The leadership role of black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the black church served not only as a place of worship but also as a community “bulletin board,” a credit union, a “people’s court” to solve disputes, a support group, and a center of political activism. These and other functions enhanced the importance of the minister.
The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. Time magazine’s 1964 “Man of the Year” was a man of the people. He joined as well as led protest demonstrations and, as comedian Dick Gregory put it, “he gave as many fingerprints as autographs.” King’s powerful oratory and persistent call for racial justice inspired sharecroppers and intellectuals alike. His tireless personal commitment to and strong leadership role in the black freedom struggle won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Lincoln Memorial has been the site of civil rights demonstrations for nearly six decades. On its steps Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of his dream for America:
. . . In spite of the difficulties of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.I have a dream today.I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama . . . will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls . . . I have a dream today.I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight . . .. . . From every mountainside, let freedom ring.When we let freedom ring, . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children . . . will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
King’s speech was the grand finale of the August 28, 1963, “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The march, led by union leader A. Philip Randolph and organizer Bayard Rustin, drew 200,000 supporters, 50,000 of them white. They included clergy of every faith, students, blue-collar and white-collar workers, and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando, James Garner, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Robert Weisbrot, author of Freedom Bound, called the march “the largest political assembly in American history.”
On August 22, 2003, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Inscription Dedication unveiled the commemoration of the “I Have a Dream” speech with a keynote presentation by Coretta Scott King. The work, an inscription in the granite approach to the Lincoln Memorial, marks the location where Dr. King spoke to the crowd, which assembled for the March on Washington.
Of the other civil rights events at the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps none other has been as celebrated as the Easter Sunday, 1939, concert by contralto Marian Anderson, who sang to 75,000 people gathered on the grounds. As an African American, Anderson had previously been denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall, owned by the then all-white Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). As a result, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the DAR because of the incident, worked in tandem with the Marian Anderson Citizens Committe, the NAACP, and other artistic and civil rights organizations to arrange and publicized the Lincoln Memorial concert.
Other notable minister-activists included Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest associate; Bernard Lee, veteran demonstrator and frequent travel companion of King; Fred Shuttlesworth, who defied Bull Connor and who created a safe path for a colleague through a white mob in Montgomery by commanding “Out of the way!”; and C.T. Vivian, who debated Sheriff Clark on his conduct and the Constitution.
Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement—from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom rides to social movements. The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, the single-minded activist who “kept on” despite many beatings and harassments; Jim 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 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 (associated with Brown Chapel), and Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Toure.
Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the “jail- no-bail” strategy. SNCC’s role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. Bob Moses of SNCC created the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to coordinate the work of the SCLC, SNCC, and various other national and independent civil rights groups.
These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE’s leader James Forman later became executive secretary of SNCC. The National Urban League, founded in 1911 and headed by Whitney M. Young, Jr., helped open up job opportunities for African Americans. A. Philip Randolph, vice-president of the American Federation of Labor, and his chief assistant and organizer, Bayard Rustin, represented labor.
All branches of the federal government impacted the civil rights movement. President John Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than fifty lawsuits in four states to secure black Americans’ right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson was personally committed to achieving civil rights goals. Congress passed and President Johnson signed the century’s two most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson advocated civil rights even though he knew it would cost the Democratic Party the South in the next presidential election, and for the foreseeable future after that. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible Communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to Martin Luther King, Jr., used the FBI to investigate King and other civil rights leaders. U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., ruled against segregation and voting rights discrimination in Alabama and made the Selma-to-Montgomery March possible.
1. What important role did black churches not play in the Civil Rights movement?
a. spiritual strength
b. political leadership
c. civil activism
d. militant activism
2. Who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
a. President Lyndon B. Johnson
b. President John F. Kennedy
c. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
d. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover
3. How were students involved in the civil rights movement?
a. They were able to gather information secretly through their research.
b. They boycotted, demonstrated, and staged sit-ins.
c. They practiced violence when called upon to do so.
d. They were often apathetic to the cause.
4. What was the “jail-no-bail” strategy?
a. Arrested demonstrators would stay in prison rather than pay bail.
b. The NAACP would provide bail for those who were jailed.
c. It was a cheering slogan of the SCLS and SNCC.
d. Nobody would leave a protest demonstration until they had been arrested.
5. The NAACP did not supply
a. weapons and ammunition to demonstrators.b.bail money.c. counsel for jailed demonstrators.d.additional desegregation support.
6. In your own words, explain what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, “I have a dream.”