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Certainly, the most famous person who worked for civil rights is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it would be foolish to say he was not important. However, it would be just as foolish to think that he could have done what he did without the help of thousands of people who left their homes, schools and jobs to march, ride, go to jail, and be attacked with him. Dr. King may have been in front of the people and spoken for them, but the people produced the energy that was needed to make change.
What brought these people together, and what did they do that made the difference? What role did their leaders play in helping them organize and keeping them together in the face of attacks and hatred?
If the last reading asked you to think about individuals, this part of history helps us think about the power of groups. How did people work together to advance the Civil Rights Movement?
THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT
On a cold December evening in 1955, just a year after the Supreme Court had said that segregated schools were illegal, Rosa Parks started a revolution by sitting down. She was tired after spending the day working at a department store, and when she stepped onto the bus for the ride home, she sat in the fifth row, the first row of the colored section. In Montgomery, Alabama, when a bus became full, the seats closest to the front were given to White passengers. The bus driver told Parks and three other African Americans to move to the back of the bus. Three riders did what he said, but Parks did not.
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The dignity of Rosa Parks was opposite to the racial hatred and civil rights violations that she worked to uncover.
Because Parks refused to move, she was arrested and had to pay $10. The arrest of one woman for violating the city’s bus seating rules would have probably been forgotten. But this time was different because Parks and leaders in Montgomery’s African American community were fed up with the Jim Crow laws of the South and had planned for her to be arrested. They wanted to get people to fight for racial equality and needed a clear example of the unfairness of the Jim Crow system. The arrest of a hard-working woman for sitting where she wanted on the bus proved to be just what they needed to make African Americans upset enough to do something about the problem.
The leader of the protest was a little-known minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. King had been raised in an activist family. His father had been involved in Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement in the 1920s and his mother was the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most important African American ministers. As a student, King did very well. He easily moved through grade levels and went to Morehouse College at the age of 15. He went on to attend seminary, where he studied to be a Christian minister. While studying for his doctorate degree at Boston University, he met and married Coretta Scott. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1955, King became minister at the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
During his time studying, King read the works of Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi of India. They said that the right way to make change was to use civil disobedience and nonviolence. They taught that illegal laws should be broken, and that fighting by peacefully protesting could show the world that on one side of an argument there was right, while on the other side there was evil and violence.
Primary Source: Police Document
Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus. Breaking illegal laws and being willing to go to jail is an important part of civil disobedience or nonviolent protest.
King and his friend Ralph Abernathy organized a non-violent boycott of the Montgomery city buses. The boycott was simple. The city’s African Americans would not ride the buses until the bus company agreed to let them sit anywhere they wanted on the bus. Until that happened, the company would lose money as their passengers walked. Both sides thought the boycott would be short. King and the other leaders thought the company would quickly give up instead of losing money, and the White city leaders thought that no one could get all the city’s African Americans to walk everywhere for more than a day or two.
The boycott’s leaders had hoped for 50% of the city’s African Americans to join the boycott. To their surprise, 99% of the city’s African Americans refused to ride the buses. People walked to work or rode their bikes. Carpools were set up to help older people. The bus company lost a lot of money.
Montgomery leaders stopped at nothing to try to end the boycott. King and Abernathy were arrested. Four African American churches, as well as the homes of King and Abernathy, were bombed. Still, the boycott continued.
Finally, on November 23, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the boycott. Segregated bussing was declared unconstitutional or illegal. City officials agreed to obey the Court’s decision. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in Montgomery had proven that non-violent protest could work.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott led to similar events in the South and other cities. The boycott made Martin Luther King, Jr. famous all over the country and people looked to him to lead the Civil Rights Movement. With Ralph Abernathy, King started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize other non-violent protests against Jim Crow segregation.
THE SIT-IN MOVEMENT
On February 1, 1960, four African American students from the North Carolina Agricultural Technical College in Greensboro went to their local Woolworth’s and sat at the lunch counter. The restaurant refused to serve them, which the students knew would happen since Woolworth’s only served Whites. If African Americans wanted a meal, they had to order and take their food out from the back of the store. However, this time, instead of leaving, the students stayed and waited.
The people who took part in the Woolworth sit-in were determined. Their plan was simple: sit quietly and wait to be served. Often the students who joined a sit-in would be made fun of and threatened by local White customers. Sometimes Whites would throw food or ketchup at them. Angry onlookers tried to start fights. In the event of physical attack, the student would curl up into a ball on the floor and take the punishment. Any violence would go against the idea of the peaceful sit-in. When the local police came to arrest the protesters, another line of students would take the empty seats.
After six months of sit-ins, Woolworth’s owners gave in and desegregated their lunch counters. As the students had guessed, they just did not want the negative publicity. The successful Greensboro sit-in was the start of students participating in the civil rights movement, and, within two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states.
In the words of grassroots civil rights leader, Ella Baker, the students at Woolworth’s wanted more than a hamburger, they wanted to be a part of the struggle for equality. She helped start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The sit-ins inspired other forms of nonviolent protest where public places were segregated. Sleep-ins happened in motel lobbies, read-ins filled public libraries, wade-ins happened at public pools and beaches, and churches became the sites of pray-ins.
Students also took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC. In the 1960s, most people still traveled between cities by bus, and the Supreme Court had decided that segregation was illegal on interstate buses and waiting rooms in bus terminals. But in the South, White leaders were ignoring the Court’s decision. The Freedom Rides were meant to get people to realize this so they would force the bus companies to integrate. Leaving Washington, DC, the riders headed south. Sometimes Whites rode in the back while African Americans sat in the front, and at other times riders of different races would share the same bench seat.
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The Freedom Riders were attacked when they arrived at bus stations in the South. The people who stood on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement faced a constant threat of injury or death.
The Freedom Riders did not have too many problems until they reached South Carolina, where a mob attacked John Lewis, a freedom rider who later became chairman of SNCC and eventually a congressman. The danger increased as the riders continued through Georgia into Alabama, where one of the two buses was firebombed. The second group continued to Birmingham, where the riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan as they got off the bus at the city bus station. The last Freedom Riders continued to Mississippi, where they were arrested when they tried to desegregate the waiting rooms in the Jackson bus terminal.
Even though the Freedom Riders had to deal with a lot of violence, they were successful in achieving their goal. They got the federal government’s attention. In September of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) stepped in and issued new rules. “White” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals. Racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were now desegregated.
Because of their successes in Montgomery and the Freedom Rides, student leaders from SNCC and Dr. King and the SCLC got together to try to desegregate the city of Albany, Georgia. There were problems from the start. The students and the older leaders from SCLC did not always agree on strategy. Dr. King was jailed, as were hundreds of other protesters and progress was slow. The White police chief in Albany sent protesters to jails across the South so that his own would not become too full. It was hard to get the attention of newspapers and television reporters because the city leaders tried not to use violence against the protesters. Eventually, the protest organizers gave up.
Some thought the Albany Movement was a failure, but historian Howard Zinn, who was at the protests in Albany, disagreed with this idea. He wrote, “Social movements may have many defeats’ — failing to achieve objectives in the short run — but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to break down, the minds of people begin to change; the protesters are defeated for a short time but not crushed, and have been lifted, heartened, by their ability to fight back.” In fact, the Albany Movement did make a difference. Civil rights leaders used what they learned in Albany when planning later civil rights protests.
In 1963, SCLC went to Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama. Led by Dr. King, the protests started peacefully, but turned violent when the city’s White police force attacked the marchers. In the end, the city government was forced to change the city’s Jim Crow laws.
Unlike the earlier work in Albany, which focused on desegregation of the entire city, Dr. King and the civil rights leaders focused on more specific goals. They wanted to desegregate Birmingham’s downtown stores. They wanted an equal chance to be hired to work in downtown stores and for the city government. They wanted to be able to go to the city’s parks. And they wanted to be a part of a committee to help desegregate Birmingham’s public schools.
The city’s Public Safety Commissioner, “Bull” Connor, used police dogs and fire hoses on the young marchers. This was captured by television cameras and showed how violent the White city leaders were compared to the peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience of the African American protestors.
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“Bull” Connor ordered police dogs released on the marchers in Birmingham. Photographs like this were published in newspapers across the nation and stirred anger among many who were horrified to see the level of brutality and racial hatred that existed within their country.
While in jail in Birmingham, King wrote one of the most important letters of the Civil Rights Era. Because of the violent reactions of the White policemen of the city, some African American leaders had criticized King, telling him to stop taking direct action that led to White’s attacking marchers. Also, many Whites were openly angry that King had come to their city at all. He was an outsider, they said. In response, King wrote an open letter, answering each of these criticisms. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” included one of King’s most quoted lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It was his job, he wrote, to help people when they asked him to lead their fight for justice, no matter where they were. And King asked if waiting would ever make discrimination go away. He argued that the violent response of Whites was not a reason to wait since waiting would not change the way people thought and felt about segregation.
After weeks of peaceful protest, the Birmingham campaign led to a good result. In June 1963, the Jim Crow laws Birmingham were repealed and the “Whites Only” signs were taken down. However, there was still some violence. Four months later, someone bombed the house of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, injuring his wife. In September, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning and killed four young girls. Also that year, NAACP lawyer Medgar Evers, who had helped James Meredith become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been organizing protests like those in Birmingham.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964
After the Birmingham campaign, the SCLC made plans for a large march in Washington, DC, to show Congress how many people wanted new civil rights laws to end segregation. This was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and about 200,000 to 300,000 people joined in. It was held in August 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the speakers talked to the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the statue of the great president behind them. The date was also the eighth anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till.
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The view of the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. The mass of people who came to express their frustration with racism and discrimination helped persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The highlight of the March was Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech in which he talked about the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement, based on two great documents: The Old Testament of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Quoting from the Declaration, King reminded America that the Founding Fathers had written, “all men are created equal” on July 4, 1776, and that if that promise was going to be true for everyone, the country would have to do the hard work to end racism. The March marked a high point of the Civil Rights Movement and explained the goals of the movement for everyone in the country. However, it did not stop White terrorism or end White supremacy. The March on Washington did succeed in its main goal of getting the government to pass a new law. After the march, President John F. Kennedy gave his own civil rights speech and asked Congress to pass a new law to end Jim Crow segregation. After Kennedy was killed, President Lyndon Johnson worked to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This ended discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and is still important today. It also ended racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and in places that are open to the public like restaurants, stores and hotels.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights leaders turned their attention to the next important problem: voting. Elected leaders must do things to help voters or the voters will pick someone else in the next election. Jim Crow laws had long stopped African Americans from being able to vote. If African Americans could vote, Civil Rights leaders knew they would be able to bring about change without having to march in the streets because the elected leaders would want to win their votes.
In the past, Whites had used violence or threats to stop African Americans from voting or registering to vote in the South. For example, African Americans who went to vote might lose their jobs or be attacked. In the summer of 1964, a group made up of the four major civil rights organizations, the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE arranged for volunteers from all over America to come and register as many African Americans in Mississippi to vote as possible. They knew that if many people all registered to vote at once, the threats from groups like the KKK would lose their power. This event became known as Freedom Summer, and it was one of the most violent times of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of Mississippi’s White people did not like the outsiders who came to help register African Americans to vote. White people harassed the volunteers who came to help with Freedom Summer. Newspapers called them “unshaven and unwashed trash.” State and city governments, police, White Citizens’ Council, and Ku Klux Klan used arrests, arson, beatings, evictions, firing, murder, spying, and other forms of bullying and harassment to show their dislike for the project. Over the course of the ten-week project, 1,062 volunteers were arrested, 80 were attacked, 37 churches were bombed or burned, 30 homes or businesses were bombed or burned, and at least four civil rights workers were murdered.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, an African American as well as two Jewish White volunteers from New York City, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were kidnapped and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their murder, and the search and discovery that the local White police had helped the Ku Klux Klan with the murders caused newspapers around the country to write about Freedom Summer. President Johnson sent the FBI to search for the bodies for the murdered volunteers. During the search, White-run Mississippi newspapers said that the disappearance was made up to draw attention, but the search of rivers and swamps turned up the bodies of eight other African Americans who had been murdered. Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it did lead to an important result. It helped end the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, big newspapers and television networks had not reported the attacks on African American voters in the Deep South and the dangers faced by civil rights workers. Sadly, it took the death of White volunteers from the North, to make the news media notice.
SELMA AND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
After Freedom Summer, the leaders of the movement decided to fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Nonviolent marchers demanded the right to vote, and the police responded by arresting protesters. Again, the jails filled up. Many of the marchers were students. Again, King and Abernathy were arrested.
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Photographs of Amelia Boynton beaten unconscious by police helped move public opinion in the nation against the White leaders of Alabama and persuaded President Johnson to support the marchers and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After an Alabama state police officer shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson during a voting rights protest, close to 600 protesters tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to meet with Governor George Wallace. Led by Reverend Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC, the marchers were attacked by state police and sheriffs who used tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips when they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a day remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 more were hurt by the police. People watching the march on television, and who saw how the police attacked the marchers, started to support the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Finally, a federal judge ordered Alabama to allow the march to Montgomery. In the end, about 25,000 protesters marched to the steps of the Alabama capitol, where King spoke about the need for voting rights.
Public pressure grew, and within five months, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson passed a new law to end discrimination at the voting booth. The result of the Selma Movement was not that leaders in Alabama changed their laws, but that the federal government in Washington, DC passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It ended racial discrimination in voting. The law ended literacy tests, poll taxes and sent observers to watch elections and to make sure African Americans were allowed to register to vote.
Each January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but it was clearly the work of both the leaders and the thousands of followers who forced those in power to give African Americans their civil rights. No one could have planned the Selma Campaign, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott alone, and it would have been impossible for people to work in an organized way without talented, inspirational, and effective leadership. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, everything that was needed to make a movement seemed to come together. What happened? How did it all happen in a way that produced results? How did people work together to advance the Civil Rights Movement?
BIG IDEA: The Civil Rights Movement had its greatest successes in the early 1960s with mass demonstrations, marches and when Congress passed laws that ended Jim Crow segregation and voting restrictions.
African Americans in the city of Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city bus system for over a year to protest segregated seating on the busses. The boycott started when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. became famous as the leader of the boycott. Eventually they won and the city ended segregation on the busses.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in nonviolence and civil disobedience. He founded SCLC to organize other protests. Other groups such as SNCC and CORE also were created and used nonviolence and civil disobedience.
Students staged sit-ins at lunch counters to protest Jim Crow laws that prevented them from eating at restaurants with Whites.
Freedom riders rode busses through the South to protest segregated waiting rooms at bus stations. They were attacked in Alabama and the KKK bombed their bus. However, their protest convinced President Kennedy to call for a law to protect civil rights.
Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign in Albany, Georgia to desegregate the city. Large numbers of people marched and were arrested. Their effort failed, but they learned new strategies.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the White police chief ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used against civil rights marchers. Images of police brutality convinced many Americans that segregation was wrong and that they should support the civil rights marchers.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech during a march in Washington, DC. He described a future for the United States when segregation and racism had been eliminated. He used the famous phrase “I have a dream.” The march convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.
In 1964, activists tried to register many African Americans in Mississippi to vote. Their activities were called Freedom Summer, but they faced extreme violence from Whites. When the KKK killed White supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from the city of Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery to protest for voting rights. Police officers attacked the marchers. Finally, President Johnson ordered the National Guard to protect the marchers and the protest convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Rosa Parks: African American activist in Montgomery, Alabama who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The event initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Leader of the African American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He was a minister from Montgomery, Alabama and was assassinated in 1968. He is most famously remembered for his “I Have a Dream” Speech.
Coretta Scott King: Civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ralph Abernathy: Co-founder of the SCLC with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): Organization formed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy to organize civil rights demonstrations.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Civil rights organization formed by African American students in 1960s. They organized sit-ins and joined in other protests.
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): Civil rights organization that participated in the Freedom Rides and other protests.
John Lewis: Chairman of the SNCC. He helped organize the March on Washington, participated in the Bloody Sunday march and represented Georgia in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): Racist organization based in the South that terrorized African Americans after the Civil War and helped establish the system of Jim Crow. They were also anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The organization experienced a revival in the 1920s and again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“Bull” Connor: White police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who used fire hoses and police dogs to attack civil rights protesters.
Medgar Evers: African American civil rights lawyer who helped James Meredith enroll at the University of Mississippi and was later assassinated while organizing protests in the city of Jackson.
Nonviolence: The use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.
Civil Disobedience: The breaking of laws to demonstrate that they are unjust.
Sit-In: A form of protest used to desegregate lunch counters in the South in the late-1950s. African American students would enter a restaurant and sit peacefully until they were served.
Open Letter: A letter that is released to the public for anyone to read.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Famous letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham protests in which Dr. King responds to critics who accused him of being an outside agitator and believed he was trying to make too much change, too quickly.
I Have a Dream Speech: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech given at the March on Washington in 1963 in which he laid out the moral aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement.
Montgomery Bus Boycott: 1955 civil rights protest let initiated by the arrest of Rosa Parks in which African Americans refused to ride city busses until they were desegregated. It was successful and helped propel Dr. King to prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights Movement: Overall term for the many protests throughout the 1950s and 1960s in which African Americans sought to advance their civil rights through protests, boycotts, sit-ins, marches, etc. Martin Luther King, Jr. was its generally accepted, although unofficial, leader.
Freedom Rides: 1961 civil rights demonstration against segregated waiting rooms at bus terminals. The protesters were attacked when they arrived in the Deep South.
Albany Campaign: Effort by SNCC and SCLC to desegregate the city of Albany, Georgia in 1961. They organized nonviolent protests and were arrested in large numbers, but ultimately failed to desegregate the city.
Birmingham Campaign: Effort by SCLC to desegregate the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. They were met with fierce and violent resistance from the city’s White leadership. Images of police dogs and fire hoses attacking protesters captured national attention and helped the effort succeed.
16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Bombing of a Birmingham church by the KKK in which four African American girls were killed.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Major civil rights rally in Washington, DC in 1963 to promote the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the event.
Freedom Summer: Effort to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote during 1964. It was marked by violent resistance from the KKK.
Murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner: Famous killing of civil rights workers during Freedom Summer in 1964. President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate and the event resulted in national awareness of the lawlessness of the KKK and injustice of the Jim Crow South’s legal system.
Bloody Sunday: Attack in 1965 on civil rights marchers by White police officers as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. They protesters were marching to demand voting rights and the attack pushed congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Civil Rights Act of 1964: Law passed in 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that serve the public.
Voting Rights Act of 1965: Law passed in 1965 that eliminated restrictions on voting such as literacy tests and pole taxes.