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Civil Rights Movement - 1954 to 1968

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

In 1896, the Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities based on race was legal, and for the next sixty years this was the law of the land. Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation in all manner of buildings and vehicles were passed throughout the southern states. Since its inception, the NAACP had been working on overturning these laws, particularly focusing on abolishing segregation in public schools. In 1951, a Black man named Oliver Brown filed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. His daughter, Linda, was attending a segregated elementary school over a mile from their house, when six blocks away was an all-white school. When Brown tried to enroll his daughter at the closer school, they were denied. The case was combined with several others, with Brown's name listed as the singular plaintiff as they were alphabetically first, and in 1952 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was first presented to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP legal defense fund and who would eventually become the first Black Supreme Court justice, served as the primary attorney for the plaintiffs. It was argued that the "separate but equal" doctrine violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. At first, Chief Justice Fred Vinson was leaning toward keeping segregation in place, but in 1953, he died. President Eisenhower replaced Vinson with Earl Warren, the governor of California. In 1954, Warren convinced the Court to issue a unanimous verdict against segregation in public schools, but it was later decided that lower courts would handle cases on how to desegregate. This set an important legal precedent used in subsequent cases to overturn segregation in other public spaces.

In 1955, 14 year-old Emmett Till was visiting family in Money, Mississippi. Emmett was from Chicago's south side, and his mother warned him to be careful down in the deep South. On August 24th, Emmett was fooling around with his cousins and friends outside a store. Emmett was bragging that his girlfriend back in Chicago was white. His friends did not believe him, and dared him to walk into the store and ask the white woman working the counter for a date. Emmett went inside, bought candy, and said, "Bye, Baby" to the woman, Carolyn Bryant. A few days later, Bryant's husband, Roy, returned home from a business trip and she told him that Emmett had whistled at and grabbed her. On August 28th, Roy Bryant got his half-brother, J.W., and they drove to the house of Mose Wright, Emmett's great-uncle. Above his uncle's cries, the men forced Emmett into their car and drove around for a few hours, stopping at least once to beat him. They eventually drove to the Tallahatchie River. Emmett was forced to carry a 75 lb. cotton gin fan to the river's edge. The two adult men forced Emmett to strip, then they beat him again, ripped out his eye, and finally shot him in the head. They tied his body to the fan with barbed wire and threw him in the river. Three days later, his body was found. It was so badly mutilated that his uncle Wright could only identify him by an engraved ring. Emmett's mother asked that his body be returned to Chicago, where she held an open-casket funeral so everyone could see what happened to her son. Jet magazine published photos of Emmett's funeral. Two weeks later, Bryant and his brother stood trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Mose Wright was one of the only witnesses, and he identified the two men as his nephew's murderers. On September 23rd, the all-white, all-male jury took less than an hour to issue a "not guilty" verdict, claiming the state had failed to conclusively identify the victim's body. Because of double-jeopardy laws, the men could never be retried and would never be held accountable for killing a child. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony, admitting that Emmett had never harassed or even touched her. "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," she said. In 2020, Carolyn Bryant was still alive. Emmett Till would have been 79.

Also in 1955, 15 year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat in the front "whites only" area of a bus. Preparations were made for a protest, but it was discovered Colvin was pregnant and she was deemed an "inappropriate" avatar for the cause. Nine months later, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested on a Montgomery bus for refusing to give up her seat in the "colored" section after the white section had filled up. On December 5, 1955, the day Parks was to stand trial, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. 40,000 Black citizens (75% of the city's riders) did not ride the bus the next day. 26 year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which along with the NAACP was tasked with creating a list of demands to end the boycott. To help sustain the boycott, Black citizens organized carpools and Black cab drivers charged only 10 cents, the same as bus fare, for Black passengers. On December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision to end bus segregation as it violated the 14th amendment, and on December 21st the buses were integrated and the 381-day boycott ended. This integration was met with violent resistance, however. Snipers would fire into buses, one shattered the legs of a pregnant Black passenger. In January 1957, four Black churches and the homes of several Black leaders were bombed. A bomb at King's house was discovered and defused. Later that month, Montgomery police arrested seven bombers, all member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Desegregation continued to unevenly progress in schools. In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for Black volunteers to attend the formerly segregated school. Nine Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, arrived in September to start their classes but they were blocked from entering by a screaming mob and the Arkansas Nation Guard (sent by the Governor, Orval Faubas). They tried again to enter the school several weeks later but were removed when violence occurred. President Eisenhower had to send Federal troops to escort the students to and from classes.

Congress did not pass official civil rights legislation for decades after the Reconstruction period ended. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established a civil rights arm of the Justice Department and the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate discrimination complaints. Toothless and poorly enforced, this law was followed by the appointment of Congressional "referees" to help Black people register to vote, but again this bill was weak and not enforced throughout the South.

In 1960, William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans was one of many schools that instituted a policy stating Black children had to pass a test for admission into their all-white school. Six year-old Ruby Bridges was one of six children to pass the test, but the only one who ended up attending the school. Her first day of school she was met with a crowd of protestors. When she entered the school, white parents unenrolled their children, and all but one teacher, Barbara Henry, refused to teach. The first day, Ruby and her mother did not leave the principal's office. The second day, a white Methodist minister broke the boycott and escorted his five year-old daughter into the school. A few days later, other parents followed suit, and slowly the protests declines. But Ruby was still escorted to school every day by federal Marshals, and she remained the only student in her class. Ms. Henry instructed Ruby alone but "as if she were teaching a whole class" for her first year. The Marshals would only allow Ruby to eat food she brought from home, because every morning as she walked to school one woman threated to poison her, another held up a Black doll in a coffin. A former U.S. Deputy Marshal who guarded Ruby later recalled, "She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we're all very very proud of her."

On February 1st, 1960, four Black college students, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond, sat at a lunch counter inside a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The asked for a cup of coffee, and were refused by a white waitress telling them "We don't serve Negroes here." They remained in their seats until the store closed, and returned the next day with 20 students and stayed from 11 am to 3 pm. They were heckled by customers and filmed by a television crew. They drafted a letter to the president of Woolworth's asking him to end discrimination in his stores. The following day, they returned with 60 students, a third of whom were female, and including students from a nearby high school. White customers continued to heckle the students, and members of the Ku Klux Klan were in attendance, including the official chaplain of the Klan in North Carolina. Word was received from the Woolworth's national headquarters that they would "abide by local custom" and maintain segregation at their lunch counters. On February 4th, more than 300 people took part in the sit-ins. On February 5th, 300 people were inside the store by noon, and were met by 50 white men who were already at the sitting in a counter protest. Three arrests of white patrons were made that day. On Saturday, February 6th, 1400 students met at North Carolina A&T and over 1000 people were packed into the Woolworth's store by noon. A bomb threat chased everyone out, and the two stores in the area closed their doors. The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, from North Carolina, to Virgina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Sit-ins spread from department stores to transport facilities, swimming pools, libraries, parks, beaches, and museums. They were largely peaceful but occasionally fights broke out between demonstrators and counter-protestors. Boycotts of the stores caused massive losses in sales, leading many stores to abandon their segregation policies. On Monday, July 25, 1960, after $200,000 in losses, the store manager of the Woolworth's in Greensboro asked four Black employees to change out of their uniforms and order food from the lunch counter.

250,000 people took part in the March on Washington in 1963. Their goals, simply stated, were jobs and freedom. It is here where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his enduring "I Have a Dream" speech. The speech in its entirety is amaranthine, here is an excerpt:

We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice... It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights... There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy proposed a comprehensive civil rights legislation. He was assassinated later that year, and Lyndon Johnson took up the cause. The bill was held up in Congress for months. In an attempt to stop the bill, Southern Democratic senators engaged in a 75 day filibuster, the longest in U.S. history. Senator Byrd of West Virginia, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, spoke for 14 hours straight. Eventually, the two-thirds vote was secured to break the filibuster and vote on the bill. It was passed 73-27, and on July 2 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. This was the issue that pushed the South to the Republican party, as Johnson, a Democrat, had disappointed them. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished segregation in all places meant for the general public, including restaurants, parks, courthouses, and hotels. It also banned discrimination by employers, and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to handle complaints. No federal funds were to be used for programs determined to be discriminatory, the Office of Education was empowered to help with school desegregation on a federal level, the Commission on Civil Rights (created with the 1957 act) was given some teeth, and all voters were to be regulated equally. Of note, the Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Tennessee remained segregated until 1965, despite the earlier protests and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

On March 7, 1965, 25 year-old John Lewis led 600 marchers across a bridge in Selma, Alabama to protest continued Jim Crow persecution, even after the Civil Rights Act. In Dallas County, Alabama, half the population was Black, but only 2% were registered voters. Protests against voting discrimination were ongoing, and earlier in 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. came to Selma and was arrested for protesting. He wrote to the New York Times, "This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls." In February 1965, state police in nearby Marion, Alabama clubbed protestors and fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26 year-old Black man who was trying to shield his mother from being beaten by the police. The march in Selma was a response to that murder, along with the injustice of the place, and the intent was to march 54 miles from Selma to the governor's mansion. The 600 demonstrators marched through downtown Selma, then crossed the bridge over the Alabama River. The bridge was named after Edmund Pettus, a former Confederate general and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of the bridge, armed state troopers were waiting for them. Dozens of spectators were also present, some waving Confederate flags. The marchers stopped 50 feet from the police. The mayor, John Cloud, yelled through a bullhorn, "It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. This is an unlawful assembly. You have to disperse." Hosea Williams, a Black leader of the SCLC, replied, "Mr. Mayor, I would like to have a word, can we have a word?" "I've got nothing further to say to you," was the mayor's reply. Willams, Lewis, and the marchers stood their ground, and the troopers advanced. Television cameras captured the scene: troopers beating protestors (including women and children) with clubs, whips, and rubber tubes wrapped with barbed wire. Tear gas was used. Martin Luther King had scolded photographers from Life magazine weeks earlier for not photographing similar scenes, "The world doesn't know this happened because you didn't photograph it." This time, the film was flown from Alabama to New York and broadcast nationally to almost 50 million Americans who had tuned in to watch a film about Nazi war crimes. America was shocked by the events of "Bloody Sunday." Sympathetic sit-ins, traffic blocks, and demonstrations happened across the country. King attempted to lead another march two days later but turned back when faced with a similar blockade. A federal court finally issued an order protecting demonstrators, and on March 21st, accompanied by the National Guard, 25,000 people marched from Selma to the governor's mansion.

Other important civil rights legislation included the Voting Rights Act 1965, which prohibited literacy tests and other discriminatory practices. The Fair Housing Act 1968 banned discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of property. But the work was far from over.

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