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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.