The victory in Birmingham, with its reputation as the most segregated city in the United States, encouraged thousands of African Americans. They wanted freedom and they wanted it now. There was the threat that blacks could turn to violence if their nonviolent demands were ignored.
During the three months after the Birmingham movement, eight hundred boycotts, marches and sit-ins occurred in two hundred cities and towns throughout the South. More than 20,000 protesters were arrested, and at least ten were killed. About 80,000 disenfranchised blacks demonstrated for their right to vote. Northern blacks supported their fellows in the South and the number of demonstrations there was comparable to those in the South (Sitkoff 1993: 137-138).
Many Southern white leaders were willing to agree. Some fifty Southern and border cities began with desegregation of public facilities, biracial commissions were established, the first black policemen were hired, African Americans were allowed to be registered, and their children were accepted to white schools (ibid.).
Not everywhere, however, were white leaders willing to retreat. From southwest Georgia to the Louisiana delta, whites were determined to defend white supremacy by all possible means. Murders, bombing, and arson were just some forms of their resistance. A high level terror and brutality settled in this area where churches that were not bombed were the exceptions. The situation escalated with the murder of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi which brought on new demonstrations. Three months later, four black girls aging from ten to fourteen, died during the bombing of a church in Birmingham. A sixteen-year-old black boy was shot in the back whereas on another day a thirteen-year-old black was shot to death on his bike by white teenagers (ibid.: 138-140).
Blacks and whites in the North were alarmed and called for the Civil Rights Act. Surveys confirmed that most Americans supported equal housing, jobs, voting rights, desegregated schools and public facilities (ibid.). Before African Americans could rejoice at the passing of the Act, they had been exposed to cruel discouragements. After the murders of black children and the repeated postponement of the Civil Rights Bill, they had to watch a large number of pro-segregationists who succeed in the November elections. On the 22nd of November president Kennedy was assassinated. The end of the year was approaching but African Americans had not yet realized full freedom (Franklin and Moss 1994: 507).
3.6.2 The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, strongly supported the passing of the Civil Right Bill and pushed Congress to enact it. On the 24th of January, 1964 the 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It outlawed the requirement of the poll tax in national elections. Soon after, the House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Bill and the Senate did not block its passing with filibusters and approved the law (Franklin and Moss 1994: 507).
The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodation. It gave the attorney general the power to protect citizens against discrimination in public facilities, housing and voting. A federal Community Relations Service was founded which would help with cases of individuals and communities concerning civil rights problems. The Act further established a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The United States Office of Education was authorized to provide financial and technical aid with the school desegregation (ibid.: 508).
This Act was the most comprehensive law that ever appeared in the United States as far as equal rights of its citizens were concerned. No one, however, expected everything to be problem free. There was the law, but on the other hand there were entrenched ideas about races and their inequality in the United States. Blacks were excited and pushed for equality which caused problems and riots in many places.
As anticipated, the worst situation remained in the Deep South, especially in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. Despite the law, whites refused to comply and changed public facilities to private institutions. The KKK marched in the streets and promised to maintain a segregated society and publicly supported the white city councils. The strongest opposition persisted in preventing blacks from registering to vote (ibid.: 508-509).
At that time, the SNCC started the project known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer, as described in chapter 3.4.2. It revealed that the desegregation of public places would be acceptable for the South but would not provide blacks with a franchise. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this would be the final battle in their pursuit of freedom.
3.6.3 The Final Battle for Civil Rights in Selma
In Alabama seventy-seven percent of eligible voters remained disenfranchised. “Only 335 blacks out of a total population of 15,000” (Steven 1991: 105) were registered in Dallas County with Selma at its centre. Since the earliest days, Selma was considered by whites as their capital of the Confederacy, Black Belt, and white supremacy. James G. Clark, the Dallas county sheriff had much in common with Bull’s tactics of police brutality and oppression of blacks (ibid.: 107).
If King wanted to appeal to the federal government to intervene, he had to do it cautiously. He relied on the mass media and support of other Americans. He was aware of strained relations between whites and blacks in Selma and was afraid of bloodshed. King just came back from Oslo, Norway where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and strongly felt that the removal of obstructions in voter registration would liberate the Deep South (ibid.: 105-108).
Fortunately, King could count on the support of the President. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the President lost white support in the Southern States of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. He expected that blacks with full voting rights would support his party instead of white supremacists. Moreover, he also believed that African Americans with full rights could more easily attain advancement by themselves (ibid.).
The movement for suffrage began in 1965. During January and February the SCLC initiated numerous marches to the courthouse demanding registration. This situation had not lasted long before Clark lost his patience. Despite the warnings of moderate whites who were afraid of negative publicity, he ordered the first arrests (ibid.: 110-111).
Neighboring Perry County supported the Selma protesters with rallies and marches. In mid-February, a young man was shot while helping his mother who was being beaten by state troops. This action outraged the local activists and they planned the fifty mile long march from Selma to Montgomery. On Sunday, the 7th of March, 600 protesters set off on the journey. They were, however, stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where state troopers along with Clark’s posse attacked them with tear gas, kicked, beat and injured many of them. The rest of the marchers were chased back to town. This terror attracted the national attention of the public and secured the federal intervention that King needed (ibid.: 111-112).
The President ordered the march to go ahead, and the new one was scheduled on the 21st of March. The protesters were under federal protection which deterred white violence. The march which originally started with some 300 demonstrators numbered on its final day approximately 50,000 black and white people from all over the United States (Franklin and Moss 1994: 510).
3.6.4 The Voting Rights Act of 1965
As mentioned above, the President supported the struggle for suffrage. During the crisis in Alabama, he acted as quickly as he could and proposed to Congress the voting rights bill. Congress passed it without filibusters and the Senate did the same. By August, 1965 it became the law. The Gallup Poll that spring recorded that “76 percent of the nation favored a voting rights bill; in the South surprising 49 percent of the sample indicated approval compared with 37 percent in opposition” (Steven 1991: 115).
The Act forbade any discriminatory practices which prevented voting, including literacy tests and others that were demanded especially by the southern states. The only condition to become a registered voter would remain citizenship. The attorney general got the power to supervise such states or counties that were considered to be preventing blacks from voting. Federal registrars could be sent into states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and twenty-six counties in North Carolina, Alaska, along with scattered counties in Arizona, Idaho and Hawaii. If any of these states jurisdictions would implement changes in voting, it had to be done with the approval of the attorney general (Franklin and Moss 1994: 510-511).
By the end of the year, nearly 250,000 new African Americans added their names to the rolls (ibid.). The most significant change was recorded in the Deep South: “In Mississippi black registration leaped from 6.7 percent in 1964 to 59.4 in 1968 . . . In Alabama jumped from 23 percent to 53 percent. In Dallas County . . . from less than 1,000 to over 8,500 within months after the suffrage law took effect” (Steven 1991: 116).
The years from 1963 to 1965 brought many improvements to the lives of African Americans. As described above, these freedoms would not have happened without their effort. The fact that more and more African Americans became involved in the civil rights movement finally caused white segregationists to surrender. Their hatred and aggressive behavior toward blacks caused millions of Americans to support the black protesters, marchers and demonstrators.
Both the presidents during those years understood that race did not have any place in a democratic country and actively supported full freedom for blacks. Passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts meant not only legislative change for the lives of African Americans, but, above all, insured the effectiveness of the law.
Desegregation of public facilities, housing, and employment secured the first victory. Suffrage without obstacles ensured the second victory. Yet the struggle could not be considered finished. Desegregation of schools was a long lasting process. To improve standards of black living concerning housing and employment took much time as well. But with the support of the laws, African Americans could consider their struggle for equality and freedom as essentially accomplished.
When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over. (King 1969: 102)
The above cited passage from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can be considered as history now. In the 1950s, however, it represented the sad reality of the everyday lives of millions of African Americans in the United States. This thesis searched for the explanations as to why the reality was such.
The United States of America means for many people the ideals of freedom, unlimited opportunities, a world power and country that helps others in need. Do you think that my opinion has changed during the writing of this thesis? I must answer no. Comprehending its history does not necessarily condemn the behavior of white Americans but strives to understand this behavior.
If we want to better understand, we must return to the early settlement of America in the seventeenth century. Slavery was a fact of life in those days. This period lasted for several generations and contributed to the entrenched perception of blacks. These opinions could not be changed overnight, especially in the South. Whites there believed in the inferiority of blacks, and the influence of Washington was far away. Since there was no one who would demand the compliance with the law ensuring equal rights for all American citizens, whites put themselves first before sharing their lives with black uneducated citizens. The Black Codes and consequent Jim Crow laws were the results of their endeavor. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was divided along a color line.
What was worse was the appalling treatment that blacks experienced in the South. It could not have ended otherwise without blacks fighting for their rights. The thesis describes this lengthy period of time before the movement could expand and what needed to happen in the twentieth century before the time for freedom was ripe. During this period, blacks re-discovered their self-awareness and self-esteem, established numerous civil rights organizations and associations and engaged in various protest tactics. Their struggle during this period was, for most Americans, invisible. It awoke black unity, collectiveness and brought them together. The first half of the twentieth century provided them with time to understand important facts. First, as Martin Luther King expressed: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (1969: 101). They comprehended that individuals meant nothing but together they could change the United States. Secondly, there was no way to secure these goals through violence. The fact that African Americans found inspiration in the church and Gandhi saved many lives: “If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood” (King 1969: 107).
Yet the verbs such as to fight, to battle, to combat, to vie for civil rights are the proper words for the struggle. The Civil Rights Movement was a war. It was a war where innocent people died in the same way as people die in a war. They were determined to achieve full freedom, justice and equality and these were aims that were worth dying for. Reed described bare facts of being involved in the movement as follows:
Virtually everyone who took up the civil rights cause in the South, black or white, was essentially put under threat of death. They could expect to lose their jobs, be beaten many times, have their homes fire-bombed or fired on in drive-by shootings, have threats made against the lives of their children and other relatives. If these acts of intimidation did not work, and for most they did not, then the next level was assassination. The list of those who died for the civil rights cause is a long one. (2005: 25)
They chose nonviolent direct actions such as boycotts, sit-ins, marches and others to provoke crises that would force the federal government to change their status at the federal level. In most cases, they relied on the support of white Americans and the mass media.
On the other hand, they realized that support would come only if they were attacked by the police or by outraged white mobs. For this reason, I do not condemn the behavior of white Americans. They defended their America, their dreams and their lives. They understand now that the cruel and violent tactics that were applied by them had nothing in common with a civilized society, but it mirrored a more than three hundred year old entrenched approach regarding blacks.
Fortunately, the United States could not defy the inevitable changes that were brought in the twentieth century. It could no longer be tolerated that the country representing the symbol of democracy throughout the world would deny its own citizens their basic rights. The United States managed to change its outlook. It was not reached through laws but, first and foremost, through its people. White Americans proved what was believed impossible could, in fact become true. At last, they admitted to blacks first-class citizenship and inured themselves to the fact that living with them in one society where race does not have any place is correct.
The fact, that the United States elected its first black President goes to show the immense changes the souls and minds of the American people have undergone since the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. More than three hundred years of humiliation, inequality and injustice were buried in less than fifty years.
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Franklin, John H., and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom : A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Protest: Man Against Society. Ed. Gregory Armstrong. New York: Bantam Books, 1969. 97-113.
O’Callaghan, Bryn. An Illustrated History of the USA. UK: Longman, 1990.
“Race Timeline.” Race – the Power of an Illusion. 2003. PBS Online. 30 Sep. 2008. .
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Statutes at Large. 1 May 2003. Library of Congress. 30 Sep. 2008. . Path: Constitution, p. 103-104, p. 358.
Steven, Lawson F. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941. USA: McGraw, 1991.
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List of Abbreviations
CORE Congress of Racial Equality
CRM Civil Rights Movement
FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation
KKK Ku Klux Klan
MOWM March on Washington Movement
NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
SCHW Southern Conference for Human Welfare
SCLC Southern Christian Leadership Conference
SNCC Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
VEP Voter Education Project