Excerpted from: Rediscovering the American Republic, vol. 2: 1877–Present

Return to Previous: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 1870–1960

In the mid 1960s, the African American civil rights movement reached its zenith. Northern whites increasingly sympathized with southern blacks, while southern whites who resisted the movement fell behind the changing times. When local law enforcement failed to keep the peace, the federal government had little choice but to act. The movement’s mainstream followed the leadership of Martin Luther King, who celebrated the guarantees of personal liberty and equal rights before the law as contained in the nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A reformer more than a revolutionary, King knew how to rally white politicians to his people’s cause. Indeed, he knew how to frame the issue as all humanity’s cause. But King did not act alone. Other leaders emerged with ambitions of their own.

The Freedom Riders (1961)

When blacks in the Deep South wrote letters to the Chicago-based Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) to complain about segregation on interstate buses and at bus stations, CORE planned an interracial “freedom ride.” Blacks and whites would ride through the South side-by-side in friendship, ignoring Jim Crow. Starting in Washington, DC, the freedom riders aimed to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, 1961—the anniversary of the Brown ruling. Like King’s followers in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956 and the sit-in participants of 1960, the freedom riders committed themselves to the principle of nonviolence, borrowed both from Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi. CORE’s national director, James Farmer, took encouragement from recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting racial discrimination in interstate transportation. Having federal law on their side, the freedom riders sought to make a spectacle of southern whites who might harass them along their journey.

Harassment was not the half of it. In Anniston, Alabama—sixty miles east of Birmingham—the bus driver himself used the n-word and delivered the freedom riders into the hands of a white mob. Windows were smashed, tires were slashed, and a smoke bomb forced the riders out, resulting in serious wounds to several riders whom the mob pummeled as they exited. One of the white freedom riders suffered such trauma that he was confined to a wheelchair for life. After an Alabama state patrolmen called the attackers off, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sent rescue cars.

When the freedom riders resumed their journey, more trouble broke out. As FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and local government officials negotiated by telephone, the riders fled from one ambush to another until finally being carted off to a state prison in Mississippi. With the riders behind bars, under pretentious charges of “disorderly conduct,” thousands of other southern blacks took their places to integrate bus terminals. Finally, the attorney general directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to require that all interstate terminals display signs clearly stating that seating was available without regard to race. Thus, the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate interstate transportation was implemented at last.

The Albany Movement (1961–1962)

Following the success of the freedom rides, a young Baptist preacher named Charles Sherrod mobilized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to recruit other civil rights groups into a partnership known as the Albany Movement. Founded by two locals—a pharmacist and a realtor—the Albany Movement first tried to sway city officials into desegregating downtown businesses by organizing boycotts. The next phase involved sit-ins that targeted hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, meanwhile, had been doing his homework. He knew that the earlier civil rights victories had depended upon the sympathy that northern whites had for southern blacks who suffered violence from local whites. Pritchett therefore planned to arrest and jail the demonstrators in as peaceful a manner as possible. When more volunteers arrived, thinking Pritchett could not possibly arrest all of them, the police chief trucked them off to jails in other towns. Before long, no one was left on the streets to protest segregation. The Albany Movement had failed, but black leaders would learn from this experience.

James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford (1962)

When Air Force veteran James Meredith sought to enroll at the University of Mississippi, he knew he was asking for trouble. He desired nothing less than for the federal government—the same government that had stationed him in Japan to promote freedom in Asia—to protect his right to go to college regardless of the color of his skin. “Ole Miss,” the pride of Mississippi’s white ruling class, was just the place to stage this drama. Not surprisingly, the registrar rejected Meredith’s application, choosing one technicality after another in what became a twenty-month-long battle. Governor Ross Barnett, who had campaigned on a segregationist platform, rallied support for the southern cause in the university football stadium. Playing the crowd with his political savvy, Barnett promised, “No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor. . . . Never!”

In the end, Meredith received a seat in the classroom, but not before the biggest fight of his life. A federal court ruled in his favor—that was the easy part. With southern leaders refusing to honor the court order, U.S. marshals prepared to escort Meredith onto campus. Suddenly, decades of pent-up frustration broke lose all across the South. As if the Civil War had not yet ended, as if there was one more opportunity for the South to show its sovereignty over the federal government, volunteers from neighboring states joined local residents in armed opposition against the U.S. marshals. In the ensuing mayhem, a foreign journalist was killed and all footage of the event was destroyed. Bricks landed on people’s heads, tear gas filled the air, and a desperate U.S. marshal stuck a coin into a payphone to call for reinforcements. With negotiations between Jackson, Mississippi, and Washington, DC, getting nowhere fast, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in the 503rd Marine Battalion to restore order. Recalling Eisenhower’s dealings with Little Rock, President John F. Kennedy federalized the Mississippi National Guard. Meredith finally got what he wanted, but at a price few others would be willing to pay.

Birmingham (1963)

Drawing lessons from the failure in Albany, the SCLC planned Project C for Birmingham, Alabama. “C” stood for “Confrontation” through sit-ins, city hall marches, and the Children’s Crusade. Until this point, King had been careful never to disobey a federal court order. In Albany, for example, he relaxed his protest when a federal judge set limits. King’s strategy was always to win the approval of the federal government in order to trump the local government. Now King began to think differently. In defiance of a federal judge’s order, King led a march to Birmingham’s city hall, promising not to disperse until “Pharaoh lets God’s people go.” Not surprisingly, he was arrested.

Scribbling on scraps of paper from his jail cell, King wrote an eloquent appeal, known as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he explained, and then broadened his vision into a universal principle: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King proceeded to argue, in the spirit of St. Augustine, that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He therefore advocated civil disobedience, emphasizing all the while that any protest for justice must remain nonviolent. “The purpose of our direct-action campaign is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” explained King. He also made a passionate appeal to white moderates, faulting them for not supporting the civil rights campaign: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As the nation pondered King’s moralizing from the newspaper pages that reprinted his letter, the final phase of the Birmingham movement began. Hundreds of children walked in a campaign for desegregation. When news cameras recorded the peaceful children being carted off to jail, more children came to take their place. At his wit’s end, public safety commissioner Bull Connor ordered the police to spray fire hoses to disperse the crowd of children. As Connor had hoped, the crowd dispersed, but to his horror, the media took pictures of the trauma that the powerful hoses inflicted upon the children. “The civil rights movement,” noted President Kennedy, “should thank God for Bull Connor.” With southern whites appearing cruel, northern political sympathy for the civil rights movement reached new heights.

The March on Washington (1963)

In May 1963, Robert Kennedy met in a New York City apartment with black leaders to learn firsthand about their experiences with racial injustice. Kennedy discovered that all blacks—not just impoverished southern blacks—longed for freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow. Afterward, Kennedy testified before Congress that something needed to change. In reference to blacks who served in the military, he pleaded, “How can you say to a man that in a time of war, you’re an American citizen, but the rest of the time you’re a citizen of the state of Mississippi, and we can’t protect you?”

Meanwhile, A. Philip Randolph, who had attempted to hold a mass rally in Washington, DC, in 1941, thought the time had come to try once more. The leadership of every major civil rights organization—including the SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP, CORE, and the National Urban League—coordinated a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” to be held in August 1963. Although President Kennedy had promised civil rights legislation in his June 11 television address, he worried that a mass rally might take a radical turn against his administration. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who suspected King of communism, found the proposed march threatening as well. Randolph’s dream nearly evaporated when word leaked about the criticism that SNCC speaker John Lewis was planning to voice against the Justice Department. Pleading with tears in his eyes, Randolph persuaded Lewis to soften up his language just moments before he took the stage.

In the end, Lewis’s speech was hardly memorable. Martin Luther King’s voice boomed “I have a dream” from the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of some 250,000 people, plus innumerable more via television broadcast. Masterfully, King united the highest ambitions of America’s political tradition—yes, even the tradition of white men—with biblical prophecy in a poetic cadence of freedom for all:

When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . . .

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . .

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. . . .

And when this happens, when we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

King succeeded where Lewis had nearly failed: the civil rights movement would henceforth be grafted into the mainstream of American political identity, as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations pushed Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even so, these victories for civil rights would come at a cost. The Democratic Party alienated its southern white constituents when endorsing the civil rights movement. More significantly, since the South failed to implement local solutions for ensuring racial justice, the federal government filled the void with an expansion of power that would not easily contract in more benevolent times.

Continue with Next: Overview of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, 1957–1965


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