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Eyes on the Prize | Article

Responses Coming from the Civil Rights Movement


Alabama: Anti-Freedom Rider Mobs (1961)
Angry crowds greeted the Freedom Riders in Alabama on May 14, 1961. The integrated Greyhound buses carrying both black and white members of the Congress of Racial Equality had traveled from Washington, D.C. with only minor incidents. But on Mother's Day, when the buses entered Alabama, the first bus was stoned, tires were slashed and a firebomb destroyed the vehicle. The second bus was met by another mob in Birmingham and one rider was paralyzed in the ensuing violence. The bus company did not want to risk continuing the ride and the original Freedom Riders traveled home by air. A second group of Freedom Riders took up the ride, however, and again were met by mob violence in Montgomery. The incidents forced the Kennedy administration to confront state leaders about enforcing federal laws against segregation.

California: Police and the Black Community in Oakland
In the 1960s, many African Americans in Oakland, CA felt that the city's police officers were quick to take violent measures against black suspects and very slow to respond to any complaints. The Black Panther Party, formed in the city in 1966, had as point seven in their Ten-Point Program a demand for the end of police brutality. One of the Panthers' activities was to serve as witnesses to police action as a disincentive to abuse. Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panthers, was later involved in a shootout with two police officers that left all three men with bullet wounds, and one policeman dead. A jury later convicted Newton of manslaughter, but the California State Court of Appeals reversed the conviction.

Florida: Race Riots (1980)
Miami, Florida, though southern, was not of the American South. However, like New York, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles, racial tensions had simmered in the city for years. Local NAACP leader Harry Moore protested segregation in Florida and was killed when his home was bombed on Christmas, 1951. Overtown, the neighborhood of Miami originally called Colored Town, was the cultural center for blacks in south Florida, and a tourist destination where African Americans could see popular black entertainers, similar to the black-owned Moulin Rouge Casino in Las Vegas. Since its heyday in the 1950s, however, local, state and federal government projects built sports arenas, highways and administrative offices in Overtown, effectively destroying the community.

In late December of 1979, Miami police brutally beat a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie to death; the black community of Miami waited calmly for justice. But on May 17, 1980, when an all-white jury acquitted the policemen of all charges, five days of rioting broke out.

Illinois: Segregationists in Cicero (1966)
After Martin Luther King, Jr., working with the Chicago Freedom Movement, negotiated with the city of Chicago on public housing issues, some local blacks felt that he had been duped by empty promises. Members of the Congress of Racial Equality decided to march to Cicero, Illinois on September 4, 1966.

Racial segregation and violence were deeply rooted in Cicero. In 1951 there was a major racial crisis when the Clarks, a black family, rented an apartment and in response 6,000 white people violently attacked the family of a black bus driver. Then Illinois governor, Adlai Stevenson called in the National Guard. In the end Harvey Clark and his family were never able to live in Cicero.

In 1966 Cicero still had no black residents, but many blacks were employed in the city. When protesters marched through town, white residents threw bottles and bricks at the activists. But the marchers were not pledged to nonviolence; they picked up the bricks and bottles and threw them right back. The divide between races seemed to be getting wider, and more blacks felt drawn to the nationalist preaching of Malcolm X.

Massachusetts: Segregationists in Boston (1974)
Following Federal District Judge W. Arthur Garrity's 1974 decision to integrate the Boston public schools, white City Council member Louise Day Hicks and other opponents formed Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR). Their rallies drew the support of the School Committee, most of the Boston City Council, and many teachers and police. White parents and community leaders had been active throughout the 1960s to prevent even limited forms of desegregation in Boston's schools. When school started in the fall of 1974, white parents met the buses of black students with racial epithets, stones and bottles. They shattered windows and sent black students home with broken glass in their hair. They harassed white families who went along with desegregation. The violence centered around the working-class community of South Boston High School, which was eventually put into receivership by the court, but was also present in the city's middle class white neighborhoods. In the first years of integration, some white students were tutored at home; many white families left the city or sent their children to parochial or other private schools. Many of the white anti-busing demonstrators compared their violent protests to the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The March Against Fear (1966)
Aubrey James Norvell made it plain: "I just want James Meredith." In the summer of 1966, Meredith, who had been the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, began a walk from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to encourage blacks to register to vote. With three blasts of a shotgun, Norvell, an unemployed white man from Memphis, wounded Meredith and transformed what had been a quixotic, lonely walk into a significant march for the civil rights movement. As others took up the "March Against Fear," organizers debated the inclusion of whites in the protest and the carrying of weapons in defense of a nonviolent movement. SCLC's rallying cry of "Freedom Now" was increasingly met with Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power!" Meredith recovered in time to lead the march into Jackson. During his march, 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote.

Michigan: Riots and Police Brutality in Detroit (1967)
Detroit was the scene of mob violence against the desegregation of housing throughout its neighborhoods in the 1940s and 1960s. Upon learning that a new homebuyer was black, whites would congregate outside the home picketing, and often breaking windows, committing arson and attacking their new neighbors. In this environment, tensions between the African American community and the mostly white police force ran high.

In 1967, after police broke up a party in an African American neighborhood, rioters looted and destroyed property for five days. National Guardsmen and federal troops patrolled in tanks through the streets in their effort to maintain order. In isolated incidents, some Detroit police officers brought personal weapons into the melee. Residents reported that officers shot at black people before even determining if the suspects were armed or dangerous. Even before the riots were over, a presidential commission was charged with reporting on the reasons for the violence. After five days, 41 people had been killed, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless.

Northern Murder Victims
The civil rights movement brought a swift, often violent response from white segregationists willing to beat, threaten, and kill. By one count during Mississippi Freedom Summer there were 80 civil rights workers beaten, 1,000 arrests, 30 black homes and businesses bombed or burned, 37 churches bombed or burned, and four project workers killed. In Mississippi, three young CORE activists — 20-year-old New York college student Andrew Goodman, 24-year-old Brooklyn native Michael Schwerner, and black Mississippian James Chaney — were killed on the second day of 1964's Freedom Summer.

The search for their bodies turned up the corpses of other murdered African Americans and revealed a bitter irony: it took white Northern victims to ensure national attention and investigation. This pattern was repeated during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, when the fatal beating of 38-year-old Boston clergyman James Reeb and the shooting death of Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo spurred an outcry that the earlier murder of black Alabamian Jimmy Lee Jackson alone had not.

Southern Cities' Responses to Protests
Official responses to civil rights protests varied from place to place and within city governments. The police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett, researched the nonviolent method and responded with nonviolence. By avoiding brutality, coordinating with neighboring communities for jail space and even paying Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fine and releasing him from jail so he could not become a symbol for the cause, the officials there effectively rebuffed the movement.

In contrast, the Alabama towns of Birmingham and Selma brought out trained attack dogs, high pressure water hoses, and billy clubs to subdue activists — and with their violent response, brought national attention to their flawed communities. The brutality of men like Dallas County, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark drove some whites to disassociate themselves from the sheriff, but King rebuked them: "If Negroes could vote, there would be no Jim Clarks."

Southern Schools Opposing Integration
In the 1954 legal decision Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared segregated classrooms were illegal, but the ruling was vague about how and when schools had to be integrated. "With all deliberate speed" was the order. As a result, any plan to desegregate schools at the elementary, secondary, or collegiate level was met with criticism from both sides — those that wanted a faster response and those who would rather delay. Segregated schools affected by the ruling were in many southern states, including Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. A common stance of the politicians who resisted integration, like Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who sought to bar African American students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, was that they were merely defending states' rights. When desegregation began, many black students found mobs protesting outside their integrated schools, and other schools chose to close rather than integrate.

Tennessee: Strikes and Violence in Memphis (1968)
In Memphis, Tennessee, black sanitation workers went on strike in February 1968 for better conditions, equal treatment with white sanitation workers, and recognition of their union. They had been on strike for seven weeks when Martin Luther King, Jr.came to speak, as a favor to his old friend Jim Lawson, one of the leaders of the strike. King later led a march, but unschooled in nonviolence, many marchers began destroying shop windows and King was hurried away in a car. Two hundred and eighty people were arrested, 60 were injured and police shot and killed a black teenager. City leaders had been worried King would stir up trouble and their worst fears were being realized. The violence in Memphis was a personal failure for King and he returned to the city on April 3, 1968 to rally support for another march, one that would be more disciplined.

His assassin was in Memphis to meet him.

The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement (1967-68)
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City in which he called for a unilateral end to the American military involvement in Vietnam. The timing of his oration reestablished King as a radical in American society. Although there had been protests against the war on college campuses, most Americans supported the war in Vietnam as part of the struggle against Communism. A New York Times editorial called the speech an "error" and the NAACP agreed, calculating that merging the peace movement with the civil rights movement would only weaken both causes.

However, the coming year would bring the Tet offensive and the My Lai massacre, both of which began to turn the tide of public opinion, and by 1968 mainstream journalist Walter Cronkite was asking if the war was winnable. Civil rights movement groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had come out against the war earlier and organized against the draft. Later, the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Black Panther Party would oppose the war as destructive and racist.

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