The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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3. The Civil Rights Movement

3.1 The Start of the Movement

Considering all that had occurred in the United States during the century leading to African Americans empowerment, including the decision of the Supreme Court that proclaimed the doctrine separate but equal in education unconstitutional, there could not have been a better time for the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement. Long years of resistance, defiance, planning and organization, combined with courage and an awakening dignity and self-awareness set the stage for the movement. Therefore it is not true that the movement arose from nothing. It began neither with the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy in the summer of 1955, nor with the refusal by Rosa Parks to vacant her seat on a public bus to a white man. Let’s take a closer look at these two incidents that crowned the years of waiting for freedom and equality.

3.1.1 The Murder of Emmett Till

Emmett Till was born in 1941 and grew up in Chicago. His cousin’s family was living in Mississippi in the Deep South. In August, 1955 just after his graduation from school he looked forward to paying them a visit and to pick cotton there (Facing History 2006: 15).

The visit ended in tragedy. One hot day he and his friends bought some candy at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. As he left the shop, Emmett said to the white shop assistant bye, baby. It was done on a dare. His friends did not believe that he attended school with whites who he regarded as friends. No southern boy would dare address a white woman first. Emmett did it. Southern racial mores were unknown to Emmett who at fourteen did not realize how different his life was in the North from his cousin’s in the South (ibid.).

Four days later Emmett was kidnapped by two white men who came at night to his uncle’s house. The next day the men were arrested, but it was too late. Three days later, Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. This was not an isolated event in the South. What Emmett’s mother decided to do was something completely new. On seeing the mutilated body of her son, she said: “. . . there is no way I can tell the world what I see. The world is going to have to look at this” (qtd. in ibid.: 17). At the funeral the casket remained open so that everyone could see tortured body of her son. A week later, the local press published dreadful photos of Emmett’s body which attracted the attention of the country to the continuing violence occurring in the South (ibid.).

The trial in September became a sensation, both in a positive and negative sense. Emmett’s great uncle did something unimaginable. While he was on the witness stand, he accused two white men sitting in the courtroom of coming to his house and kidnapping Emmett. Despite this testimony, two days later the jury consisting of twelve white men acquitted both defendants (ibid.).

To sum it up, what was important about this case was the attention that it attracted. Thousands of blacks and whites condemned the verdict which only served to convince African Americans that it was time for a change.

3.1.2 Rosa Parks’ refusal

Less than a half year later, on the 1st of December, Rosa Parks was returning home on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. When she was asked by the driver to vacate her seat to a white man, she refused. She was not just an unknown elderly woman tired after her long day at work who decided to defy (Sitkoff 1993: 37-38).

Rosa Parks became a member of the NAACP in 1943, and together with her husband had solved numerous cases involving murders, rapes, peonage, and flogging. She had participated in several actions of nonviolent civil disobedience and was aware of its consequences. The murder of Emmett Till acted as a catalyst and motivated her to take action. Later, reflecting on her actions taken on the bus that day, she commented that: “I felt it was just something I had to do” (qtd. in ibid.: 38). When the driver repeated his request she again refused. At the next bus stop she was arrested by the police “for violating the municipal ordinance mandating segregation on publicly owned vehicles” (ibid.: 38).

Rosa turned for help to E. D. Nixon, President of the Alabama NAACP who paid a bail to release her from jail. After Parks’ discharge, he contacted Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political County to discuss the next step. The arrest of Rosa Parks was the spark he had been waiting for in his efforts to involve the black masses in forcing changes on Montgomery. Proposed actions included a one-day bus boycott on the day of Rosa Parks’ trial. Nixon telephoned college professors, civic spokesmen, and ministers and asked them to spread the news about the boycott. The Women’s Political County printed thousands of handbills that appealed to black people to support the boycott because next time it could be you who would be arrested. It was no surprise that on that fateful day over ninety percent of blacks did not ride the buses (ibid.: 38-41).

3.1.3 The Explanation of the Movement

The above can be considered as the actual beginning of the movement. Rosa Parks’ refusal provided the spark that leaders of the NAACP were waiting for. Through numerous workshops and nonviolent actions, they comprehended that if they desired change, it could not be done by advocating violence. The racial riots from previous years, such as the Red Summer in 1919 or violent actions during the Second World War were counter productive. On the other hand, when they sought to peacefully negotiate with white councils concerning Jim Crow, they met only with humiliation and refusals.

The leaders of the NAACP and CORE realized that what they needed was to attract white sympathizers to their side. The more support they would obtain in their civil rights struggle, the more they could push for the necessary laws to be passed in favor of equal civil rights. While searching for means on how to reach their goal, they found inspiration in Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolence and passive resistance. Long before the Montgomery boycott, blacks had been taught how the strategy of civil disobedience and direct actions functioned and how they should behave in case of being attacked by whites. The NAACP and CORE members were acquainted with the principles of boycotts, sit-ins, marches and other forms of demonstrations.

Black leaders assumed that direct actions based on principles of non violence could attract the attention of the mass media. Their presumption stemmed from the hypothesis that mass nonviolent direct actions would upset whites who would consider it as impudent behavior that would need to be suppressed. The result would be that blacks would be presented in the mass media victims of white violence. The tension that would be created by such direct actions would force white councils to negotiate.

It must be said that not everything had been prepared before the Montgomery boycott. The most typical feature of the Civil Rights Movement was that it consisted of local branches of the NAACP, CORE, the newly formed SCLC, and in later years the SNCC. Masses of black and white people who desired change were the backbone of the movement. Numerous local branches obtained inspiration from and supported each other. There was no centralized leadership; in fact the movement was scattered all over the United States and its power was in its people.

There was, however, a man who was considered as the father of the movement. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was at the inception of the Montgomery bus boycott and devoted his life to the movement. You may ask why a minister became the most visible person of the movement instead of a college professor or a politician. As already stated, no matter where blacks lived or moved, churches remained the havens and pivotal places of black neighborhoods. Ministers supported the means of direct non violent actions in unison with Christian love that did not allow violence. Their substantial influence on black fellow citizens helped attract the masses.

Gandhi’s nonviolence in connection with Christian love seemed to African Americans as a good base to invoke change. These ideas were excellently interpreted for the masses by Martin Luther King, Jr. who convinced blacks to incorporate these ideas in their lives. He went even further by including Thoreau’s just and unjust laws into the philosophy of the movement.

By attracting the mass media along with the attention of the government and the President, black citizens could hope that they finally found the way how to change their status quo.

3.1.4 The Means of the Movement

The movement was built upon non violent direct actions that differed during the years. As already stated, the Montgomery bus boycott can be considered as the beginning of the movement. In Wikipedia a boycott is defined as “a form of consumer activism involving the act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with someone or some other organization as an expression of protest, usually of political reasons” (Boycott). As described in the following chapter, the Montgomery boycott consisted of not traveling by local buses and became successful due to the unity of all involved. In subsequent years boycotts were used along with other forms of protests.

Sit-ins represented a different type of action. Wikipedia defines them as “a form of direct action that involves one or more persons nonviolently occupying an area for a protest, often to promote political, social, or economic change” (Sit-in). Sit-ins appeared in the movement in 1960 and were performed by students, both black and white. Their goal was to sit at various lunch counters until they would be served. Soon, large numbers of students in many other cities joined them and black adults supported them by boycotting a variety of store chains. Again, their actions invoked a crisis that could not be ignored by white city councils and had to be dealt with, in numerous cases by desegregation of public facilities.

The Freedom Riders that entered the movement in 1961 stated their goal clearly. They knew that Southern states would defy the decision of the Supreme Court, therefore they decided to provoke a crisis and thus compel the federal government to act and gain support in putting the decision into effect. They relied on the same course of action as in Little Rock in 1957.

Other direct actions used by blacks were marches. Wikipedia defines marches as a part of demonstration that is “a form of activism, usually taking the form of a public gathering of people in a rally or walking in a march. . . to refer to the public display of the common opinion of a group of people” (Demonstration). This thesis describes two marches that occurred in connection with other forms of demonstrations as parts of the liberation movements in Albany and Birmingham. The former took place in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and had negative results for the struggle. The latter occurred in Birmingham in 1963 and is an excellent illustration of King’s tactical planning and how the means of direct actions could be combined in order to reach the goal.

It was in Birmingham, when King was jailed and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” explained the four steps of each nonviolent campaign that are: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (1969: 99). Further, he analyzed the existence of just and unjust laws as they were defined by Thoreau but he extended his ideas:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. (King 1969: 103)
King appealed to his black fellow citizens to stand up against these unjust laws and accept the consequences that might follow for breaking the law, even an unjust law. Since they wanted to attract public attention, arrested protesters refused bails and were sent to prisons. City jails were overcrowded by blacks, young students and adults who peacefully demonstrated for equal civil rights and were imprisoned. This was the public interest they wanted to arouse. More and more whites sympathized with their struggle.

The third march described in this thesis was the famous March on Washington in 1963 that satisfied black demands for equal civil rights.

The following chapters show how these means of nonviolent direct actions functioned in the movement itself.

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