‘We are determined to struggle for justice and equality’: The Civil Rights era in African American history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Volume 15

In 1956, shortly after being convicted of violating an anti-boycott law in Montgomery, Alabama, a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed:

‘As I look at it, I guess I have committed three sins. The first sin I have committed is being born a Negro. The second sin that I have committed, along with all of us, is being subjected to the battering rams of segregation and oppression. The third and more basic sin which all of us have committed is the sin of having the moral courage to stand up and express our weariness of this oppression . . . Thank God we are no longer content to accept second-class citizenship, but we are determined to struggle for justice and equality.’

King, whose name has become almost synonymous with the civil rights struggle in the US South over subsequent decades, was at this time a rising leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the early campaigns of the civil rights movement.
But before discussing King and the civil rights movement, we have to step back in time. The civil rights movement was an important episode in a much longer struggle that has confronted, often imperfectly, the central contradiction of American democracy—namely that, while proclaiming the equality of mankind, the oppression of black people has always been a defining point of American politics and society. From slavery to the Jim Crow era, and even to the present, the treatment of black people in the United States has belied the nation’s professed democratic ideals.
More to the point, many of the rights for which black people fought in the 1950s and 1960s had been ostensibly gained for them in the previous century, which is where we will begin our discussion.

Reconstruction, 1863–77

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party, was elected president in a four-way race. Though Lincoln was not in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, his election sent waves of panic through the white population of the South. By April 1861, eleven seceded Southern states, grouped together as the Confederate States of America, were at war with the US.
Lincoln initially refused to emancipate the slaves. But the action of hundreds of thousands of slaves themselves, who headed for Union lines en masse, forced his hand, and on 1 January 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in rebellious areas free. The end of slavery would be codified more permanently and comprehensively in 1865 in the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which categorically banned slavery.
At the end of the Civil War, and to an extent during it, the question arose as to what would happen to black people. For over two centuries they had been servile plantation workers, the backbone of the Southern economy. What rights would they have? Were they even citizens of the United States? Should they be allowed the vote? As one might imagine, answers varied.
To make a long story very short, the radical wing of the Republican Party, in alliance with a coalition of black people, transplanted Northern whites (contemptuously called ‘carpet-baggers’) and a minority of Southern whites (contemptuously called ‘scalawags’), set about attempting to reconstruct the South on a more egalitarian basis in the period known as Reconstruction. At least on paper, the Reconstruction-era Southern governments were models of progressive thinking put into action. The civil rights provisions in Southern constitutions often compared favourably with Northern states, and did away with many of the iniquities that the planter élite had used to hold down both black and poorer white people before the Civil War. State-funded public education became the norm in the South for the first time ever, and provisions were made for the founding of penitentiaries, orphanages and insane asylums—all of which had been in short supply in the region before the Civil War. On a national level, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution protected black civil rights and voting rights respectively.
But the Republican governments had a base of support largely composed of former slaves, who, while numerous, had less economic clout than even the poorer white people. Some of these poor white people, as well as transplanted Northerners, supported the Republican state governments, but most white Southerners did not. Many, through groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which was openly allied to the Democratic Party that claimed the allegiance of most Southern whites, actively resisted the changes that accompanied Reconstruction. Republican rule was always precarious, and a South Carolina Democratic newspaper remarked, ‘These constitutions and governments will last as long as the bayonets which ushered them into existence, and not one day longer’. Without Northern support, Republican rule in the South was doomed.

Redemption and Jim Crow

Reconstruction ended in 1877, owing to a deal the Republicans made with the anti-Reconstruction Democrats over a contested election. The Republicans got the presidency, and in return the South was abandoned to the white-supremacist Democratic Party, whose leaders dubbed themselves ‘Redeemers’. The remaining Republican governments in the South collapsed almost immediately.
To make matters worse, the Democrats began rolling back the gains black people had made under Reconstruction. At first this was a piecemeal process, with intimidation and fraud keeping black people out of office and economically prone. By the turn of the twentieth century, though, the Southern states had largely introduced Jim Crow segregation into all aspects of public life.
This was given federal sanction in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. The case concerned segregation in railway cars in the South, and it went to the US supreme court, which ruled that separate accommodations and institutions were constitutional as long as they were equal. ‘Separate but equal’ was the key phrase in the decision. This meant that separate schools for black and white students were constitutional. So were separate accommodations on trains, as well as separate libraries, public parks, hospitals, and cars on local trolleys. The list could go on. The term ‘Jim Crow’ encompasses all of these and more (the term itself derives from a Negro minstrel song). The provision for equal accommodations was universally acknowledged in the breach. Black schools, for example, received a fraction of the money that white schools did.
Coupled with this was the disenfranchisement of the black population. While it was never expressed explicitly as an attempt to deprive black people of the vote, everyone knew that this was the goal. Poll taxes, which meant that you had to pay to vote, were instituted, and the generally poor black population had difficulty paying them. If the poll tax also excluded some poor whites, the Southern political class was not worried—for them, poor whites were politically suspect too. There were also literacy tests that had to be passed in order to vote. The actual content of these tests was left to the discretion of local authorities, who were almost always Democrats. The trick of a literacy test was to give a prospective white voter an almost absurdly easy test while giving a prospective black voter a ridiculously hard one. Thus, without ever explicitly going after black voting rights, most black voters saw the franchise taken from them by such methods.
Economically, the Southern black population was still largely at the bottom rung of the agricultural ladder. Though some black people had found work in selected Southern industries, notably mining, they were frequently shut out of these jobs—or only brought in temporarily when white workers went on strike. This had the added bonus for the business class of increasing racial tensions between white workers and black people.
The era was also noted for its lynchings, extra-legal mob murders—particularly (though not exclusively) of black people. The pretexts varied. Frequently, accusations of sexual assault were made. Often the accusation was simply that a black person had been ‘uppity’—that is, had in some way acted in a less than completely subservient manner to a white person. The pretexts did not, however, particularly matter. The point was social control. Lynching was a way of telling the black population that if it stepped out of line, even by a whisker, there would be serious trouble. A Southern lynching was frequently dramatic and often took place on a large scale, and they were generally tolerated, if not encouraged, by the authorities.
This, then, was the social context of life for most black people. You lived in constant awareness of your race, and each interaction with a white person was fraught with peril. If you put a foot wrong, you could be killed.

The civil rights movement

The Jim Crow order would remain largely unchallenged in the South until the mid-twentieth century. Some black people had moved in this period to the urban North, where, while segregation was not legally enforced with nearly the same consistency or to nearly the same degree, de facto segregation—that is, discrimination in housing, employment and other aspects of life despite the lack of laws mandating it—was common. As the 1960s went on, black people would protest against the racism of American society in both areas, though most of the early struggle was in the South.
At first the struggle against Jim Crow was waged in the courts, mostly under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP reasoned that one way to break segregation was to show that ‘separate but equal’ generally meant separate but unequal. In a series of lawsuits, they managed to erode the legal basis for segregation. The most important of these suits was brought against the schools in Topeka, Kansas, which were segregated by race. In 1954 the US supreme court handed down the ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ ruling, in which it declared segregated schools to be illegal, reversing the earlier endorsement of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.
On the one hand, the supreme court had taken a stand against segregation. On the other, it meant relatively little in practice. Where the court ordered desegregation in education, it was frequently resisted, and most school districts in the South ignored it. Jim Crow would not be broken by court orders, but by a mass movement within the South among ordinary black people. Protests began occurring throughout the South, and they eventually merged into a large and varied movement.

Revd Martin Luther King Jr

The most famous civil rights leader is the Revd Martin Luther King Jr. King was born in Atlanta, the son of a Baptist minister. He himself went into the ministry, and after earning his doctorate from Boston University he settled in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1953. At first he was not especially politically active.
But King would soon be galvanised by a struggle taking place almost under his nose. The buses in Montgomery were segregated, with white passengers in the front and black passengers in the back. If the white seats filled up, however, black passengers were expected to give up their seats to whites. But on 1 December 1955 a black seamstress and local political activist named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and was arrested. A boycott was quickly organised, with 35,000 handbills being produced in one night asking black people not to ride the buses. A meeting was held in the church of Martin Luther King Jr, whose eloquence and organisational acumen soon propelled him into a position of leadership. Although initially the boycotters were willing to accept segregated but improved treatment, nothing less than the integration of the bus system was soon demanded. Birmingham’s black population rallied behind the boycott. A citywide carpool was organised, and the bus company began losing money.
In spite of Ku Klux Klan violence and the arrest of many boycotters, including King, the boycott was successful, and King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 in the wake of the campaign. The SCLC managed to galvanise the black churches into the struggle, which soon spread to other locales across the South. King became a recognised presence on national television, and it is his face that is most commonly associated with the movement as a whole. But other civil rights leaders played equally important roles in their own communities—and some were at odds with King. One such was Robert Williams, a Korean War veteran in North Carolina. Where King preached non-violence, Williams responded to attacks on local civil rights activists by calling for armed self-defence.

High tide of the movement

In the early 1960s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, burst onto the scene. SNCC was one of the most dynamic civil rights groups. Its local branches were largely autonomous and actually did much of the work in ending segregation in the South. The SNCC and its leaders preferred a confrontational style of politics, centred on grassroots mobilisation and large-scale civil disobedience.
Longer-established groups also got in on the act. One of these was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer. The courts had recently banned segregation on buses crossing state lines, as well as in terminals serving interstate travellers, and Farmer decided to test these court decisions. In the spring of 1961 he organised what would become the Freedom Rides.
A group of black and white riders left Washington DC on 4 May 1961, bound for the Deep South on public buses. The presence of an integrated group on a bus was enough to turn white Southerners violent. Eventually this first Freedom Ride was abandoned, and its participants were flown north by a Justice Department hoping, above all else, that the South would calm down.
The SNNC then vowed to finish the aborted Freedom Ride and got a new group of volunteers to travel from Birmingham to Montgomery. In Montgomery they were brutally attacked by a white mob of several hundred people, who went on to beat up several journalists and a lawyer observing the situation for the US Justice Department. The reaction of the Justice Department, headed by Robert F. Kennedy, was to try to end the Freedom Rides. He pleaded with Martin Luther King, James Farmer of CORE and the leadership of SNCC, arguing that, with President Kennedy meeting Khrushchev at the time, the Freedom Rides would embarrass the United States. The Freedom Rides continued regardless; roughly 300 people were arrested in the summer of 1961, and were generally beaten while in prison. The federal government, however, did eventually explicitly ban segregation in interstate travel.
Though the Freedom Rides achieved their objective—the buses were desegregated—they also stiffened white Southern opposition to desegregation. Many campaigns against desegregation failed. In Albany, Georgia, for example, over a year of intense campaigning by civil rights activists resulted in over a thousand arrests, and despite the heavy involvement of King and the SCLC very few gains were made.
Between 1963 and 1965 the civil rights movement was at its zenith. The high tide of struggle began in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham is one of the major centres of Southern industry, particularly coal and steel. It was also, like most Southern cities, highly segregated. Enforcing segregation was its commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, known since the 1930s as a hard-liner, quick to let the police turn violent, as well as being a firm—even fanatical—segregationist. King hoped to play on Connor’s tendency towards violence. Indeed, the main idea was to keep the protests non-violent and let Connor rage. The Birmingham police department almost immediately began arresting hundreds of protesters, including King himself, who was thrown into solitary confinement. There he wrote his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, which was soon widely circulated as a pamphlet and is perhaps one of the most famous written pieces he ever produced.
Across the nation (and the world), horrified viewers witnessed Connor’s police attacking non-violent protesters with dogs and water-cannons (though it must be said that local blacks did eventually begin throwing things back at the police). In May 1963 the Justice Department offered to broker a deal between the protesters and the city. The protests ended, and the city gradually began to desegregate its government, public facilities and services. There was still resistance, particularly from Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who famously called for ‘segregation forever’. Violence soon flared up again in Birmingham, and President Kennedy sent in 3,000 soldiers to keep the peace.

Challenges to King’s leadership

The civil rights movement was beginning to change. The young black men who had thrown bottles at the Birmingham police had a different perspective on the struggle than that of Martin Luther King Jr and many of the movement’s leaders. They did not want to remain passive in the face of attacks by racist police or Klansmen. Likewise, many SNCC members, even while not formally renouncing non-violence, secretly began to carry pistols. The civil rights movement was beginning to splinter.
Before it did, though, there was the 1963 march on Washington. On 28 August 1963, roughly 200,000 black people and 50,000 white people gathered at the Lincoln

‘I have a dream’—on 28 August 1963 more than 200,000 people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and heard Martin Luther King Jr call for jobs and freedom. (Bob Adelman, Magnum Photos)

‘I have a dream’—on 28 August 1963 more than 200,000 people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and heard Martin Luther King Jr call for jobs and freedom. (Bob Adelman, Magnum Photos)

Memorial in Washington DC for a huge civil rights rally organised by the major players in the civil rights struggle. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. To many it seemed that the movement was unstoppable.
Others noticed the tensions and fissures, notably a rising minister in a group called the Nation of Islam, Malcolm Little, better known to history as Malcolm X. Malcolm denounced the march on Washington as the ‘farce on Washington’. He noted that the demonstrators had been limited in what signs they could carry and that the march and the speeches had been carefully orchestrated to avoid any denunciations of Kennedy’s regime. As far as Malcolm was concerned in the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was a waste of time. King’s non-violence and reliance on the national government were wrong-headed and vastly underestimated the racism of American society. In this he was echoing the point of view of the organisation in which he’d risen to prominence—the Nation of Islam.
The Nation of Islam had been founded in the 1930s by Elijah Muhammad in Detroit. It combined religious teachings with black nationalist beliefs—most notably that white people were essentially evil and that it was best for black people to rely instead on their own efforts. This religion-cum-political philosophy spread slowly at first and mostly in the inner cities of the North, but in the 1950s, with Malcolm X, its most charismatic spokesman, leading the way, it began growing rapidly. Malcolm’s ability to state often uncomfortable truths about what it meant to be black in the United States and his articulation of a more militant protest politics than was coming from the likes of King made him an alternate pole of attraction for black people. Where King insisted on non-violence, Malcolm argued for black people to defend themselves. Where King sought the assimilation of black people into American society, Malcolm played on black pride and argued for black self-reliance.
From 1964 until his death by assassination in 1965, Malcolm X underwent a serious, though perhaps not fundamental, transformation. He broke from the Nation of Islam and turned toward a more orthodox Islam in his own religious thinking. While he did not abandon his black nationalist views, he became more willing to work with sympathetic white people. Though the assassin’s bullets cut him down early, he was one of the most significant figures in the United States in the 1960s, and his thought would play a key role in the emergence of the black power movement.
By the late 1960s the civil rights movement had fractured. King was assassinated in 1968, and by then the leaders of the black struggle were either involved in mainstream politics, radicalised, targeted by government persecution, or a combination thereof. Though the civil rights movement ended legal segregation in the United States—no small achievement—the inequalities that gave birth to it still exist, though in somewhat different forms.

Quincy Lehr lectures in American history at Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:

J.H. Franklin, From slavery to freedom (New York, 2000).

K.M. Hare, They walked to freedom 1955–1956: the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Champaign, 2005).

Malcolm X [with Alex Haley], The autobiography of Malcolm X (London, 1973).

Speeches and writings of Martin Luther King Jr: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/index-bca.html and http://www.nps.gov/archive/malu/documents/king_speeches.htm.

The topic designated for examination through documents in the 2008 and 2009 Leaving Certificate History higher-level papers is ‘The United States and the World, 1945–1989’. The documents will be drawn from three designated case-studies, one of which is ‘The Montgomery Bus Boycott 1956’. Necessary background elements include racial conflict and the key personality of Martin Luther King Jr.


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