The American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the reform movements in the United States aimed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring suffrage in Southern states. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1954 and 1968, particularly in the South. By 1966, 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 whites.
Many of those who were most active in the Civil Rights Movement, with organizations such as SNCC, CORE and SCLC, prefer the term "Southern Freedom Movement" because the struggle was about far more than just civil rights under law; it was also about fundamental issues of freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality.
After the disputed election of 1876 and the end of Reconstruction, White Americans in the South resumed political control of the region under a one-party system of Democratic control. The voting rights of blacks were increasingly suppressed, racial segregation imposed, and violence against African Americans mushroomed. This period is often referred to as the "nadir of American race relations," and while it was most intense in the South to a lesser degree it affected the entire nation.
The system of overt, state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged out of the post-Reconstruction South and spread nation-wide became known as the "Jim Crow" system, and it remained virtually intact into the early 1950s. Systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans took place in Southern states at the turn of the century and lasted until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s. For more than 60 years, they were not able to elect one person in the South to represent their interests. Because they could not vote, they could not sit on juries limited to voters. They had no part in the justice system or law enforcement, although in the 1880s, they had held many local offices, including that of sheriff.
African-Americans and other racial minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations, political redress, and labor organizing (see the American Civil Rights Movement 1896-1954). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 and it struggled 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.
Since 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 1910-1970, African Americans sought better lives by migrating north and west in the millions, a huge population movement collectively known as the Great Migration.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by its lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation in the face of "massive resistance" by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, they 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.
During the period 1955-1968, acts of civil disobedience produced crisis situations between protesters and government authorities. The authorities of federal, state, and local governments often had to respond immediately to crisis situations which highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of civil disobedience included boycotts, beginning with the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) in Alabama; "sit-ins" such as the influential Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; and marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama.
Noted legislative achievements during this phase of the Civil Rights Movement were passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination 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 Civil Rights Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
Churches, the centers of their communities, and local grassroots organizations 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.
The Montgomery Improvement Association—created to lead the 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 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 St. John Island. SCLC took over the program and duplicated its results elsewhere.
One of Martin Luther King's strategies was to challenge mainstream America on moral grounds to end the racial abuse and segregation in the South. The medium of television was particularly effective at conveying the news about the conditions of the quality of life for African Americans in the South. The news broadcasts and documentary film making were the first forms for presenting these stories. Later in the 1970s, the film "Roots" by Alex Haley was said to be a turning point in mainstream America's ability to relate to the stresses and particularities of African American history.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (the "mother of the Civil Rights Movement") refused to get up out of 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 protest the segregation of blacks and whites on 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 took part in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue by 80%. A federal court ordered Montgomery's buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph. (W. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey,
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.
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 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 Americans outside the school, and the police had to take her away in a patrol car to protect her. Afterwards, 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 weren't around. One of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown, was expelled for spilling a bowl of chili on the head of a white student who was allegedly harassing her in the school lunch line.
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. 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 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. 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. By the end of 1960, the sit-ins had spread to every southern and border state and even to Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio.
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 1960 activists who had led these sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to take these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Founded ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
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 inter-state 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 15 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."
Mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham temporarily halted the rides until SNCC activists arrived in Birmingham to resume them. In Montgomery, Alabama 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.
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.
Eventually, public sympathy and support for the freedom riders forced 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 1st, 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, the single-minded activist who "kept on" despite many beatings and harassments; 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—the most rural and most dangerous part of the South; 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 (associated with Atlanta University); Hosea Williams; and Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture).
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 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 rolls. 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 of 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 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.
James Meredith won a lawsuit that allowed him admission to the University of Mississippi in September 1962. He attempted to enter campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26, only to be blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett, who proclaimed that "no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor."
After the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held both 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, Meredith, escorted by a force of U.S. Marshals, entered the campus on September 30, 1962. White students and other whites began rioting that evening, throwing rocks at the U.S. Marshals guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall, then firing on the marshals. 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 Kennedy sent the regular Army to the campus to quell the uprising. Meredith was able to begin classes the following day, after the troops arrived.
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.
The Albany movement proved to be an important education for the SCLC, however, when it undertook the Birmingham campaign in 1963. The campaign focused on one goal—the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown merchants, rather than total desegregation, as in Albany. It was also 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 by jail authorities. Supporters pressured the Kennedy Administration to intervene to obtain King's release or better conditions. King eventually was allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and was released on April 19.
The campaign, however, was faltering because the movement was running out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest. SCLC organizers came up with a bold and controversial alternative, calling on high school students to take part in the demonstrations. More than one thousand students skipped school on May 2 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.
Widespread public outrage forced the Kennedy Administration to intervene more forcefully in the 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 had accumulated a great deal of skepticism about the good faith of Birmingham's power structure from his experience in dealing with them. The reaction from parts of the white community was even more violent. The Gaston Motel, which housed the SCLC's unofficial headquarters, was bombed, as was the home of King's brother, the Reverend A. D. King. Kennedy prepared to federalize the Alabama National Guard but did not follow through. Four months later, on September 15, 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 enough force to make Governor Wallace step aside, allowing the enrollment of two black students. That evening, JFK addressed the nation on TV and radio with a historic civil rights speech. The next day Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. The next week as promised, on June 19, 1963, JFK submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
A. Philip Randolph had planned a march on Washington, D.C., in 1941 in support of 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 real 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.
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 how little it had done 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 to be sincerely committed to passing the bill, it was not clear that it had the votes to do it. But 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.
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.
Three civil rights workers, 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 murdered by members of the Klan, some of them members of the Neshoba County sheriff's department, on June 21, 1964 (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 all the forces of white supremacy arrayed against them — only 1,600 (less than 10%) succeeded. But more than 80,000 joined the MFDP.
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 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. When the lives of affluent northern white students were threatened and taken, the full attention of the media spotlight turned on the state. The apparent disparity between the value which the media placed on the lives of whites and blacks embittered many black activists. Perhaps the most significant effect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers themselves, almost all of whom — black and white — still consider it one of the defining periods of their lives.
Blacks in Mississippi had been disfranchised by statutory and constitutional changes since the late 1800s. 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 which 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 within the convention, even 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. They were then removed by the national party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there the day before, they stayed to sing freedom songs.
The 1964 Democratic Party convention disillusioned many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement, but it did not destroy the MFDP itself. The MFDP became more radical after Atlantic City. It invited Malcolm X, of the Nation of Islam, to speak at one of its conventions and opposed the war in Vietnam.
On December 10, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest man to receive the award; he was 35 years of age.
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.
On March 7,1965, 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, however, 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 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 to the site of Bloody Sunday on March 9, however, 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, Johnson delivered a televised address to support of 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 his concern to associates that signing the bill had lost the white South 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, one quarter of a million, 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—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.
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 within city, county, and state governments.
Atlanta elected a black mayor, Andrew Young, as did Jackson, Mississippi—Harvey Johnson—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 Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam 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.
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 "Mountaintop" sermon at Lawson's church, 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. It would take more than a generation for those areas to recover. Some still have not.
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.
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.
The naiveté of the Kennedy brothers was demonstrated in Robert Kennedy's declaration in 1962 that, "[T]he Irish were not wanted here. Now an Irish Catholic is President of the United States. There is no question about it, in the next forty years a Negro can achieve the same position."
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 actually 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 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 slim 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 Johnson, who had years of experience in Congress and longstanding relations there, many of the Attorney-General's programs would not have progressed at all.
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 [in voting rights and government appointments]. Its vigorous young men have 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. He 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 which was to become a landmark for the change in political policy which ensued. 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."
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 administration, 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."
Many in the Jewish-American community supported the Civil Rights Movement and Jews were more actively involved in the civil rights movement than any other white group in America. 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 with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. 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.
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.
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. His campaign in Chicago failed, as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley marginalized King'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 King and other marchers demonstrating against housing segregation. King was injured in this attack.
While the Ku Klux Klan was not as prevalent as it was in the South, other problems prevailed in northern cities. Urban black neighborhoods were among the poorest in most major cities. Unemployment was much higher than in white neighborhoods, and crime was frequent. African Americans rarely owned the stores or businesses where they lived and mostly worked menial or blue-collar jobs for a fraction of the pay that white co-workers received. 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 very few white students. Worst of all, black neighborhoods were subject to police problems that white neighborhoods were not at all accustomed to dealing with.
The police forces in America were set up with the motto "To Protect and Serve." Rarely did this occur in any black neighborhoods. Rather, many blacks felt police only existed to "Patrol and Control." The racial makeup of the police departments, usually largely white, was a large factor. In black neighborhoods such as Harlem, the ratio was only one black officer for every six white officers, and in majority black cities such as Newark, New Jersey only 145 of the 1322 police officers were black. Police forces in Northern cities were largely composed of white ethnics, mainly Irish, Italian, and Eastern European officers who 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 a 15-year-old black named James Powell for allegedly charging at him with a knife. In fact, 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.
Gilligan was not suspended. Although this precinct had promoted the NYPD's first black station commander, neighborhood residents were tired of the inequalities. They looted and burned anything that was not black-owned in the neighborhood. This unrest spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a major black neighborhood in Brooklyn. 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, in which 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, however, 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 had to endure patrols by a largely white police department. 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 riot one of the worst in American history.
With black militancy on the rise, increased acts of anger were now directed at the police. Black residents growing tired of police brutality continued to rebel. Some young people joined groups such as the Black Panthers, whose popularity was based in part on their reputation for confronting abusive police officers.
Riots 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 well-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, furious residents rioted.
One significant effect of the Detroit riot was the acceleration of "white flight," the trend of white residents moving from inner-city neighborhoods to predominantly white suburbs. Detroit experienced "middle class black flight" as well. Cities such as Detroit, Newark, and Baltimore now have less than 40% white population as a result of these riots and other social changes. Changes in industry caused continued job losses, depopulation of middle classes, and concentrated poverty in such cities. They contain some of the worst living conditions for blacks anywhere in America.
As a result of the riots, 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.
Fresh rioting broke out in April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Riots erupted in many major cities at once, including Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where damage was especially severe.
Affirmative Action altered the hiring process of more black police officers in every major city. 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, tens of thousands of industrial jobs disappeared since the later 1950s from the old industrial cities. Some moved South, as has much population, and others out of the US altogether. Civil unrest broke out in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, and in Cincinnati in 2001.
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. Black activists within SNCC and CORE had chafed for some time at the influence wielded by white advisors to civil rights organizations and the disproportionate attention that was given to the deaths of white civil rights workers while black workers' deaths often went virtually unnoticed. 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 combed their hair straight. 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 founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed ideology stated by Malcolm X and 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 had a ten-point plan amongst other things. Their dress code consisted of leather jackets, berets, light blue shirts, and an afro hairstyle. They are best remembered for setting up free breakfast programs, referring to police officers as "pigs", displaying shotguns and a black power fist, and often using the statement of "Power to the people."
Black Power was taken to another level inside of prison walls. In 1966, George Jackson formed the Black Guerilla Family in the California prison of San Quentin. The goal of this group was to overthrow the white-run government in America and the prison system in general. This group also preaches the general hatred of Whites and Jews everywhere. In 1970, this group displayed their ruthlessness after a white prison guard was found not guilty for shooting three black prisoners from the prison tower. The guard was found cut to pieces, and a message was sent throughout the whole prison of how serious the group was.
Also in 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 USOC, and later the IOC 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 burning of major cities down 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.
In 1970 Civil Rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from inmates, which eventually totalled fifty 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 in which he wrote that the prison was an affront to "modern standards of decency." Among other reforms, the accommodations were made fit for human habitation and the system of "trusties" (in which lifers were armed with rifles and set to guard other inmates) was abolished.
In integrated correctional facilities in northern and western states, blacks represented a disproportionate amount of the prisoners and were often treated as second class citizens at the hands of white correctional officers. Blacks also represented a disproportionate number of death row inmates. As a result, Black Power found a ready constituency inside prison walls where gangs such as the Black Guerilla Family were formed as a way to redress the disproportionalities, organizing Black inmates to take militant action. Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice was written from his experiences in the California correctional system and further fueled black militancy.
National economic empowerment organizations:
Local civil rights organizations: