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

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3.4 Freedom Rides and Freedom Votes

3.4.1 The Freedom Rides

The freedom rides began in the spring of 1961. From their initial beginning president Kennedy was not excited about them. Although he supported the civil rights struggle, he preferred more peaceful means than the freedom rides. He anticipated that what young people from the SNCC in cooperation with the CORE planned to do would start large riots. He was afraid that the aim of the freedom riders would be to force him to act. His assumption was right. He did not like the idea of repeated federal intervention that would cause conflicts with state governments (Steven 1991: 80-81).

After the successful sit-ins, black leaders sought a new sphere of interest where they could battle the still strongly segregated South. The decision of the Supreme Court in 1960 that ruled against segregation not only on interstate buses but also in rest rooms, waiting rooms and all terminal accommodations provided them with an opportunity (Sitkoff 1993: 88-89).

Both blacks and whites became volunteers for the freedom rides. They decided to travel on interstate buses into the heart of the Deep South and test if the decision of the Supreme Court was being respected there. They expected troubles from whites and wanted by conducting the freedom rides to induce the federal government to act. James Farmer, one of the founders of the CORE remembers the rationale of the freedom rides:
Why didn’t the federal government enforce its law? We decided it was because of politics. If we were right in assuming that the federal government did not enforce federal law because of its fear of reprisals from the South, then what we had to do was to make it more dangerous politically for the federal government not to enforce federal law.” (qtd. in Facing History 2006: 50)
The first freedom ride began in May, 1961. Thirteen blacks and whites, trained by CORE set off from Washington, D.C. on two buses to Anniston and Birmingham. The closer they got to the Black Belt, the worse the situation became. Outraged mobs were waiting for them at each stop. Though the buses were damaged and freedom riders hurt, they decided to continue. Their journey ended in the two cities where no bus would accept them to travel to Montgomery (Sitkoff 1993: 90-93).

The SNCC students were determined to continue. With the words “the ride must not be stopped. If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead.” (qtd. in ibid.), they wanted to finish what the CORE had started. They set off on the journey to Birmingham where they were attacked by the KKK and arrested for violating the local segregation orders (ibid.).

Other twenty-one students boarded the bus to Montgomery and during their journey were protected by the police. During this time, the freedom rides attracted the attention of the public and the mass media. When they got to Montgomery, there were neither policemen nor buses at the station. Only an outraged mob of more than a thousand people who received permission from the governor for fifteen minutes to show the freedom riders that they were not welcomed there. The picture that was broadcasted by television was horrifying. Young well-dressed white and black students were kicked and beaten with baseball bats, and one man was set afire. Some of them were very seriously injured before the police came. This bloodshed became page-one news, and not only in the United States. The public condemned the non action of the police and the brutality of white Southerners who defied the law. The President decided to act and promised federal protection to the freedom riders despite his disapproval of such coercion aimed at white Southerners as well as himself (ibid.: 94-96).

The President’s Attorney General appealed to freedom riders for a cooling-off period but they refused with the words: “We had been cooling off for a hundred years. If we got any cooler, we’d be in a deep freeze” (qtd. in ibid.: 98). Another freedom ride headed to Jackson, Mississippi where the riders were arrested which served as a protection against mob violence. Rather than pay bails, students filled the jails. More and more students became volunteers and traveled across the South. By the end of the summer, there were more than a thousand freedom riders (ibid.: 98-100).

The time had become ripe. The crisis that they invoked needed a solution at the federal level. Due to the pressure of the Attorney General, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued on the 22nd of September the order that forbade segregation in interstate transportation. The signs notifying that seating is “without regard to race, color, creed or national origin” (ibid.) had to be placed both in the carriers and the terminals.

3.4.2 Voter Registration Drives

After the success of the freedom rides, civil rights leaders found out how to improve the unequal conditions in the South even further. They knew that power counts and that power was suffrage. The SNCC, the CORE, the NAACP, the SCLC and the Urban League joined their efforts in the Voter Education Project, abbrev. VEP. Its main goal was to increase the number of registered voters in the South as well as improve housing and employment (Sitkoff 1993: 106).

At first their work was hard and dangerous. They had to go from door to door and persuaded blacks in the Deep South that to exercise their rights was important. Workers helped them to gather courage, overcome fear and accompanied them when they went to register. They had to face attacks from whites who sent them back to the North. They saw blacks kicked, beaten, whipped, and killed but they did not surrender. Their headquarters were dynamited, fire-bombed or set afire. White registrars changed registration dates, invited blacks several times, demanding that they pass literacy and understanding tests that were manipulated at will. Those who overcame their fear were in danger of losing their jobs, or being arrested for alleged crimes, denied loans or further extension of their credit (ibid.: 106-111).

African Americans in the South were full of fear and the civil rights workers believed that the federal government would protect its citizens if their lives were in danger while trying to register. These years of hard, long and painful work, however, showed that they had been mistaken. The Justice Department expressed its support but was reluctant to intervene. Everything was in the hands of Southern state courts where blacks had only a tiny chance to succeed. Many civil rights activists lost their faith in the justice of the United States while others began to doubt the approach of nonviolence. Yet there were many of them who felt they helped to shift the thinking of black farmers from fear “into freedom of the mind, and it is now theirs for life, even if they should never succeed in their efforts to persuade a semi-literate, hostile registrar to put their names on the roll” (qtd. in Steven 1991: 90).

For all that, the VEP recorded between April, 1962 and November, 1964 “a jump from 26.8 to 38 percent of the potential black registrants” (ibid.). In hard numbers, it meant some 688,800 blacks. The sad truth remained that this increase had taken place in urban areas of the upper South. In Mississippi where white defiance remained the strongest, “the proportion of black voters rose from 5.3 percent to just 6.7 percent” (ibid.).

The situation in Mississippi in 1964 became an inspiration for the SNCC whose members prepared a plan for increasing voter registration there. The action called the Freedom Summer consisted of several projects, including voter registration, white community project, law student project, research project and establishing of forty-one freedom schools. The Freedom Summer drew attention because of its interracial character. Hundreds of white college students, especially from the North participated as volunteers, and worked together with civil rights activists and both the black and white citizens of Mississippi (Facing History 2006: 71-73).

One of the aims of the project was to uncover white resistance against franchising blacks in this area. Only few people in the North realized how critical the situation was there. As expected, this project provoked white segregationists from the beginning: “At least thirty homes were bombed, thirty-five churches burned, eighty persons were beaten, and there were more than thirty shooting incidents, and six known murders” (Sitkoff 1993: 113). One of these cases especially outraged whites. Among the murdered were two white students. In response, the President authorized the FBI to establish a local bureau in Mississippi and solve cases there (Steven 1991: 99).

Nevertheless, the Justice Department claimed that it was not possible to protect each black man or woman who would register from beating, murder or arson (ibid.).

3.4.3 Summary

Whereas the freedom rides did not gain support from the President, mainly due to its open provocation of violence, the voter registration drives were strongly approved. Despite that, neither freedom rides nor voter drives had ensured that the President would start to act on equal civil rights at a quicker pace.

The Freedom Rides showed how the tactics of black activists developed. Although they realized that they were headed into the arms of outraged white mobs, they did not step back. Of course, most Americans condemned the behavior of the white mobs but, on the other hand, most of them did not sympathize with the freedom rides as much as with the boycotts and the sit-ins. No matter what the public thought about them, they were victorious and predetermined the voter drives.

Voter registration drives were in a different position. Almost no one knew about them. There was little coverage on the evening news that a house of a black man was fire-bombed because he wanted to register. Thousands of everyday black lives remained obscured to both whites and blacks in the North and even the federal government hoped that it would eventually solve itself. Getting involved in policy is a dangerous trap and Washington did not desire to clash with Southern state governments.

Hence this can be considered as one of the most difficult battles that the Civil Rights Movement ever fought. It was clear to see how the cooperation at grassroots level was significant and how only group-centered leadership was more important than centralized leadership. Each new vote that was added to the rolls became a small victory. It meant that after years of fear another black man or woman found his/her dignity and self-confidence.

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