THE 1940S: FIRST STEPS AGAINST RACIST DISCRIMINATION
What the Afro-American sociologist and historian William Eduard B. Du Bois had said long ago, unnoticed, now loomed large after the end of WW2 in 1945: „The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.“
In 1946, US-President Truman appointed a committee on Civil Rights which recommended that Congress pass laws against lynching and to stop voting discrimination, and suggested new laws to end racial discrimination in jobs. Truman issued an executive order directing that the armed forces, segregated in World War II, institute policies of racial equality. The order may have been prompted by the need to maintain black morale in the armed forces, as the possibility of war grew. It took over a decade to complete the desegregation in the military.
In a series of suits against racial segregation in the schools, the US Supreme Court finally, in 1954, struck down the „separate but equal“ doctrine that it had defended since the 1890s. In Brown vs. Board of Education the Court ruled out the separation of schoolchildren, as it „generates a feeling of inferiority … that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.“ In the field of public education, it said, „the doctrine of ’separate but equal‘ has no place.“ By 1965, more than 75 percent of the school districts in the South remained segregated.
Still, it was a dramatic decision – and the message went around the world in 1954 that the American government had outlawed segregation. In the United States too, it was an exhilarating sign of change.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, ROSA PARKS & CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
What to others seemed rapid progress to many blacks was apparently not enough. At the end of 1955, in the capital city of Alabama – Montgomery – Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty-three-year-old seamstress who had been active in the NAACP, decided to sit down in the „white“ section of a bus and was arrested. Montgomery blacks called a mass meeting. They voted to boycott all city buses. Car pools were organized to take people to work; most people walked. The city retaliated by sending many leaders of the boycott – among them Rosa Parks – to jail. White segregationists turned to violence. Bombs exploded in four Negro churches and one at the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). The 27-year-old Atlanta-born minister was one of the most prominent leaders of the bus-boycott. But the black people of Montgomery persisted, and in November 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on local bus lines.
On February 1, 1960, four students at a Negro college in Greensboro, North Carolina, decided to sit down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown, where only whites ate. They were refused service, but would not leave, and returned, joined by others, day after day. In the next two weeks, sit-ins spread to fifteen cities in five southern states. In the next twelve months, more than fifty thousand people, mostly black, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in a hundred cities, and hundreds of people were put in jail. But by the end of 1960, lunch counters were open to blacks in Greensboro and many other places.
THE FREEDOM RIDERS & THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC)
In the spring of 1961, a group of whites and blacks boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., traveling together, headed for New Orleans. These were the first of the Freedom Riders, trying to break the pattern of segregation in interstate travel. Such segregation had long been illegal, but the federal government never enforced the law in the South. The president now was John F. Kennedy, but he too seemed cautious about the race question, concerned about the support of southern white leaders of the Democratic party. The buses never got to New Orleans. In South Carolina, riders were beaten. In Alabama, a bus was set afire. Freedom Riders were attacked with iron bars. The southern police did not interfere with any of this violence, nor did the federal government. FBI agents watched, took notes, did nothing.
Despite the racist violence, veterans of the sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), dedicated to nonviolent but militant action for equal rights. They organized further Freedom Rides. All over the Deep South – where the atmosphere of slavery still lingered – the young people of SNCC, mostly black, a few white, were moving into communities in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. Joined by local black people, they were organizing to register people to vote and to protest against racism. When black civil rights leaders planned a huge march on Washington in the summer of 1963 to protest the failure of the nation to solve the race problem, it was quickly embraced by President Kennedy and other national leaders, and turned into a friendly assemblage. Martin Luther King’s speech there thrilled 200,000 black and white Americans – „I have a dream.“
As the “Mississippi summer” of 1964 approached, SNCC and other civil rights groups working together in Mississippi, and facing increasing violence, decided to call upon young people from other parts of the country for help. They hoped that would bring attention to the situation in Mississippi. In that summer of 1964 racist violence resulted in three civil rights workers, James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, and two white volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner being beaten with chains, and shot to death.
CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS
Congress and government began reacting to the black revolt and the world publicity. Civil rights laws were passed. They promised voting equality as well as employment equality. In 1965, President Johnson sponsored and Congress passed an even stronger Voting Rights Law, this time ensuring on-the-spot federal protection of the right to register and vote. The effect on Negro voting in the South was dramatic. In 1962, a million southern blacks (20% of those eligible) registered to vote. In 1964 the number was 2 million – 40%. By 1968, it was 3 million, 60% – the same percentage as white voters.
But the blacks could not be easily brought into „the democratic coalition“ when bombs kept exploding in churches, when new civil rights laws did not change the root condition of black people. In the spring of 1963, the rate of unemployment for whites was 4.8 percent. For nonwhites it was 12.1 percent. According to government estimates, one-fifth of the white population was below the poverty line, and one-half of the black population was below that line.
MALCOLM X & “BLACK POWER”
The nonviolence of the southern movement was effective because it appealed to national opinion against the segregationist South. But, according to the black militant Malcolm X, it was not enough to deal with the entrenched problems of poverty in the black ghettos in the North. In 1910, 90% of Negroes lived in the South. By 1965, mechanical cotton pickers harvested 81% of Mississippi Delta cotton. Between 1940 and 1970, 4 million blacks left the country for the city. By 1965, 80% of blacks lived in cities and 50% of the black people lived in the North. „Black Power“ was the new slogan – an expression of distrust of any progress given or conceded by whites. After Malcolm X was assassinated as he spoke on a public platform in February 1965, he became the martyr of this movement. Hundreds of thousands read his autobiography. He was more influential in death than during his lifetime. In the months and years after the assassination, in the black ghettos of the country, came the greatest urban riots of American history. In August 1965, the black ghetto in Watts, Los Angeles, erupted in the most violent urban outbreak since World War II. It was provoked by the forcible arrest of a young Negro driver and the clubbing of a bystander by police. According to the report of the National Advisory Committee on Urban Disorders there were eight major uprisings, thirty-three „serious but not major“ outbreaks, and 123 „minor“ disorders in 1967 alone. Eighty-three people, mostly black civilians, died of gunfire. „The „typical rioter,“ according to the commission, was a young, high school dropout but „nevertheless, somewhat better educated than his non-rioting Negro neighbor“ and „usually underemployed or employed in an unskilled job.“ He was „proud of his race, extremely hostile to both whites and middle-class Negroes and, although informed about politics, highly distrustful of the political system.“ The report blamed „white racism“ for the disorders, and identified the ingredients of the “explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II”:
The killing of Martin Luther King in April 1968 brought new urban outbreaks all over the country, in which thirty-nine people were killed, thirty-five of them black. Evidence was piling up that even with all of the civil rights laws now on the books, the courts would not protect blacks against violence and injustice:
• In the 1967 riots in Detroit, three black teen-agers were killed. Three Detroit policemen were tried for this triple murder. The defense conceded that the policemen had shot two of the blacks. A jury exonerated them.
• In Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 1970, on the campus of Jackson State College, a Negro college, police laid down a 28-second barrage of gunfire, using shotguns, rifles, and a submachine gun. Four hundred bullets struck the girls‘ dormitory and two black students were killed. A local grand jury found the attack „justified“ and U.S. District Court Judge Harold Cox (a Kennedy appointee) declared that students who engage in civil disorders „must expect to he injured or killed.“
THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
Founded in Oakland, California in October 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a Ten-Point Program that called for „land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Further demands among others, were full employment for black people and an “education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society” as well as exemption from conscription for African-American men. The Black Panther Party’s most widely known programs were its armed citizens‘ patrols to evaluate behavior of police officers and its Free Breakfast for Children program. However, the group’s political goals were often overshadowed by their confrontational tactics against police.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party and its estimated 10,000 members “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and he supervised a massive Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance and infiltration and many other tactics designed to undermine Panther leadership and to incriminate party members.