Civil Rights


Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed for his fundamental belief that African-Americans should have the right to vote and should be treated fair and equal.  It took over one hundred years for laws to be passed, to fulfill Lincoln’s dream, and the dream of many blacks in society.  It was under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat from Texas, who signed into law on August 6 1965 the Voting Rights Act.  But, it is important to know the crucial events that led this great nation to what it is today.

The end of World War II brought about an economic boom in The United States, and most people were benefiting from it.  But, African-Americans felt left out.  After all, 700,000 blacks fought in World War II, under a segregated Army.  The contradiction for blacks to fight abroad and not get help in America was starting to come to light. This post-war period in the country, was to be known as “The Era of Consensus”, and the mission of the civil rights movement was for blacks to put pressure on Government officials to act on their behalf.  President Harry S. Truman was the first President to bring the civil rights agenda to the Presidency. A civil rights division was added to the Federal Government that looked into non discriminatory hiring practices.  The armed Services were integrated, under Truman.  This was during the Korean War, and The Supreme Court handed down decisions favoring civil rights.  One of those cases was Morgan vs. State of Virginia, in 1946.  The ruling stated that it was unconstitutional to segregate races on interstate transportation.  Another case was Shelley vs. Cramer that made it unconstitutional to use covert methods to keep races segregated.  This ruling made handshake agreements with whites illegal. For the first time, the Supreme Court was hearing cases through the N.A.A.C.P. legal team addressing the need to integrate public schools.  In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to Chief Justice of The Supreme Court.  Earl Warren was a former Republican Governor of California, and Dwight thought that Warren would be a “safe” choice for the court. However, one night while attending a White House dinner Earl Warren and Congressman John Davis sat together and Warren came out in favor of civil rights.  This was startling to John Davis, because Davis was in favor of pro-segregation.  On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court made a 9-0 ruling that said segregation in public education was unconstitutional.  This decision was called Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Ks. The lead attorney that litigated this case, for the N.A.A.C.P., was Thurgood Marshall. This decision was followed in 1955 with a Brown II decision that stated that communities needed to actively integrate schools.  In the fall of 1957 only 684 out of the 3,000 southern schools had begun with integration. The local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. in Little Rock, Arkansas decided to enroll an honors black student into the all white Central High School.  Whites were outraged, and angry mobs formed.  The Governor, Orville Forbus, a Democrat was opposed to integration.  And, with all the angry mobs that had formed, it forced President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard so students could go to classes, daily.  These escorts took place for the remainder of the school year.  However, the following year Governor Forbus shut down the entire school system.  The Supreme Court outlawed these divisive tactics.  Some would argue that this was the beginning of the modern day civil rights movement, as we know it.  There needed to be a face and a voice attached to the civil rights movement, but it couldn’t just be anyone.  This person had to be both educated and a highly respected leader in the black community.  This person was Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. King was the leader of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  This body was comprised of talented, respected and educated black ministers in the south. Their approach was through a direct-non violence campaign.  These leaders felt that using tactics like boycotting would produce positive results.  On December 1, 1955 there was a major bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama lasting 381 days, which led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1956 ending segregation on local transit.  The movement achieved great success, but it also lost the drive.  The leaders were looking for rejuvenation, and on February 1, 1960 black college students staged a sit-in at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s Department Store in North Carolina.  One hundred twenty-seven southern cities became involved in staging sit-ins.  The sit-ins were receiving so much attention that certain people felt it had to be better organized.  Ella Baker was successful in organizing a sit-in movement that took place over Easter Weekend that was titled “The Resurrection of Christ “.One popular student sit-in group was known as the S.N.C.C. which stood for The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee.  1960 was a very important year, because of the Presidential election.  This was the first year of the televised Presidential debates.  In Sept of 1960 over 70 million people tuned into the Kennedy/ Nixon debates. John F. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, told Coretta Scott-King that JFK would support civil rights.  In fact, it was Robert Kennedy who placed bail for Martin Luther King just before the election.  Quickly word spread through the S.C.L.C. ministers that JFK would be an advocate for civil rights.  J.F.K. won the election by 112,000 popular votes and only one percent of the electoral votes.  J.F.K. did not come out publicly for civil rights, because there were two parts of the Democratic Party.  The northern part of the party was viewed as, as liberal.  In contrast, the southern part was anti-civil rights.  So, the blacks had to force J.F.K. into civil rights.  The blacks launched a freedom Ride campaign in the spring of 1961.  Blacks would board buses that went into the south to expose the segregation that existed.  Riders were beaten in Alabama, Mississippi and windows were smashed.  These scenes were shown on the news, and in 1960 over ninety percent of Americans had television sets.  This forced Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, to protect riders.  In 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission was given heightened authority to move in and integrate facilities.  In 1962, J.F.K. activated the Nation Guard to go to The University of Mississippi, because of rioting that was due to a black student enrollment, James Meredith. One of the events that received attention from the President happened in 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Blacks held protests, and the police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, decided to handle them with an iron fist.  He allowed attack dogs, and use of fire hoses on them.  He went as bold as to drive a tank into the middle of the demonstrators. This forced J.F.K. to come out, on June 11, 1963, in favor of civil rights.  He helped in aiding legislation to end all discrimination that was referred to as “The Second Emancipation Proclamation” However brutal the movement was, and it was painful. The one event that was viewed as the milestone was Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  This speech is known as the “I have a dream” speech. This event that is formerly known as “The March on Washington” was an attempt to put heavy political pressure on Congress to act.  This effort stalled with the horrific assassination of J.F.K. on November 22, 1963.  Seven months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act.  This law was the ending of legal discrimination, and the separate but equal era.  But, some blacks did not support the direct non violent campaign.  Malcolm X. was one of them.  Malcolm was a member of The Nation of Islam, a militant black organization, who felt that blacks should respond to violence, with violence. Although Malcolm X was a staunch opponent of Dr. King and his movement, things started to change when Malcolm went to Mecca.  He began to pray and worship which led him to believe that blacks and whites could get along.  Malcolm X. was killed by two Nation of Islam leaders in New York in 1965. One of the most famous pro black militant groups was The Black Panthers.  They formed in Oakland, California to police their local community that went ignored by local police. The Oakland Police Department was predominantly white, and would not attempt to police the black communities.  Out of the 500,000 people living in Oakland, Ca 250,000 of them were minorities and they were not receiving the protection they so needed.  The Black Panthers were highly successful in policing their own community, which led to other smaller chapters forming throughout the country.  But, they later decided to take a stronger stance against The United States Government, going as far as supporting the Vietcong and their activities against U.S. war efforts.  And, they were heavily against power structures, specifically imperialistic powers.  1965 was the year of the “race riots”, in which, 750 buildings were destroyed.  Forty-three people were killed in Detroit and, all in all, there were 127 race riots in this country.  These riots began to fuel the white backlash towards the movement.  Lyndon Johnson, in 1967, formed a commission on the race riots and on March 1968 presented its findings, “Racism”.  White Americans had begun to turn their backs on civil rights and, sadly, on April 4, 1968, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  Before his death he wanted to spread his campaign to northern cities to fight poor economic conditions.  Obviously, he never had the chance.  Increasingly, Americans were turning their back on Lyndon Johnson.  We were engaged in an unpopular war on two fronts.  The war in Vietnam and the culture war in America.  March 31, 1968 during an address to the nation President Johnson said that bombing would halt in Vietnam and that he would not seek re-election for a second term as President.  This event led to Robert F. Kennedy throwing his hat into the ring.  He was the favorite to win.  But, sadly again, he was shot and later died on June 6, 1968.  Violence erupted during the democratic national Convention, in August of 1968 in Chicago.  Mayor Richard Daley instructed the Chicago Police in full riot gear to tend to protesters.  Many were beaten and the streets were in disarray.  Richard Nixon won the election running on the law and order platform, thereby ending the era of consensus and ushering in the era of Conservatives crushing the thirty year reign of Democrats.

 

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