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

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3.2 Not Only Boycotts of the 1950s

3.2.1 The Montgomery Bus Boycott

There was no substitute for the role of churches and ministers played in the boycott. During the twentieth century, churches and religion had provided a haven where African Americans could feel welcomed. Even if they migrated, blacks could find a new church that offered its members material relief, clubs for young married couples, or day-care service for working parents. Young blacks during the 1950s were becoming increasingly impatient with the slow pace of change. To counter this, the church offered more programs to the youth in their religious communities. Various radical groups represented dangerous temptation to youth by advocating violence to change the system. The church became more politically involved and organized alternative nonviolent actions (Franklin and Moss 1994: 473-474).

Therefore, it came as no surprise that ministers were elevated to positions of leadership, and were able to attract masses of people to the direct actions. It therefore was accepted without objections when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, founded on the 5th December, 1955. At first, the employment of more black bus drivers was demanded along with better treatment of black passengers who were still required to sit in the rear of buses (Sitkoff 1993: 40-41).

King was young, intelligent, exciting and an excellent orator. In addition, he was a new face in the community, unspoiled and having no personal conflicts with others. Reed cited Ella Baker who stated: “King did not make the movement, the movement made King” (2005: 2-3). That is true but without King’s unique oral ability, the movement’s goals would have been difficult to get across to the masses. Besides, he did not consider himself as a leader of the movement but rather as someone completely devoted to it. King had spent part of his life in the North. When he witnessed how segregation was still functioning in its worst forms in Montgomery, he was determined with all his heart to help bring about a change (Sitkoff 1993: 41-43).

During the evening following the one-day bus boycott, he gave his first speech to more than five thousand black citizens of Montgomery, in the Holt Street Baptist Church. He exhorted that if they wanted to succeed, their actions must comply with the law and that unity was considered essential. The only weapon they had was their right to protest. “We are impatient for justice but we will protest with love” (qtd. in ibid.: 45) were the words that galvanized the movement. “First and foremost we are American citizens . . . and we are here for our love for democracy . . . and the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right” (qtd in Facing History 2006: 21-22). King’s speech showed his love for the United States, his belief in the country, government and the Constitution. Further, he emphasized their Christian membership did not permit violence:

My friends, don’t let anybody make us feel that we ought to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens’ Councils. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out to some distant road and murdered. There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. (qtd. in ibid.: 22)
His speech was received with enthusiasm and resolution to continue the boycott. What occurred on the fifth December continued on the sixth, seventh and eighth December as well. Since blacks used the public buses the most, their decision not to ride them resulted in empty buses. The boycott continued days, then weeks, then months. Some black women had to walk up to ten kilometers each day, from black neighborhoods to the white houses where they worked. Though physically tired, their souls were filled with hope (Sitkoff 1993: 46-47).

At first white municipal authorities refused to believe that blacks would remain unified. Once they saw that blacks were determined, they began to assert their white supremacy and power. Many blacks lost their jobs, while others were threatened with dismissal or arrested for alleged violence. For several days the strength of the movement wavered. When King was arrested for speeding and sent to prison, it reinvigorated the boycott. Blacks demonstrated outside the jail until King was released (ibid.).

Nonetheless, King’s arrest was not what persuaded blacks to persevere. After King’s house was dynamited, an outraged black mob armed with weapons and stones was on the verge of open racial violence. With King satisfied that his wife and a child were uninjured he stood in front of the mob and quieted them: “Get rid of your weapons. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us” (qtd in ibid.: 48). This was the moment that persuaded blacks to follow him. They saw King’s own words in action and they believed. From this moment on, no matter how whites tried to discourage blacks, they could not break their unity.

On the 4th of June, the federal court district settled the suits of four black women, thus ending bus segregation. The decision stated that segregation on public buses violates “equal protection of the law clauses of the fourteenth amendment” (qtd. in ibid.: 50). The case was further judged by the Supreme Court. Whites were afraid of the confirmation of above written statement and became even more vengeful. The NAACP was outlawed, fined, and the city council threatened to revoke the license for their car pool business that helped blacks who did not use buses (ibid.: 50-51).

On the 13th November, 1956 African Americans could celebrate their victory. The Supreme Court confirmed the decision of the federal court and ended the 381 day long boycott that changed lives of African Americans (ibid.: 51-52). On the 21st of December, 1956 The New York Times wrote: “For the first time in this ‘Cradle of Confederacy’ all the Negroes entered buses through the front door. They sat in the first empty seats they saw, in the front of buses and in the rear. They did not get up to give a white passenger a seat. And whites sat with Negroes” (qtd. in ibid.: 52).
It showed that a mass action combined with the unity of all participants could induce the federal government to intervene. Moreover, it meant that change was possible and that it was in the hands of each individual black man or woman. It provided the hope that blacks craved.

3.2.2 Formation of the SCLC

As already stated, no one had foreseen boycott in Montgomery in December of 1955. Yet, it happened. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been asked to lead the MIA was supported by many black clergymen who came to him for advice when organizing similar boycotts in their towns and cities, namely Tallahassee, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia (Sitkoff 1993: 56).

The boycott in Montgomery had unified them, and in 1957 there appeared a new organization with King as president. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, abbrev. the SCLC represented a significant turning point in the movement. The North tended to employ legal actions to gain racial equality, while in the South mass demonstrations and nonviolent resistance was used (ibid.).

Blacks began to fight for themselves and the church played a requisite role. Christianity supported the nonviolent approach of the movement and provided necessary infrastructure as well. Churches became places of recruitment, meetings, and raising money for the movement. Further, its independent network served as a movement network (Reed 2005: 12).

Besides, churches provided a haven from white retaliation where people could talk about injustices or, on the other hand, victories. To talk about it is not all together accurate. They could sing about it. The old black musical tradition melded with their religious belief, providing them with faith and hope. In songs stories were told, hatred was buried, hope was expressed and singing together provided moral support. Songs represented a significant tool to overcome fear. In addition, gospel music had a long tradition, and traditional songs served as a reminder of the horrible conditions, black slaves had to face (Reed 1-2).

Such songs, called freedom songs were recognized early on as weapons against racial segregation. For example, “We Shall Overcome” became the movement’s anthem. These songs, however, did not remain only in the churches. Later in the movement, they served as a tool of unity and moral support in the streets during marches and sit-ins. In prisons, singing together encouraged protesters to endure and overcome the fear they felt (ibid.). As one of the civil rights workers remembered it:
We were singing . . . Somehow, I can’t explain it, through the singing and the sense of solidarity we made a kind of psychological barrier between us and the mob. Somehow we made such a wall of strength that they couldn’t physically push through it to hit us with their sticks. It wasn’t visual, but you could almost see our singing and out unity pushing them back. (ibid.: 25-26).
Music played a significant role in the movement not only because of the above mentioned influence, but also served as a mobilizing tool to attract masses of people. Songs reached out to whites as well, and they crossed the barriers of class, religion, generation and sex (ibid.: 13).

3.2.3 The Civil Rights Acts of the 1950s

As already stated, President Eisenhower supported African Americans in their struggle for freedom. Unfortunately, his support was often only verbal, with little action taken. Moreover, he held the view that desegregation is a matter for individual states where the federal government should not intervene.

For that reason, he did not comment on the Montgomery bus boycott and remained silent concerning various cases of black helplessness against continuing school segregation. In 1956 for example, Autherine Lucy who had won a federal court case concerning her acceptance to the University of Alabama, had to withdrawal for her own safety. The important fact remained that she became the first black woman to enroll at the University of Alabama. By contrast, the university preserved segregation for the next seven years (Sitkoff 1993: 57).

On the other hand, securing equal rights for all American citizens was considered by the President as a proper cause for federal intervention. The right to vote was guaranteed by the fifteenth Amendment, regardless of race or color, and the President planned his campaign for a second term securing on freedoms for African Americans. The fact at the time was that “between 1952 and 1956 only 215,000 additional blacks succeeded in enrolling to vote in the South, leaving seventy-five percent without the ballot” (Steven 1991: 49).

The President’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell shared the same attitude. After the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, and of two other blacks during their attempt to enroll, he started to work on the Civil Rights Act. The Montgomery bus boycott persuaded him that African Americans were resolute in standing up for their civil rights and first-class citizenship. After long negotiations in the Senate only three sections of the proposed Act were approved. They included voting rights litigation, the establishment of a Civil Rights Commission and a Civil Rights Division. Desegregation was excluded from the Act. Some civil rights leaders were disappointed with the Act, but in fact it represented an important legislative precedent for further struggle. These two newly created organizations should have provided for an increase in black voter registration (ibid.: 55-58).

Three years passed revealing that the Civil Rights Act could not induce Southern whites to treat blacks as their equals. Only two hundred thousand blacks were added to voter lists during those years, an increase of just three percent. Civil rights leaders and the Commission demanded a new civil rights law. Again, a proposed bill for change was watered down. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 authorized the courts and not federal registrars to appoint legal aid to blacks with difficult franchise cases (ibid.: 63; Sitkoff 33-34). Presidential pressure in support of suffrage was not as effective as African Americans had hoped. Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP during those years, summed up the President’s approach: “President Eisenhower was a fine general and a good, decent man, but if he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights, we would all be speaking German today” (qtd. in ibid.: 51; ibid.: 36).

3.2.4 Crisis in Little Rock

Many Americans in the North did not care about what was happening in the South, but the violence directed at innocent pupils and students including bomb attacks on schools filled them with outrage. People turned to the federal government for solution to defuse the growing tensions in the South. For the first time, President Eisenhower had to use armed federal troops to protect African American students from white mobs, despite his policy of nonintervention regarding desegregation in individual states.

This happened in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas where the Board of Education approved the integration of the Little Rock Central High School. Nine outstanding black students had been chosen to attend an all white school with some two thousand students. Governor Orval E. Faubus, a segregationist, appealed to his supporters to stop the nine black students from entering the school. On the first day called out the National Guard to prevent violence, but in fact its orders were to form a barrier to prevent the students from entering the school. This action was repeated for the next several days and attracted national interest to the case. Tensions in the city were ready to boil over, and race riots threatened (Sitkoff 1993: 28-29).

There was no other choice for the President other than to act. In a speech on the crisis he expressed that “mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts” (qtd. in Facing History 2006: 33). Further, he emphasized that the decisions of the Supreme Court were obligatory for all states, no matter what they thought of them. If anyone disregarded these ruling, it was the duty of the President and executive branch to act and ensure compliance (ibid.).

Although the Governor withdrew the National Guard, the outraged mob remained. More and more white racists gathered each day in front of the school forcing the President to send federal troops to Little Rock to protect the nine students and maintain order. Armed troops remained in the city for two months, providing the students with protection. For blacks it was a signal that the federal government was on their side and they hoped for further action, which did not come. President Eisenhower did not agree with the forceful desegregation of schools and was against further intervention (Sitkoff 1993: 30-31).

As a result, after the crisis passed and people lost interest, the Governor decided to the schools’ closure in Little Rock rather than desegregate them. They remained closed for two years before reopening. The fact was that by 1964 only 123 black children out of seven thousand students could attend desegregated schools in Little Rock (ibid.: 35).

The situation throughout the South was similar: “In 1960, only one sixth of one percent of the black students in the South went to a desegregated school. By 1964, just two percent of the black children in the South attended integrated schools, and none at all in two Southern counties involved in the Brown decision” (ibid.: 36).

3.2.5 Summary

The Montgomery bus boycott shifted the civil rights struggle from the North to the South and from extended trials in courts where whites determined the lives of African Americans to the streets and into the hands of the black masses. Each black man or woman could participate in improving his/her future. The NAACP and the SCLC, led by churches organized eager black fellow citizens in their desire for change.

In the years 1956 and 1957 blacks believed that their first-class citizenship was very close. Their conviction was encouraged by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, although some civil rights leaders intuited that it would bring more disappointment than satisfaction. The events in Little Rock were similarly regarded with caution. On the one hand, there was a fact that the law was on the side of the nine students. White outrage forced the President to intervene, which many blacks comprehended as a good sign for their struggle. On the other hand, civil rights leaders knew that the President supported them, but very slowly and without pressure from white Southerners. The President would act only in extreme cases.

No wonder that with the snail’s pace of school desegregation and enduring problems with voter registration that many black people in the South felt disappointed at the beginning of the 1960s. The approach by the government to racial issues remained cautious and the hopes of blacks due to the successes extending from 1954 to 1957 were weakened by the slow progress of the late 1950s. It was necessary to search for new ways to challenge whites, the government and the President and to make strides toward racial equality in the United States.

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