The Struggle for Civil Rights

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1 The Struggle for Civil Rights

George C. Wallace …5
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee …13
Malcolm X …25
Martin Luther King Jr. …41

Civil rights for blacks was not a new idea in the 1960s. African Americans had been struggling for racial justice since slavery was ended following the American Civil War (1861–65). While they had gained their independence and a few social privileges by World War II (1939–45), the war against racist fascists (people who believe in a political philosophy that prefers a dictatorial government with severe economic and social distinctions between citizens, often based on racial differences) in Europe brought the reality of American racism to light. America sent troops to secure freedom in other parts of the world but maintained a segregated (separated by race; in the South, many public buildings and services, such as schools, buses, and lunch counters, had separate facilities for whites and blacks) society that denied basic rights, such as voting, to people based on race.

World War II served as the catalyst for the dramatic changes in the 1960s. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53)) ended segregation in the armed forces and the federal civil service in 1948. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund then mounted a series of legal actions that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which declared racial segregation in American schools unconstitutional. More protests followed. In 1955, Rosa Parks (1913–) triggered the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, a protest against racial discrimination on the local bus service that lasted more than a year and helped to make Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) a civil rights leader. King and other ministers, thrilled with the results of their efforts, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to spread their message of nonviolent protest against segregation.

As blacks won these and other smaller civil rights victories, some Americans, especially white southerners, threatened to resist the integration of blacks into white society. Southern politicians spoke out against the end of segregation and tried to resist federal court rulings that required mixing races in schools, on public transportation, and elsewhere. Membership in violent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group, boomed. News of these organizations' frightening raids intended to intimidate and harm blacks permeated American society. Tensions grew between supporters and opponents of civil rights for African Americans.

The 1960s opened with four black college students sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina and refusing to budge until they could buy a cup of coffee. Within months, tens of thousands of student protestors organized "sit-in" demonstrations throughout the South to protest racial segregation. Their actions led to the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. These nonviolent, mass protests were often met with violent reaction. Protestors were sometimes brutally beaten and terrorized. One of the most violent clashes occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961. There members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked a bus filled with a racially mixed group of men and women calling themselves "freedom riders" who were attempting to travel from Washington, D.C., to Alabama in protest of white southerners' refusal to end segregation of interstate bus and train travel. In the coming years, more and more protestors were harmed as they worked to win civil rights legislation. In 1963 television news programs and newspapers publicized the police attack of nonviolent protestors, including many schoolchildren, in Birmingham, Alabama. The protestors were beaten with clubs, sprayed with fire hoses, and attacked by police dogs.

As it became clear that enduring civil rights victories required both federally mandated legal protections and government enforcement—not just isolated protests of segregated schools, buses, and lunch counters—civil rights supporters debated how to best meet their goals. Could they affect a dramatic change in the government with peaceful methods or would they need to carry out acts of violence? Several different strategies for victory emerged, splitting civil rights activists into groups of peaceful and militant protestors.

The documents selected for this chapter offer a peek into the tensions over civil rights during the 1960s. In his inaugural speech on January 13, 1964, Alabama governor George C. Wallace promised segregation "forever." His speech affected whites living in the state much differently than it affected Alabama blacks without the right to vote. The various strategies for winning civil rights are represented here with speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (1925–1965). Martin Luther King Jr. maintained throughout his life that nonviolent protest was the only political strategy worth pursuing. In his last speech to the SCLC on August 16, 1967, published as "Where Do We Go From Here?," King assessed a decade of various types of protest and reconfirmed his commitment to nonviolence. Nonviolent strategies frustrated some activists, including Malcolm X, and in the early 1960s Malcolm X outlined a different philosophy for success. In his April 3, 1964 speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet," given in Cleveland, Ohio, Malcolm X described when civil rights activism should shift from nonviolence to determined violent protest.

The struggle between advocates for and against violence within the civil rights movement is highlighted with the organizing documents of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In its position paper of 1966, the SNCC offered a description of the roots of the civil rights problem and hopes for the future. This organization, which had opened the decade with a firm commitment to nonviolence, had shifted its view dramatically by 1966. Each in its own way, the diverse civil rights philosophies presented here helped to shape the decade and to change the lives of Americans forever.

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The Struggle for Civil Rights

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