Monday, June 13, 2016

From Montgomery to Equality: The Civil Rights Movement

From Montgomery to Equality: The Civil Rights Movement

The modern period of civil rights reform can be divided into several phases, each beginning with isolated, small-scale protests and ultimately resulting in the emergence of new, more militant movements, leaders, and organizations. The Brown v. Board of Education case overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and demonstrated that the activist litigation strategy could undermine the legal foundations of southern segregationist practices. However, the strategy only worked when blacks, acting individually or in small groups, assumed the risks associated with crossing racial barriers. Thus, even after the Supreme Court declared that school segregation was unconstitutional, black activism was necessary to compel the federal government to implement the decision and extend its principles to all areas of public life rather than simply in schools. During the 1950s and 1960s, an increasingly massive and militant social movement of African-Americans brought about a broad range of social changes.

From a Montgomery Bus to the Lincoln Monument

The initial phase of the black protest activity in the post-Brown period began on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, thereby defying a southern custom that required blacks to give seats toward the front of buses to whites. When she was jailed, a black community boycott of the city’s buses began in response. The boycott lasted more than a year, demonstrating the unity and determination of blacks in the city, and inspiring blacks elsewhere.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia 
Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the boycott movement’s most effective leader. As a Baptist minister with unique conciliatory and oratorical skills. He understood the larger significance of the boycott and quickly realized that the nonviolent tactics used by the Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi could be employed by southern blacks. “I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom,” he explained. Although Parks and King were members of the NAACP, the Montgomery movement led to the creation in 1957 of a new regional organization, the clergy-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as its president. King’s efforts would eventually be acknowledged with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

King remained the principal spokesperson for black aspirations, but, as in Montgomery, it was little-known individuals who initiated most counter-culture movements. On February 1, 1960, four freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College began a wave of student sit-ins designed to end segregation at southern lunch counters. These protests spread rapidly throughout the South and led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNC), in April 1960. This student-led group, even more aggressive in its use of nonviolent direct action tactics than King’s SCLC, stressed the development of autonomous local movements in contrast to SCLCs strategy of using local campaigns.

"I Have A Dream"
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The SCLC protest strategy achieved its first major success in 1963 when the group launched a major campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Highly publicized confrontations between nonviolent protesters, including schoolchildren, on the one hand, and police with clubs, fire hoses, and police dogs, on the other, gained national sympathy. The Birmingham clashes and other simultaneous civil rights efforts prompted President John F. Kennedy to push for passage of new civil rights legislation. By the summer of 1963, the Birmingham protests had become only one of many local protest insurgencies that culminated in the August 28 March on Washington, which attracted at least 200,000 participants. King’s address on that occasion captured the idealistic spirit of the expanding protests. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he began his speech like the Gettysburg Address and referred to the Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation. Like Lincoln’s great speeches from a century before, he also uses Biblical references to connect with the listeners. Some say that the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech vaulted him alongside Jefferson and Lincoln as one of America’s greatest orators.

Although some whites reacted negatively to the spreading protests of 1963, King’s linkage of black militancy and idealism helped bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation outlawed segregation in public facilities and racial discrimination in employment and education. In addition to blacks, women and other victims of discrimination benefited from the act.

Selma to Montgomery

SCLCs protest strategy and SNCC’S organizing activities were responsible for major Alabama protests in 1965, which prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce new voting rights legislation. On March 7 an SCLC planned march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery ended almost before it began at Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma when mounted police using tear gas and wielding clubs attacked the protesters. News accounts of “Bloody Sunday” brought hundreds of civil rights sympathizers to Selma.

Many demonstrators were determined to mobilize another march, and activists challenged King to defy a court order forbidding such marches. Reluctant to do anything that would lessen public support for the voting rights cause, King abandoned a second attempt on March 9 when he saw police blocking the bridge. That evening, a group of Selma whites killed a northern white minister who had joined the demonstrations. In contrast to the killing of a black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a few weeks before, the Reverend James Reeb’s death led to a national outcry. After several postponements, a court order to allow them to proceed, and the backing of President Johnson, the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March began on March 21.

March to Mongomery 
This Selma to Montgomery march was the culmination of a stage of the African-American freedom struggle. Soon afterward, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which substantially increased the number of southern blacks able to register to vote. However, it was also the last major racial protest of the 1960s to receive substantial white support.

By the late 1960s, these first organizations faced increasingly strong challenges from new militant organizations, such as the Black Panther party. The Panthers’ strategy of “picking up the gun” reflected the sentiments of many inner-city blacks. A series of violent riots (termed “rebellions” by sympathizers), erupted during the last half of the 1960s. Often influenced by the black nationalism of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, proponents of black liberation saw civil rights reforms as insufficient because it did not address the lingering poverty issues. Severe government repression, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the intense infighting within the black militant community caused a decline in protest activity after the 1960s.

King and Malcolm X awaiting a press conference, 1964
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
The African-American struggle for equality left a permanent mark on American society. Overt forms of racial discrimination and government-supported segregation of public facilities came to an end. In the South, antiblack violence declined. Black candidates were elected to political offices in communities where blacks had once been barred from voting. Southern colleges and universities that once excluded blacks began to recruit them. However, despite the civil rights gains of the 1960s, racial discrimination and repression remained a significant factor in American life. Civil rights advocates acknowledged that desegregation had not brought significant improvements in the lives of poor blacks, but they were divided over the future direction of black advancement efforts. Without a clear path forward, most of the efforts of the 1970s and 1980s activists were devoted to defending previous gains or strengthening enforcement mechanisms.

The modern African-American civil rights movement transformed American democracy. Nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans in Southern states still inhabited a starkly unequal world of “Jim Crow” laws. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, and in the turbulent decade and a half that followed, civil rights activists used nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to bring about change, including legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Many leaders from within the African American community and beyond rose to prominence during the Civil Rights era, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and others. They risked—and sometimes lost—their lives in the name fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

The Civil Rights Memorial
Engraved with the names of 41 people of all races who lost their lives fighting for equal rights
Mongomery, Alabama

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