The Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) aimed to bring about racial equality for everyone in America, black and white. But doing so was easier said than done, as southern states resisted the necessary changes. The majority of political leaders in the South, together with a vocal and powerful minority in the North, wanted to perpetuate segregation. The consequences of both sides’ actions are clear, but the question that nevertheless arises is, how did the rift between races in the country play into legal and social changes during the Civil Rights Movement, as some people marched and protested for change, while others resisted with not only fear mongering terrorist tactics, but also public protests and written propaganda?
During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were free, but despite the legal documents that proclaimed this freedom, they still suffered against those who did not want to face the social changes being made. “Following the Civil War (1861-1865), a trio of constitutional amendments abolished slavery, made the former slaves citizens and gave all men the right to vote regardless of race. Nonetheless, many states–particularly in the South–used poll taxes, literacy tests and other similar measures to keep their African-American residents essentially disenfranchised,” (Civil Rights Act). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It stated that “all persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin,”(Civil Rights Act). One of its effects in the south was that the “passage of the bill caused a decline in black migration north and…also gave new impetus to the modern women's movement” (Civil Rights Act of 1964). Later, in order to expand the act, Congress brought forth the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson also signed this into law, as it supported the 14th and 15th amendments that allowed African Americans to vote. It also outlawed the literary tests that were used as tactics to keep African Americans from voting.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas was a supreme court landmark case that also brought social issues to light in the south. On May 17,1954, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling that “State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional,” (Brown v. Board of Education:Background). In February through March of 1956, The Southern Manifesto was written. It stated that the Supreme Court’s decision was an “unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution,” and that it was “creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected,” as well as “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that [had] been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races,” (The Southern Manifesto). It was signed by members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives from southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Luisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Zelma Henderson, who was a member of the NAACP in 1950 said that she, “had never witnessed segregated schools because all in western Kansas were integrated,” and that she was surprised “because in small cities, they integrated them and [they] got along fine together” (The Southern Manifesto).
In Little Rock Arkansas, there was a continuation of the desire for segregation, even in the midst of the change in the legal system. On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford was one of nine African American children chosen to attend a white school in order to bring about integration. She went to Central High alone that morning and was met with a mob of angry whites who did not want African Americans going to “their school." Eckford faced terror in the face as she was attacked from all sides. She recounted, “I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in. He too didn't move. When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards closed in and they raised their bayonets. They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn't know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me…Somebody started yelling, 'Lynch her! Lynch her!' I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me,” when she was asked by interviewers what she had gone though (Elizabeth Eckford, “She Walked Alone"). Though she put on a brave face and did not let the mob see her cry, the trauma of this experience caused her to have nightmares.
Fear mongering was a tactic that white supremacists did their best to encourage into the hearts of those who dared clamor for racial equality. At first, they enforced strict segregation through “Jim Crow” laws and, when those were gone, they formed groups like the Ku Klux Klan. On August 24, 1955, a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was visiting his cousin in Mississippi, when he and a group of friends entered Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market “to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun” (Emmett Till). It is unclear what exactly happened there, but while he was in the store, Till flirted with a white cashier named Carolyn Bryant. A few days later, Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law came to Moses Wright’s (Till’s uncle) house at two in the morning. They kidnapped Till and went on to kill him brutally to the point of mangling his face beyond recognition. He was identified by a ring that his mother had given him before sending him to Mississippi. His accused killers, Bryant and his brother, were put on trial, but later acquitted by an all-white jury. There was also The Citizens' Council newspaper of Jackson, Mississippi, which lasted between October 1955 and September 1961. It was intended to spread a “pro-segregationist message throughout the southern states with the hope that white people would be outraged that their children had to share classrooms with African-Americans and would organize to resist racial desegregation and restore white supremacist rule,” (The Citizens’ Council). The propaganda strategy included television and radio broadcasts as the newspaper’s editor, William J. Simmons (and company) asserted that they were “dedicated to the maintenance of peace, good order and domestic tranquility in [their]Community and in [their] State and to the preservation of [their] States’ Rights” (The Citizens’ Council).
Civil Rights leaders tackled the problem of racial inequality from many different angles. Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the media to his advantage when he and his companions peacefully protested against racial inequality by going on marches. On April 16, 1963, King wrote what is now known as the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in which, he expressed his disappointment with the white church leaders who not only condoned but also promoted segregation and racial inequality stating, “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the the white moderate,” and that he has begun to believe that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the white citizens or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice” ("Letter from a Birmingham Jail"). All eyes were on the U.S. when the letter was made national. It made the U.S. look hypocritical for being proud of the freedoms that are afforded to her citizens that other countries did not have. Malcolm X took another approach in fighting for justice. After converting to Islam, he advocated for violence as a means to achieve this justice. He too used the media to speak out. In an interview with Louis Lomax, he declared that the white man is the devil who will never want to integrate as is evident in the fact that, “it took the United States Army to get one Negro into the University of Mississippi; it took troops to get a few Negroes in the white schools at Little Rock and another dozen places in the South. It has been nine years since the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, yet less than ten per cent of the Negro students in the South are in integrated schools” (Louis Lomax Interview with Malcolm X).
Such racial inequality has gotten significantly better over the years. However, it can still be seen in instances such as the Trayvon Martin case — as it strongly resembles the Emmett Till case — and the unnecessary police brutality displayed against African American males, such as the one that took place on March 18, 2015 against Martese Johnson, a 20-year-old African American honors student at the University of Virginia. He did not resist arrest, but was still beaten to the point that he needed to have 10 stitches. This prompted students to begin protesting at the university while chanting “black lives matter” in the same way that young people marched in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Lives Matter chant turned into a movement that calls for justice in the treatment of African American males in regards to the treatment that they receive from law enforcement.
The Southern Manifesto, 1956
King Jr, Martin Luther,Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963
Louis Lomax Interviews Malcolm X,November 1963
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