The American Civil Rights Movement

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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...

-so wrote Thomas Jefferson in the United States Declaration of Independence. In that day and time these important words were not quite true. Slaves were being imported from Africa and much of the labour was being performed by those in mandatory servitude.

Article I, section 2 paragraph 3 of the Constitution on the United States reads in part '...according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a period of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.' The 'other persons' listed were African American slaves.

President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that on 1 January, 1808 that prohibited the importation of any more Africans as slaves. The Northern states who's economy was quickly becoming based more on manufacturing began to phase out their laws allowing slavery while the agricultural economy of the Southern states began to depend even more on the cheap labor that the 'peculiar institution', as slavery became known, provided. There was a fear growing in the South that as soon as there were more states that outlawed slavery than those who permitted it, the Federal government would outlaw slavery in the entire country.

This fear came to a head in the election of 1860 when Abraham Lincoln of the newly formed Republican political party won the election due to a split of the Northern and Southern branches of the Democratic party. Fearing the loss of their 'state's right' to continue slavery the country was split when the Southern states tried to secede from the US and form their own country. Although to most people this event is known as the 'American Civil War' in parts of the South it is 'the War Between the States' and to this day any other name will evoke an argument.

On 1 January, 1863 a Presidential order known as 'the Emancipation Proclamation' went into effect freeing all the slaves in those states still rebelling against the US (a few states that allowed slavery did not leave the union such as Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) At the end of the war in 1865 the US Constitution was amended to ensure that all the former slaves were given all the rights of full citizenship and the US Army maintained a presence in the south for many years that came to be known as the 'Reconstruction.'

The Southern people began to form secret societies, the most famous (or infamous) being the 'Grand Order of the Knight of the Ku Klux Klan' which rode at night terrorizing anyone who they felt might be a threat to white southerners. As many of the southern people were of Celtic ancestry the 'Klan' was based on Scottish folklore and their symbol became a burning cross based on the Scot's custom of calling the clan together.

As the Federal Government began to return control of the South to the local people, the white Southerners began to pass a series of laws to control African Americans and to limit their participation in society. These were the 'Jim Crow' laws, and they divided the Southern population into two 'Separate but Equal' worlds. Only they were not equal, only separate. Almost a hundred years later the Civil Rights Movement would seek to end segregation.

The Brown vs Board of Education Decision - 1954

The first real victory for the civil rights movement was the Brown vs Board of Education Decision. Linda Brown was an African-American student in fifth grade in Topeka, Kansas. The school system was segregated, but Brown and several students from four other areas also wanted desegregated school systems so that they could get equal opportunities.

All five cases went to the United States Supreme Court, to make a decision as to whether or not segregation in public schools violates the US Constitution. The students mostly argued the Fourteenth Amendment, which states-

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

After about two years of argument, on May 17, 1954 the court handed down the decision that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and should not be allowed. It is possibly the most important decision that the courts ever made, because it basically said that segregation was illegal, if you interpret the Fourteenth Amendment as they did.

Although this helped the civil rights movement gain momentum, it also made many whites angry with the African-Americans. Lynchings and killings were common, simply because many (southern) whites didn't want 'negroes to go to school my their children'. The effects of this decision were felt throughout the country, especially the south. Many Negro schools were dismissed early with news of the decision, because teachers feared crazed white people attacking the children.

For years, though, the Southern governors resisted this, and simply refused to enforce the decision. It wouldn't be until 1957 that a major Southern school would be integrated - Little Rock Central High.

The Murder of Emmett Till and Trial - 1955

In August 1955, an African-American boy named Emmet Till from Chicago went to see his relatives in Mississippi. Chicago had much less strict rules about segregation. It was illegal in Mississippi at the time for a 'coloured' man to even speak to a white woman. Till was not used to this, and he was a bold young boy.

He bragged to his friends about how he had a white girlfriend back in Chicago and they told him to go talk to a white woman inside a store. So Till went into the store, bought some candy, and on his way out said 'Bye Baby' to the white woman, named Carolyn Bryant. The boys didn't pay very much attention to this, and went about their lives.

A few days later, a truck pulled up to the house of Emmett Till's Uncle, Mose Wright, in the middle of the night. Two white men, Roy Bryant (who owned the store and was Carolyn's husband) and JW Milam (Roy Bryant's brother-in-law) asked for Emmett. His Uncle sent Emmett with them, and they drove off. About three days later, the body of the young boy was found in the Tallahatchie River. It was a disturbing sight, with a large bullet hole in his head, an eye gouged out, and rotting flesh from spending three days in a river. The body was almost destroyed beyond recognition, but his hand had a ring on it that said ET - Till's initials.

Bryant and Milam had been arrested for kidnapping, and when the body was found they were charged with murder. Most people around the area, including white people, were disgusted by this murder and claimed that the two men would be put to justice. The two had no support within their community, and couldn't even get a decent lawyer.

The body was shipped back to Chicago, where Emmett's mother checked that it was really her boy. She insisted on having an open-casket funeral, because she wanted to make sure that 'all the world see what they did to my son'. This case attracted the attention of millions of people in the country. Pictures of the face were even published in Jet magazine. Preachers were even preaching about Till, and most civil rights activists demanded that something be done in Mississippi! The trial of Bryant and Milam would serve as an example.

However, when Northern folks began antagonizing the Southern folks, the Southern folks began to support Bryant and Milam. The trial was on September 19, 1955 in Sumner, Mississippi. However, because of segregation, African-Americans rarely were able to accuse whites of a crime without fear of a lynching, so there were few witnesses for the prosecution at first. However, Mose Wright, Till's Uncle, agreed to testify. He was asked to point at anyone in the courtroom who had taken his nephew, and stood up, pointed at Bryant and Milam, and said 'Dar he!'1. After the testimony of Wright, several witnesses came forward, amazed at his courage.

...I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that pressure2.

Despite great evidence and testimony against the defendants, the all-white jury returned a not guilty verdict in about an hour. The foreman explained 'I feel the state failed to prove the identity of the body'. Though the two men were not convicted for murder, the trial was a great victory for civil rights, because it brought the attention of northerners to the injustices of the south.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott - 1955-1956

By late 1955, Jackie Robinson had broken the race barrier in baseball, the military was desegregated and the black community of the United States was becoming more organized. Landmark decisions like the Brown vs the Board of Education decision and the trial on the murder of Emmett Till convinced African American leaders that they could make a difference and bring attention to Civil Rights. However, what is now known as the civil rights movement was not yet underway.

On December 1, 1955 a 43-year-old NAACP (National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People) secretary named Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and sat at the front. She was a seamstress, and was tired. Parks had a history as an activist, and usually stood up for what she thought was wrong. She grew up with racism and regarded it with utter contempt. She once said in an interview-

Back then, we didn't have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan3 ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.

A city ordinance said that 'coloured people' should sit in the back of the bus, and if more white people got onto the bus, the coloured people should move to the very back or get off. Parks was sitting in front of the 'colored' section of the bus.

The white section of the bus became full, and when a white man stepped on the bus, Parks was expected to stand up and move to the back. However, she didn't move and thus disobeyed the law, and indeed the public transportation etiquette of the time. The driver asked her to move, but she simply told him that she didn't see any reason to move and refused. The bus-driver responded that it was the law, and if she didn't move then she was going to be put under arrest. She of course, bravely refused. Just that happened, and she was fined for violating the ordinance. She was also found guilty of disorderly conduct about four days later. Her trial caught the public's attention and made national headlines.

This wasn't the first time that this happened, but it led to the beginning of the civil rights movement. In fact, many historians trace the start of the civil rights movement to December 1, 1955.

Leaders of the NAACP joined together and organized a mass protest against the Montgomery Bus company (owned by the city of Montgomery), whose revenue came mostly (65%) from African Americans. The Montgomery Improvement Association began, led by the young reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. They called for a large boycott against Montgomery buses, which brought a great deal of attention to King and Parks, among others. The boycott was relatively successful at first, with news spreading in NAACP rallies and newspapers. Soon, buses were empty and the company was losing a lot of money.

The boycott lasted 382 days, ending when the United States Supreme Court overruled the city ordinance and banned the segregation of public transportation. Rosa Parks finally went on a public bus later on, free to sit wherever she wanted. Perhaps because of her, the 'Little Rock Nine' integrated a Southern High School, and Dr Martin Luther King Jr led a mass march on Washington, which included his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. However, Parks was suffering as many civil rights leaders did, from death threats and unemployment - her seamstress job had been taken from her.

She moved in 1957 to Detroit with her husband, where she lived a life without as much racism. She watched history unfold, after her brave decision to not give up her seat. In 1957, the Rosa Parks Freedom Award was created, and she has been well-honoured for her stand against segregation. In 1991, she wrote an autobiography, My Story, and was even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1999. In 2001, a Rosa Parks Library and Museum was established. She is still alive, as of 2003, and is not forgotten by the public.

Integration of Little Rock Central High - 1957

The first public school in a southern state to have the Brown vs Board of Education decision enforced in it was Little Rock Central High, in Arkansas. It was not willing to integrate, but was much less stubborn than other school districts. Little Rock had a reputation of being a better place for African-Americans to live in the south, than the alternatives. The Little Rock Central High school district was the first in the south to allow integration, though there was certainly a great deal of resistance.

Seventeen students were selected to integrate the High School, but eight decided not to because of threats and harassment. The remaining nine are now known as the Little Rock Nine. They were-

  1. Ernest Green
  2. Elizabeth Eckford
  3. Jefferson Thomas
  4. Terrence Roberts
  5. Carlotta Walls Lanier
  6. Minnijean Brown Trickey
  7. Gloria Ray Karlmark
  8. Thelma Mothershed-Wair
  9. Melba Pattillo Beals

Many white people, including the 'Mothers League of Little Rock Central High School'4 tried to prevent integration. They tried to get an injunction to prevent this, but the Brown vs Board of Education decision was clear.

On September 3, 1957, the first day of school, the nine children tried to go into the school, Arkansas' Governor, Orval Faubus (who was considered a moderate and not against integration, but needed votes for his next term, which would come mostly from white people) put National Guardsmen around the school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering. He announced that if they tried to enter, 'blood would run in the streets'. They were not able to enter the school on the first day.

On the second day, Daisy Bates of the NAACP called eight of the children and told them that they would walk in together. However, one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, didn't have a phone, and tried to enter the school alone. The mob around her might have killed her, but two white people protected her and she escaped without entering the school. The other eight were denied enterance as well.

Finally on September 23, the Little Rock Nine finally went into the school. A judge had ordered that Governor Faubus couldn't use state troops to impede a Federal order. President Eisenhower convinced the Governor to use the National Guard to protect the students, but he dismissed them when he returned. Faubus agreed to let the order be carried out, but he hoped that the Nine students would wait to integrate until the mob died down. The children were able to go into the school through the side enterance, which the mob did not expect. The police were unwilling to control the mob, but the children got in quickly.

Later, President Eisenhower sent in the 101rst Airborne Division to protect the students. They controlled the mob easily, and each of the Little Rock Nine felt a tremendous amount of pride when they went in the front enterance without a problem. They continued on the school year, the early part of which protected by the 101rst. They were even assigned a personal guard each to walk them from class. Of course, they encountered a great deal of hostility, and couldn't be protected at all times by their own soldier. Melba Pattillo in particular was given a great deal of problems. Dynamite was thrown at her, and acid was splashed in her eyes5.

The 101rst withdrew later though, and the students had to fend for themselves. Minnijean Brown was suspended in December for dumping a lunch tray on a white child's head who was taunting her6. She was then expelled for calling a child 'white trash' who was taunting her. The other eight finished the school year successfully. Ernest Green was the first minority student to graduate that high school. He was the only African-American of his 602 student class to graduate. He recalls that when he was given his diploma, there was an eery silence.

Lunch Sit-ins - 1960

All of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee
James Baldwin

On February 1, 1960 four African American students named Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair Jr of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College went into a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth Store7. They bought some supplies for their education and went to a lunch counter and asked to be served. They couldn't be, because they weren't white and it was only for whites. They weren't served, and left when the store closed. The store manager said 'They can just sit there. It's nothing to me.'.

However the next day, a much larger group of African American students went back to the lunch counter and asked to be served. This became popular, and civil rights groups spread the word of sit-ins. Basically, a group of students respectfully asked to be serve, and stayed until they were. They were polite and well dressed. This became popular, and thousands of people participated. Some were arrested, and another group would simply take their place. The sit-ins in Nashville attracted hundreds of arrests, but no matter how many times police arrested them, there was always a group at a lunch counter.

By late 1961, about 70,000 people had participated and 3,000 people had been arrested for it. Many lunch counters eventually began to serve people who weren't white - which shows that peaceful resistance could be helpful. Additionally, the same method was used to try to integrate several other facilities. The 1964 Civil Rights Act included banning the segregation of lunch counters.

Freedom Rides - 1963

Dr Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech and the March on Washington - 1963

On August 28, 1963, Dr Martin Luther King Jr led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom around the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool in Washington DC. King delivered his eloquent and incredible 'I Have a Dream' speech, which is today one of the most important, famous speeches in American history. In it, he said-

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.

So we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check ; a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

And so we've come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the movement. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not and end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. This offense we share mounted to storm the battlements of injustice must be carried forth by a biracial army. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?: We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating 'for whites only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of excessive trials and tribulation. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of the northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can, and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream my four little 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 every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith we will be able to hear out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to go to jail together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning- 'my country 'tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring' -and if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that.

Let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants - will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last'

When President John F Kennedy saw his speech on television, he simply remarked 'He's good'. This speech and march probably contributed to passing several items of important civil rights legislation.

The Assassination of John F Kennedy

President John F Kennedy (JFK) was one of the best presidents for civil rights in many years. He did a great deal of work to pass bills that would move towards equal rights. However, he was assassinated in 1963 driving in a car through Dallas. Many civil rights activists feared that JFK's successor, Lyndon B Johnson, wouldn't be able to work towards civil rights as well, and more importantly, wouldn't be inclined to do so. Most civil rights leaders were upset and worried after this.

In some ways, the death of JFK was helpful for the Civil Rights movement though. Before Kennedy's death, debate of Civil Rights legislation was rampant. After his death, debating against such legislation was to dishonour the memory of the popular president. Lyndon Johnson would say 'Let us continue. The ideas and the ideals which he8 so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action.'

Johnson turned out to be a great President for civil rights. In many ways, he was more helpful and more aggressive in passing legislation against segregation. He was well experienced at getting bills passed, and vigour. He managed to get important legislation by the Senate, which had traditionally filibustered similar bills because of a few segregationist senators. With the support of Johnson and a huge campaign by civil rights activists, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the Senate and signed into law on July 2, 1964. It is the single most important legislation for Civil Rights ever passed. It basically outlawed segregation, saying-

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Church Bombing in Birmingham - 1963

Lynching of Civil Rights Activists - 1964

Selma - 1965

Riots and Resistance

Medgar Evers killed

Malcolm X killed

Martin Luther King Jr Killed

1Or 'there he is'. This was in an English that many uneducated folks in the South had at the time.2Meaning the pressure of the media.3The Klu Klux Klan - the white supremacists of the south that rode in white clothes and often lynched African Americans.4Which interesting, had only a few actual parents of Central High students.5And if their soldier hadn't cleaned her eyes, she might have been blind forever.6Ernest Green would later say that this child reminded him of a small, yelping dog.7Which sold food as well as some other items8Kennedy.

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