Segregation and The Civil Rights Movement

Segregation and The Civil Rights MovementSegregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in everysphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was oftencalled the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s whowas an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks.Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstructionin 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865),Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners,and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed lawsopening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 theDemocratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, andthese Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made duringReconstruction.

To that end, they began to pass local and state laws thatspecified certain places “For Whites Only” and others for “Colored.” Blacks hadseparate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which werepoorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crowsigns went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system ofsegregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement.Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements forvoting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15thAmendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed toprotect black voting rights.

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These requirements included: the ability to readand write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access toeducation; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; andpaying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, whowere very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all thesehurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidatesbecause they were open only to whites in most Southern states. Because blackscould not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregatingall aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination inpublic accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. Theability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crowsigns, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southernsociety. Segregation was an all encompassing system.

Conditions for blacks inNorthern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent ofblacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very fewblacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, butthere were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregatedfacilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually deniedentrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usuallyintegrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the mostdifficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination againstblacks.

They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants forjob opportunities and almost always lost.Early Black Resistance to SegregationBlacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blackssued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states’disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. Oneof the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), inwhich the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “separate but equal”accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal,but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation forthe next 50 years.

To protest segregation, blacks created new nationalorganizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the NiagaraMovement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of ColoredPeople (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to helpblacks make the transition to urban, industrial life.

The NAACP became one ofthe most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It reliedmainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination incourts to obtain equal treatment for blacks. An early leader of the NAACP wasthe historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 madepowerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACPmagazine, The Crisis.

NAACP lawyers won court victories over voterdisfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to havelynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregationalthough they did little to change everyday life. In 1935 Charles H. Houston,the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, won the first Supreme Court case argued byexclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. This win invigorated theNAACP’s legal efforts against segregation, mainly by convincing courts thatsegregated facilities, especially schools, were not equal.

In 1939 the NAACPcreated a separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that had anonprofit, tax-exempt status that was denied to the NAACP because it lobbied theU.S. Congress. Houston’s chief aide and later his successor, Thurgood Marshall,a brilliant young lawyer who would become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,began to challenge segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.World War IWhen World War I (1914-1918) began, blacks enlisted to fight for their country.

However, black soldiers were segregated, denied the opportunity to be leaders,and were subjected to racism within the armed forces. During the war, hundredsof thousands of Southern blacks migrated northward in 1916 and 1917 to takeadvantage of job openings in Northern cities created by the war. This greatmigration of Southern blacks continued into the 1950s. Along with the greatmigration, blacks in both the North and South became increasingly urbanizedduring the 20th century. In 1890, about 85 percent of all Southern blacks livedin rural areas; by 1960 that percentage had decreased to about 42 percent. Inthe North, about 95 percent of all blacks lived in urban areas in 1960. Thecombination of the great migration and the urbanization of blacks resulted inblack communities in the North that had a strong political presence. The blackcommunities began to exert pressure on politicians, voting for those whosupported civil rights.

These Northern black communities, and the politiciansthat they elected, helped Southern blacks struggling against segregation byusing political influence and money.The 1930sThe Great Depression of the 1930s increased black protests againstdiscrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal ofwhite-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons.Using the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” these campaigns persuadedblacks to boycott those businesses and revealed a new militancy.

During the sameyears, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protestdiscriminatory treatment of black children. The black protest activities of the1930s were encouraged by the expanding role of government in the economy andsociety. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt thefederal government created federal programs, such as Social Security, to assurethe welfare of individual citizens. Roosevelt himself was not an outspokensupporter of black rights, but his wife Eleanor became an open advocate forfairness to blacks, as did other leaders in the administration.

The RooseveltAdministration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciaryaway from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporationsand toward the protection of individual rights, especially those of the poor andminority groups. Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the U.S.Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights.

As earlyas 1938, the courts displayed a new attitude toward black rights; that year theSupreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide accessto a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites-a new emphasison the equal part of the Plessy doctrine. Blacks sensed that the nationalgovernment might again be their ally, as it had been during the Civil War.World War IIWhen World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded better treatment thanthey had experienced in World War I. Black newspaper editors insisted during1939 and 1940 that black support for this war effort would depend on fairtreatment. They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military rolesand that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries athome. In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping CarPorters, a union whose members were mainly black railroad workers, planned aMarch on Washington to demand that the federal government require defensecontractors to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites. To forestall the march,President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created thefederal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it.

The FEPC didnot prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson toblacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitmentsto civil rights. During World War II, blacks composed about one-eighth of theU.S. armed forces, which matched their presence in the general population.Although a disproportionately high number of blacks were put in noncombat,support positions in the military, many did fight. The Army Air Corps trainedblacks as pilots in a controversial segregated arrangement in Tuskegee, Alabama.

During the war, all the armed services moved toward equal treatment of blacks,though none flatly rejected segregation. In the early war years, hundreds ofthousands of blacks left Southern farms for war jobs in Northern and Westerncities. In fact more blacks migrated to the North and the West during World WarII than had left during the previous war. Although there was racial tension andconflict in their new homes, blacks were free of the worst racial oppression,and they enjoyed much larger incomes.

After the war blacks in the North and Westused their economic and political influence to support civil rights for Southernblacks. Blacks continued to work against discrimination during the war,challenging voting registrars in Southern courthouses and suing school boardsfor equal educational provisions. The membership of the NAACP grew from 50,000to about 500,000.

In 1944 the NAACP won a major victory in Smith v. Allwright,which outlawed the white primary. A new organization, the Congress of RacialEquality (CORE), was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation in publicaccommodations in the North. During the war, black newspapers campaigned for aDouble V, victories over both fascism in Europe and racism at home. The warexperience gave about one million blacks the opportunity to fight racism inEurope and Asia, a fact that black veterans would remember during the struggleagainst racism at home after the war.

Perhaps just as important, almost tentimes that many white Americans witnessed the patriotic service of blackAmericans. Many of them would object to the continued denial of civil rights tothe men and women beside whom they had fought. After World War II the momentumfor racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination tohave full civil rights. President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregationof the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policyfavoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.

S. Congress rejected hisproposals. School DesegregationIn the postwar years, the NAACP’s legal strategy for civil rights continued tosucceed. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged andoverturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equaleducational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the SupremeCourt decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school.Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge thePlessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal.The U.

S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary-and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling inBrown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education wasunconstitutional. White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shockand, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, whiteopposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy topersuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders. It wasbelieved that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order,it could not be enforced.

Tactics included firing school employees who showedwillingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather thandesegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. TheWhite Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation allover the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks whofavored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation ofprivate, all-white schools. Virtually no schools in the South were desegregatedin the first years after the Brown decision. In Virginia one county did indeedclose its public schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Governor OrvalFaubus defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to Central HighSchool, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforcedesegregation.

The event was covered by the national media, and the fate of theLittle Rock Nine, the students attempting to integrate the school, dramatizedthe seriousness of the school desegregation issue to many Americans. Althoughnot all school desegregation was as dramatic as in Little Rock, thedesegregation process did proceed-gradually. Frequently schools weredesegregated only in theory, because racially segregated neighborhoods led tosegregated schools.

To overcome this problem, some school districts in the 1970stried busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Asdesegregation progressed, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew. The KKKused violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoringdesegregation or black civil rights.

Klan terror, including intimidation andmurder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klanactivities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that didreceive national attention was the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-oldblack boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with awhite woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accused of Till’s murder werecovered in the national media, demonstrating the continuing racial bigotry ofSouthern whites.Political ProtestMontgomery Bus BoycottDespite the threats and violence, the struggle quickly moved beyond schooldesegregation to challenge segregation in other areas. On December 1, 1955, RosaParks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, was told togive up her seat on a city bus to a white person.

When Parks refused to move,she was arrested. The local NAACP, led by Edgar D. Nixon, recognized that thearrest of Parks might rally local blacks to protest segregated buses.Montgomery’s black community had long been angry about their mistreatment oncity buses where white drivers were often rude and abusive. The community hadpreviously considered a boycott of the buses, and almost overnight one wasorganized. The Montgomery bus boycott was an immediate success, with virtuallyunanimous support from the 50,000 blacks in Montgomery.

It lasted for more thana year and dramatized to the American public the determination of blacks in theSouth to end segregation. A federal court ordered Montgomery’s busesdesegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph. A young Baptistminister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was president of the MontgomeryImprovement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protestmade King a national figure. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood andAmerican idealism created a positive impression on people both inside andoutside the South.

King became the president of the Southern ChristianLeadership Conference (SCLC) when it was founded in 1957. SCLC wanted tocomplement the NAACP legal strategy by encouraging the use of nonviolent, directaction to protest segregation. These activities included marches, demonstrations,and boycotts. The violent white response to black direct action eventuallyforced the federal government to confront the issues of injustice and racism inthe South. In addition to his large following among blacks, King had a powerfulappeal to liberal Northerners that helped him influence national public opinion.His advocacy of nonviolence attracted supporters among peace activists. Heforged alliances in the American Jewish community and developed strong ties tothe ministers of wealthy, influential Protestant congregations in Northerncities. King often preached to those congregations, where he raised funds forSCLC.

The Sit-InsOn February 1, 1960, four black college students at North Carolina A&TUniversity began protesting racial segregation in restaurants by sitting at”white-only” lunch counters and waiting to be served. This was not a new form ofprotest, but the response to the sit-ins in North Carolina was unique. Withindays sit-ins had spread throughout North Carolina, and within weeks they weretaking place in cities across the South. Many restaurants were desegregated.

Thesit-in movement also demonstrated clearly to blacks and whites alike that youngblacks were determined to reject segregation openly. In April 1960 the StudentNonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina,to help organize and direct the student sit-in movement. King encouraged SNCC’screation, but the most important early advisor to the students was Ella Baker,who had worked for both the NAACP and SCLC. She believed that SNCC should not bepart of SCLC but a separate, independent organization run by the students. Shealso believed that civil rights activities should be based in individual blackcommunities. SNCC adopted Baker’s approach and focused on making changes inlocal communities, rather than striving for national change. This goal differedfrom that of SCLC which worked to change national laws. During the civil rightsmovement, tensions occasionally arose between SCLC and SNCC because of theirdifferent methods.

Freedom RidersAfter the sit-ins, some SNCC members participated in the 1961 Freedom Ridesorganized by CORE. The Freedom Riders, both black and white, traveled around theSouth in buses to test the effectiveness of a 1960 Supreme Court decision. Thisdecision had declared that segregation was illegal in bus stations that wereopen to interstate travel. The Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C. Exceptfor some violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the trip southward was peacefuluntil they reached Alabama, where violence erupted. At Anniston one bus wasburned and some riders were beaten. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the riderswhen they got off the bus.

They suffered even more severe beatings by a mob inMontgomery, Alabama. The violence brought national attention to the FreedomRiders and fierce condemnation of Alabama officials for allowing the violence.The administration of President John Kennedy interceded to protect the FreedomRiders when it became clear that Alabama state officials would not guaranteesafe travel. The riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they werearrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary, ending the protest. TheFreedom Rides did result in the desegregation of some bus stations, but moreimportantly, they demonstrated to the American public how far civil rightsworkers would go to achieve their goals.

SCLC CampaignsSCLC’s greatest contribution to the civil rights movement was a series of highlypublicized protest campaigns in Southern cities during the early 1960s. Theseprotests were intended to create such public disorder that local white officialsand business leaders would end segregation in order to restore normal businessactivity. The demonstrations required the mobilization of hundreds, eventhousands, of protesters who were willing to participate in protest marches aslong as necessary to achieve their goal and who were also willing to be arrestedand sent to jail. The first SCLC direct-action campaign began in 1961 in Albany,Georgia, where the organization joined local demonstrations against segregatedpublic accommodations.

The presence of SCLC and King escalated the Albanyprotests by bringing national attention and additional people to thedemonstrations, but the demonstrations did not force negotiations to endsegregation. During months of protest, Albany’s police chief continued to jaildemonstrators without a show of police violence. The Albany protests ended infailure. In the spring of 1963, however, the direct-action strategy worked inBirmingham, Alabama. SCLC joined the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local civilrights leader, who believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene”Bull” Connor, would meet protesters with violence.

In May the SCLC staffstepped up antisegregation marches by persuading teenagers and school childrento join. The singing and chanting adolescents who filled the streets ofBirmingham caused Connor to abandon restraint. He ordered police to attackdemonstrators with dogs and firefighters to turn high-pressure water hoses onthem. The ensuing scenes of violence were shown throughout the nation and theworld in newspapers, magazines, and most importantly, on television. Much of theworld was shocked by the events in Birmingham, and the reaction to the violenceincreased support for black civil rights. In Birmingham white leaders promisedto negotiate an end to some segregation practices. Business leaders agreed tohire and promote more black employees and to desegregate some publicaccommodations. More important, however, the Birmingham demonstrations builtsupport for national legislation against segregation.

Desegregating Southern UniversitiesIn 1962 a black man from Mississippi, James Meredith, applied for admission toUniversity of Mississippi. His action was an example of how the struggle forcivil rights belonged to individuals acting alone as well as to organizations.The university attempted to block Meredith’s admission, and he filed suit. Afterworking through the state courts, Meredith was successful when a federal courtordered the university to desegregate and accept Meredith as a student. Thegovernor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, defied the court order and tried toprevent Meredith from enrolling. In response, the administration of PresidentKennedy intervened to uphold the court order. Kennedy sent federal marshals withMeredith when he attempted to enroll. During his first night on campus, a riotbroke out when whites began to harass the federal marshals.

In the end, 2 peoplewere killed, and about 375 people were wounded. When the governor of Alabama,George C. Wallace, threatened a similar stand, trying to block the desegregationof the University of Alabama in 1963, the Kennedy Administration responded withthe full power of the federal government, including the U.S.

Army, to preventviolence and enforce desegregation. The showdowns with Barnett and Wallacepushed Kennedy, whose support for civil rights up to that time had beententative, into a full commitment to end segregation.The March on WashingtonThe national civil rights leadership decided to keep pressure on both theKennedy administration and the Congress to pass civil rights legislation byplanning a March on Washington for August 1963. It was a conscious revival of A.Philip Randolph’s planned 1941 march, which had yielded a commitment to fairemployment during World War II.

Randolph was there in 1963, along with theleaders of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, the Urban League, and SNCC. Martin Luther King,Jr., delivered the keynote address to an audience of more than 200,000 civilrights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the giant sculptureof the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, became famous for how it expressedthe ideals of the civil rights movement. Partly as a result of the March onWashington, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law. After Kennedy wasassassinated in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, strongly urgedits passage as a tribute to Kennedy’s memory.

Over fierce opposition fromSouthern legislators, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 throughCongress. It prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discriminationin education and employment. It also gave the executive branch of government thepower to enforce the act’s provisions.Voter RegistrationThe year 1964 was the culmination of SNCC’s commitment to civil rights activismat the community level. Starting in 1961 SNCC and CORE organized voterregistration campaigns in heavily black, rural counties of Mississippi, Alabama,and Georgia. SNCC concentrated on voter registration, believing that voting wasa way to empower blacks so that they could change racist policies in the South.SNCC worked to register blacks to vote by teaching them the necessary skills-such as reading and writing-and the correct answers to the voter registrationapplication.

SNCC worker Robert Moses led a voter registration effort in McComb,Mississippi, in 1961, and in 1962 and 1963 SNCC worked to register voters in theMississippi Delta, where it found local supporters like the farm-worker andactivist Fannie Lou Hamer. These civil rights activities caused violentreactions from Mississippi’s white supremacists. Moses faced constant terrorismthat included threats, arrests, and beatings. In June 1963 Medgar Evers, NAACPfield secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in front of his home.In 1964 SNCC workers organized the Mississippi Summer Project to register blacksto vote in that state. SNCC leaders also hoped to focus national attention onMississippi’s racism. They recruited Northern college students, teachers,artists, and clergy-both black and white-to work on the project, because theybelieved that the participation of these people would make the country moreconcerned about discrimination and violence in Mississippi.

The project didreceive national attention, especially after three participants, two of whomwere white, disappeared in June and were later found murdered and buried nearPhiladelphia, Mississippi. By the end of the summer, the project had helpedthousands of blacks attempt to register, and about 1000 had actually becomeregistered voters.The Summer Project increased the number of blacks who were politically activeand led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Whenwhite Democrats in Mississippi refused to accept black members in theirdelegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Hamer and others wentto the convention to challenge the white Democrats’ right to representMississippi. In a televised interview, Hamer detailed the harassment and abuseexperienced by black Mississippians when they tried to register to vote. Hertestimony attracted much media attention, and President Johnson was upset by thedisturbance at the convention where he expected to be nominated for president.National Democratic Party officials offered the black Mississippians twoconvention seats, but the MFDP rejected the compromise offer and went home.Later, however, the MFDP challenge did result in more support for blacks andother minorities in the Democratic Party.

In early 1965 SCLC employed its direct-action techniques in a voting-rightsprotest initiated by SNCC in Selma, Alabama. When protests at the localcourthouse were unsuccessful, protesters began a march to Montgomery, the statecapital. As the marchers were leaving Selma, mounted police beat and tear-gassedthem. Televised scenes of that violence, called Bloody Sunday, sSocial Issues