michael Schwerner, a CORE organizer from Manhattan‘s Lower East Side, were found weeks later, murdered by conspirators who turned out to be local members of the Klan, some of them members of the Neshoba County sheriff’s department. This outraged the public, leading the U.S. Justice Department along with the FBI (the latter which had previously avoided dealing with the issue of segregation and persecution of blacks) to take action. The outrage over these murders helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (See Mississippi civil rights workers murders for details).
From June to August, Freedom Summer activists worked in 38 local projects scattered across the state, with the largest number concentrated in the Mississippi Delta region. At least 30 Freedom Schools, with close to 3,500 students were established, and 28 community centers set up.
Over the course of the Summer Project, some 17,000 Mississippi blacks attempted to become registered voters in defiance of the red tape and forces of white supremacy arrayed against them—only 1,600 (less than 10%) succeeded. But more than 80,000 joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), founded as an alternative political organization, showing their desire to vote and participate in politics.
Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of people’s isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers. The progression of events throughout the South increased media attention to Mississippi. The deaths of affluent northern white students and threats to other northerners attracted the full attention of the media spotlight to the state. Many black activists became embittered, believing the media valued lives of whites and blacks differently. Perhaps the most significant effect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers, almost all of whom—black and white—still consider it to have been one of the defining periods of their lives.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Although President Kennedy had proposed civil rights legislation and it had support from Northern Congressmen, Southern Senators blocked consideration of the bill by threatening filibusters. After considerable parliamentary maneuvering and 54 days of filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate, President Johnson got a bill through the Congress. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations. The bill authorized the Attorney General to file lawsuits to enforce the new law. The law also nullified state and local laws that required such discrimination.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964
Blacks in Mississippi had been disfranchised by statutory and constitutional changes since the late 19th century. In 1963 COFO held a Freedom Vote in Mississippi to demonstrate the desire of black Mississippians to vote. More than 80,000 people registered and voted in the mock election, which pitted an integrated slate of candidates from the “Freedom Party” against the official state Democratic Party candidates.
In 1964, organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white official party. When Mississippi voting registrars refused to recognize their candidates, they held their own primary. They selected Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for Congress, and a slate of delegates to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The presence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was inconvenient, however, for the convention organizers. They had planned a triumphant celebration of the Johnson administration’s achievements in civil rights, rather than a fight over racism within the Democratic Party. All-white delegations from other Southern states threatened to walk out if the official slate from Mississippi was not seated. Johnson was worried about the inroads that Republican Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making in what previously had been the white Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South”, as well as support that George Wallace had received in the North during the Democratic primaries.
Johnson could not, however, prevent the MFDP from taking its case to the Credentials Committee. There Fannie Lou Hamer testified eloquently about the beatings that she and others endured and the threats they faced for trying to register to vote. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, “Is this America?”
Johnson offered the MFDP a “compromise” under which it would receive two non-voting, at-large seats, while the white delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would retain its seats. The MFDP angrily rejected the “compromise.”
The MFDP kept up its agitation at the convention, after it was denied official recognition. When all but three of the “regular” Mississippi delegates left because they refused to pledge allegiance to the party, the MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic delegates and took the seats vacated by the official Mississippi delegates. National party organizers removed them. When they returned the next day, they found convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there the day before. They stayed and sang “freedom songs”.
The 1964 Democratic Party convention disillusioned many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement, but it did not destroy the MFDP. The MFDP became more radical after Atlantic City. It invited Malcolm X, then a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, to speak at one of its conventions and opposed the war in Vietnam.
Dr. King Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
Boycott of New Orleans by American Football League players, January 1965
After the 1964 professional American Football League season, the AFL All-Star Game had been scheduled for early 1965 in New Orleans‘ Tulane Stadium. After numerous black players were refused service by a number of New Orleans hotels and businesses, and white cabdrivers refused to carry black passengers, black and white players alike lobbied for a boycott of New Orleans. Under the leadership of Buffalo Bills‘ players, including Cookie Gilchrist, the players put up a unified front. The game was moved to Jeppesen Stadium in Houston.
The discriminatory practices that prompted the boycott were illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been signed in July 1964. This new law likely encouraged the AFL players in their cause. It was the first boycott by a professional sports event of an entire city.
Selma and the Voting Rights Act, 1965
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SNCC had undertaken an ambitious voter registration program in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, but by 1965 had made little headway in the face of opposition from Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark. After local residents asked the SCLC for assistance, King came to Selma to lead several marches, at which he was arrested along with 250 other demonstrators. The marchers continued to meet violent resistance from police. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a resident of nearby Marion, was killed by police at a later march in February 17, 1965. Jackson’s death prompted James Bevel, director of the Selma Movement, to initiate a plan to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
On March 7, 1965, acting on Bevel’s plan, Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC led a march of 600 people to walk the 54 miles (87 km) from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Only six blocks into the march, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and local law enforcement, some mounted on horseback, attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, and bull whips. They drove the marchers back into Selma. John Lewis was knocked unconscious and dragged to safety. At least 16 other marchers were hospitalized. Among those gassed and beaten was Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was at the center of civil rights activity at the time.
The national broadcast of the news footage of lawmen attacking unresisting marchers’ seeking the right to vote provoked a national response, as had scenes from Birmingham two years earlier. The marchers were able to obtain a court order permitting them to make the march without incident two weeks later.
After a second march on March 9 to the site of Bloody Sunday, local whites murdered another voting rights supporter, Rev. James Reeb. He died in a Birmingham hospital March 11. On March 25, four Klansmen shot and killed Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma at night after the successfully completed march to Montgomery.
Eight days after the first march, President Johnson delivered a televised address to support the voting rights bill he had sent to Congress. In it he stated:
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6. The 1965 act suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subjective voter tests. It authorized Federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. African Americans who had been barred from registering to vote finally had an alternative to taking suits to local or state courts. If voting discrimination occurred, the 1965 act authorized the Attorney General of the United States to send Federal examiners to replace local registrars. Johnson reportedly told associates of his concern that signing the bill had lost the white South as voters for the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future.
The act had an immediate and positive impact for African Americans. Within months of its passage, 250,000 new black voters had been registered, one third of them by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout at 74% and led the nation in the number of black public officials elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.
Several whites who had opposed the Voting Rights Act paid a quick price. In 1966 Sheriff Jim Clark of Alabama, infamous for using cattle prods against civil rights marchers, was up for reelection. Although he took off the notorious “Never” pin on his uniform, he was defeated. At the election, Clark lost as blacks voted to get him out of office. Clark later served a prison term for drug dealing.
Blacks’ regaining the power to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only about 100 African Americans held elective office, all in northern states of the U.S. By 1989, there were more than 7,200 African Americans in office, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county (where populations were majority black) in Alabama had a black sheriff. Southern blacks held top positions in city, county, and state governments.
Atlanta elected a black mayor, Andrew Young, as did Jackson, Mississippi, with Harvey Johnson, Jr., and New Orleans, with Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas in Congress, and Andrew Young was appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration. Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia State Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War prevented him from taking his seat until 1967. John Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987.
Memphis, King assassination and the Poor People’s March, 1968
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Rev. James Lawson invited King to Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968 to support a strike by sanitation workers. They had launched a campaign for union representation after two workers were accidentally killed on the job.
A day after delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Riots broke out in more than 110 cities across the United States in the days that followed, notably in Chicago, Baltimore, and in Washington, D.C. The damage done in many cities destroyed black businesses.
The day before King’s funeral, April 8, Coretta Scott King and three of the King children led 20,000 marchers through the streets of Memphis, holding signs that read, “Honor King: End Racism” and “Union Justice Now”. National Guardsmen lined the streets, perched on M-48 tanks, bayonets mounted, with helicopters circling overhead. On April 9 Mrs. King led another 150,000 in a funeral procession through the streets of Atlanta. Her dignity revived courage and hope in many of the Movement’s members, cementing her place as the new leader in the struggle for racial equality.
Coretta King famously remarked,
[Martin Luther King, Jr.] gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam. The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.—Coretta King
Rev. Ralph Abernathy succeeded King as the head of the SCLC and attempted to carry forth King’s plan for a Poor People’s March. It was to unite blacks and whites to campaign for fundamental changes in American society and economic structure. The march went forward under Abernathy’s plainspoken leadership but did not achieve its goals.
Avoiding the “Communist” label
On 17 December 1951, the Communist Party–affiliated Civil Rights Congress delivered the petition We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People”, often shortened to We Charge Genocide, to the United Nations in 1951, arguing that the U.S. federal government, by its failure to act against lynching in the United States, was guilty of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. The petition was presented to the United Nations at two separate venues: Paul Robeson, concert singer and activist, to a UN official in New York City, while William L. Patterson, executive director of the CRC, delivered copies of the drafted petition to a UN delegation in Paris. Patterson, the editor of the petition, was a leader in the Communist Party USA and head of the International Labor Defense, a group that offered legal representation to communists, trade unionists, and African-Americans in cases involving issues of political or racial persecution. As earlier Civil Rights figures like Robeson, Dubois and Patterson became more politically radical (and therefore targets of Cold War anti-Communism by the US. Government) they lost favor with both mainstream Black America and the NAACP. In order to secure a place in the mainstream and gain the broadest base, it was a matter of survival for the new generation of civil rights activists to openly distance themselves from anything and anyone Communist associated. Even with this distinction however, many civil rights leaders and organizations were still investigated by the FBI under J Edgar Hoover and labeled “Communist” or “subversive.” In the early 1960s, the practice of distancing the Civil Rights Movement from “Reds” was challenged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who adopted a policy of accepting assistance and participation by anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who supported the SNCC program and was willing to “put their body on the line.” At times this political openness put SNCC at odds with the NAACP.
Kennedy administration, 1961–1963
During the years preceding his election to the presidency, John F. Kennedy‘s record of voting on issues of racial discrimination had been scant. Kennedy openly confessed to his closest advisors that during the first months of his presidency, his knowledge of the civil rights movement was “lacking”.
For the first two years of the Kennedy administration, attitudes to both the president and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, were mixed. Many viewed the administration with suspicion. A well of historical cynicism toward white liberal politics had left a sense of uneasy disdain by African-Americans toward any white politician who claimed to share their concerns for freedom. Still, many had a strong sense that in the Kennedys there was a new age of political dialogue beginning.
Although observers frequently assert the phrase “The Kennedy administration” or even, “President Kennedy” when discussing the legislative and executive support of the Civil Rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, many of the initiatives were the result of Robert Kennedy’s passion. Through his rapid education in the realities of racism, Robert Kennedy underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney-General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, “What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?” Robert Kennedy replied, “Civil Rights.” The President came to share his brother’s sense of urgency on the matters to such an extent that it was at the Attorney-General’s insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.
When a white mob attacked and burned the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where King held out with protesters, the Attorney-General telephoned King to ask him not to leave the building until the U.S. Marshals and National Guard could secure the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for “allowing the situation to continue”. King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy’s commanding the force to break up an attack, which might otherwise have ended King’s life.
The relationship between the two men underwent change from mutual suspicion to one of shared aspirations. For Dr King, Robert Kennedy initially represented the ‘softly softly’ approach that in former years had disabled the movement of blacks against oppression in the U.S. For Robert Kennedy, King initially represented what he then considered an unrealistic militancy. Some white liberals regarded the militancy itself as the cause of so little governmental progress.
King initially regarded much of the efforts of the Kennedys as an attempt to control the movement and siphon off its energies. Yet he came to find the efforts of the brothers to be crucial. It was at Robert Kennedy’s constant insistence, through conversations with King and others, that King came to recognize the fundamental nature of electoral reform and suffrage—the need for black Americans to actively engage not only protest but political dialogue at the highest levels. In time the president gained King’s respect and trust, via the frank dialogue and efforts of the Attorney-General. Robert Kennedy became very much his brother’s key advisor on matters of racial equality. The president regarded the issue of civil rights to be a function of the Attorney-General’s office.
With a very small majority in Congress, the president’s ability to press ahead with legislation relied considerably on a balancing game with the Senators and Congressmen of the South. Indeed, without the support of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who had years of experience in Congress and longstanding relations there, many of the Attorney-General’s programs would not have progressed.
By late 1962, frustration at the slow pace of political change was balanced by the movement’s strong support for legislative initiatives: housing rights, administrative representation across all US Government departments, safe conditions at the ballot box, pressure on the courts to prosecute racist criminals. King remarked by the end of the year, “This administration has reached out more creatively than its predecessors to blaze new trails, [notably in voting rights and government appointments]. Its vigorous young men [had launched] imaginative and bold forays [and displayed] a certain élan in the attention they give to civil-rights issues.”
From squaring off against Governor George Wallace, to “tearing into” Vice-President Johnson (for failing to desegregate areas of the administration), to threatening corrupt white Southern judges with disbarment, to desegregating interstate transport, Robert Kennedy came to be consumed by the Civil Rights movement and later carried it forward into his own bid for the presidency in 1968. On the night of Governor Wallace’s capitulation, President Kennedy gave an address to the nation, which marked the changing tide, an address that was to become a landmark for the ensuing change in political policy. In it President Kennedy spoke of the need to act decisively and to act now:
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”—President Kennedy, 
Assassination cut short the life and careers of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The essential groundwork of the Civil Rights Act 1964 had been initiated before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The dire need for political and administrative reform had been driven home on Capitol Hill by the combined efforts of the Kennedy brothers, Dr. King (and other leaders) and President Lyndon Johnson.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy undertook a tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-apartheid movement. His tour gained international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the native population. He was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with LOOK Magazine he said:
At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. “But suppose God is black”, I replied. “What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?” There was no answer. Only silence.—Robert Kennedy , LOOK Magazine
American Jewish community and the Civil Rights movement
Many in the Jewish community supported the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, statistically Jews were one of the most actively involved non-black groups in the Movement. Many Jewish students worked in concert with African Americans for CORE, SCLC, and SNCC as full-time organizers and summer volunteers during the Civil Rights era. Jews made up roughly half of the white northern volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project and approximately half of the civil rights attorneys active in the South during the 1960s.
Jewish leaders were arrested while heeding a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964, where the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history took place at the Monson Motor Lodge—a nationally important civil rights landmark that was demolished in 2003 so that a Hilton Hotel could be built on the site. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a writer, rabbi and professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York was outspoken on the subject of civil rights. He marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in the 1965 March on Selma. In the Mississippi Burning murders of 1964, the two white activists killed, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were both Jewish.
Brandeis University, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college university in the world, created the Transitional Year Program (TYP)in 1968, in part response to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The faculty created it to renew the University’s commitment to social justice. Recognizing Brandeis as a university with a commitment to academic excellence, these faculty members created a chance to disadvantaged students to participate in an empowering educational experience.
The program began by admitting 20 black males. As it developed, two groups have been given chances. The first group consists of students whose secondary schooling experiences and/or home communities may have lacked the resources to foster adequate preparation for success at elite colleges like Brandeis. For example, their high schools do not offer AP or honors courses nor high quality laboratory experiences. Students selected had to have excelled in the curricula offered by their schools. The second group of students includes those whose life circumstances have created formidable challenges that required focus, energy, and skills that otherwise would have been devoted to academic pursuits. Some have served as heads of their households, others have worked full-time while attending high school full-time, and others have shown leadership in other ways.
While Jews were very active in the civil rights movement in the South, in the North, many had experienced a more strained relationship with African Americans. In communities experiencing white flight, racial rioting, and urban decay, Jewish Americans were more often the last remaining whites in the communities most affected. With Black militancy and the Black Power movements on the rise, Black Anti-Semitism increased leading to strained relations between Blacks and Jews in Northern communities. In New York City, most notably, there was a major socio-economic class difference in the perception of African Americans by Jews. Jews from better educated Upper Middle Class backgrounds were often very supportive of African American civil rights activities while the Jews in poorer urban communities that became increasingly minority were often less supportive largely in part due to more negative and violent interactions between the two groups.
Fraying of alliances
King reached the height of popular acclaim during his life in 1964, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His career after that point was filled with frustrating challenges. The liberal coalition that had gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to fray.
King was becoming more estranged from the Johnson administration. In 1965 he broke with it by calling for peace negotiations and a halt to the bombing of Vietnam. He moved further left in the following years, speaking of the need for economic justice and thoroughgoing changes in American society. He believed change was needed beyond the civil rights gained by the movement.
King’s attempts to broaden the scope of the Civil Rights Movement were halting and largely unsuccessful, however. King made several efforts in 1965 to take the Movement north to address issues of employment and housing discrimination. SCLC’s campaign in Chicago publicly failed, as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley marginalized SCLC’s campaign by promising to “study” the city’s problems. In 1966, white demonstrators holding “white power” signs in notoriously racist Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, threw stones at marchers demonstrating against housing segregation.
Race riots, 1963–1970
By the end of World War II, more than half of the country’s black population lived in Northern and Western industrial cities rather than Southern rural areas. Migrating to those cities for better job opportunities, education and to escape legal segregation, African Americans often found segregation that existed in fact rather than in law.
While after the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was not prevalent, by the 1960s other problems prevailed in northern cities. Beginning in the 1950s, deindustrialization and restructuring of major industries: railroads and meatpacking, steel industry and car industry, markedly reduced working-class jobs, which had earlier provided middle-class incomes. As the last population to enter the industrial job market, blacks were disadvantaged by its collapse. At the same time, investment in highways and private development of suburbs in the postwar years had drawn many ethnic whites out of the cities to newer housing in expanding suburbs. Urban blacks who did not follow the middle class out of the cities became concentrated in the older housing of inner-city neighborhoods, among the poorest in most major cities.
Because jobs in new service areas and parts of the economy were being created in suburbs, unemployment was much higher in many black than in white neighborhoods, and crime was frequent. African Americans rarely owned the stores or businesses where they lived. Many were limited to menial or blue-collar jobs, although union organizing in the 1930s and 1940s had opened up good working environments for some. African Americans often made only enough money to live in dilapidated tenements that were privately owned, or poorly maintained public housing. They also attended schools that were often the worst academically in the city and that had fewer white students than in the decades before WWII.
The racial makeup of most major city police departments, largely ethnic white (especially Irish), was a major factor in adding to racial tensions. Even a black neighborhood such as Harlem had a ratio of one black officer for every six white officers. The majority-black city of Newark, New Jersey had only 145 blacks among its 1322 police officers. Police forces in Northern cities were largely composed of white ethnics, descendants of 19th-century immigrants: mainly Irish, Italian, and Eastern European officers. They had established their own power bases in the police departments and in territories in cities. Some would routinely harass blacks with or without provocation.
One of the first major race riots took place in Harlem, New York, in the summer of 1964. A white Irish-American police officer, Thomas Gilligan, shot 15-year-old James Powell, who was black, for allegedly charging him armed with a knife. It was found that Powell was unarmed. A group of black citizens demanded Gilligan’s suspension. Hundreds of young demonstrators marched peacefully to the 67th Street police station on July 17, 1964, the day after Powell’s death. The police department did not suspend Gilligan. Although the precinct had promoted the NYPD‘s first black station commander, neighborhood residents were frustrated with racial inequalities. They looted and burned anything that was not black-owned in the neighborhood. Bedford-Stuyvesant, a major black neighborhood in Brooklyn erupted next. That summer, rioting also broke out in Philadelphia, for similar reasons.
In the aftermath of the riots of July 1964, the federal government funded a pilot program called Project Uplift. Thousands of young people in Harlem were given jobs during the summer of 1965. The project was inspired by a report generated by HARYOU called Youth in the Ghetto. HARYOU was given a major role in organizing the project, together with the National Urban League and nearly 100 smaller community organizations. Permanent jobs at living wages were still out of reach of many young black men.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, but the new law had no immediate effect on living conditions for blacks. A few days after the act became law, a riot broke out in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Like Harlem, Watts was an impoverished neighborhood with very high unemployment. Its residents were supervised by a largely white police department that had a history of abuse against blacks. While arresting a young man for drunk driving, police officers argued with the suspect’s mother before onlookers. The conflict triggered a massive destruction of property through six days of rioting. Thirty-four people were killed and property valued at about $30 million was destroyed, making the Watts Riots among the worst in American history.
With black militancy on the rise, ghetto residents directed acts of anger at the police. Black residents growing tired of police brutality continued to riot. Some young people joined groups such as the Black Panthers, whose popularity was based in part on their reputation for confronting police officers. Riots among blacks occurred in 1966 and 1967 in cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Newark, Chicago, New York City (specifically in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx), and worst of all in Detroit.
In Detroit, a comfortable black middle class had begun to develop among families of blacks who worked at good-paying jobs in the automotive industry. Blacks who had not moved upward were living in much worse conditions, subject to the same problems as blacks in Watts and Harlem. When white police officers shut down an illegal bar on a liquor raid and arrested a large group of patrons during the hot summer, furious residents rioted.
One significant effect of the Detroit riot was the acceleration of “white flight“, an ethnic succession by which ethnic white residents, who had become better established economically, moved out of inner-city neighborhoods to newer housing in the suburbs, which were first settled by European Americans, or whites. Poorer migrants and immigrants had the older housing in the city. Demonstrating the economic basis of the suburban migration, Detroit lost some of its black middle class as well, as did cities such as Washington, DC and Chicago during the next decades. As a result of suburbanization, the riots, and migration of jobs to the suburbs, formerly prosperous industrial cities, such as Detroit, Newark, and Baltimore, now have less than 40% white population. Newark is close enough to New York to attract new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East as well. Changes in industry caused continued job losses, depopulation of middle classes, and concentrated poverty in such cities in the late 20th century.
President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967. The commission’s final report called for major reforms in employment and public assistance for black communities. It warned that the United States was moving toward separate white and black societies. In April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, rioting broke out in cities across the country from frustration and despair. These included Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City and Louisville, Kentucky. As in previous riots, most of the damage was done in black neighborhoods. In some cities, it has taken more than a quarter of a century for these areas to recover from the damage of the riots; in others, little recovery has been achieved.
Programs in affirmative action resulted in the hiring of more black police officers in every major city. Today blacks make up a proportional majority of the police departments in cities such as Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, and Detroit. Civil rights laws have reduced employment discrimination.
The conditions that led to frequent rioting in the late 1960s have receded, but not all the problems have been solved. With industrial and economic restructuring, hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs disappeared since the later 1950s from the old industrial cities. Some moved South, as has much population following new jobs, and others out of the U.S. altogether. Civil unrest broke out in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, and in Cincinnati in 2001.
Black power, 1966
At the same time King was finding himself at odds with factions of the Democratic Party, he was facing challenges from within the Civil Rights Movement to the two key tenets upon which the movement had been based: integration and non-violence. Stokely Carmichael, who became the leader of SNCC in 1966, was one of the earliest and most articulate spokespersons for what became known as the “Black Power” movement after he used that slogan, coined by activist and organizer Willie Ricks, in Greenwood, Mississippi on June 17, 1966.
In 1966 SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael began urging African American communities to confront the Ku Klux Klan armed and ready for battle. He felt it was the only way to ever rid the communities of the terror caused by the Klan.
Several people engaging in the Black Power movement started to gain more of a sense in black pride and identity as well. In gaining more of a sense of a cultural identity, several blacks demanded that whites no longer refer to them as “Negroes” but as “Afro-Americans.” Up until the mid-1960s, blacks had dressed similarly to whites and straightened their hair. As a part of gaining a unique identity, blacks started to wear loosely fit dashikis and had started to grow their hair out as a natural afro. The afro, sometimes nicknamed the “‘fro,” remained a popular black hairstyle until the late 1970s.
Black Power was made most public, however, by the Black Panther Party, which was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed the ideology of Malcolm X, a former member of the Nation of Islam, using a “by-any-means necessary” approach to stopping inequality. They sought to rid African American neighborhoods of police brutality and created a ten-point plan amongst other things. Their dress code consisted of black leather jackets, berets, slacks, and light blue shirts. They wore an afro hairstyle. They are best remembered for setting up free breakfast programs, referring to police officers as “pigs”, displaying shotguns and a raised fist, and often using the statement of “Power to the people“.
Black Power was taken to another level inside prison walls. In 1966, George Jackson formed the Black Guerrilla Family in the California San Quentin State Prison. The goal of this group was to overthrow the white-run government in America and the prison system. In 1970, this group displayed their dedication after a white prison guard was found not guilty of shooting and killing three black prisoners from the prison tower. They retaliated by killing a white prison guard.
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Released in August 1968, the number one Rhythm & Blues single for the Billboard Year-End list was James Brown‘s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud“. In October 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while being awarded the gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Summer Olympics, donned human rights badges and each raised a black-gloved Black Power salute during their podium ceremony. Incidentally, it was the suggestion of white silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, for Smith and Carlos to each wear one black glove. Smith and Carlos were immediately ejected from the games by the United States Olympic Committee, and later the International Olympic Committee issued a permanent lifetime ban for the two. However, the Black Power movement had been given a stage on live, international television.
King was not comfortable with the “Black Power” slogan, which sounded too much like black nationalism to him. SNCC activists, in the meantime, began embracing the “right to self-defense” in response to attacks from white authorities, and booed King for continuing to advocate non-violence. When King was murdered in 1968, Stokely Carmichael stated that whites murdered the one person who would prevent rampant rioting and that blacks would burn every major city to the ground. In every major city from Boston to San Francisco, racial riots broke out in the black community following King’s death and as a result, “White Flight” occurred from several cities leaving Blacks in a dilapidated and nearly unrepairable city.
Gates v. Collier
Conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, then known as Parchman Farm, became part of the public discussion of civil rights after activists were imprisoned there. In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders came to the South to test the desegregation of public facilities. By the end of June 1963, Freedom Riders had been convicted in Jackson, Mississippi. Many were jailed in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Mississippi employed the trusty system, a hierarchical order of inmates that used some inmates to control and enforce punishment of other inmates.
In 1970 the civil rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from inmates. He collected 50 pages of details of murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses suffered by the inmates from 1969 to 1971 at Mississippi State Penitentiary. In a landmark case known as Gates v. Collier (1972), four inmates represented by Haber sued the superintendent of Parchman Farm for violating their rights under the United States Constitution.
Federal Judge William C. Keady found in favor of the inmates, writing that Parchman Farm violated the civil rights of the inmates by inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. He ordered an immediate end to all unconstitutional conditions and practices. Racial segregation of inmates was abolished. And the trustee system, which allow certain inmates to have power and control over others, was also abolished.
The prison was renovated in 1972 after the scathing ruling by Judge Keady; he wrote that the prison was an affront to “modern standards of decency.” Among other reforms, the accommodations were made fit for human habitation. The system of “trusties” was abolished. (The prison had armed lifers with rifles and given them authority to oversee and guard other inmates, which led to many abuses and murders.)
In integrated correctional facilities in northern and western states, blacks represented a disproportionate number of the prisoners, in excess of their proportion of the general population. They were often treated as second-class citizens by white correctional officers. Blacks also represented a disproportionately high number of death row inmates. Eldridge Cleaver‘s book Soul on Ice was written from his experiences in the California correctional system; it contributed to black militancy.
There was an international context for the actions of the U.S. Federal government during these years. It had stature to maintain in Europe and a need to appeal to the people in the Third World. In Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, the historian Mary L. Dudziak argued that Communists critical of the United States criticized the nation for its hypocrisy in portraying itself as the “leader of the free world,” when so many of its citizens were subjected to severe racial discrimination and violence. She argued that this was a major factor in the government moving to support civil rights legislation.