In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, “direct action” was the strategy—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.
Locally initiated boycotts of segregated buses, especially the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, were designed to unite and mobilize black communities on a commonly-shared concern. Protestors refused to ride on the buses, opting instead to walk or carpool. The nearly one year-long boycott ended bus segregation in Montgomery and triggered other bus boycotts such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida, boycott of 1956–1957.
Student-organized sit-ins like the February 1960 protest at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, offered young men and women with no special skills or resources an opportunity to display their discontent and raise white awareness. Protestors were encouraged to dress up, sit quietly, and occupy every other stool so potential white sympathizers could join in. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns all across the South. 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. When they were arrested, student demonstrators made “jail-no-bail” pledges to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest (putting the financial burden of jail space and food on the “jailers”).
While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement advocated “Black Power,” black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence—a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. The commitment to nonviolence gave the civil rights movement great moral authority. Using nonviolent strategies, civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention and the attention of Congress and the White House.
In 1955, journalists covered the Mississippi trial of two men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago. The cover of Jet magazine featured a photo of the boy’s mutilated face. A few years later, Americans watched the live footage of violent unrest at Little Rock High School as whites rioted to prevent nine black students from entering the school. Radio, television, and print journalism exhaustively covered such 1960s events as police dogs attacking children in Birmingham, former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hammer describing her jail beatings to delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and a mounted posse charging “Bloody Sunday” demonstrators in Selma, Alabama.
Southern blacks who tried to register to vote—and those who supported them—were typically jeered and harassed, beaten or killed. In 1963, the NAACP’s Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his wife and children in Jackson, Mississippi. Reverend George Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, was murdered when he refused to remove his name from a list of registered voters, and farmer Herbert Lee of Liberty, Mississippi, was killed for having attended voter education classes.
Three “Freedom Summer” field-workers were shot down for their part in helping Mississippi blacks register and organize. Michael Schwerner, a social worker from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, James Chaney, a local plasterer’s apprentice, and Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student, disappeared in June 1964. Their bodies were discovered several months later in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman had each been shot once; Chaney, the lone African American, had been savagely beaten and shot three times.
When violence failed to stop voter registration efforts, whites used economic pressure. In Mississippi’s LeFlore and Sunflower Counties—two of the poorest counties in the nation—state authorities cut off federal food relief, resulting in a near-famine in the region. Many black registrants throughout the South were also fired from their jobs or refused credit at local banks and stores. In one town, a black grocer was forced out of business when local whites stopped his store delivery trucks on the highway outside town and made them turn around.
Like voter registrants, freedom riders paid a heavy price for racial justice. When the interracial groups of riders stepped off Greyhound or Trailways buses in segregated terminals, local police were usually absent. However, angry mobs were waiting—armed with baseball bats, lead pipes, and bicycle chains.
In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Birmingham, where an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to attack an incoming group of freedom riders “until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them,” the riders were severely beaten. In eerily-quiet Montgomery, a mob charged another busload 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 did not fare much better in jail. There, they were 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 Parchman Penitentiary, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended from the walls by “wrist breakers.” Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.
Out of jail, the freedom riders joined mass demonstrations where the violent response of local police shocked the world. In Birmingham, police loosed attack dogs into a peaceful crowd of demonstrators, and the German shepherds bit three teenagers. In Birmingham and Orangeburg, South Carolina, firemen blasted protestors with hoses set at a pressure to remove bark from trees and mortar from brick.
On “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, police and troopers on horseback charged into a group of marchers, beating them and firing tear gas. Several weeks later the marchers trekked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery without incident, but afterwards four Klansmen murdered Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life for the movement, struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.
When white supremacists could not halt the civil rights movement, they tried to demoralize its supporters. They bombed churches and other meeting places. They set high bail and paced trials slowly, forcing civil rights organizations to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a Nashville lunch counter sit-in, the store manager locked the door and turned on the insect fumigator. In St. Augustine, Florida, city officials who had promised to meet with black demonstrators at City Hall offered them an empty table and a tape recorder instead. In Selma, Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies forced 165 students into a three-mile run, poking them with cattle prods as they ran.
Random violence accompanied calculated acts. The Klan bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four black girls. On the campus of the University of Mississippi, a stray bullet struck a local jukebox-repairman during a riot that killed one reporter and wounded more than 150 federal marshals. In Marion, Alabama, 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson was gunned down while trying to protect his mother and grandfather from state police. Not far away in Selma, a white Boston minister who had lost his way was clubbed to death by white vigilantes.
The more violent southern whites became, the more their actions were publicized and denounced across the nation. Increasing violence in the South’s streets, jails, and public places failed to break the spirits of the freedom fighters. Indeed, it emboldened them.
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have the right to vote . . . Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes . . . No law that we now have on the books . . . can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it . . . There is no Constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States’ rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.—President Lyndon B. Johnson, Introducing the Voting Rights Act to Congress, March 15, 1965
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required equal access to public places and outlawed discrimination in employment, was a major victory in the black freedom struggle, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was its crowning achievement. The 1965 Act suspended literacy tests and other voter tests and 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 the courts. If voting discrimination occurred, the 1965 Act authorized the attorney general to send federal examiners to replace local registrars.
The act had an immediate impact. Within months of its passage on August 6, 1965, one quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one third 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 leaders elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.
Winning the right to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, barely 100 African Americans held elective office in the U.S.; by 1989 there were more than 7,200, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county in Alabama had a black sheriff, and southern blacks held top positions within city, county, and state governments. Atlanta boasted a black mayor, Andrew Young, and so did New Orleans, Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas in Congress, and former mayor Young, who was appointed U.S. 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 currently represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987. Lewis sits on the House Ways and Means committee and the Health committee.
The enormous gains of the civil rights movement stand to last a long time. Yet the full effect of these gains is yet to be felt. “Equal rights” struggles now involve multiple races, as well as the issues of rights based upon gender and sexual orientation. Racism has lost its legal, political, and social standing, but the legacy of racism—poverty, ignorance, and disease—confronts us. “They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor,” said President Johnson at the end of his voting rights speech. “And these enemies too—poverty, disease, and ignorance—we shall overcome.”
1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated
a. equal access to public places and equality in the workplace.
b. voting rights for all citizens.
c. voting rights for women.
d. equality in all aspects of civil life.
2. How did media coverage aid the civil rights movement?
a. It captured the violence that was occurring in the South.
b. It proved that African Americans were being discriminated against.
c. It inspired others to join the fight for civil rights.
d. all of the above
3. Which of the following is true about Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman?
a. They met with President Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss the crisis in Mississippi.
b. They participated as volunteers in efforts to register African-American voters in Mississippi, then disappeared, and were later found dead.
c. The three were Mississippi police officers who witnessed the assassination of Medgar Evers.
d. As newspaper reporters, they became interested and then wrote an investigative feature on the Mississippi Summer Project.
4. Violence against civil rights workers made them want to
a. give up once and for all.
b. fight back with violence.
c. persist with their nonviolent tactics.
d. postpone their plans until the United States was more ready for racial equality.
5. “Bloody Sunday” describes a tragic event in Selma, Alabama in which
a. police charged a group of peaceful marchers.
b. riots occurred from dawn until dusk.
c. the KKK murdered hundreds of peaceful marchers.
d. horses raced into a crowd.
6. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not
a. legalize voting.b.allow the government to supervise voting.c. allow African Americans to register to vote without having to take a literacy test.d.replace discriminative registrars with governmental employees.
7. What were some of the strategies that workers used in the civil rights movement? What price did they pay for their efforts? Finally, what was their reward? Take your answers from the text.
8. Why is voting such an important civil right in a democracy? What would you say to people who choose not to vote even when they can?