SEATS OF POWER, SEATS OF PANTS
A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The Sixties as a historical epoch--and as a state of mind--began right on schedule: February 1, 1960. On that date, four young black students at A & T College in Greensboro N.C. decided to take on the Jim Crow system. They made this decision after what they described as “an all-night bull session.” In the morning, the four of them (Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeill, David Richmond, and Franklin McCain) went down to the local Woolworths, sat down at the “Whites Only” lunch counter, and ordered breakfast. They were asked to leave. They kept sitting. They were informed that they were breaking the local segregation laws. They still kept sitting. The store manager closed the counter. They still kept sitting. They were surrounded by a screaming, angry mob. Still they sat, leaving only when the store was closed.
This might be the end of the story. Instead, it was just the beginning of a decade-long mass movement that would transform American society. It happened this way because the four students returned to Woolworths the next day, this time with supporters. In a response that shocked even them, their act of resistance inspired black college students throughout the south. From city to city (fifteen in all), the “Sit-In Movement” spread. By the end of the year, some 50,000 students had participated and over 3,500 had been arrested. [See anniversary newspaper article].
In the north, black and white supporters of the southern activists picketed their local Woolworths, demanding the chain end its discriminatory practices.. That spring, the young Bill Schechter was shocked to see his older brother Danny picketing with several others in front of the Woolworths in the Fordham Rd. section of the Bronx. As Bill was walking with several of his friends, what did he do? What he did was immediately cross the street so that none of his friends would see his brother picketing. Participating in a demonstration was bad enough (coming out of the McCarthy period, such activities seemed slightly subversive, made you stand out, and were definitely embarrassing to a 13-year old). Picketing for blacks right was even worse (even in the liberal Democratic Bronx) , because friends in the school yard wouldn’t let you live down the fact that your brother was a “nigger lover.”
Fortunately, the future of the Movement (as the civil rights struggle was soon-to-be called) didn’t depend on the teenaged Bill Schechter. What was really significant about the sit-in movement was how quickly it spread, and how spontaneously it had released the pent-up anger of young blacks who just weren’t going to accept Jim Crow anymore. What might have been the forgotten arrests of four obscure black students in an obscure southern city, instead became the opening salvo of a major revolution in American life. And all because four people sat up all-night talking and deciding that “something had to be done.” Students for whom the Montgomery Bus Boycott and and the violence at Central High School in Little Rock were dim memories responded in a massive outpouring of feeling and action that could not have been predicted. According to Ezell Blair, “the waitress looked at me as if I was from outer-space.” The south would never be the same, America would never be the same. In fact, if white southerners had known what was coming they probably would have (in the words of a book title) “served that cup of coffee.”
1961: The ‘Freedom Rides’
In 1960, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) was organized. It soon emerged as one of the most powerful civil rights organizations in the country. But the next dramatic chapter of this saga in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) belonged to an older, northern-based organization called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled in the Boynton Case that inter-state bus and train terminals must be de-segregated. (This case followed a 1947 court decision which had officially de-segregated inter-state buses and trains themselves, and the 1956 Court decision growing out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which had de-segregated intra-state transportation as well). CORE decided to charter a Greyhound bus and travel throughout the south, stopping at all bus terminals to make certain that the Court’s decision was being enforced.
Would the black passengers be forced to use the “Colored Only” waiting rooms and bathrooms? They would soon find out.
The bus left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 on what became known as the “Freedom Rides”. The destination was New Orleans. On May 14, just after the bus had crossed the Alabama state line, a bomb was thrown into the bus. The black and white “Freedom Riders” just managed to escape as the bus exploded into flames. (Incidentally, the photo of this burning bus was one of the first violent images of the Sixties to be engraved on the public mind. There would be many more such images before the decade ended). The passengers were picked up by a second bus which was promptly invaded by southern rednecks who administered severe beatings. Worse was yet to come. When the bus arrived in Birmingham, Ala. --the so-called “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and one of the most racist American cities--the Freedom Riders were greeted by a vicious mob that beat several of them within inches of their lives. Besides the beatings, no bus could be obtained for the next leg of the journey to Montgomery, and the group decided to abandon the project and fly on to New Orleans.
The story almost ended there, but not quite. Diane Nash, a college student from Nashville, Tenn., and a member of SNCC, decided that the Freedom Ride had to go on. As the song went, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us round.” After countless obstacles, confrontations with racist sheriffs (who put them on buses to nowhere) beatings by white mobs waiting at the terminals, and you name it, the group finally made it all the way to Jackson, Miss., where they were all imprisoned for violating the state Jim Crow laws. By the end of the summer, over 300 Freedom Riders and their supporters were behind bars; there slogan was: “Jail-No Bail!”
In the jail cells of Jackson, the sense of community and purpose that bound these young SNCC Freedom Fighters together grew. Their refusal to accept bail, their decision to stay in jail focused national attention on them. Many supporters came down south. This is not to say all or even most white college students--north or south--were particularly interested in the fate of these civil rights workers. In fact while these SNCC members were risking their lives in Jackson (it was not uncommon for blacks in prison to “disappear”), panty raids were still the rage on many college campuses. This would change.
1962: Deciding Strategy
This was an important year of decision for SNCC. Where should it put it’s energies? Should it continue on with it’s dramatic de-segregation campaign (that is, challenging Jim Crow through sit-ins, pray-ins, and even swim-ins at segregated restaurants, churches, and municipal pools) or should it focus on registering blacks to vote? By this time, despite the 15th amendment, few blacks in the south were registered to vote. You have already read about how this disenfranchisement was accomplished. Some SNCC members believed that voter registration was the key to winning a better life. The argument went like this: de-segregation campaigns mainly helped middle class blacks, those who had the money to eat in restaurants, or take long bus rides. What blacks--especially poor blacks--needed was power and opportunity, and the only way to get these were through the vote. Only when blacks had some political power, so the argument went, would local, state, and federal governments respond to their needs.
Other SNCC members countered that the de-segregation campaigns were important. True, not all blacks could eat in restaurants, but the Jim Crow laws were a source of humiliation for all blacks, the most visible symbols of the southern caste system. There were good arguments and strong feelings on both sides, and the SNCC staff decided to split its resources and work on both strategies: voter registration and direct action challenges against segregation law.
SNCC made another significant decision which distinguished it from the other civil rights organizations, including Martin Luther King’s group (The SCLC or South Christian Leadership Conference). SNCC workers would not only operate in southern cities, but would go into the rural back country and small towns of the south, where racism was the strongest and there had been the least change since the Civil War. These were areas where the red necks ruled and “the niggers knew their place.” Life in these small towns is described well in Anne Moody’s powerful autobiography, Coming of Age In Mississippi.
SNCC & The Albany Campaign
SNCC’s de-segregation staffers decided that the rural “blackbelt” town of Albany, Ga., would be their first target. The so-called Albany Campaign was aimed at de-segregating the local bus terminal, in line with the Supreme Court ruling of 1961. The demonstrators were all arrested and none received federal protection. Where were the federal officials to protect these newly-guaranteed black rights? This is a question that black and white SNCC staffers often asked themselves. The demonstrators were thrown in jail and suffered mightily in what became known as “Terrible Terrell” county. The community mobilized in support of the jailed SNCC’ers; the deep-freeze of Jim Crow which had kept blacks passive and unafraid was beginning to thaw with the help of the SNCC freedom fighters. People saw that the system could be fought. Even high school students, by the hundreds, marched in support of the jailed demonstrators. In one day, 700 people were arrested, a national record which would be broken several times in the 60’s. (The final record: 15,000 at the May Day Demonstration in 1970).
By the end of the year, SNCC--its resources depleted--was forced to make a a truce with the city. In return for an end to the demonstrations, the city agreed to de-segregate the bus terminal, but all other public accommodations (hotels, restaurants) were to remain segregated. The SNCC workers were released from jail, but they felt that the compromise was a real defeat and were quite disappointed. (An unhappy postscript: the city went back on the agreement and and didn’t de-segregate the terminal).
But the Albany Campaign was important for two reasons. First, it marks the first time that poor blacks were organized into the Movement (not just more middle-class black and white students), and it was in Albany that SNCC workers began to develop their grassroots organizing techniques. Their goal was to teach poor people how to win power for themselves, how to lead their own demonstrations, how to lead their own fights. This approach was very different from King and his organization (SCLC), which excelled in leading large demonstrations which were great media successes. Then, however, the SCLC staff would leave town without training the rank-and-file participants. SNCC workers tried to live among the people and to teach them, but were also committed to learning from them. The hope was that these poor people, once empowered by learning to fight for themselves, would become part of a larger campaign to win control of the country on behalf of all “ordinary folk”--black and white--who constituted the real majority. The realization of the democratic ideal would finally be realized; somewhere down the road, racism and poverty would then be eliminated.
Meredith & ‘Ol’ Miss’
A more dramatic, even more publicized event of 1962 was James Meredith’s attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi (“Ol’ Miss”), which had never had a black student. His admission application was of course rejected on the grounds of incompetence. But Meredith sued in federal court, claiming race as the real reason for his exclusion. A federal appeals court agreed with him and ordered his admission. The State Legislature then passed a law denying admission to anyone guilty of immoral behavior. Based on this law, the Governor (Ross Barnett) then denied Meredith admission again, claiming that he had once been guilty of incorrectly filling out a voter registration form. This didn’t convince the court, which upheld Meredith’s admission.
When the grand day arrived, Barnett personally greeted Meredith in the university’s registrar’s office, and again refused admission. . When the court enjoined him from further obstruction, the Lieutenant Governor repeated Barnett’s action. When the LG was enjoined, Barnett again blocked Meredith. Finally, President Kennedy moved to enforce the court order, federalized the Mississippi National Guard, and stationed federal troops nearby--just in case. Barnett dropped his resistance and promised Kennedy he would maintain order with State Police. Meredith went to the admissions office with 300 federal marshals protecting him.
It was a good thing they were there. A riot began on campus and continued for fifteen hours; two people died. Kennedy finally had to send in federal troops to calm the situation. But Meredith did register as a student and Ol’ Miss was finally de-segregated. (Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” memorialized this bloody event.) By this time, the dramatic events of the CRM were big television news. The Sixties were now in everybody’s living room.
1963: The Climactic Year
Three major events pushed the Movement into high gear. In Mississippi, SNCC joined together with other civil rights organizations in a new coalition group called COFO ( the Committee of Federated Organizations). Though SNCC would continue to play the leading role, the idea behind COFO was to pool the energies of all the different groups into one mighty campaign to push ahead the cause of voter registration in this most racist of states. The work was dangerous (there were no TV cameras on the backroads of Mississippi) and painfully slow.
Voting registrars in the state used every conceivable means to frustrate the CRM workers. At night there was violence or death threats; during the days, the registrars did their work as slowly as possible, keeping lines long on broiling hot summer days. The poll tax and the literacy test were still very potent weapons to use against blacks. Progress was very slow, and the very slowness of the progress was used by racist whites to prove their claim: blacks were just not very interested in voting.
COFO, The Freedom Ballot, & The MFDP
At this point SNCC came up with a brilliant idea: COFO would hold it own official, state election. They nominated a black man, Aaron Henry, to run for governor and a white minister to run for lieutenant governor. All black adults--including those that had been previously denied permission to register--were welcome to vote in this so-called “Freedom Ballot.’ Eighty thousand people cast their votes for Aaron Henry; many of them were voting for the first time in their lives. The number of votes was four times as many as the number of blacks legally registered in the state (In Mississippi, 50% of whites were registered and 5% of blacks). The success of the Freedom Ballot disproved, once and for all, the lie that blacks wouldn’t vote even if given the opportunity.
Out of this mock election also came the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (the MFDP). A year later, at the Democratic Presidential Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, the MFDP would demand to be seated as the official delegates from Mississippi in place of the regular, all-white Democratic Party delegation.
The Birmingham Campaign
Several other important events of 1963 took place in Alabama. These events received far more publicity than the day-to-day, grinding work of SNCC in the backwoods of Mississippi. Most important was the campaign--organized by Dr. King and his organization, SCLC--to de-segregate the city of Birmingham, Ala. This was to be done by direct action and, unlike the failed attempts in Albany, Ga., was well-planned and well-financed. The chief of police in Birmingham, the infamous Bull Connor, was equally determined that the campaign not succeed.
The campaign started out with an attempt to de-segregate lunch counters on April 2. King was soon arrested--for the 13th time--and while in custody wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this document his explained his justification for “direct action” (and often illegal) civil disobedience. The Birmingham Campaign continued: thousands marched against other segregated public facilities. The marchers were often arrested before reaching their targets--for “parading without a permit.” In one very dramatic confrontation, 1,000 school children were beaten and arrested. Later that month, as marchers gathered in a church, preparing for yet another round of demonstrations, they were set upon by police dogs and high-pressure water hoses.
These scenes, instantaneously flashed around the world by modern electronic media, were added to the album of indelible images of the Sixties. And decent Americans were now beginning to wonder just what kind of country this was. (Not just Americans were concerned. People in Third-World countries also saw these TV images and wondered how Americans could call themselves the leaders of the “Free World,” and whether communism was, perhaps, better). It didn’t help matters that the Vice President of the newly-independent country of Kenya was forcibly evicted from a southern lunch counter. “Oh, I thought he was just another nigger,” said the surprised restaurant manager. The story is nicely preserved in a SNCC song called “Odinga Oginga.”
The brutality in Birmingham was more than most people could stomach. The police simply lost control of themselves. So too, the non-violent discipline that had bound civil rights activists together began to fray. After the church incident, black youth began to throw rocks at the police.
At this point, President Kennedy began to get involved. The U.S. was taking a “propaganda bath” around the world. The longer the turmoil went on, the more difficult it would be for him to hold on to the votes of white southerners. He was also afraid the unrest would spread. He placed intense pressure on Birmingham city officials, mainly through local businesses in which he had contacts (such as U.S. Steel). He also had federal troops flown to positions just outside of the city.
After a solid month of confrontation, with 3000 people now in jail, the city of Birmingham ran up the white flag: Jim Crow would be abolished! This was a total victory for King and SCLC. The celebration was marred, however, when shortly after the settlement, King’s brother’s house was bombed. Blacks rioted for three hours--an omen of things to come.
A relatively unknown incident then provided a tragic transition to yet another well-known confrontation. A white postman from Maryland, William Moore, decided to march alone all the way from his home state to Mississippi. He carried only an innocuous sigh that read: “Equality.” He never made it to the “Magnolia State.” He was shot to death on a highway in Alabama.
George Wallace & the University of Alabama
So much for William Moore. Who remembers him today? A month later Alabama was again in the news. This time the governor of the state, George Wallace (His famous inaugural speech, “Segregation now, segregation forever!”) swore to prevent the de-segregation of the University of Alabama. He promised to “stand in the doorway” to block the admittance of a few black students (sound familiar?). In fact, he did stand in the doorway and defy a court order for a while, but when JFK threatened to send troops, Governor Wallace decided to return to the State House (He would later run for President on a third party ticket, and did quite well, presaging the conservative turn which followed the Sixties. Like a number of other 60’s leaders he was the victim of an assassination attempt, which permanently confined him to a wheelchair.) [See clipping which follows]. Kennedy then went on TV and gave what many considered his greatest speech on civil rights. While some wondered what had taken him so long, they were nonetheless glad he had finally said it.
JFK Condemns Racism
In the speech Kennedy became the first president to condemn racism in moral terms. He also announced plans for a sweeping, new Civil Rights Bill. Since Kennedy didn’t have great strength in the Dixicrat (southern Democrat)-dominated Congress, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement decided to hold a great March on Washington later that year, to help galvanize massive, visible support for the bill. Again an unhappy postscript, as America crept step-by-bloody-step more deeply into the Sixties: hours after Kennedy’s speech, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi coordinator of the NAACP, was shot to death in front of his house in Jackson. Riots in many cities followed. Later that year, the man who made the speech would be assassinated in Dallas. Five years later, the man who electrified the great March on Washington with a transcendent speech was himself shot to death in Memphis. And so it went, on and on.
The March on Washington: ‘I Have A Dream’
On August 28, 1963 some 200,000 demonstrators assembled for the massive “March on Washington for Jobs and Equality,” packing the area around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Washington had never seen such a massive outpouring of humanity. Although Kennedy had initially opposed the march , fearing it would alienate key southern congressmen, he changed his position and even invited march organizers to the White House for coffee. The day was dominated by a man who gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. “I too have a dream,” proclaimed Dr. King, and a nation was mesmerized.
There were other speakers on that day, though they are now forgotten. John Lewis, the soft-spoken chairman of SNCC, gave a far angrier speech. So angry was the speech, in fact, that march organizers forced Lewis to delete this line: “We want to know which side the federal government is on!” The line reflected the anger and disgust of SNCC workers who were routinely brutalized without any federal protection. Indeed in some cases, FBI agents on the scene limited their concern to counting the blows. SNCC freedom fighters didn’t find this too helpful. Still, this was a day of triumph for King and the Movement. The best of America seemed to be speaking that day. More and more Americans were now proud to identify themselves with the moral cause so eloquently described by King. The march marked a high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement.
Alas we must yet again pause for another tragic postscript. The good feelings, the moral idealism stirred by King and his speech were literally exploded to bits only a month later. On September 16, in the city of Birmingham, on a quiet Sunday morning, a black church was blown up. Four young black girls, attending Sunday school, were killed. The nation was in shock. (Shock would soon become our normal state of affairs--and mind). Joan Baez captured the tragedy in her song, “Birmingham Sunday.” Only in 1994 was the bomber finally arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. (A year later the killer of Medgar Evers was finally convicted). In those days the relationship between perpetrators and local police seemed uncomfortably close.The wheels of justice turned slowly, but did finally turn.
The Battle of Birmingham had been won, and Jim Crow seemed in full retreat. The struggle for voting rights went on more slowly. SNCC decided to use the summer of 1964 for an all out voter registration drive in Mississippi. The campaign would be called “Freedom Summer.” The idea was to register as many black voters as possible, with an eye to getting as much support as possible for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates who were hoping to be seated (as previously described) at the Democratic National Convention later that summer.
What made Freedom Summer unique--apart from the intensity of the effort--was SNCC’s idea to invite sympathetic northern white college students down to Mississippi so that they could help in the effort and see first hand what conditions were like in the heart of Dixie. This experience would later play an important part in the later formation of radical student organizations in the mid-60’s on. Though SNCC was an integrated organization, most of the SNCC freedom fighters were black. Freedom Summer provided the first opportunity for the significant involvement of a large number of young whites. [A young Cornell student named Danny Schechter went down south just after the summer. He wrote a letter to his younger brother which follows, along with a a letter from a Lincoln, Ma., volunteer].
Seven hundred white college students met at Oxford, Ohio, for an orientation meeting. Here they would be told what to expect in the south, what to do, what to avoid doing, and how best to register black sharecroppers. These were 700 concerned, dedicated, idealistic--and very scared--volunteers. A small advance party was sent down to Mississippi. Then a second round of orientation meetings began only to be interrupted when SNCC leader Bob Moses brought devastating news: three of the civil rights workers who had left Oxford just two days before were missing. This was June, 1964.
Six weeks later, they were found--at least their bodies were--buried in the red clay bank of a Mississippi river. One, James Chaney, was black and a Mississippi native. The others, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were white, student volunteers from New York. All were in their early the twenties [Our Sixties mural outside the Lounge is dedicated to their memory. See the letter from their parents which follows]. Their deaths were intended as a warning: any “outside agitators who come here to stir up our “niggers” will be killed. It was that simple. But the volunteers kept coming. By the way, no one ever went to jail for the killings. The local sheriff was accused, but a local, all-white jury found him not guilty. The coroner reported that Chaney’s body was beaten with such ferocity that his wounds resembled those incurred by high-impact air crashes.
Amazingly, only two of the original 700 left the summer project after the killings were discovered. For those who remained, and others who came after, the summer was a period of intensive education and slow progress in registering voters. The America these volunteers saw was far different from the country they thought they knew. A new consciousness, a new way of perceiving the American reality was emerging. Also, under the brutal conditions of Mississippi, SNCC’s commitment to absolute non-violence began to erode. At one SNCC meeting, someone suddenly asked. “How many people here are carrying guns?” People looked around nervously. Suddenly a dozen guns appeared, all piled on the meeting room table. SNCC workers, some now preferring armed self-defense, were determined to “keep on keepin’ on. [Decades later the anniversary of Freedom Summer was marked. An article about this follows].
A Moment Of Truth: The Democratic National Convention
The final two chapters of the Civil Rights Movement were now on the horizon.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) sent its delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. By this time President Kennedy had been assassinated. There was little suspense in the business of the convention: President Johnson (JFK’s vice-president) would be renominated. The only real tension was created by the MFDP. They would present their credentials demanding to be seated as Mississippi’s only legitimate delegation. So would the state’s all-white “regular” delegation. What would the Democratic Party do? If Democratic leaders seated the predominantly black delegation, the party might lose considerable white, southern support in the election. If they seated the regular delegation, then the party would lose black support. Moreover, if blacks concluded they couldn’t trust the two main parties, they might feel they would have to take to the streets to get justice.
SNNC and the MFDP held week-long demonstrations outside the Convention Hall. (This was my first demonstration, my first exposure to Movement politics. I recall a collage of images: the general excitement...staying up all night... feeling a part of history...watching small groups arguing on the Boardwalk until the wee hours... watching, with mouth hanging open in awe, the SNCC workers dressed in their “uniform” blue jeans and denim farm jackets, and thinking how brave they were...not understanding the issues well, but definitely absorbing the moral seriousness of the cause... listening to MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper, leading everyone in a round of “We shall overcome,” her deep, strong voice resonating with courage and determination. After this summer, I was off to college, not sure who I was, but certain I wasn’t who I had been. As Dylan sang, “The times they are a changin’”--for me and for many others.
Hamer delivered a powerful speech (“I question America!”) on behalf of the MFDP on the convention floor. Despite her moving words, detailing the beating she had incurred while trying to register to vote, the Democratic Party offered only this compromise: the regular white delegation would be seated, but the MFDP could have two members serve as non-voting observers. The more moderate leaders, including King, counselled acceptance. SNCC’s members reacted with disgust, and here began a major split in the Movement. King would continue to preach non-violence, working within the system, and integration. The young students of SNCC, now disillusioned with the possibilities of working within the Democratic party, began talking less about “Equal Right Now!” and more about “Black Power!”, less about integration and more about revolution, less about non-violence, and more about--to use Malcolm X’s phrase--using “Any Means Necessary!” in the struggle to win black liberation. Too many beatings, too much apathy from the federal government, too many dead, too much compromise...too much.
The late Sixties would witness a new black militancy, mobilized by the “Black Power,” ideas, leaders like Malcolm X (the Black Muslims), and Stokely Carmichael (SNCC), and Huey P. Newton (the Black Panthers), and violent urban rioting which marked the “long, hot summers” of the decade. The rhetoric which flew across the racial divide became uncompromising, revolutionary, and frightening to many white people. But the authors of the more moderate Civil Rights Movement had one last chapter to write. The main author was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the place was Selma, Ala.
The Birmingham Campaign had broken the back of the Jim Crow system, but voter registration was still a struggle. King’s idea was to organize a massive demonstration in Selma that would focus national attention on this less visible issue. SNCC had been working in Selma for years, and the organization was somewhat unhappy that King suddenly decided to make a dramatic and well-publicized entrance. But by this time, King was a national leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Of course he was also a minister, and, in the south, blacks were still church-going people.
‘From Selma to Montgomery’
The campaign started in mid-January, 1965. In the first four days, 3000 people, including King, were arrested while participating in the “Voting Marches.” What Bull Connor had been to Birmingham, the vicious sheriff Jim Clarke was to Selma. On February 18, a young marcher, Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed. In his honor, King organized a fifty-mile march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery.
The March turned into three marches:
• On March 7, the marchers set out for Montgomery via the Pettis Bridge. King announced that he couldn’t be there (which made the young SNCC marchers bitter). The marchers were about to cross the bridge when police charged into their ranks using cattle prods, billy clubs, and tear gas. Fifty marchers were injured. The march was canceled, though TV news reports helped increase national support for a federal voting rights bill.
• On March 9, King led another march, despite a court injunction prohibiting it. King led the marchers to the bridge, singing “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round”. The marchers came up against a police line. What would King do? To the distress of SNCC members, he turned the march around in an effort to prevent violence. For young blacks, King’s leadership was nearly discredited, but then...
tragedy intervened, which thrust King back into a leadership position. On the night of March 9, the Rev. James Reeb, a white man who came down from the north to support the march, was murdered. It was decided that the march would go on in his name. President Johnson went on TV and gave his strongest Civil Rights speech. He ordered the National Guard to provide full protection to the marchers, which was now scheduled for March 21. Eight thousand marchers made the long trek from Selma to Montgomery. This was the last great, triumphant march for the CRM, now in its twilight year. The Movement that was motivated by the beautiful ideal of a “Beloved Community” of blacks and whites would soon be replaced by a chorus of angrier voices.
But even this last moment of inter-racial unity was scarred by tragedy. On the very night when the marchers reached Montgomery, a white housewife from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, who had volunteered to help transport elderly marchers to the capital, was shot dead on the highway.
No statues have been raised to the memory of these martyrs. Few remember the stirring songs,
Deep in my heart, I do believe......Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us ‘round...
...We shall never turn back now...This little light of mine...
So what came of it all? As you’ll see, the CRM had a powerful influence on the other emerging movements for change in the Sixties., and on those who participated in them. The Movement also had an enormous psychological consequence for black people, who now stood straight, regarding themselves, their culture, and history with pride. The endless marches, petitions, and sit-in’s also produced concrete legislative victories:
1) The 24th Amendment abolished the Poll Tax.
2) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (planned by Kennedy, pushed through by Johnson) prohibited discrimination in all public accommodations (restaurants, hotels theaters). In one stroke, using the power vested in it by the “Interstate Commerce Clause” of the Constitution, Congress abolished our version of the Apartheid System.
3) The Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered the President to bring court suits against southern voting districts that excluded blacks. If a pattern of abuse continued, the federal courts could replace the state registrars with federal ones. Now Jim Crow was dead at the polling place too. Also local registrars must inform the federal government of all changes in registration procedures.
Today, there is widespread cynicism about the possibilities of effecting social change. Yet, Americans in the Sixties showed that popular movements could be successful. Still many problems remain. Jim Crow is dead, but racism is not. Indeed many of our institutions--particularly residential patterns and public schools--are being re-segregated (including the old integration “battlefields” the school systems of Topeka, Kan., and Little Rock, Ark. It’s true of Boston, Ma. too). During the black ghetto rioting of the late Sixties, President Johnson set up the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the unrest. It mentioned predictable factors such as poverty and police brutality. More ominously, the Commission warned that, despite the public celebration of King’s “Dream,” the United States was in danger of becoming “two nations, one white, one black.”
The Kerner Commission’s warning resounds even more loudly today. In places like Bosnia and Rwanda, the post-Cold War world has been bloodied by racial and ethnic strife. In America, we still cherish King’s hope that, “One day little black boys and girls can join hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers.” It’s harder the join hands, though, when people do not share the same schools--or neighborhoods. The fate of King’s “Dream”--and of the Kerner Commission’s warning--will be determined by your generation.
I took this photo of Martin Luther King
speaking on the boardwalk during a
demonstration outside the
in Atlantic City, 1964
(Note the drawings in the background of the
three SNCC volunteers martyred during