Milestones Of The Civil Rights Movement
The Supreme Court Declares Bus Segregation Unconstitutional (1956)
After African Americans boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama bus system for over a year, the local bus company had agreed to desegregate its buses because it had lost so much revenue. The city and state, however, insisted that bus drivers continue to enforce Jim Crow laws. A Federal District Court then ruled that segregation on the buses was illegal. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision, Browder v. Gayle, in November 1956, handing NAACP lawyers a major victory. The following month, when the Supreme Court indicated that it would not hear an appeal of that decision, all avenues to delay bus integration had been exhausted. The next day, December 21, 1956, thousands of black riders were on the buses again — and sitting in any seats they chose. Yet the troubles did not end. Shots were fired at the buses and Rev. Ralph Abernathy's home and church were bombed. The success of the protests led the boycott leaders to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with another rising community leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as its president.
The 1960 Presidential Election
The presidential election of 1960 was one of the closest in history. During the campaign, Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy mostly avoided civil rights issues, afraid to alienate Southern voters. In October of that year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at a sit-in in Atlanta. Word reached the Kennedy campaign and two aides, Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver, arranged for the candidate to make a sympathetic call to King's wife, Coretta Scott King. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy called the judge in the case.
"It's time for all of us to take off our Nixon button," Martin Luther King, Sr. said after the Kennedy brothers' show of support. Because state Democratic parties held a lock on the political process in the South, baseball great Jackie Robinson and other African Americans had been supporting the Republican candidate. Republicans had attracted African American votes since the days of Abraham Lincoln, emancipation, and the Fifteenth Amendment. Now that tradition of support vanished — Kennedy received 68 percent of the black vote and won the presidency.
The Desegregation of Interstate Travel (1960)
In the months following John F. Kennedy's inauguration, civil rights activists were disappointed that the president did not introduce any new legislation on the issue. However, the Supreme Court had issued a ruling in December 1960 that interstate buses and bus terminals were required to integrate. This legal development inspired members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to ride Greyhound buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. The black and white volunteers, known as Freedom Riders, would find out whether the law would be enforced in the land of Jim Crow. CORE director James Farmer recalled, "What we had to do was to make it more dangerous politically for the federal government not to enforce federal law than it would be for them to enforce federal law... This was not civil disobedience really, because we would be merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do."
The Supreme Court Orders Ole Miss to Integrate (1962)
In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools. The landmark decision ended an era of "separate but equal" treatment of African Americans that in practice had proven anything but equal. Yet Southern states defied the court's decision. In Mississippi, Medgar Evers and other African American applicants were denied admission to the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss. In January 1961, James Howard Meredith, a nine-year Air Force veteran and student at Jackson State College, applied for admission to Ole Miss. When his application was returned, he took his case to court with the help of an NAACP legal team. The issue ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled that Meredith should be allowed to attend the state-funded school. With the support of angry mobs of white Mississippians, Governor Ross Barnett did everything he could to prevent Meredith from enrolling, although his efforts were ultimately futile. Hatred directed toward Meredith as a symbol of integration would lead a white man from Memphis to shoot and wound the activist during his 1966 "march against fear."
The March on Washington (1963)
African American activist A. Philip Randolph had been fighting for equality since he founded a union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. In 1941, he planned a march on Washington to demand jobs for African Americans in the booming wartime economy. That protest was called off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to ban discrimination by defense industries or government.
Two decades later, Randolph decided a march was required to speed the rate of change in the nation. President John F. Kennedy asked that the march be called off, afraid that it would hurt his civil rights bill. Faced with Randolph's determination, however, Kennedy endorsed the protest.
On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million black and white people — more than twice as many as had been expected — marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in a show of unity, racial harmony and support for the civil rights bill. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other folk singers entertained the crowd before John Lewis of SNCC and others made speeches. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of his best known speeches, inspiring the assembled crowd with the words, "I have a dream."
Randolph also spoke: "Fellow Americans, we are gathered here in the largest demonstration in the history of this nation. Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
Support for a federal Civil Rights Act was one of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington. President John F. Kennedy had introduced the bill before his assassination. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed it into law on July 2, 1964. It achieved many of the aims of a Reconstruction-era law, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was passed but soon overturned.
The landmark 1964 act barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in public facilities — such as restaurants, theaters, or hotels. Discrimination in hiring practices was also outlawed, and the act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to help enforce the law. Although the law attempted to legislate fair election practices, not all the ways used to deny blacks a vote could be covered; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be required to address this issue comprehensively.
The 1964 Presidential Election
In the presidential election of 1964, incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson soundly defeated Republican Barry Goldwater. After defeating the more progressive Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination, Goldwater won electoral votes from only his home state of Arizona and the five states of the Deep South. Yet Goldwater's nomination marked a conservative shift within the party.
At the Democratic convention in Atlantic City that summer, the delegation from Mississippi had found itself with challengers of its own. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sent black and white delegates to the convention to replace the delegation of the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party. The MFDP worked the rules to their advantage, embarrassed President Johnson and then rejected his compromise of two "at large" seats. Nominally, the MFDP had failed, but televised proceedings of sharecroppers and field workers like Fannie Lou Hamer taking on the entrenched political forces inspired more people to become politically active.
Lyndon Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech
On March 15, 1965, just days after the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation in Selma, Alabama that shocked the nation, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and the American people in a nationally televised speech. He announced the voting rights legislation he would be introducing. "Their cause must be our cause, too," he said, referring to civil rights activists. "[A]ll of us... must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." In his closing words, the president invoked a rallying cry of the civil rights movement. An SCLC staffer watching the speech with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered seeing a tear of joy run down the minister's cheek. Upon passage, Johnson's legislation would be known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had one major flaw. It did not address all the legal and illegal methods whites had used to systematically deny blacks the right to vote in state and local elections. As legislation to amend this omission wound its way through Congress, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. At its conclusion, activists presented Governor George Wallace with a petition asking him to remove obstacles to voter registration. Americans saw the heroes of the civil rights movement on the national news, and then heard about the Ku Klux Klan's murder of a white homemaker from Michigan named Viola Liuzzo who had volunteered for the cause. Support for the Voting Rights Act increased.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law with Alabama NAACP activist Rosa Parks by his side. Laying out the importance of the bill, Johnson said, "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men."
The Kerner Commission Report (1968)
Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a commission chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois explored the reasons behind the Detroit riots of 1967. The commission presented a report in February 1968. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal," the report said. "What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that...white institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."
Detroit had seemed immune to the race riots that overwhelmed dozens of American cities — after all, the local economy was excellent and black culture and commerce were thriving in the music of Motown. However, urban renewal projects appeared designed to sweep away black neighborhoods, complaints about Detroit police abuse were not addressed, and blacks found limits to career advancement in the auto industry. Following five days of riots during which military tanks rolled through the streets, 41 were dead, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless.
As soon as the Kerner Commission Report was published, controversy emerged when a host of the social science researchers who worked on the study protested that the report had eliminated their major finding: the riots were actually protests against racial oppression. The Kerner Commission's recommendations for reform included suggestions for economic empowerment that came with a large increase in the federal budget — but the president was unwilling to pay this price in the face of escalating military costs for the war in Vietnam.
The 1968 Election
Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, won a three way race in the presidential election of 1968 against Independent George Wallace and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. It was a year of tumult. Major turmoil had shaken the Democratic Party that summer. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson had decided not to run for reelection as Eugene McCarthy won many early delegates on an anti-war platform. Robert Kennedy entered the race as well and was campaigning in Indianapolis when news came that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. Later that summer Kennedy won the California primary and was himself assassinated. The Democratic Party convention, held in Chicago that year, became a center of protests and riots as Mayor Richard Daley had the city police enforce curfews and brutally suppress protesters.
The Attica Prison Riot (1971)
In 1971, the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York was overcrowded and the conditions for prisoners were inhumane. The majority of prisoners were minorities. A group of five prisoners representing the inmate population sent a letter to the authorities requesting reforms, including such humble changes as more frequent showers and more toilet paper. At the time, inmates were allotted one bucket of water a week as a "shower" and given only one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper a month. The prisoners also asked for more visits and less censorship of their mail. The new commissioner of correctional services, Russell Oswald, asked for more time to make the reforms. Understanding Oswald's reply to be a delaying tactic, the prisoners took over the facility on September 9 and kept 40 guards as hostages. One guard, injured during the uprising, died in hospital. After four days of negotiations, state troopers and correctional officers took the prison back by force, killing ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates, and brutalized other inmates they had recaptured.
The National Black Political Convention (1972)
"Economic, cultural, and spiritual depression stalk Black America, and the price for survival often appears to be more than we are able to pay." This was the state of the union according to delegates to the first National Black Political Convention, March 10-12, 1972. The disparate group included elected officials and revolutionaries, integrationists and black nationalists, Baptists and Muslims (the widows of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz — both attended). They met in Gary, Indiana, a majority black city where they were welcomed by a black mayor, Richard Hatcher. The one group that was excluded was whites (for that reason, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, an organization that supported integration, criticized the meeting). Participants were buoyed by the spirit of possibility, and themes of unity and self-determination.
Delegates created a National Black Political Agenda with stated goals including the election of a proportionate number of black representatives to Congress, community control of schools, national health insurance, and the elimination of capital punishment. The news media fixed on the most controversial debates about the recognition of a Palestinian homeland and the use of busing to integrate schools, but for the most part the convention was united.
When published, the Agenda included a note addressing the notion that the process was idealistic: "At every critical moment of our struggle in America we have had to press relentlessly against the limits of the 'realistic' to create new realities for the life of our people. This is our challenge at Gary and beyond, for a new Black politics demands new vision, new hope and new definitions of the possible. Our time has come. These things are necessary. All things are possible."
The Federal Court Order to Integrate Boston Schools
During the 1950s and 1960s, Ruth Batson of the NAACP and other activists investigated Boston public schools and found tremendous differences and inequities in the staffing, supplying and maintenance of schools that served mostly white or mostly black students. They held meetings and rallies, organized freedom schools and independent busing programs, and successfully lobbied for state legislation to demonstrate the segregated and unequal nature of Boston schools. The Boston School Committee continued to reject the notion that the schools were essentially a segregated system and took steps to maintain that segregation. So the NAACP turned to the federal courts. In 1974, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. found the city of Boston guilty of unconstitutional and intentional segregation in its schools. The remedy proposed by the court was desegregation; the most controversial aspect of his plan was two-way busing — sending black students into predominantly white schools and white children into predominantly black schools.
The Bakke Case and the Status of Affirmative Action in 1978
From the late 1960s on, local governments and businesses attempted to level the economic playing field through a set of assistance programs for minorities known as Affirmative Action. Although opponents claimed that Affirmative Action gave minorities an unfair advantage, those in favor argued that the strategy reduced the towering advantages of patronage, exclusive experience and economic power that whites had enjoyed for centuries. In 1974, Allan Bakke, a white applicant to medical school, sued the University of California, claiming that he had suffered discrimination when less qualified minority students were given places in the medical school class that rejected him. The case went to the Supreme Court.
Bakke's lawyer argued that constitutional rights were meant for individuals and not for racial groups. In June 1978, the nine justices of the Supreme Court handed down six separate opinions. Some of the justices felt that race should not be used in the admissions process while others felt that race was a legitimate factor. The Court ruled that the school's application system was unconstitutional. However, the decision written by Associate Justice Lewis Powell also held that race could be used as a factor in admissions.
Because of the number of opinions in the case, the legal status of Affirmative Action continues to be debated. In 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Powell's core holding that race could be considered in the admissions policy of the University of Michigan law school.