The civil rights years are commonly determined to be the decade from the early 1950s through the end of the 1960s. The marches and demonstrations that marked the civil rights years were primarily to protest segregation and racial inequality, as exemplified by the socalled ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws that still existed throughout the South and the racial discord and hostility in evidence in large portions of the North. Segregation has been aptly defined as ‘‘the way which a society tells a group of human beings that they are inferior to other groups.’’
In December 1955, as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the successful Montgomery bus boycott protesting the fact that black riders were forced to sit or stand in the back of the bus and use the back door for entry while white patrons sat in the front and used the front door (the front seats remained empty when no white riders were present). The protest was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks due to her refusal to move to the back of the bus and relinquish her seat to a white patron. As stated by Dr. King in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, more than fifty thousand African Americans chose ‘‘to substitute tired feet for tired souls and walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice.’’ After a 381-day protest, black riders won equal access to public transportation services in Montgomery, Alabama.
After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) made varied attempts to engage and educate college students about passive resistance and nonviolent protest.
In the summer of 1961, CORE and FOR staged the so-called ‘‘freedom rides,’’ which involved an interracial group riding public interstate buses to protest segregated transport and their related facilities. The trip was planned from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. On the Atlanta to Birmingham leg of the trip, the group was mobbed and beaten and one of the two buses was fire-bombed. Even with eventual intervention by President Kennedy, an agreement by Alabama Governor John Patterson to protect them, and the freedom riders being accompanied by a presidential representative, a subsequent group of freedom riders were relentlessly beaten by a mob of white segregationists when their bus reached Montgomery, Alabama, a week after the demonstration began. The presidential representative and Justice Department official, John Seigenthaler, was not spared; during the melee while trying to pull two female freedom fighters to safety, he was beaten unconscious and left lying in the street for half an hour. Throughout the summer of 1961, more than three hundred freedom riders rode the interstate buses throughout the South protesting segregation and attempting to integrate interstate transportation as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1947 decision.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led sit-in demonstrations to desegregate lunch counters and eating facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. May of 1963 marks a poignant and chilling period in which black men, women, and children alike were attacked and bitten by police dogs controlled by police officers and lashed by water sprayed from fire hoses held by fire fighters in the streets of Birmingham. Via television and newspaper reports, America got a glimpse of the Deep South, its public officials, and those sworn to serve and protect. During this same time period, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested during a demonstration in Birmingham; in April 1963, while imprisoned, he wrote his famous ‘‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’’ The letter has been praised as ‘‘one of the most important documents of nonviolent protest in the civil rights movement.’’
Assisting in sit-ins throughout the South were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been founded in 1960 by college students to organize lunch counter sit-ins and other antisegregation demonstrations. The protesters were harassed, bullied, beaten, and often arrested as a result of their silent and nonviolent protests. To publicize Southern sit-ins and to support the plight of their southern counterparts, college students in northern cities staged sympathy sit-ins and picketed local establishments. In May 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Birmingham segregation ordinances (including lunch counters) were unconstitutional.
Decrying inequality between the races, on August 28, 1963, the now famous ‘‘march on Washington’’ was held. At that time, black unemployment was 11 percent while white unemployment stood at 5 percent. Similarly, on average, white families earned $6,500 per year while an average black family earned $3,500 per year. During the march on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. made his historic ‘‘I have a dream’’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This integrated protest march drew over two hundred fifty thousand protestors to the Washington Monument—at that time, the largest march and protest of its kind.
To oppose racial inequality in voting rights, in March of 1965, Rev. King and about four thousand members of the SCLC held a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (the ‘‘Selma-to-Montgomery march’’), with the protection of federal troops; before they reached their destination, nearly thirty thousand supporters swelled the ranks of the march. At the capital, Dr. King gave his well-known ‘‘How long? . . . not long’’ speech. During this period, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Dr. King and other civil rights activists were present at the presidential bill signing.
In July 1967, due largely to the efforts of Dr. King and a broad coalition of civil rights groups, the Justice Department reported that more than 50 percent of all eligible African-American residents were registered to vote in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
In April 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to help lead a protest by sanitation workers against low pay rates and substandard working conditions. In late March, he had led six thousand demonstrators through downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. With a prophetic title, Dr. King delivered his final public speech, ‘‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’’ in Memphis on April 3, 1968. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray while King was standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.
CYNTHIA G. HAWKINS-LEO´ N
References and Further Reading
See also Demonstrations and Sit-Ins; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Segregation