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Eyes on the Prize | Article

Groups During the American Civil Rights Movement


The Black Panthers
Founded in Oakland in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the Black Panthers gained national attention for their militancy, Maoism, uniforms, and willingness to bear arms near police. Yet critics tended to ignore the fact that the Panthers' carrying of guns was legal under California law, and to overlook their many non-controversial activities, including running medical clinics and free breakfast programs for the poor. The goal of ending police brutality was only one of a ten-point Panther program that emphasized social and economic justice. Like Malcolm X, the Panthers would not renounce the use of force in self-defense, and they inevitably courted violence. Branded "the greatest threat" to America's internal security by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the Panthers found themselves under assault by the FBI and police. Tensions culminated in a December 4, 1969, raid that left Chicago Panthers leader Fred Hampton and a colleague dead. The government eventually settled a civil rights lawsuit stemming from the incident for $1.85 million dollars.

Chicago Housing Activists
Chicago white racists were notorious for bombing black homes on the "wrong side" of the city's racial boundaries. They attacked hundreds of homes to keep African American homeowners in the ghetto. Some 15 years after the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966, public housing remained a serious problem for the city's African American community. In one case, 14,000 people lived in a single block. Although 85% of the inhabitants were black, management was mostly white. Chicago's African American activists aimed to change that. Two of the key leaders were Lutrelle Palmer, reporter, radio host, and founder of Chicago Black United Communities; and Marion Stamps, director of the Chicago Housing Tenants Organization and a resident of the infamous Cabrini-Green development, who ran for alderman in an effort to spotlight housing issues.

Citizen’s Council
In reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that declared segregation illegal in 1954, some Southerners formed local Citizens' Councils. Many white community leaders in the South — doctors, lawyers, bankers and politicians — joined the group, leading their opponents to call them a "white-collar Klan" who used their legal and economic power to suppress blacks in their communities. The editor of the organization's newspaper said, "The strategy of the Citizens' Council during the year following the U.S. Supreme Court decision was to delay, to delay, to delay...", trying to indefinitely postpone racial integration in public facilities including schools. The Council also worked to keep blacks from voting, arguing that poorly educated voters could be easily manipulated by corrupt influences.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 by the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation to address civil rights issues. During World War II, many African Americans served their country honorably in the military, despite still facing racial barriers at home. In 1942, the organization held America's first organized sit-in in Chicago. Initially based in the North, CORE broadened its reach in 1961 by sending racially mixed groups of passengers on Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate buses. Three of its members — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney — were murdered in Mississippi during voter registration efforts in 1964's Freedom Summer. Speaking at Chaney's funeral, CORE's Mississippi head David Dennis said, "He's got his freedom, and we're still fighting for ours."

The FBI and the Civil Rights Movement
The Bureau of Investigations was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in 1935. J. Edgar Hoover directed the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972. The FBI historically kept a close eye on black leaders, like Marcus Garvey, but that reached a new level in 1967 when Hoover instigated COINTELPRO, a counter intelligence program directed, in Hoover's words, "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings." COINTELPRO harassed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, as well as the more militant Black Panthers. The FBI also infiltrated white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Fisk University
Nashville's Fisk University was founded in 1866, after the Civil War, to provide an education for recently freed slaves. Nearly a hundred years later, Fisk hosted workshops on nonviolent demonstration, and students like Diane Nash used what they learned to lead sit-ins early in 1960 aimed at desegregating the lunch counters of the city's department stores. The students faced arrest and violent attacks from segregationists, but kept up their protest until the counters were integrated in May of that year.

Howard University Student Protesters
Long recognized as one of the nation's preeminent black institutions, Howard University had graduated civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall Charles Houston, Gloria Richardson, Andrew Young, Amiri Baraka, and Stokely Carmichael. By the mid-1960s, however, student leaders chafed at mandatory ROTC programs and administrators they felt were merely seeking to produce graduates acceptable to white America. The winning of the "Miss Homecoming" title by Afro-wearing Robin Gregory in 1966 kicked off a new wave of student activism. Demonstrators blocked the head of the Selective Service System from speaking, and when campus administrators cracked down on dissent and ignored student demands, protesters took over the administration building in March 1968, forcing administrators to meet several of their demands and treat them with a newfound respect. The protest at Howard University sped up the spread of the Black Student Union and Black Studies movements nationwide.

The Klu Klux Klan
At the end of the American Civil War, Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan to resist Reconstruction. The group incited riots and assaulted and murdered blacks and Republicans (the party of Lincoln, and of emancipation) to intimidate voters and influence elections.

"The Invisible Empire of the South" waned with the end of Reconstruction but was newly incarnated in the 20th century reaching an estimated peak membership of millions in the 1920s. The Klan's activities increased again in the 1950s and 1960s in opposition to the civil rights movement. In line with their founding ambitions, the Ku Klux Klan attacked and killed both blacks and whites who were seeking to enfranchise the African American population. A related movement, white Citizens' Councils, known as the "uptown Klan," espoused similarly racist views but claimed they did not sanction violence.

The Little Rock Nine
The Little Rock Nine were a group of courageous black students who integrated the Arkansas capital city's Central High School in September 1957. They were: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. Initially thwarted by violent white mobs and National Guard troops who refused to help, the students eventually entered school after President Dwight Eisenhower ordered paratroopers to protect them. Brown was expelled in February 1958 after verbally responding to a racial slur, but the other eight stayed, and on May 29, Green became the first of the group — and the first African American — to graduate from Central High.

The Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad (1897 — 1975)
A traveling silk salesman named W. D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam (NOI) in Detroit in 1930. A variant of traditional Islam, the NOI taught that God was black and whites were a race of devils whose dominion over the earth would soon end. Fard disappeared in 1934 and leadership passed to Georgia native Elijah Muhammad. The NOI began a period of explosive growth in the 1950s, attracting thousands with a doctrine of black pride, separation, and self-sufficiency. With Malcolm X as its chief spokesman, the NOI created its own school, restaurants, and a newspaper. But soon tensions between the two men surfaced. Boxer Muhammad Ali joined the NOI in 1964, while Malcolm X left to form his own organization. He was assassinated in 1965 by members of the NOI, an event for which Elijah Muhammad would always deny any responsibility.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 in response not only to widespread lynchings of blacks in the South but also a dramatic 1908 lynching in the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois in the North. During the 1920s the NAACP developed as a mass organization, becoming the largest American civil rights group with numerous grassroots branches.

Over the years, the NAACP focused on desegregating schools and universities through the court system, winning the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 and helping James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962. Its members (including Rosa Parks) also challenged segregation in public accommodations, lobbied for civil rights legislation in Congress, and promoted voter registration throughout the South. For their activities, several NAACP members paid the ultimate price, including the organization's Mississippi field representative, Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963.

Local NAACP leaders included pioneering figures ranging from Daisy Bates in Little Rock, Arkansas and Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina to Fred Hampton in Chicago, Illinois, Father James Groppi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Ruth Batson in Boston, Massachusetts. The Youth Councils of the NAACP played a major role in the student wing of the freedom movement.

National Welfare Rights Organization
The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was the brainchild of Syracuse University professor George Wiley, a Congress of Racial Equality member who left academia in 1964. In 1965 he formed the Poverty/Rights Action Center, which would evolve into the NWRO two years later. The NWRO advocated for improvements in the lives of welfare recipients, including dignified treatment and payments sufficient to maintain a decent quality of life. Johnnie Tillmon served as chair; she was a community and labor organizer before suffering disabilities from a life of hard labor. Alongside Beulah Sanders and thousands of other organizers, Wiley and Tillmon spread their gospel of welfare rights across the country. The NWRO grew to 30,000 members and could count more than 100,000 in their local campaigns and more than 300 local affiliates. The NWRO joined with the SCLC in 1968's Poor People's Campaign and nearly reached agreement on welfare reform with the Nixon administration, only to see the deal collapse over the issue of guaranteed incomes for recipients. The NWRO disbanded in the mid-1970s, but local affiliates continued its work.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of African American ministers, formed in January 1957, shortly after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. With Martin Luther King, Jr. as its president, the SCLC promoted nonviolent protest and spearheaded civil rights campaigns in Southern towns like Birmingham and Selma. In 1966 the SCLC turned its focus to Northern ghettos with the Chicago Freedom Movement, and after King's 1968 assassination it conducted a Poor People's Campaign of civil disobedience, the centerpiece of which was a tent encampment called Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. Upon King's death, Reverend Ralph Abernathy took over leadership of the SCLC.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Students involved in nonviolent civil rights sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. SNCC focused more on grassroots organizing than another civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Among its activities SNCC formed a musical group, the Freedom Singers, that helped inspire and raise funds for the movement (one of its members, Bernice Johnson Reagon, would later found the group Sweet Honey in the Rock).

In addition to participating in protests, SNCC members registered black voters in the rural South, including the 1964 "Freedom Summer" campaign in Mississippi. That year SNCC formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the state's all-white delegation at the party's Atlantic City convention. SNCC member and MFDP founder Unita Blackwell was arrested some 70 times during the voter registration effort. Later in life, she would become mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, and address the 1984 Democratic Convention.

SNCC also helped organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama. That group later inspired the Black Panther Party. And SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, Willie Ricks, Ruby Doris Robinson, Cleveland Sellers and H. Rap Brown launched the "Black Power" slogan, paving the way for a new phase of the freedom movement.

Poor People's Campaign/Resurrection City (1968)
The last great initiative of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sothern Christian Leadership Conference, the Poor People's Campaign attempted to broaden the civil rights movement to include economic justice for disadvantaged people of all races. Conceived in November 1967, it began after King's assassination in April 1968. The centerpiece of the campaign was mass civil disobedience in Washington by an army of protesters including National Welfare Rights Organization members, and in mid-May they set up an encampment on the Mall dubbed "Resurrection City." Staging a series of sit-ins and demonstrations at various government agencies, the nearly 7,000 protesters brought their concerns to the nation's attention, but conflicts in the camp, terrible weather, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy all conspired to sap strength from the campaign, and Resurrection City was shut down a month after it opened.

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