Amidst these cultural changes, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) worked hard in the courts to challenge discrimination laws throughout the country. (While "colored" was an acceptable term for black Americans at the time of the founding of the NAACP, it no longer is. The organization has chosen to keep its original name, however.) The NAACP was a group of both white and black Americans who raised money and hired lawyers to fight segregation. Segregation is the practice of a society using separate facilities for different groups of people. From the Civil War until the Civil Rights Movement, almost city in the U.S., especially the south, was segregated. Cities had separate schools, bathrooms, pools, hotels, busses and everything else for each of the races. The NAACP was trying to get courts to rule segregation illegal, thereby forcing integration, or the bringing together of races.
Separate but Equal
For decades the NAACP had tried to get the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision overturned. That decision said that segregation of the races in public facilities was legal and constitutional as long as the facilities were "separate but equal." In other words, cities could legally segregate the races as long as they provided equal facilities for both races. In practice, equal facilities were rarely - if ever - the case. Leading the NAACP's legal charge for integration was Thurgood Marshall. Known as "Mr. Civil Rights," Marshall fought many battles over segregation in the courts and achieved great gains. Little by little, Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers managed to chip away at the "separate but equal" clause of Plessy v. Ferguson. Finally, they took on the greatest and most important fight yet.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, Oliver Brown sued the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education to allow his 8-year-old daughter Linda to attend a nearby school for whites only. Every day, Linda walked past the school on her way to the bus that took her to a distant school for African Americans. After appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court. There, Thurgood Marshall became the first black lawyer to appear in front of the Supreme court when argued on behalf of Brown and against segregation in America's schools. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling.
"Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Reaction to Brown v. Board of Education
The public's reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling was mixed. African Americans rejoiced. Many white Americans, even if they did not agree, accepted the decision and hoped that desegregation could take place peacefully. President Eisenhower, who disagreed with the Brown ruling, said only that "the Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country, and I am trying. I will obey."
Not everyone, however, was willing to obey. The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education caused many southern whites, especially in the deep South, to react with fear and angry resistance. In Georgia, the Governor made it clear that his state would "not tolerate the mixing of the races in the public schools or any other institution." The Ku Klux Klan also became more active, threatening those who tried to help integrate schools.
Some members of Congress from states in the South joined together to protest the Supreme Court's order to desegregate public schools. More than 90 members of Congress expressed their opposition to the Court's ruling in what was known as the "Southern Manifesto." The congressmen stated that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds and had "no legal basis for such action." The decision, they claimed, violated states' rights, and the politicians proclaimed that their states would not obey the ruling to integrate.
Resistance in Little Rock
One state that offered resistance to the ruling was Arkansas. The governor of the state announced Arkansas would not integrate its schools. When the high school in Little Rock, the capital city, tried to allow black students on the first day of school, the Governor called out Arkansas National Guard troops and instructed them to turn away the African American students who were supposed to attend the school that year. Outside the school, mobs of angry white protesters gathered to prevent the entry of the black students. One of those students, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, remembered that day:
"The soldiers glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn't know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me. They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling 'Lynch her! Lynch her!' I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob-someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face; but when I looked at her again, she spat on me."
Although President Eisenhower was not an ally of the civil rights movement, the Arkansas governor's actions were a direct challenge to Eisenhower's authority as President. Eisenhower acted by ordering the National Guard to stand down. He then sent U.S. Army soldiers to Arkansas to protect the black students. In a speech to the nation a week later, Eisenhower told the nation that his actions were necessary to defend the authority of the Supreme Court. This was a clear message to the south from the federal government: integration is happening.
Section 2: Martin Luther King and Nonviolent Protests
In 1955, the nation's attention shifted from the courts to the streets of Montgomery, the capital city of Alabama. In December, Rosa Parks, a seamstress who had been the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP for 12 years, took a seat at the front of the "colored" section of a bus. The front of the bus was reserved for white passengers. African Americans, however, were expected to give up their seats for white passengers if no seats were available in the "whites only" section. When a white man got on at the next stop and had no seat, the bus driver ordered Parks to give up hers. She refused. Even when threatened with arrest, she held her ground. At the next stop, police seized her and ordered her to stand trial for violating the segregation laws.
Technically, Montgomery's bus segregation laws were legal, because of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that said "separate but equal" facilities were legal. But African-Americans had had enough. They were tired of settling for second-class and inferior accommodations. Civil rights leaders in Montgomery decided to challenge the law with a boycott (refusing to buy a product until a company changes a policy.) They used Rosa Parks' arrest as an opportunity to convince black bus riders to refuse to pay their ten-cent bus fare until the city changed the law. An unkown, 26-year-old minister became the leader and spokesperson of the boycott. His name was Martin Luther, King, Jr.
"There comes a time when people get tired...tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The morning of the first day of the boycott, King roamed the streets of Montgomery. He was anxious to see how many African Americans would participate, and recorded his observations:
"The sidewalks were crowded with workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over the next year, 50,000 African Americans in Montgomery walked, rode bicycles, or joined car pools to avoid the city buses. The city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, in 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation, like school segregation, was unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus gave minority groups hope that steps toward equality could be made through peaceful protest. In addition, it made Martin Luther King, Jr. a national hero. Requests from all over the country poured into King's office as people wanted him to come to their towns to help end segregation there. He went on to play a key role in almost every major civil rights event. His work earned him the Nobel peace prize in 1964.
King's Philosophy of Nonviolence
As rising new leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a philosophy of nonviolence, integration slowly spread across the south. But growing opposition to the gains made by African Americans resulted in increasing violence and hostility toward nonviolent protestors. King and the other leaders asked anyone involved in the fight for civil rights not to retaliate with violence out of fear or hate. King became not only a leader in the African American civil rights movement but also a symbol of nonviolent protest for the entire world. As he became more and more involved in the civil rights movement, King was influenced by the beliefs of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi had been a leader in India's long struggle to gain independence from Great Britain, an effort that finally succeeded in 1947. Gandhi preached a philosophy of nonviolence as the only way to achieve victory against much stronger foes. Those who fight for justice must peacefully refuse to obey unjust laws, Gandhi taught. They must remain nonviolent, regardless of the violent reactions such peaceful resistance might provoke-a tactic that requires tremendous discipline and courage.
SCLC and SNCC
After the Montgomery boycott, as King tried to recruit and train volunteers to help in his attempt to conquer segregation, two major groups formed. King and other African American ministers began the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC led nonviolent protests wherever they were needed. Southern African American church leaders moved into the forefront of the struggle for equal rights. But they were not alone. A much larger group also joined the struggle. SNCC, (pronounced "snick"), or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was made up of high school and college students who were committed to defeating segregation through nonviolent protest.
SNCC caused the focus of the civil rights movement to shift away from church leaders alone and gave young people a chance to make decisions about priorities and tactics.
The Movement Grows
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, hundreds of members of SCLC, and thousands of members of SNCC, along with NAACP members, used non-violence to protest segregation. It wasn't easy. Often the protestors were threatened, beaten up, arrested, and in rare cases, killed. Some protestors challenged segregation laws in court, while others used boycotts, marches, and sit-ins to challenge segregation in areas of everyday life. During a sit-in, a group of volunteers simply sat down at a segregated facility, like a lunch counter or other public place. If they were refused service at first, they simply stayed where they were. It often worked because it forced business owners to decide between serving the protesters or risking a disruption and loss of business. In some places, sit-ins brought strong reactions. Soon, thousands of students were involved in the sit-in campaign, which gained the support of SCLC. Martin Luther King, Jr. told students that arrest was a "badge of honor." By the end of 1960, some 70,000 students had participated in sit-ins, and 3,600 had served time in jail for doing so. These protests began a process of change that could not be stopped.
Section 3: Birmingham and Other Major Victories
The Freedom Rides
In Boynton v. Virginia (1960), the Supreme Court expanded its earlier ban on segregation to include interstate buses. Any bus travelling from one state to another had to be integrated, as did any bus station that serviced those busses. Bus stations used to include restaurants, hotels, and waiting rooms. However, just like the Supreme Court's ruling on school segregation, not all places in the south obeyed. To force these bus stations to go along with the new rule, SNCC organized and carried out the Freedom Rides in 1961. Freedom Riders, mostly high school and college students on summer break, boarded busses in Washington D.C. and planned on travelling through the entire south before making it to New Orleans, Louisiana. They would stop at bus stations along the way, testing to see if they were obeying the Court's ruling.
Violence Greets the Riders
Both black and white volunteers boarded the buses heading south, knowing they were helping fight racism, but also nervous about what they might encounter. At first the group encountered only minor conflicts. But as the busses headed into the deep south, the trip turned dangerous. In Anniston, Alabama, a heavily armed white mob met a bus at the station. The bus attempted to leave. James Farmer, a director of the Rides, described what happened next:
"Before the bus pulled out, however, members of the mob took their sharp instruments and slashed tires. The bus got to the outskirts of Anniston and the tires blew out and the bus ground to a halt. Members of the mob had boarded cars and followed the bus, and now with the disabled bus standing there, the members of the mob surrounded it, held the door closed, and a member of the mob threw a firebomb into the bus, breaking a window to do so. Incidentally, there were some local policemen mingling with the mob, fraternizing with them while this was going on." -James Farmer
Most riders escaped before the bus burst into flames, but were then beaten by the mob as they stumbled out of the vehicle, choking on the smoke. The local hospital refused to treat their injuries. They had anticipated trouble, since they meant to provoke a confrontation. But this level of violence took them by surprise. As a result of the savage response, Farmer considered calling off the project. SNCC leaders, though, begged to go on. Farmer warned, "You know that may be suicide." Student Diane Nash replied, "If we let them stop us with violence, the movement is dead!" The rides continued.
Reactions to the Violence
Photographs of the smoldering bus in Anniston horrified the country. But the resistance in the south continued. The violence intensified in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, when the KKK attacked riders. Upon their arrival in Jackson, Mississippi, the riders met no mobs but were arrested immediately. New volunteers arrived to replace them and were also arrested. This first Freedom Ride died out in Jackson, but about 300 Freedom Riders continued the protest throughout that summer.
President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were reluctant to lend federal support to the protest. John was afraid showing too much support to the protestors would hurt his popularity among whites in the south. Following the bombing, Robert suggested a "cooling off period" for the riders. Farmer replied, "We've been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we'd be in a deep freeze." When violence escalated, the Kennedy's reluctantly took action. Robert Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue a ruling that prohibited segregation in all interstate transportation-trains, planes, and buses. The Justice Department sued local communities that did not comply. The violence that was meant to hurt the protest ended up being the thing that helped it. Because of how extreme the violence was, the President intervened on behalf of the protestors, and everyday people who saw it on television felt sympathy for the movement, giving it even more momentum.
Integration at The University of Mississippi
While Brown v. Board of Education ensured integration in elementary and high schools, many southern colleges stayed segregated and admitted only white students. In 1961, James Meredith, an African American Air Force veteran, fought a personal battle for equal rights. Meredith was a student at Jackson State College, but he wanted to transfer to the University of Mississippi, also known as "Ole Miss." Ole Miss had been all-white since it opened 114 years earlier. After being rejected because of his race, Meredith got legal help from the NAACP. It filed a lawsuit on Meredith's behalf. In the summer of 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, saying race cannot be the reason someone does not get into a college.
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, however, declared that Meredith still could not attend the school, regardless of what the Court said. Barnett personally physically blocked the way to the admissions office when Meredith tried to enroll. Barnett's defiance of the Supreme Court decision forced a reluctant President Kennedy to act. Kennedy sent federal marshals to accompany Meredith to the campus. Crowds of angry white protesters, who had gathered around campus, destroyed their vehicles. As a violent riot erupted on campus, tear gas covered the grounds. Two bystanders were killed and hundreds of people hurt. Finally, President Kennedy sent army troops to restore order, but federal marshals continued to escort Meredith to class throughout the year.
The following year, two black students were admitted to the previously all-white University of Alabama. Again, the governor of that state, George Wallace, blocked the door to the admissions building as the students tried to register. And again, President Kennedy intervened by sending U.S. troops to escort the students. The governor stood down and the college was integrated. As the movement wore on, President Kennedy proved that he was willing to help fight segregation. This helped the movement, but did not please many whites in the south.
Plans for Birmingham
Elsewhere, civil rights leaders continued to look for chances to protest segregation nonviolently. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a movement leader from Birmingham, Alabama, invited Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC to visit the city in April 1963. Birmingham's population was 40 percent African American, but King called it "the most segregated city in America." Victory there could be a model for the rest of the south. King and Shuttlesworth planned boycotts of downtown stores and attempts to integrate local churches. Business leaders, fearing disruptions and lost sales, tried to negotiate with Shuttlesworth to call off the plan, without success. When reporters wanted to know how long King planned to stay, he drew on a biblical story and told them he would remain until "Pharaoh lets God's people go." Birmingham police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor, a determined segregationist, replied, "I got plenty of room in the jail."
The campaign began nonviolently with protest marches and sit-ins. City officials declared that the marches violated a regulation prohibiting parades without a permit. Connor then arrested King and other demonstrators. The protests continued without him. When a group of white ministers criticized the campaign as "not well-timed", King responded from his cell. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he defended his tactics and his timing:
"Frankly, I have yet to engage in a campaign that was 'well-timed' in the view of those who have not suffered from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait!' has almost always meant 'Never’."
-"Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
After more than a week, King was released. Soon after, he made a difficult decision: to let young people join the campaign. Though dangerous, it would test the conscience of the Birmingham authorities and the nation. As the children marched, "Bull" Connor arrested more than 900 of the young people. When the jail was full, police used high-pressure fire hoses, which could tear the bark from trees, on the demonstrators. They also brought out trained police dogs that attacked marchers' arms and legs. When protesters fell to the ground, police beat them with clubs
The Nation Watches and Reacts
Television cameras brought the scenes of violence to people across the country. Even those unsympathetic to the civil rights movement were appalled. The angry public put pressure on the government to act. In the end, the protesters won. A compromise arranged by Kennedy's administration led to desegregation of city facilities and fairer hiring practices. An interracial committee was set up to aid communication. The success of the Birmingham marches was just one example that proved how effective nonviolent protest could be. Most importantly, after the Birmingham protest, President Kennedy appeared on television to make a major announcement. He would soon send to Congress a proposed law that, if passed, would end segregation in all areas of American life.
Section 4: The Government Responds
Kennedy on Civil Rights
As president, Kennedy believed in equal rights, but not publically do much to support the movement during his first two years in office. He did not want to anger southern senators whose votes he needed on other issues. But as the civil rights movement gained momentum and violence began to spread, Kennedy could no longer avoid the issue. He was deeply disturbed by the scenes of violence in the south that flooded the media. The violence surrounding the Freedom Rides in 1961 embarrassed the President when he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Observers around the world watched the brutality in Birmingham early in 1963. Aware that he had to respond, Kennedy spoke to the American people on television:
"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes? The time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise."
-President John F. Kennedy, television address, June 1963
Kennedy announced he would propose a strong civil rights bill to Congress. The bill would prohibit segregation in all public places, and ban discrimination wherever federal funding was involved. Hours after Kennedy's broadcast, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home. Evers worked for the NAACP in Mississippi. Police charged a white supremacist, Byron de la Beckwith, with the murder. After two hung juries failed to convict him, Beckwith was set free in 1964. (Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994 after the case was reopened.) Evers' murder was a reminder that passing this law was not going to be easy, because many in the south still strongly opposed equal rights.
The March on Washington
Kennedy's bill was stalled in Congress. Segregationists from the south refused to vote for it. To focus national attention on Kennedy's bill, civil rights leaders proposed a march on Washington, D.C. The March on Washington took place in August 1963. Almost 250,000 people came from all over the country to show support for the bill. Participants included religious leaders and celebrities such as writer James Baldwin, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and baseball player Jackie Robinson. The march was peaceful and orderly. After many songs and speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered what was to become his best-known address. With power and eloquence, he spoke to all Americans:
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character..."
"I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
King's words echoed around the country. President Kennedy, like millions of other Americans, watched the march and King's speech on television. But still the civil rights bill remained stalled in Congress.