Certainly the most well known champion of civil rights is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it would be foolish to try to minimize his importance or impact. However, it would be equally foolish to think that he could have done what he did without the support of thousands of people who left the comfort of their homes, schools and jobs to march, ride, go to jail, and endure physical abuse with him. Dr. King may have been in the front and given voice to the masses, but it is the masses of African Americans and their supporters who ultimately produced the momentum that was needed to affect change. To paraphrase an old mining union slogan, “drops of water turn the wheel, singly none.”
What brought these people together, and what did they do that made the difference? What role did their leaders play in building a sense of unity, giving them focus, and maintaining cohesion in the face of brutality and hatred?
If the last reading asked you to think about individuals, this portion of history helps us think about the power and function of groups. How did people work together to advance the Civil Rights Movement?
THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT
On a cold December evening in 1955, just a year after the Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, Rosa Parks incited a revolution by sitting down. She was tired after spending the day at work as a department store seamstress, and when she stepped onto the bus for the ride home she sat in the fifth row, the first row of the colored section. In Montgomery, Alabama, when a bus became full, the seats nearer the front were given to White passengers. Montgomery bus driver James Blake ordered Parks and three other African Americans seated nearby to move to the back of the bus. Three riders complied, but Parks did not.
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The dignity of Rosa Parks stood in stark contrast to the racial hatred and civil rights violations that she worked to expose.
Because Parks refused to move, she was arrested and fined $10. The arrest of one woman for violating the city’s bus seating rules would have been a minor incident, except that Parks and leaders in Montgomery’s African American community were fed up with discrimination and had planned for her to be arrested. They wanted to rally people to fight for racial equality and needed a clear demonstration of the injustice of the Jim Crow system. The arrest of a hard working woman for sitting where she wanted on the bus proved to be just what they needed to galvanize African Americans.
The protest that followed the arrest of Rosa Parks was led by a little-known minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. King had been raised in an activist family. His father was deeply influenced by Marcus Garvey’s Back To Africa Movement in the 1920s and his mother was the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most influential African American ministers. As a student, King excelled. He easily moved through grade levels and entered Morehouse College at the age of 15. He went on to attend seminary, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree. While he was pursuing his doctorate at Boston University, he met and married Coretta Scott. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1955, King accepted an appointment to the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
During his time studying, King read the works of Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi of India. Their teaching advocated civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to social injustice. They taught that unjust laws should be broken, and that fighting by peacefully protesting could show the world that on one side of an argument there was right, while on other the other side there was evil that was maintained with violence.
Primary Source: Police Document
Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Breaking unjust laws and being willing to go to jail in an important element to civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance.
Determined to put those ideas into action, King and his colleague Ralph Abernathy formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and organized a boycott of Montgomery’s buses. The demands they made were simple. The city’s African Americans would not ride the busses until the bus company agreed to desegregate. Until that happened, the company would lose money as their passengers walked. Both sides believed the boycott would be short. King and his fellow leaders thought the company would quickly give in instead of losing money, and the White city officials thought that no one could convince African Americans to walk everywhere.
The boycott’s leaders had hoped for a 50% support rate among African Americans. To their surprise and delight, 99% of the city’s African Americans refused to ride the buses. People walked to work or rode their bikes. Carpools were established to help the elderly. The bus company suffered thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Montgomery officials stopped at nothing in attempting to sabotage the boycott. King and Abernathy were arrested. Four African American churches, as well as the homes of King and Abernathy, were bombed. Still, the boycott continued.
Finally, on November 23, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the boycott. Segregated bussing was declared unconstitutional. City officials reluctantly agreed to comply with the court ruling. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in Montgomery had proven that non-violent protest could effect change.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott triggered a firestorm in the South and similar actions flared up in other cities. The boycott put Martin Luther King, Jr. in the national spotlight. He became the acknowledged leader of the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
With Ralph Abernathy, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize other protests against Jim Crow segregation. The SCLS boldly declared to the rest of the country that their movement would be peaceful, organized, and determined.
THE SIT-IN MOVEMENT
On February 1, 1960, four sophomores at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College in Greensboro entered the local Woolworth’s and sat at the lunch counter. They were refused service as they knew they would be, since Woolworth’s only served Whites. African Americans were not allowed to sit inside. If they wanted a meal, they had to order and take their food out from the back of the store. However, instead of leaving, they stayed and waited.
No one participated in a sit-in of this sort without seriousness of purpose. The instructions were simple: sit quietly and wait to be served. Often the participants would be jeered and threatened by local White customers. Sometimes they would be pelted with food or ketchup. Angry onlookers tried to provoke fights. In the event of a physical attack, the student would curl up into a ball on the floor and take the punishment. Any violent reprisal would undermine the spirit of the non-violent sit-in. When the local police came to arrest the demonstrators, another line of students would take the vacated seats.
In the end, Woolworth’s owners relented and desegregated their lunch counters. As the students had predicted, they simply did not want the negative publicity. The successful six-month-long Greensboro sit-in initiated the student phase of the African American civil rights movement and, within two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states.
In the words of grassroots civil rights activist Ella Baker, the students at Woolworth’s wanted more than a hamburger, they wanted to be a part of the struggle for equality. As a result of her actions, in April 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed to carry the battle forward. The sit-ins inspired other forms of nonviolent protest intended to desegregate public spaces. Sleep-ins occupied motel lobbies, read-ins filled public libraries, wade-ins happened at public pools and beaches, and churches became the sites of pray-ins.
Students also took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC. The intent of the African American and White volunteers who undertook these bus rides through the South was to test enforcement of a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation on interstate transportation and to protest segregated waiting rooms in bus terminals. Departing Washington, DC, on May 4, the volunteers headed south on buses that challenged the seating order of Jim Crow segregation. Whites rode in the back, African-Americans sat in the front, and on other occasions, riders of different races would share the same bench seat.
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The Freedom Riders were attacked when they arrived at bus stations in the South. The activists who stood on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement faced a constant threat of injury or death.
The Freedom Riders encountered little difficulty until they reached South Carolina, where a mob severely beat John Lewis, a freedom rider who later became chairman of SNCC and eventually a congressman. The danger increased as the riders continued through Georgia into Alabama, where one of the two buses was firebombed. The second group continued to Birmingham, where the riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan as they attempted to disembark at the city bus station. The remaining volunteers continued to Mississippi, where they were arrested when they attempted to desegregate the waiting rooms in the Jackson bus terminal.
Despite the violence they encountered, the Freedom Rides made an impact. In September of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) of the federal government stepped in and issued new policies. “White” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals. Racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated.
Fresh off their successes in Montgomery and the Freedom Rides, student leaders of the SNCC and Dr. King and the SCLC teamed up to try to desegregate the city of Albany, Georgia. There were problems from the start. The students and the older leaders from SCLC did not always agree on strategy. Dr. King was jailed, as were hundreds of other protesters and progress was slow. The White police chief in Albany avoided violence, and sent protesters to jails across the South so that his own would not become overcrowded. Eventually, the protest organizers gave up.
Some believe the Albany Movement was a failure, but historian Howard Zinn, who played a role in the Albany Movement, contested this interpretation. “Social movements may have many ‘defeats’—failing to achieve objectives in the short run—but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to erode, the minds of people begin to change; the protesters are momentarily defeated but not crushed, and have been lifted, heartened, by their ability to fight back.” In fact, their work did make a difference. Civil rights leaders learned a great deal from their time in Albany and applied those lessons in later campaigns.
In 1963, SCLC moved their efforts to Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama. Led by Dr. King, the campaign of nonviolent direct action culminated in widely publicized confrontations between young African Americans students and White civic authorities, and eventually led the municipal government to change the city’s discrimination laws. Unlike the earlier efforts in Albany, which focused on desegregation of the entire city, the campaign focused on more narrowly defined goals: desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown stores, fair hiring practices in stores and city employment, reopening of public parks, and creation of a biracial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham’s public schools.
The brutal response of local police, led by Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor who released police dogs and fire hoses on the young marchers, stood in stark contrast to the nonviolent civil disobedience of the activists.
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“Bull” Connor ordered police dogs released on the marchers in Birmingham. Photographs like this were published in newspapers across the nation and stirred anger among many who were horrified to see the level of brutality and racial hatred that existed within their country.
While in jail in Birmingham, King wrote one of the most important documents of the Civil Rights Era. Because of the violent reactions of the White policemen of the city, some African American leaders and other ministers had criticized King, calling on him to stop taking direct action that could provoke violent responses in which marchers might be injured, beaten and jailed. Many Whites were openly angry that King had come to their city at all. He was an outsider, they claimed. In response, King wrote an open letter, answering each of these criticisms. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail included one of King’s most quoted lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
After weeks of various forms of nonviolent disobedience, the campaign produced the desired results. In June 1963, the Jim Crow signs regulating segregated public places in Birmingham were taken down. Victory, however, came at a price. Four months later, someone bombed the house of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, injuring his wife. On September 15, 1963, Birmingham again earned international attention when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning and killed four young girls. On June 12, 1963, NAACP lawyer Medgar Evers, who had helped James Meredith become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was fatally shot outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been organizing demonstrations similar to those in Birmingham.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964
After the Birmingham campaign, the SCLC called for massive protests in Washington, DC, aiming to pressure Congress to pass new civil rights legislation that would outlaw segregation nationwide. Officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people participated. It was held in August 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the speakers addressed the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the statue of the great president behind them. The date was also the eighth anniversary of the brutal murder of Emmett Till.
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The view of the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. The mass of people who came to express their frustration with racism and discrimination helped persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The crowning moment of the event was Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech in which he articulated the hopes and aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement, rooted them in two great documents: the Old Testament of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Quoting from that promise of freedom, King reminded America that the Founding Fathers had written, “all men are created equal” on July 4, 1776, and that if that promise was going to be true for everyone, the nation would have to do the hard work to end racism. The march marked a high point of the Civil Rights Movement and established the legitimacy of its goals. However, it did not prevent White terrorism or dismantle White supremacy, nor did it permanently sustain the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The March on Washington did succeed in its immediate and primary goal. President John F. Kennedy called Congress to pass a new bill in his own civil rights speech, and after Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act remains a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that serve the public.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights leaders turned their attention to the next most pressing problem: voting. Politicians must respond to the needs of voters or they will lose their positions. Jim Crow laws had long prevented African Americans from casting ballots. If African Americans could vote, the movement’s leaders knew they would be able to make change without having to march in the streets.
In the summer of 1964, a coalition of the four major civil rights organizations, the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE arranged for volunteers from all over America to come and register as many African Americans in Mississippi to vote as possible. The effort became known as Freedom Summer, and it was one of the most violent episodes of the entire movement.
Many of Mississippi’s White residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society. Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Newspapers called them “unshaven and unwashed trash”. The volunteers’ presence in local black communities drew drive-by shootings, Molotov cocktails thrown at host homes, and constant harassment. State and local governments, police, White Citizens’ Council, and Ku Klux Klan used arrests, arson, beatings, evictions, firing, murder, spying, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project. Over the course of the ten-week project, 1,062 volunteers were arrested, 80 were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, 30 homes or businesses were bombed or burned, and at least four civil rights workers were murdered.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, an African American as well as two Jewish White volunteers from New York City, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were abducted and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their murder, and the subsequent search and discovery that the local White police had helped the Ku Klux Klan with the murders drew massive media attention to Freedom Summer.
Throughout the search, White-run Mississippi newspapers perpetuated the common belief that the disappearance was “a hoax” designed to draw publicity, but the search of rivers and swamps turned up the bodies of eight other African Americans who appeared to have been murdered.
Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it significantly affected the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down 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 African American voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by civil rights workers. Sadly, it took the death of White volunteers from the North, to make the media notice.
SELMA AND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
After Freedom Summer, the leaders of the movement decided to fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Nonviolent mass marches demanded the right to vote, and the jails filled up with arrested protesters, many of them students. Again, King and Abernathy were arrested.
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Photographs of Amelia Boynton beaten unconscious by police helped move public opinion in the nation against the White leaders of Alabama and persuaded President Johnson to support the marchers and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After an Alabama state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson during a voting rights protest, close to 600 protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to present their grievances to Governor George Wallace. Led by Reverend Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC, the marchers were attacked by state troopers, and deputy sheriffs who used tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips when they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a day remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries. Televised images of the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.
After many more protests, arrests, and legal maneuvering, a federal judge ordered Alabama to allow the march to Montgomery. In the end, an estimated 25,000 protesters marched to the steps of the Alabama capitol, where King spoke on the voting rights struggle. Within five months, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson responded to the enormous public pressure generated by the Selma Campaign by working with Congress to enact a new law to eliminate discrimination at the voting booth.
The legislative result of the Selma Movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It prohibited racial discrimination in voting and Congress later amended the act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which had promised citizenship and voting rights after the Civil War, the act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. After enactment, the law immediately decreased racial discrimination in voting. The suspension of literacy tests and assignments of federal examiners and observers allowed for high numbers of racial minorities to register to vote.
Each January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but it was clearly the work of both the leaders and the thousands of followers who forced those in power to grant civil rights to African Americans. No one could have conducted the Selma Campaign, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott alone, and it would have been impossible for people to work in a coordinated way without talented, inspirational, and effective leadership.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, everything that was needed to make a movement seemed to come together. What happened? How did it all happen in a way that produced results? How did people work together to advance the Civil Rights Movement?
BIG IDEA: The Civil Rights Movement had its greatest successes in the early 1960s with mass demonstrations, marches and when Congress passed laws that ended Jim Crow segregation and voting restrictions.
African Americans in the city of Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city bus system for over a year to protest segregated seating on the busses. The boycott started when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. became famous as the leader of the boycott. Eventually they won and the city ended segregation on the busses.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in nonviolence and civil disobedience. He founded SCLC to organize other protests. Other groups such as SNCC and CORE also were created and used nonviolence and civil disobedience.
Students staged sit-ins at lunch counters to protest Jim Crow laws that prevented them from eating at restaurants with Whites.
Freedom riders rode busses through the South to protest segregated waiting rooms at bus stations. They were attacked in Alabama and the KKK bombed their bus. However, their protest convinced President Kennedy to call for a law to protect civil rights.
Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign in Albany, Georgia to desegregate the city. Large numbers of people marched and were arrested. Their effort failed, but they learned new strategies.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the White police chief ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used against civil rights marchers. Images of police brutality convinced many Americans that segregation was wrong and that they should support the civil rights marchers.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech during a march in Washington, DC. He described a future for the United States when segregation and racism had been eliminated. He used the famous phrase “I have a dream.” The march convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.
In 1964, activists tried to register many African Americans in Mississippi to vote. Their activities were called Freedom Summer, but they faced extreme violence from Whites. When the KKK killed White supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from the city of Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery to protest for voting rights. Police officers attacked the marchers. Finally, President Johnson ordered the National Guard to protect the marchers and the protest convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Rosa Parks: African American activist in Montgomery, Alabama who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The event initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Leader of the African American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He was a minister from Montgomery, Alabama and was assassinated in 1968. He is most famously remembered for his “I Have a Dream” Speech.
Coretta Scott King: Civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ralph Abernathy: Co-founder of the SCLC with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): Organization formed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy to organize civil rights demonstrations.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Civil rights organization formed by African American students in 1960s. They organized sit-ins and joined in other protests.
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): Civil rights organization that participated in the Freedom Rides and other protests.
John Lewis: Chairman of the SNCC. He helped organize the March on Washington, participated in the Bloody Sunday march and represented Georgia in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): Racist organization based in the South that terrorized African Americans after the Civil War and helped establish the system of Jim Crow. They were also anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The organization experienced a revival in the 1920s and again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“Bull” Connor: White police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who used fire hoses and police dogs to attack civil rights protesters.
Medgar Evers: African American civil rights lawyer who helped James Meredith enroll at the University of Mississippi and was later assassinated while organizing protests in the city of Jackson.
Nonviolence: The use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.
Civil Disobedience: The breaking of laws to demonstrate that they are unjust.
Sit-In: A form of protest used to desegregate lunch counters in the South in the late-1950s. African American students would enter a restaurant and sit peacefully until they were served.
Open Letter: A letter that is released to the public for anyone to read.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Famous letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham protests in which Dr. King responds to critics who accused him of being an outside agitator and believed he was trying to make too much change, too quickly.
I Have a Dream Speech: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech given at the March on Washington in 1963 in which he laid out the moral aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement.
Montgomery Bus Boycott: 1955 civil rights protest let initiated by the arrest of Rosa Parks in which African Americans refused to ride city busses until they were desegregated. It was successful and helped propel Dr. King to prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights Movement: Overall term for the many protests throughout the 1950s and 1960s in which African Americans sought to advance their civil rights through protests, boycotts, sit-ins, marches, etc. Martin Luther King, Jr. was its generally accepted, although unofficial, leader.
Freedom Rides: 1961 civil rights demonstration against segregated waiting rooms at bus terminals. The protesters were attacked when they arrived in the Deep South.
Albany Campaign: Effort by SNCC and SCLC to desegregate the city of Albany, Georgia in 1961. They organized nonviolent protests and were arrested in large numbers, but ultimately failed to desegregate the city.
Birmingham Campaign: Effort by SCLC to desegregate the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. They were met with fierce and violent resistance from the city’s White leadership. Images of police dogs and fire hoses attacking protesters captured national attention and helped the effort succeed.
16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Bombing of a Birmingham church by the KKK in which four African American girls were killed.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Major civil rights rally in Washington, DC in 1963 to promote the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the event.
Freedom Summer: Effort to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote during 1964. It was marked by violent resistance from the KKK.
Murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner: Famous killing of civil rights workers during Freedom Summer in 1964. President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate and the event resulted in national awareness of the lawlessness of the KKK and injustice of the Jim Crow South’s legal system.
Bloody Sunday: Attack in 1965 on civil rights marchers by White police officers as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. They protesters were marching to demand voting rights and the attack pushed congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Civil Rights Act of 1964: Law passed in 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that serve the public.
Voting Rights Act of 1965: Law passed in 1965 that eliminated restrictions on voting such as literacy tests and pole taxes.