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

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3.5 Marches

The NAACP motto was Free by ’63. In 1962 black leaders comprehended that despite their many successes, full freedom was not as close as they assumed. The first half of the year 1963 featured increasing numbers of marches, boycotts and other forms of demonstrations. Blacks began to push for their first-class citizenship as never before. Another reason was that the year 1963 was celebrated as the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson commented on the situation in the United States: “Until justice is blind, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact” (qtd. in Franklin and Moss 1994: 502).

The facts concerning the successes and victories of the civil rights movement, however, did not speak in favor of an improving situation for African Americans: “By 1963, thirty-four African nations had freed themselves from colonial bondage, but more than two thousand school districts remained segregated in the South. Only eight percent of the black children in the South attended class with whites” (Sitkoff 1993: 120). Civil rights leaders foretold that if everything continued this way “it would be the year 2054 before school desegregation became a reality, and it would be the year 2094 before blacks secured equality in job training and employment” (ibid.).

Since the demonstrations proved to be effective in their results, including in Montgomery, Greensboro, Georgia and elsewhere, new demonstrations broke out in many cities in the spring of that year. All of them made demands for equal job opportunities, equal housing and education without segregation. Even such cities as Cambridge, Maryland where only peaceful demonstrations took place had to deal now with riots. Vicious behavior by some whites who felt that their time of superiority was approaching to its end escalated the situation (Franklin and Moss 1994: 502-504).

3.5.1 The Failure in Albany

The Albany Movement was the first movement to attempt to desegregate the entire black community. Some activists, however, considered it as a failure. Others said that any defiance against Jim Crow policy enhanced black activism somewhere else and forced white Americans to realize that, even if without success, a segregated society was not acceptable for them any more (Sitkoff 1993: 115-117).

The movement began in November, 1961 and ended in the summer 1962. Its goal was to desegregate all public facilities by using sit-ins and boycotts along with marches. Hundreds of people peacefully marched day after day toward the City Hall demanding equal civil rights (ibid.).

What caused their failure? The Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett studied movements in other cities and he came to the conclusion that only by not advocating violence from the side of police, could Albany remain segregated. His troops protected demonstrators from the attack of white mobs and when arresting members of the movement, he acted cautiously. He was careful not to use too much violence and claimed the arrests were for unauthorized demonstrations. Within the year he jailed over a thousand activists who were placed in various jails around the county. This prevented the city jail from being overfilled. What black activists experienced in the jails can only be surmised. The fact remained that his considered actions did not attract the attention of the mass media nor was federal intervention required. He was the man who managed to keep order and prevent bloodshed (ibid.).

3.5.2 Hard Victory in Birmingham

Martin Luther King, Jr. was aware of the doubts that many blacks had after the failure in Albany. He was afraid of the conversion of his people to the movement of Malcolm X whose approach was more radical. Moreover, what King mainly disapproved of was Malcolm’s belief that white people are enemies and blacks could not live with them in the beloved community. At the end of 1962, King along with the SCLC prepared the liberation plan for the Birmingham movement. (Sitkoff 1993: 118-119).

Birmingham, Alabama was considered as the most segregated city in the United States. The reputation of this city was especially due to the character of Eugene T. Bull Connor who defied desegregation by every means that were at his disposal. Sitkoff described the situation in the city as follows:

Absolute segregation was the rule – in schools, restaurants, rest rooms, drinking fountains, and department-store fitting rooms. Municipal officials closed down the city parks and playgrounds rather than desegregate them. Birmingham abandoned its professional baseball team rather than allow it to play desegregated clubs in the International League. It even banned a textbook because it had black and white rabbits in it. Although over 40 percent of the population was African-Americans, fewer than ten thousand of the 80,000 registered voters were black. (ibid.: 120)
For King it was a challenge to take on the white supremacy of this cradle of white racism. If they succeeded, it would prove that violence was not necessary for change.

King developed a plan that began on the 3rd of April, 1963. For three days, the sit-ins occurred in Birmingham and black protesters were arrested which attracted the attention of the mass media. On the 6th of April, the marches began. Fifty African Americans marched on City Hall and, as anticipated, Connor had them all arrested. Marches on following days continued with the same results. During this time, everything was recorded by television cameras and broadcasted to all the people in the United States. On the 10th of April, municipal officials banned racial demonstrations. According to King’s plan, another march would be held on the 12th of April. Connor became furious and the police along with dogs arrested nearly a thousand marchers (ibid.: 121-122).

Other marches followed, along with boycotts of white merchants. Connor lost his patience and the news broadcasted peaceful marchers being arrested with increasing police brutality. Pictures of dogs barking and trying to bite marchers upset many Americans. King was also jailed and after his release D-day arrived (ibid.).

The Albany movement changed King’s opinion on the use of some tactics. If it was necessary to obtain white support, he was determined to do it. On the 2nd of May, the national audience watched over a thousand black children, some only six years old, marching from the church on City Hall. Connor, along with the police arrested them all (ibid.: 126).

The same situation was to be repeated the following day. Connor lost control of himself in front of television cameras. He ordered the police to isolate half of the children in the church, whereas the other half was being arrested in the opposite park. Furious attack dogs bit several children. Policemen beat and hurt others, which outraged onlookers. They began to defend children and threatened the policemen with stones and bottles. Connor saw his only alternative was to send firemen with high-pressure hoses. Unfortunately, they seriously hurt both children and adults, and caused property and tree damage (ibid.: 126-127).

The next day brought the same picture. Over two hundred students were arrested and several thousand adults skirmished with the police and threw rocks at them. Connor acted again by sending dogs and high-pressure hoses. Photographs of children attacked by snarling dogs, women beaten by police, and old people hurt by hoses appeared on the first pages of the newspapers. Millions of Americans were now involved in the movement and demanded an end to this (ibid.: 127-128).

The city council had to negotiate but was not willing to conclude any agreement. Blacks again responded with new massive protests that were suppressed with such police brutality that there did not remain any other way for the city council than to agree with the demands of the protesters. Birmingham became a synonym for unrestrained police brutality and the municipal authorities decided to put an end to the disorder in the city. Moreover, they did not want to risk federal intervention that was hanging over their city (ibid.: 128-131).

The movement won its hard and painful battle. Due to King’s excellent timing of individual events, Birmingham now could celebrate “desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains; upgrading and hiring of Negroes on a nondiscriminatory basis throughout the industrial community of Birmingham and the formation of a biracial committee” (qtd. in ibid.).

3.5.3 The March on Washington

President Kennedy did not wait for the results of increasing demonstrations. With eased tensions in the Cold War, he could concentrate more on domestic affairs. He was aware that it was necessary to strengthen the voting rights of African Americans and in February proposed special recommendations to Congress. When he saw the demonstrations reaching their peak, especially in Birmingham, he submitted in June a broadened civil rights program. Several days before, he had spoken to the American people: “We face . . . a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our everyday lives” (qtd. in ibid.: 504-505). In his speech he attempted to touch tough hearts of all Americans whose attitudes were still bounded with the entrenched customs of a segregated society:
If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public; if he cannot send his children to the best public school available; if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him; if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? (qtd. in Sitkoff 1993: 146; qtd. in Facing History 2006: 59)
The bill was deliberated in Congress all summer. Meanwhile, civil rights leaders of the SNCC, the SCLC, the NAACP, the CORE, the National Council of Churches, the National Urban League and others joined together and planned the most massive march in history. Since all the organizations differed from each other, their understanding of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms differed as well. Some wanted to express support for the civil rights bill, while others saw the march as an opportunity to criticize it. The leaders themselves were surprised by the tremendous support from various civic, religious and labor groups that participated (Franklin and Moss 1994: 505-506).

On the 28th of August, 1963 more than 200,000 blacks and whites from almost every state convened at the Washington Monument. From there they marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial where individual civil rights leaders gave their speeches. Among them was King who delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. The civil rights leaders were then welcomed by the President who expressed his support for equal civil rights along with the concern that filibusters in Congress could bury the bill (ibid.: 506-507).

3.5.4 Summary

Marches seldom occurred alone. More often than not, they served as a part of the plan for the desegregation of public facilities in cities. They filled the streets, tied up traffic and their participants challenged city councils to act. Demonstrators were singing and through marches they expressed discontent with their lives. Marches were actions that attracted attention because they were not limited to one place. People were constantly moving, met other citizens of the city and the number of demonstrators often increased.

The fact that the police generally suppressed them violently ensured the marches popularity in the media. The more demonstrators participated, the greater crisis they caused. The sad truth remained that one clever Police Chief developed a strategy that caused the failure in Albany. Besides, he provided the recipe for maintaining segregation in other cities. Many African Americans doubted the nonviolent tactics that failed in Albany.

Martin Luther King, Jr. searched for a new opportunity to prove that it made sense to use nonviolence. As described above, the Birmingham movement was a hard victory but it fulfilled its purpose. It was the first time in history when blacks managed to win such a great victory in the Deep South. Birmingham involved even the poorest blacks who were willing to devote all their time to the movement. Furthermore, it changed the hearts of millions of white Americans who began to support full freedom for all citizens. On the other hand, the strong resistance of segregationists, as powerful as ever, made many blacks impatient and they called for immediate freedom. Moreover, the clashes with the police during the Birmingham demonstrations showed how close blacks got to the violence. It was high time to solve the unequal position of blacks at the federal level.

The year 1963 was generally full of marches and other forms of demonstrations. Black citizens were knocking on the door for full freedom and they eagerly waited for the civil rights law. Such pressure that was created that year could be ignored by neither the President nor Congress. Filibusters in Congress, however, indicated that the bill would not be passed. First excitement after the March on Washington was replaced by disappointment and disillusionment.

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