The Civil Rights Struggle: From Nonviolence to Black Power

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The Civil Rights Struggle: From Nonviolence to Black Power


In 1903, the African American scholar and historian W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) declared in his seminal text The Souls of Black Folk that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."

Du Bois knew that racial segregation had become more entrenched as the nineteenth century drew to a close. In the South, Jim Crow laws had become common throughout the 1880s and 1890s, enforcing racial segregation in public facilities such as railroad cars, restaurants, and hotels. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the practice of systematic racial segregation in its landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision, ruling that "separate but equal" public facilities for African Americans were not discriminatory.

The color line proved to be as problematic in the new century as Du Bois had predicted. In 1909, Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In its first decades of existence, the NAACP organized antilynching campaigns, helped to secure voting rights for blacks, and combated racist practices in America's judicial system. Organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League assisted African Americans throughout the early twentieth century, a time when many were migrating from the rural South to the urban North and to the West, looking for new opportunities.

As World War II approached, African Americans were increasingly impatient with America's continued practice of forced segregation in the South and de facto segregation in much of the rest of the country, including its defense industries. As soldiers, African Americans were being asked to protect democracy around the world, but they were not treated as equals in the armed forces. On the home front, they faced job discrimination in the wartime economy.

In 1941, A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) organized the first March on Washington to demand that black Americans be employed in the country's defense industries. In response to the planned demonstration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) issued Executive Order 8802, which opened up defense industry jobs to blacks, and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). His objective met, Randolph canceled the March on Washington. The episode had proved that the mere threat of collective action by African Americans could be a powerful political tool.


In post-World War II America, several events acted as catalysts of the modern Civil Rights movement. In the early 1950s, the NAACP's legal team, led by the skillful attorney Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), began a formal campaign to end segregation in public schools. Culminating with the landmark case ofBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas . On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine established almost sixty years before in Plessy v. Ferguson. In their final decision, the justices declared that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."

Outside the courtroom, racial tensions in America continued to erupt, with far-reaching consequences. In August 1955, Emmett Till (1941-1955), a fourteen-yearold boy from Chicago, traveled to the Mississippi Delta to visit his relatives. When a rumor began to circulate that Till had whistled at a white woman, he was brutally beaten to death. African Americans across the country followed the trial of Till's accused murderers, which received extensive coverage in the black press. In the end, a local all-white jury acquitted the two defendants. The decision shocked an entire generation of black Americans and inspired a new fight for racial justice.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (b. 1913), a seam-stress and former NAACP secretary, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Local police arrested and jailed Parks, who had a reputation as a violator of Jim Crow laws. Her defiance initiated the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), emerged as the leader of the successful nonviolent campaign that desegregated the city's bus system. By 1957, King had organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the nonviolent struggle to secure the civil rights of all Americans had begun.


After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the civil rights struggle returned to the question of public school desegregation. In 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must comply with the Brown v. Board of Education decision "with all deliberate speed. "In the autumn of 1957, efforts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, led to the first battle in the South over the federal rulings.

The fight against desegregating Central High was led by the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus (1910-1994). With his blessing, a mob of local protesters confronted nine African American students as they tried to enroll. Forced to intervene, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) sent in federal troops to protect the new students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine.

The Little Rock Nine were finally enrolled, but violent opposition to school desegregation continued throughout the early 1960s. In 1962, James Meredith's (b. 1933) campaign to enter the University of Mississippi led to violence, in which two bystanders were killed by gunfire.

In the face of violent resistance, civil rights activists continued to practice nonviolent civil disobedience in the fight for integration. On February 1, 1960, four black college students staged a sit-in at a "white only" lunch counter in a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The sit-in movement soon spread to other cities and towns across the South.

In April 1960, three hundred students meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC, an independent youth organization, worked with other civil rights groups such as SCLC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to fight racial injustice. CORE, founded in 1942, organized freedom ridesinterracial bus caravans that tested compliance with desegregation rulings in public transportation throughout the South.

As the nonviolent struggle for desegregation grew, the entire nation, not just the South, was forced to address the civil rights question. In April 1963, Martin Luther King and SCLC led a campaign to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. City officials, led by Eugene "Bull" Connor (1897-1973), arrested King and harassed other demonstrators with attack dogs and fire hoses. Newspaper photographs and television coverage of the brutality in Birmingham shocked Americans across the country and tarnished the United States' image abroad.

Civil rights leaders continued to press their case, and at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, King presented his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech. One year later, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most extensive civil rights legislation ever enacted by Congress. The act outlawed racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, and all other public accommodations.


African American cultural expression sustained, shaped, and enriched every phase of the civil rights era. In the early years of sit-ins and freedom rides, demonstrators and activists used freedom songs to build solidarity at rallies, to protest racial injustice and violence, and to ward off their fears of violent retaliation. As freedom singer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon (b. 1942) has said,"When we did those marches and went to jail, we expanded the space we could operate in, and that was echoed in the singing."

At the March on Washington in August 1963, "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the struggle for racial equality in America. During the Black Power era of the late 1960s, rhythm and blues songs such as James Brown's (b. 1928) "(Say It Loud) I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Aretha Franklin's (b. 1942) "Respect" also captured the spirit of the times.

Writers, actors, and entertainers also contributed to the civil rights struggle. James Baldwin (1924-1987) defined the central questions of America's racial crisis with insight and passion in the book of essays titled The Fire Next Time and in the play Blues for Mister Charlie. By the late 1960s, the Black Arts movement was celebrating all forms of African American cultural expression as a means of cultivating racial pride. Poets and writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943), and Dudley Randall (1914-2000) published poetry anthologies and organized art festivals to generate interest in African American arts. The Free Southern Theater, a traveling drama group, performed plays throughout the rural South to educate the public about the black experience and African American history. Entertainers such as Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), Sidney Poitier (b. 1927), Lena Horne (b. 1917), and Dick Gregory (b. 1932) also used their status as celebrities to promote the civil rights cause. SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Excerpt from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


African American political representation has been one of the central issues of the modern civil rights struggle. Black Americans first held public office during Reconstruction. With the passage in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, they secured the right to vote. These political advances did not last, however. In the South, organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (first founded in 1866) used violent intimidation to suppress the black vote and keep African Americans from holding office.

By the mid-twentieth century, most blacks in the South were prevented from registering to vote or participating in elections. In 1964, SNCC organized "Freedom Summer," its most extensive campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. White college students from the North and community organizers from rural Mississippi worked together to register voters in a state that had a long history of preventing the black vote.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the registration campaign, helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to address the needs of the state's black citizens. When the MFDP asked to be seated at the national Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964, the Democratic party refused to recognize the organization. However, its effortsand its refusal to accept small concessions from Democratic Party leadersinspired activists nationwide.

The fight to secure political rights for African Americans continued in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Seeking federal voting rights legislation, SCLC and SNCC chose to focus the campaign on Selma. Once again, nonviolent demonstrations were met with brutal resistance. On what came to be called Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers attacked demonstrators who were marching peacefully for the right to vote. When James Reeb (1927-1965) and Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965), two white volunteers, were subsequently murdered, pressure increased on the federal government to act. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act, while a clear victory, did not signal an end to tensions in the civil rights struggle. One week after President Johnson signed the voting legislation, riots broke out in Watts, California. During the summers of 1966 and 1967, violent disturbances occurred in cities across the country, including Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit. The anger that fueled the riots forced the nation to address racial and economic inequality in America's urban centers. President Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the root causes of the violence. In March 1968, the commission proclaimed that the "nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one whiteseparate and unequal."

The growing complexities of the civil rights struggle ended the unity that had existed in the movement's earlier years. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael took over the leadership of SNCC and announced a new, separatist approach. Promoting the philosophy of Black Power, he expelled most white members from the organization. The Black Panther party, led by Huey Newton (1942-1989) and Eldridge Cleaver (b. 1935), represented an even more militant radicalism. The black nationalist rhetoric of Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, also inspired many of the new advocates of Black Power.

In his last years, Martin Luther King Jr. continued to express his belief in nonviolent protest while expanding his vision of what constituted justice in American society. King denounced the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War and spoke out against poverty and economic, as well as racial, inequality. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, only a few weeks before he was to lead a Poor People's March on Washington.

The Civil Rights movement carried on after the death of its most famous leader, but with no simple solutions to the challenges that lay ahead.


Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: W. Morrow, 1986.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York:W.Morrow, 1984.

Hamilton, Charles V., and Stokely Carmichael. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York:Random House, 1967.

Malcolm X, and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dial Press, 1968.

Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Viking, 1987.


Excerpt from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


Published in 1963, The Fire Next Time presented author James Baldwin's views on the condition of black people at a critical time in history. The book sold more than a million copies and reinforced the author's reputation as a key figure in bringing to light the struggles of African Americans.

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parentsor, anyway, mothersknow about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. One watched the lives they led. One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses they gave themselves, and if a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro's door that he came. And one felt that if one had had that white man's worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he. The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars or for a letter to the judge; the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose. And the Negro knew this, too. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a manbecomes equalit is also impossible for one to love him.

How can the American Negro past be used? It is entirely possible that this dishonored past will rise up soon to smite all of us. A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay. "The problem of the twentieth century," wrote W. E. B. Du Bois around sixty years ago,"is the problem of the color line. "A fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better worldhere, there, or anywhere.

SOURCE: Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press, 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders began a campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, widely regarded as the nation's most segregated city. A few days into the campaign, King was arrested, along with hundreds of other demonstrators. From behind bars, King began writing the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," perhaps his most famous essay.

King described the writing of the "Letter" as follows: "This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama was composed under somewhat constricting circumstances. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. "King later "polished" the letter and published it in his 1963 book Why We Can't Wait. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" presents a clear history and description of the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights movement, arguing forcefully for immediate action against segregation and racial violence. The statement by his fellow clergy that King was responding to deplored the tensions created by civil rights demonstrations and charged King and others with being "untimely" in their protests. It called upon civil rights activists to wait for a better time and to work for gradual change.

But for King, this was what African Americans could no longer accept. "For years now," he wrote, "I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" So compelling was King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that some of the clergy to whom it was addressed eventually joined him in the nonviolent campaign for civil rights.

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The Civil Rights Struggle: From Nonviolence to Black Power

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