The American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) was a biblically based movement that had significant social and political consequences for the United States. Black clergymen such as the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Wyatt T. Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and numerous others relied on religious faith strategically applied to solve America's obstinate racial problems. Black Christian leaders and their white allies joined together to challenge the immoral system of racial segregation. The movement sought to address and rectify the generations-old injustices of racism by employing the method of nonviolent resistance which they believed to be modeled after the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The founding fathers of the United States had written of humanity's inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but many did not believe this should apply to black slaves or women. The American Civil Rights Movement put up a decade of struggle long after slavery had ended and after other milestones in the fight to overcome discriminatory, segregationist practices. Racism obstructs America's desire to be a land of human equality; the struggle for equal rights was also a struggle for the soul of the nation.
From its birth in 1776 until the year 1955, the “American Experiment”—despite its many wonderful qualities—still suffered from racial inequality and injustice. These realities contradicted the equality and religious language at the root of the nation's founding. Finally, in 1955, progress toward racial equality took a great leap compared to the slow and gradual progress seen prior to this time. The champions of the Civil Rights Movement always included religious language in their battle for justice and wholesome race relations.
With the defeat of the Confederate States of America at the end of the Civil War, the nation entered a 12-year period (1865-1877) known as the Reconstruction. But from 1877 through to the end of the century, there arose a tragic proliferation of racially discriminatory laws and violence targeted at American blacks. Scholars generally agree that this period stands as the nadir of American race relations.
Even though Congress had adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee equal protection of blacks, in the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia (state), Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kansas, there emerged elected, appointed, and/or hired government officials who began to require and/or permit flagrant discrimination by way of various mechanisms. These included:
Although racial discrimination was present nationwide, it was specifically throughout the region of the Southern states that the combination of legally sanctioned bigotry, public and private acts of discrimination, marginalized economic opportunities, and terror directed toward blacks congealed into a system that came to be identified as Jim Crow. Because of its direct and relentless attack upon the system and thought of Jim Crow, some scholars refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the “Second Reconstruction.”
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968, conventional strategies employed to abolish discrimination against American blacks included efforts at litigation and lobbying by traditional organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These efforts had been the hallmarks of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1896 to 1954. However, by 1955, due to the policy of "Massive Resistance" displayed by the intransigent proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression, conscientious private citizens became dismayed at gradualistic approaches to effectuate desegregation by governmental fiat. In response, civil rights devotees adopted a dual strategy of direct action combined with nonviolent resistance, employing acts of civil disobedience. Such acts served to incite crisis situations between civil rights proponents and governmental authorities. These authorities—at the federal, state, and local levels—typically had to respond with immediate action in order to end the crisis scenarios. And the outcomes were increasingly deemed as favorable to the protesters and their cause. Some of the different forms of civil disobedience employed included boycotts, as successfully practiced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) in Alabama; "sit-ins," as demonstrated by the influential Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; and protest marches, as exhibited by the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama.
Noted achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are:
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision regarding the case dubbed Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas), in which the plaintiffs charged that the practice of educating black children in public schools totally separated from their white counterparts was unconstitutional. In the court's ruling, it was stated that the "segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."
In its 9-0 ruling, the Court declared that Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the "separate but equal" practice of segregation, was unconstitutional, and ordered that established segregation be phased out over time.
Murders of American blacks at the hands of whites were still quite common in the 1950s and still went largely unpunished throughout the South. The murder of Emmett Till—a teenage boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955—was different, however. During the pre-dawn hours of August 28, the youngster was brutally beaten by his two white abductors, who then shot Till and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. The boy's age; the nature of his crime (allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store); and his mother's decision to keep the casket open at his funeral, thereby displaying the horrifically savage beating that had been inflicted on her son; all worked to propel into a cause célèbre what might otherwise have been relegated into a routine statistic. As many as 50,000 people may have viewed Till's body at the funeral home in Chicago and many thousands more were exposed to the evidence of his maliciously unjust slaying when a photograph of his mutilated corpse was published in Jet Magazine.
His two murderers were arrested the day after Till's disappearance. Both were acquitted a month later, after the jury of all white men deliberated for 67 minutes and then issued their "Not Guilty" verdict. The murder and subsequent acquittal galvanized Northern public opinion in much the same way that the long campaign to free the "Scottsboro Boys" had done in the 1930s. After being acquitted, the two murderers went on record as blatantly declaring that they were indeed guilty. They remained free and unpunished as a consequence of the judicial procedure known as "double jeopardy."
After Brown v. Board of Education, the conventional strategy of courtroom litigation began to shift towards "direct action"—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and similar tactics, all of which relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience—from 1955 to 1965. This was, in part, the unintended outcome of the local authorities' attempts to outlaw and harass the mainstream civil rights organizations throughout the Deep South. In 1956 the State of Alabama had effectively barred within its boundaries the operations of the NAACP, by requiring that organization to submit a list of its members, and then proscribing it from all activity when it failed to do so. While the United States Supreme Court ultimately reversed the prohibition, there was a period of a few years in the mid-1950s during which the NAACP was unable to operate. During that span, in June 1956, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth began the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to act as a fill-in.
Churches and other, local, grassroots entities likewise stepped in to fill the gap. They brought with them a much more energetic and broad-based style than the more legalistic approach of groups such as the NAACP.
Quite possibly the most important step forward took place in Montgomery, Alabama, where long-time NAACP activists Rosa Parks and Edgar Nixon prevailed on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.
On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks (the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement"), while riding on a public bus, refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, after being ordered to do so by the bus driver. Mrs. Parks was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted of disorderly conduct and of violating a local ordinance. After word of this incident reached Montgomery, Alabama's black community, fifty of its most prominent leaders gathered for dialogue, strategizing, and the crafting of an appropriate response. They finally organized and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to protest the practice of segregating blacks and whites in public transportation. The successful boycott lasted for 382 days (1956 was a leap year), until the local ordinance legalizing the segregation of blacks and whites on public buses was vitiated.
Activists and black church leaders in other communities, such as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had used the boycott methodology relatively recently, although these efforts often withered away after a few days. In Montgomery, on the other hand, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was birthed to lead the boycott, and the MIA managed to keep the effort going for more than a year, until a federal court-order required the city to desegregate its public buses. The triumph in Montgomery propelled Dr. King to nationally known, luminary status and triggered subsequent bus boycotts, such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida boycott of 1956-1957.
As a result of these and other breakthroughs, the leaders of the MIA, Dr. King, and Rev. John Duffy, linked 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 (SCLC) in 1957. The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, did not attempt to create a network of chapters as did the NAACP, but instead offered training and other assistance for local efforts to confront entrenched segregation, while raising funds, mostly from Northern sources, to support these campaigns. It made the philosophy of non-violence both its central tenet and its primary method of challenging systematically condoned racism.
In 1957 Septima Clarke, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, with the help of the Highlander Research and Education Center began the first Citizenship Schools on South Carolina's Sea Islands. The goal was to impart literacy to blacks, thereby empowering them to pass voter-eligibility tests. An enormous success, the program tripled the number of eligible black voters on St. John Island. The program was then taken over by the SCLC and was duplicated elsewhere.
Following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock, Arkansas school board voted in 1957 to integrate the school system. The NAACP had chosen to press for integration in Little Rock—rather than in the Deep South—because Arkansas was considered a relatively progressive Southern state. A crisis erupted, however, when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent the enrollment into Little Rock's Central High School of the nine American black students who had sued for the right to attend a "whites-only" facility. On the opening day of the school term, only one of the nine students showed up, because she did not receive the phone call warning of the danger of going to school. Whites at the school grounds harassed her and the police had to whisk her away to safety in a patrol car. Following this, the nine black students had to carpool to the campus and had to be escorted by military personnel in jeeps.
Faubus himself was not a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist, but after his previous year's indication that he would investigate bringing Arkansas into compliance with the Brown decision, he had been significantly pressured to rescind that promise by the more conservative wing of the Arkansas Democrat Party, which controlled politics in that state at the time. Under duress, Faubus took a stand against integration and against the federal court order that required it.
Faubus' rescission set him on a collision course with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the Federal courts' orders, his own ambivalence and lukewarmness on the issue of school desegregation notwithstanding. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and ordered them to return to their barracks. The president then deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.
The nine students were able to attend classes, although they had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to take their seats on their first day and had to endure harassment from fellow students for the entire year.
The Civil Rights Movement received an infusion of energy when students in Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia, began to "sit-in" at the lunch counters of a few of their local stores, to protest those establishments' refusal to desegregate. These protesters were encouraged to dress professionally, to sit quietly, and to occupy every other stool so that potential white sympathizers could join in. Many of these sit-ins provoked local authority figures to use brute force in physically escorting the demonstrators from the lunch facilities.
The "sit-in" technique was not new—the Congress of Racial Equality had used it to protest segregation in the Midwest in the 1940s—but it brought national attention to the movement in 1960. 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 April of 1960, the activists who had led these sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to take these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further. Their first campaign, in 1961, involved conducting freedom rides, in which activists traveled by bus through the deep South, to desegregate Southern bus companies' terminals, as required by federal law. CORE's leader, James Farmer, supported the freedom-rides idea, but, at the last minute, he backed out of actually participating.
The freedom rides proved to be an enormously dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed and its passengers forced to flee for their lives. In Birmingham—where an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "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, Alabama, a mob charged another busload of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life Magazine 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, where they were crammed into tiny, filthy cells and were 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 from the walls by "wrist breakers." Typically, the windows of their cells were tightly shut on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.
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; Robert Parris 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 were 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 Ture.
In 1962, Robert Moses, SNCC's representative in Mississippi, brought together the civil rights organizations in that state—SNCC, the NAACP, and CORE—to form COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations. Mississippi was the most dangerous of all the Southern states, yet Moses, Medgar Evers of the NAACP, and other local activists embarked on door-to-door voter education projects in rural areas, determined to recruit students to their cause. Evers was assassinated the following year.
While COFO was working at the grassroots level in Mississippi, Clyde Kennard attempted to enter the University of Southern Mississippi. He was deemed a racial agitator by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, was convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and was sentenced to seven years in jail. He served three, and then was freed, but only because he had intestinal cancer and the Mississippi government didn't want him to die in prison.
Two years later, James Meredith successfully sued for admission to the University of Mississippi in September 1962, and then attempted to enter the campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26, only to be blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett. Barnett proclaimed, "No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor." After the Fifth 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 band of U.S. marshals, entered the campus on September 30, 1962.
White students and non-students began rioting that evening, first throwing rocks at the U.S. marshals who were guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall and then firing on them. Two persons, 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.
In November 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (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. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been bitterly aspersed by some SNCC activists for his distance from the dangers that local organizers faced—and was subsequently dubbed with the derisive nickname "De Lawd"—intervened personally to assist the campaign led by both SNCC organizers and local leaders.
The campaign was a failure, due to the wily tactics of local Police Chief Laurie Pritchett. He successfully contained the movement without wreaking the sort of violent attacks on demonstrators that inflamed national opinion, and that sparked outcries from within the black community. Pritchett also contacted every prison and jail within 60 miles of Albany and arranged for arrested demonstrators to be taken to one of these facilities, allowing plenty of room to remain in his own jail. In addition to these arrangements, Pritchett also deemed King's presence as a threat, and forced the leader's release to avoid his rallying the black community. King departed in 1962 without achieving any dramatic victories. The local movement, however, continued the struggle and achieved significant gains over the next few years.
The Albany movement eventually proved to have been an important education for the SCLC when the organization undertook its Birmingham Campaign in 1963. This effort focused on one short-range goal—the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown business enterprises—rather than on total desegregation, as in Albany. It was also helped by the brutally barbaric response of local authorities, particularly that of Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety. Connor had lost a recent mayoral election to a less rabidly segregationist candidate, but he refused to accept the new mayor's authority.
The voting-rights campaign employed a variety of nonviolent confrontation tactics, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to designate 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. Dr. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963.
While in jail on April 16, King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of a newspaper, since he had not been granted any writing paper by jail authorities during his solitary confinement. Supporters, meanwhile, pressured the Kennedy administration to intervene and obtain King's release or, at the least, improve conditions. King was eventually allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and he was finally released on April 19.
The campaign, however, was faltering at this time, as the movement was running out of demonstrators who were willing to risk being jailed. SCLC organizers came up with a bold and highly controversial alternative: calling on high school students to take part in the protest activity. When more than a thousand students walked out of 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 during this initial encounter the police acted with restraint. On the next day, however, another thousand students gathered at the church, and Bull Connor unleashed vicious police dogs on them. He then mercilessly turned the city's fire hoses—which were set at a level that would peel bark from a tree or separate bricks from mortar—directly on the students. Television cameras broadcasted to the nation the scenes of battering-ram waterspouts knocking down defenseless schoolchildren and of dogs attacking unarmed individual demonstrators.
The resultant widespread public outrage impelled the Kennedy administration to intervene more forcefully in the negotiations between the white business community and the SCLC. On May 10, 1963, the parties declared 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. 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 certain 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 Dr. [Martin Luther King, Jr.|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.
The summer of 1963 was also eventful. On June 11, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, attempted to block the integration of the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy dispatched enough force to make Governor Wallace step aside, thereby allowing the enrollment of two black students. That evening, Kennedy addressed the nation via TV and radio with an historic civil rights speech. The next day in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was assassinated. The following week, as promised, on June 19, 1963, Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
Back in 1941, A. Philip Randolph had planned a March on Washington in support of demands for the elimination of employment discrimination in defense industries. He called off the march when the Roosevelt administration met that 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 on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which they proposed in 1962. The Kennedy administration vigorously pressured Randolph and King to call it off, but to no avail. The march was held on August 28, 1963.
Unlike the planned 1941 march, for which Randolph included only black-led organizations on the agenda, 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 groups. 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 central focus was on passage of the civil rights bill that the Kennedy administration had proposed after the upheavals in Birmingham.
The March was a stunning success, although not without controversy. More than 200,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While many of the rally's speakers applauded the Kennedy Administration for the (largely ineffective) efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation to protect voting rights and to outlaw 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. While he toned down his comments under pressure from others in the movement, his words still stung:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here—for they have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill.
This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses when engaging in peaceful demonstrations. This bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges like those in Americus, Georgia, where four young men are in jail, facing a death penalty, for engaging in peaceful protest.
I want to know: which side is the federal government on? The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. Listen Mr. Kennedy, the black masses are on the march for jobs and for freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a 'cooling-off period.'
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 so. But when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, decided to assert his power in Congress to effect a great deal of Kennedy’s legislative agenda in 1964 and 1965, much to the public's approval.
In Mississippi during the summer of 1964 (sometimes referred to as the "Freedom Summer"), the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) used its resources to recruit more than one hundred college students, many from outside the state, to join with local activists in registering voters; teaching at "Freedom Schools"; and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The work was still as dangerous as ever, and on June 21, three civil rights workers (James Chaney, a young black Mississippian and plasterer's apprentice; Andrew Goodman, a Jewish anthropology student from Queens College, New York; and Michael Schwerner, a Jewish social worker from Manhattan's Lower East Side) were all abducted and murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, among whom were deputies of the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department.
The disappearance of the three men sparked a national uproar. What followed was a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry, although President Johnson had to use indirect threats of political reprisals against J. Edgar Hoover, to force the indifferent bureau director to actually conduct the investigation. After bribing at least one the murderers for details regarding the crime, the FBI found the victims' bodies on August 4, in an earthen dam on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot once. Chaney, the lone black, had been savagely beaten and shot three times. During the course of that investigation, the FBI also discovered the bodies of a number of other Mississippi blacks whose disappearances had been reported over the past several years without arousing any interest or concern beyond their local communities.
The disappearance of these three activists remained on the public interest front burner for the entire month and-a-half until their bodies were found. President Johnson used both the outrage over their deaths and his redoubtable political skills to bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and education. This legislation also contains a section dealing with voting rights, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed that concern more substantially.
In 1963, in order to demonstrate black Mississippians' commitment to exercising their voting rights, COFO had held a "Freedom Vote Campaign." More than 90,000 people voted in mock elections, which pitted candidates from the "Freedom Party" against the official state Democrat Party candidates. In 1964 organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white slate from the state party. When Mississippi voting registrars refused to recognize their candidates, the organizers held their own primary, selecting Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for United States Congress. Also chosen was a slate of delegates to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Their presence in Atlantic City, New Jersey, however, was very inconvenient for the convention's hosts, who had planned a triumphal celebration of the Johnson Administration’s civil rights achievements, not a fight over racism within the Democratic Party itself. Johnson was additionally worried about the inroads that Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making upon what previously had been the Democratic stronghold of the "Solid South." There was also concern over the support that George Wallace had received during the Democratic primaries in the North. Other all-white delegations from other Southern states had threatened to walk out if the all-white slate from Mississippi was not seated.
Johnson could not, however, prevent the MFDP from taking its case to the Credentials Committee, where Fannie Lou Hamer eloquently testified as to the beatings that she and others had received and the threats they repeatedly faced for trying to register as voters. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, "Is this America?"
Johnson attempted to preempt coverage of Hamer's testimony by hastily scheduling a speech of his own. When that failed to move the MFDP off the evening news, he 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 proposed compromise was angrily rejected. As stated by Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers' successor as president of the NAACP's Mississippi Chapter:
Now, Lyndon made the typical white man's mistake: Not only did he say, 'You've got two votes,' which was too little, but he told us to whom the two votes would go. He'd give me one and Ed King one; that would satisfy. But, you see, he didn't realize that sixty-four of us came up from Mississippi on a Greyhound bus, eating cheese and crackers and bologna all the way there. We didn't have no money. Suffering the same way. We got to Atlantic City. We put up in a little hotel, three or four of us in a bed, four or five of us on the floor. You know, we suffered a common kind of experience, the whole thing. But now, what kind of fool am I, or what kind of fool would Ed have been, to accept gratuities for ourselves? You say, 'Ed and Aaron can get in but the other sixty-two can't.' This is typical white man, picking black folks' leaders, and that day is just gone.
Hamer put it even more succinctly:
We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired.
Even after it was denied official recognition, however, the MFDP kept up its agitation during the Atlantic City convention. 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 Mississippi delegates, only to be subsequently removed by the national party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the previous day's empty seats, the MFDP delegates stood huddled together and sang freedom songs.
Many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement were disillusioned by the events at the 1964 convention, but that disenchantment did not destroy the MFDP itself. Instead, the party became more radical after Atlantic City, choosing to invite Malcolm X to speak at its founding convention and electing to oppose the Vietnam War.
For some of the movement's devotees, a measure of comfort came at the end of the long, hard year of 1964 when, on December 10, in Oslo, Norway, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he graciously accepted on behalf of all the committed, sacrificial adherents of non-violent resistance.
By early 1965, SNCC had undertaken an ambitious voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama, but had made little headway in the face of opposition from Selma's top law enforcement official, Sheriff Jim Clark. After local residents entreated the SCLC for assistance, King traveled to Selma, intending to lead a number of marches. On Monday, February 1, he was arrested along with 250 other demonstrators. As the campaign ensued, marchers continued to meet violent resistance from police. On February 18, a state trooper mortally wounded Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 25-year-old pulpwood cutter. In his hospital bed, Jackson died two days later.
On Sunday, March 7, the SCLC's Hosea Williams and the SNCC's John Lewis led a march of 525 pilgrims, who intended to walk the 54 miles from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Only six blocks into the march, however, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Jefferson Davis Highway, Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officers attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, and bull whips. The defenseless marchers were driven back into Selma. John Lewis was knocked unconscious and dragged to safety, while 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.
That night, the ABC Television film clip of the footage showing lawmen pummeling and brutalizing unresisting marchers provoked a national response similar to the one educed by the scenes from Birmingham two years earlier. Selma's "Bloody Sunday" was exposed for the entire civilized world to see. Two days later, on March 9, led by King, the protestors performed a second, truncated march to the site of Sunday's beatings and then turned and headed unharrassed back into town. But that night, a gang of local white toughs attacked a group of white Unitarian voting rights supporters, and fatally wounded the Rev. James Reeb. On March 11, in a Birmingham hospital, Reeb died. His murder triggered an earthquake of public white indignation, with outcries thundering forth from the American Jewish Committee, the AFL-CIO, and the United Steelworkers, to name a few. Then, on the evening of Sunday, March 15, President Johnson made a congressional appearance on television. His purpose was to convey to America the urgent necessity for a new and comprehensive voting-rights bill. Stated the president:
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.
On the heels of this sociopolitical sea change, Dr. King, for five days, led an en masse pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, to secure voting rights for Alabama blacks. What began on Sunday, March 21 as a trek by some 3,200 marchers, climaxed on Thursday, March 25, with some 25,000 people, safeguarded by eight hundred federal troops, proceeding nonviolently through Montgomery. Tragically, however, this march, as had so many others during this effort, ended in senseless violence. According to King biographer Stephen B. Oates:
That night, in a high-speed car chase, on Highway 80, Klansmen shot and killed civil-rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo; and the movement had another martyr and the nation another convulsion of moral indignation. Yet, as Ebony correspondent Simeon Booker put it, the great march really ended with two deaths that Thursday—Mrs. Liuzzo's and Jim Crow's.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6. The legislation suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other voter tests. It authorized federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. Blacks 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 of the United States to send federal examiners to replace local registrars. Johnson reportedly stated to some associates that his signing of the bill meant that the Democratic Party, for the foreseeable future, had forfeited the loyalty of the "Solid South."
The Act, however, had an immediate and positive impact for blacks. Within months of its passage, 250,000 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 percent—and led the nation in the number of black public officials elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1 percent turnout; Arkansas, 77.9 percent; and Texas, 73.1 percent.
Several prominent white officials who had opposed the voting-rights campaign immediately paid the price. Selma's Sheriff Jim Clark, notorious for using fire hoses and cattle prods to molest civil-rights marchers, was up for re-election in 1966. Removing the trademark "Never" pin from his uniform in an attempt to win the black vote, he ended up defeated by his challenger, as blacks gleefully voted just for the sake of removing him from office.
The fact of blacks winning the right to vote changed forever the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, fewer than one hundred blacks held elective office in the U.S. By 1989, there were more than 7,200. This included 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 had 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 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 United States House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987. Lewis sits on the House Ways and Means and Health committees.
Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (then known as Parchman Farm) is recognized for the infamous part it played in the United States Civil Rights Movement. In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders (civil rights workers) came to the American South to test the authenticity of desegregation in public facilities. By the end of June, 163 Freedom Riders had been convicted in Jackson, Mississippi. Many were jailed in Parchman.
In 1970 the astute Civil Rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from Parchman inmates, which eventually ran to fifty pages, detailing 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 violation of 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, as was the "trustee system," which had enabled certain inmates (i.e., "lifers") to be armed with rifles and to have power and control over other prisoners.
The penitentiary was renovated in 1972, after the excoriating decision by Judge Keady, in which he wrote that the prison was an affront to “modern standards of decency.” In addition to the extirpation of the "trustee system," the facility was made fit for human habitation.
The evidence indicates that support for the Civil Rights Movement was quite strong throughout the American Jewish community. The Jewish philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, funded dozens of primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges for blacks. He and other Jewish luminaries led their community in giving to some two thousand schools for black Americans. This list includes universities such as Howard, Dillard, and Fisk. At one time, some forty percent of Southern blacks were enrolled at these schools. Of the civil-rights lawyers who worked in the South, fifty percent were Jewish.
Reform Movement leaders such as Rabbi Jacob Rothchild were open in their support for the Movement's goals. Noted scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, professor of religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, marched with Dr. King in 1965 in Selma. Heschel also introduced King on the night of the latter's address before the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, convened in the Catskill Mountains on March 25, 1968. Stated Heschel:
Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision, and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.
Prior to King's taking the podium that night, the rabbis had given him a special greeting—a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," which they sang in Hebrew.
The PBS Television documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow explores Jewish involvement with the civil rights movement, and demonstrates that Jewish professors (refugees from the Holocaust) came to teach at Southern black colleges in the 1930s and 1940s. Over time, there came to be heartfelt empathy and collaboration between blacks and Jews. Professor Ernst Borinski hosted dinners at which blacks, Jews and whites sat next to each other, a simple act that defied segregation. Black students sympathized with the cruelty these scholars had endured in Europe.
The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and Anti-Defamation League all actively promoted the cause of civil rights.
King reached the height of popular lifetime acclaim, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. One year later, his career had become embattled with frustrating challenges, as the liberal coalition that had made possible the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to fray. King was, by this time, becoming more estranged from the Johnson administration, breaking with it in 1965 by calling for both peace negotiations and a halt to the bombing of Vietnam. He moved further left during the ensuing years, shifting toward socialism and speaking of the need for economic justice and thoroughgoing changes in American society. He was now struggling to think beyond the conventional, established parameters of the civil-rights vision.
King's efforts to broaden the scope of the Civil Rights Movement were halting and largely unsuccessful, however. He made several attempts, in 1965, to take the Movement into the North, to address issues of discrimination in employment and housing. His campaign in Chicago failed, as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley marginalized the demonstrators by promising to "study" the city's problems. The next year, in the notoriously racist Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois, white demonstrators, holding "White Power" signs, hurled stones at King and other marchers as they demonstrated against segregated housing.
Throughout the era of the Civil Rights Movement, several bills guaranteeing equality for black citizens were signed into law. Enforcement of these acts, however, particularly in Northern cities, was another issue altogether. After World War II, more than half of the country's black population lived in Northern and Western cities, rather than in Southern rural areas. Migrating to these cities in search of better job opportunities and housing situations, blacks often did not find their anticipated lifestyles.
While from the sociopolitical standpoint urbanized blacks found themselves comparatively free from terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, other equally or more pressing problems often loomed. From the socioeconomic standpoint, urban black neighborhoods were, in fact, among the poorest and most blighted in nearly every major city. Often rampant with unemployment and crime, and seemingly bereft of commercial development, these localities were accurately dubbed "ghettos." Blacks customarily owned few, if any, of the neighborhood enterprises, and often worked menial or blue-collar jobs at a fraction of the wages that their white counterparts were paid. Often earning only enough money to afford the most dilapidated and/or most undesirable housing, many of these inner-city dwellers regularly found themselves applying for welfare. The paucity of wealth and its benefits took its toll on those struggling in abject poverty. Fueled by economic despair and its concomitant lack of self-esteem, vast numbers of black ghetto-dwellers were slavishly abusing cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs, long before large-scale numbers of whites ever began experimenting with them. In addition, the plethora of liquor stores abounding in these poor neighborhoods served only to make matters worse.
On the educational front, blacks attended schools that were typically their cities' structurally and academically worst. And, inarguably, black neighborhoods were subject to criminality levels and concerns that white neighborhoods were not even remotely as plagued by. Throughout mainstream America, white law enforcement practitioners were trained to adhere to the motto, "To Protect and Serve." In the case of black neighborhoods, however, it was often a different reality. Many blacks perceived that the police existed strictly to implement the slogan, "To Patrol and Control." The fact of the largely white racial makeup of the police departments was a major factor with regard to this. Up until 1970, no urban police department in America was greater than 10 percent black, and in most black neighborhoods, blacks accounted for less than 5 percent of the police patrolmen. Not uncommon were arrests of people simply due to their being black. Years of such harassment, combined with the repletion of other detriments of ghetto life, finally erupted in the form of chaotic and deadly riots.
One of the first major outbreaks took place in Harlem, New York, in the summer of 1964. A 15-year-old black named James Powell was shot by a white Irish-American police officer named Thomas Gilligan, who alleged that Powell had charged him while brandishing a knife. In fact, Powell was unarmed. A mob of angry blacks subsequently approached the precinct station house and demanded Gilligan's suspension. The demand was refused. Members of the mob then proceeded to ransack many local stores. Even though this precinct had promoted the New York Police Department's first black station commander, neighborhood dwellers were so enraged and frustrated at the obvious inequalities and oppressions that they looted and burned anything in the locality that was not black-owned. This riot eventually spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the main black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Later, during that same summer, and for similar reasons, riots also broke out in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The following year, on August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in numerous neighborhoods, socioeconomic realities for blacks had not improved. One year later, in August 1966, in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, another riot broke out. Watts, like Harlem, was characterized by impoverished living conditions. Unemployment and drug abuse were rampant, and a largely white police department patrolled the neighborhood. While arresting a young man for drunk driving, the police, with onlookers gathered around, got into an argument with the suspect's mother. This escalated, and a riot erupted, unleashing six days of sheer mayhem. When it ended, 34 people had been killed, nine hundred injured, some 3,500 arrested, and property destruction was estimated at $46 million, making the Watts riot the worst in American history.
The ascending black militancy emboldened blacks with confidence to unleash their long-contained anger at law enforcement officials. Inner-city residents, enraged and frustrated with police brutality, continued to riot and even began to join groups such as the Black Panthers, with the sole intention of driving from their neighborhoods the oppressive white police officers. Eventually, some blacks went from rioting to even murdering those white officers who were reputed to be particularly racist and brutal. This, some blacks did, while shouting at the officers such epithets as "honky" and "pig."
Rioting continued through 1966 and 1967, in cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco, Baltimore, Newark, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Many agree, however, that it was worst of all in Detroit. Here, numbers of blacks had secured jobs as automobile assembly line workers, and a black middle class was burgeoning and aspiring toward "the good life." However, for those blacks that were not experiencing such upward mobility, life was just as bad for them as it was for blacks in Watts and Harlem. When Detroit white police officers murdered a black pimp and brutally shut up an illegal bar during a liquor raid, black residents rioted with explosive anger. So egregious was the Detroit riot that the city became one of the first municipalities from which whites began to move out, in a manner indicative of "white flight." Apparently, the riot seemed threatening enough to portend the burning down of white neighborhoods as well. To this day, as a result of these riots, urban areas such as Detroit, Newark, and Baltimore have a white population of less than 40 percent. Likewise, these cities evince some of the worst living conditions for blacks anywhere in the United States.
Rioting again took place in April 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, allegedly, by white supremacist, James Earl Ray. On this occasion, outbreaks erupted simultaneously in every major metropolis. The cities suffering the worst damage, however, included Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. A year prior to this tumult, in 1967, President Johnson had launched the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission's final report called for major reforms in employment practices and for public assistance to be targeted to black communities everywhere. Thus, an alarm was sounded, alerting its citizens that the United States was rapidly moving toward separate and unequal white and black societies.
With the onset and implementation of Affirmative Action, there came about the hiring of more black police officers in every major city. Today, blacks make up a majority of the police departments in municipalities such as Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, and Detroit. While many social observers speak favorably of this development, many others criticize the hiring of these officers as a method of appeasement and a tokenistic cloak for the racism entrenched within law enforcement. Cultural analysts agree, however, that employment discrimination, while still in existence, is no where near the levels at which it was prior to 1955. The abuse of illegal drugs remains a blight in poor black neighborhoods, but statistics now show that whites and Hispanics are just as likely, if not more so, to experiment with drugs. In summary, the triumphs won during the civil-rights struggle wrought improvements across the urban landscape, enhancing the quality of life in tremendous ways. Yet, much work remains to be done before authentic equality and racial harmony become the reality in America.
During the period that Dr. King found himself at odds with factions of the Democratic Party, he was, likewise, confronted with challenges from within the Civil Rights Movement. This was an ideological and methodological challenge, and it concerned two key tenets upon which the movement was philosophically based: integration and non-violence. A number of SNCC's and CORE's black activists had chafed for some time at the influence wielded by the civil rights organizations' white advisors and the disproportionate attention given to the slayings of white civil rights workers, while the murders of black workers 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. He invoked the phrase Black Power—coined by activist and organizer Willie Ricks—in Greenwood, Mississippi on June 17, 1966. Carmichael subsequently committed himself to the goal of taking Black Power thought and practice to the next level. He urged black community members to arm and ready themselves for confrontations with the white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan. Carmichael was convinced that armed self-defense was the only way to ever rid black communities of Klan-led terrorism. Internalizing and acting on this thought, several blacks, armed and prepared to die, confronted the local Klansmen. The result was the cessation of Klan activity in their communities.
As they acted on the tenets of Black Power thought, practitioners found themselves experiencing a new sense pride and identity. As a result of this increasing comfort with their own cultural imprint, numbers of blacks now insisted that America no longer refer to them as "Negroes" but as "Afro-Americans." Up until the mid-1960s, blacks had valued the ideas of dressing similarly to whites and of chemically straightening their hair. As a consequence of renewed pride in their African heritage, blacks began wearing loosely fitting Dashikis, which were multi-colored African garments. They also began to sport their hair in its thickly grown, natural state, which they dubbed the "Afro." This hairstyle remained vastly popular until the late 1970s.
It was the Black Panther Party, however, that gave Black Power ideas and practices their broadest public platform. Founded in Oakland, California in 1966, the Black Panthers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and to the ideology stated by Malcolm X, advocating a "by-any-means necessary" approach to eliminating racial inequality. The Panthers set as their top priority the extirpation of police brutality from black neighborhoods. Toward this goal, they aimed a ten-point plan. Their official dress code mandated leather jackets, berets, light blue shirts, and the Afro hairstyle. Among blacks, the Panthers are most vividly remembered for setting up free breakfast programs; referring to white police officers as "pigs"; proudly and defiantly displaying shotguns; popularizing the raised-fist, black-power salute; and regularly declaring the slogan: "Power to the people!"
Inside America's prison walls, Black Power thought found another platform. In 1966, George Jackson formed the Black Guerrilla Family at the California prison of San Quentin. The stated goal of this group was to overthrow the prison system in general and "America's white-run government as a whole." The group also preached the general hatred of all whites and Jews. In 1970 members of this group displayed their ruthlessness after a white prison guard was found not guilty for his shooting of three black inmates from the prison tower. That guard was later found murdered, his body hacked into pieces. By this act, Black Guerrilla Family members sent throughout the prison their message of how savagely serious they are. This group also masterminded the 1971 Attica riot in New York, which led to an inmate takeover of the Attica prison. To this day, the Black Guerrilla Family is deemed as one of the most dreaded and infamous advocates of Black Power within America's so-called "prison culture."
Also in 1968, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, while being awarded their respective medals during the podium ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, each donned human rights badges, and simultaneously raised a black-gloved fist in the Black-Power salute. In response, Smith and Carlos were immediately ejected from the games by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Subsequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) slapped the duo with permanent lifetime bans. The Black Power movement, however, had now been given a fleeting spotlight, on the stage of live, international television.
Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, was never comfortable with the "Black Power" thrust. To him, the phrase was "an unfortunate choice of words for a slogan." While he attributed to the Black Power surge some meritorious attributes, King ultimately concluded:
Nevertheless, in spite of the positive aspects of Black Power, which are compatible with what we have sought to do in the civil rights movement all along without the slogan, its negative values, I believe, prevent it from having the substance and program to become the basic strategy for the civil rights movement in the days ahead....Beneath all the satisfaction of a gratifying slogan, Black Power is a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can't win. It is, at bottom, the view that American society is so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is no possibility of salvation from within. Although this thinking is understandable as a response to a white power structure that never completely committed itself to true equality for the Negro, and a die-hard mentality that sought to shut all windows and doors against the winds of change, it nonetheless carries the seeds of its own doom.
Meanwhile, in full disagreement with King, SNCC activists began embracing the "right to self-defense" as the proper response to attacks from white authorities. They booed King for continuing to advocate non-violence, and they deemed him as out of touch with the shifting times. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement experienced an ideological split, akin to the cleavage that had occurred among blacks at the time that W. E. B. Du Bois had attacked the philosophy and methods of Booker T. Washington.
When King was assassinated in 1968, Stokely Carmichael fulminated that whites had murdered the one person who would have prevented the flagrant rioting and gratuitous torching of major cities, and that blacks would now burn every major metropolis to the ground. In every key municipality from Boston to San Francisco, race riots flared up, both within, and in proximity to, black localities. And in some cases, the resulting "White Flight" left blacks in urban devastation, squalor, and blight of their own making, as the wealth required for rebuilding and renewal was unavailable. In 1968 America saw clearly that the glorious and amazing achievements of the Civil Rights Movement notwithstanding, in order to find additional, still-badly-needed answers, thinking people would be forced to yet look elsewhere.
Rev. James Lawson invited King to Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968 to support a strike by sanitation workers, who had launched a campaign for the recognition of their union representation, after the accidental, on-the-job deaths of two workers. On April 4, 1968, a day after delivering his famous "Mountaintop" address at Lawson's church, King was assassinated. Riots detonated in over 110 cities as blacks grabbed their guns, determined to wage war in response to the death of the twentieth century's icon of peace and nonviolence.
Dr. King was succeeded as the head of the SCLC by the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy. He attempted to carry forth King's plan for a Poor People's March, which would have united blacks and whites in a campaign for fundamental changes in America's social and economic structures. The march went forward under Abernathy's plainspoken leadership, but is widely regarded by historians and cultural analysts as a failure.
Today's civil rights establishment strives to uphold the noble legacy imparted by the great leaders of the movement's most turbulent years. More recently some have begun to question the relevance of the NAACP, the Urban League, the SCLC, and other organizations that arose with methods appropriate to the original time and setting.
These challenges notwithstanding, the Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968 remains one of the most dramatic phenomena in history. The prophetic roles played by the movement’s Christian leaders were courageous and visionary. Key players of the Civil Rights movement drew from the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. They reminded America and the world of a value system rooted in clearly defined norms of "right" and "wrong," and even more importantly were committed to putting these ideals put into practice.
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