The Civil Rights Movement
At the midpoint of the twentieth century, African Americans once again answered the call to transform the world. The social and economic ravages of Jim Crow era racism were all-encompassing and deep-rooted. Yet like a phoenix rising from the ashes of lynch mobs, debt peonage, residential and labor discrimination, and rape, the black freedom movement raised a collective call of “No More”.
The maintenance of white power had been pervasive and even innovative, and hence those fighting to get out from under its veil had to be equally unrelenting and improvisational in strategies and tactics. What is normally understood as the Civil Rights movement was in fact a grand struggle for freedom extending far beyond the valiant aims of legal rights and protection. From direct-action protests and boycotts to armed self-defense, from court cases to popular culture, freedom was in the air in ways that challenged white authority and even contested established black ways of doing things in moments of crisis.
Dixie and Beyond
By the middle of the twentieth century, black people had long endured a physical and social landscape of white supremacy, embedded in policy, social codes, and both intimate and spectacular forms of racial restriction and violence. The social and political order of Jim Crow—the segregation of public facilities—meant schools, modes of transportation, rest rooms, and even grave sites were separate and unequal.
Yet the catch-all phrase “Jim Crow” hardly accounts for the extralegal dictates of black professionals working cotton fields, landholders thrown off their property, black women fending off sexual assault and rape, and the constant threats of public humiliation and the lynch rope. All of these day-to-day constraints were justified by myths about inferior black character and intelligence, reproduced in films, books, radio programs, and magazine ads. Jim Crow violence and racial restriction are often thought be specific to Dixie. However Jim Crow cut across the boundaries of North and South. Between 1940 and 1960 the Great Migration brought over six million African Americans to industrial centers in the urban North and West, where migrants were met with new forms of racial containment. They were often restricted to domestic and retail service work. Those who found industrial employment were kept out of labor unions.
During World War I, tens of thousands of African Americans fled the South. In Up South, a Mississippi barber and a sharecropper woman tell how they organized…
Further, African Americans did not have the freedom to choose where and how to live due to the effects of state-sponsored restrictive covenants—legally binding contracts making it illegal to rent, sell, or lease housing to black people (in some regions it included other “nonwhites”). These restrictions were placed on both private real-estate sales and public housing provisions. Ultimately, the absence of a “free” housing market found black residents earning the lowest wages and paying the highest prices for the worst housing stock.
The crystallization of black ghettos left residents to the politics of gerrymandering. Voting districts cut through black neighborhoods to undermine the possibility of political power. At the same time, neighborhood school districts were redrawn in unorthodox ways so that white students could have the best facilities and keep them all white.
The “Double V”
World War II helped to lift the nation out the Great Depression. Yet African Americans found themselves on the margins of wartime prosperity. Federal defense spending did not desegregate jobs, public housing, or the armed forces. The United States entered the wartime world as the self-professed face of democracy, but African Americans began to make links between Nazi racism, European imperialism, and American white supremacy.
Veteran activist and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) A. Philip Randolph threatened to lead a 100,000-person March on Washington Movement (MOWM) in November 1941 if wartime production was not desegregated. President Roosevelt responded by signing Executive Order 8802 that summer. This mandate for fair employment did not desegregate the defense industries but did create a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Randolph called off the march, but black activists pressed on.
Two months after the United States entered the war, the African-American Pittsburgh Courier newspaper announced a “Double V” campaign for victory against fascism abroad and racism at home. The emerging black working class grew frustrated with its marginal position in a time of prosperity. Black leaders made considerable strides by employing a largely legal approach. The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, whose members included Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, waged battles against all-white voting primaries (Smith v. Allwright) and segregated transportation (Morgan v. Virginia), housing (Shelley v. Kraemer), and education (Brown v. Board of Education). Yet legal protection was gradual and did not address growing economic concerns.
President Roosevelt had proclaimed the Four Freedoms (want, fear, worship, and speech) yet black activists made clear that ghettos were in Berlin and also in Boston. Between 1942 and 1945 industrial centers, military camps, and port cities, including Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, exploded with race riots. Ongoing white civilian, military, and police attempts to constrain black life erupted in violent riots in more than forty cities.
American citizenship provided little security. In 1947 W. E. B. Du Bois placed the grievances of African Americans before the newly formed United Nations in his famous “Appeal to the World” address. The United States held itself up as a beacon in a sea of totalitarianism, and black people seized the opportunity to realign democracy with anti-racism instead of white supremacy.
Cold War Civil Rights
The African-American experience remained a central component of the geopolitical struggle during the Cold War. The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) continually challenged America’s self-proclaimed “Leader of the Free World” status by highlighting anti-black racism in the United States. In response, the United States both publicly endorsed gradual integration and fostered a stifling climate of anti-communism.
Following Du Bois, singer and activist Paul Robeson signed a U.S.S.R. petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” documenting a series of human rights abuses against African Americans. Communist activist Claudia Jones organized in Harlem for jobs, housing, and humane immigration policies. Both Robeson’s and Du Bois’s passports were revoked until 1958 while the Trinidadian Jones was deported to Britain. In the Cold War context, black struggles for freedom were largely denounced as un-American.
During the Cold War the federal government funded both white prosperity and black containment. Yet African Americans kept on pushing with organized political strategies and social protest movements.
“Oh, Freedom over me!”
The day after W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana, 250,000 people descended on the nation’s capital, where King’s “I Have a Dream” speech took on mythic proportions. Not a month later, white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, leaving four little girls dead. Central Intelligence Agency director J. Edgar Hoover identified the attackers but disliked the Civil Rights movement, so he did nothing.
Klan Bombing of Birmingham Church 1963
The link between race and class, however, could not be severed, especially during a Vietnam War that sent largely poor people of color to its bloody front lines. Even Martin Luther King began to see the links between unfettered funding for the war machine and the sea of poverty washing over America’s domestic landscape
These insights set the stage for King’s infamous “Time to Break Silence” speech of 1967 and his bridging of the gap between civil rights and economic justice.
At the same time, SNCC supported black draft evaders and grew critical of the rights-based approach to black freedom that seemed to be the terms on which white support was offered.
In 1966 James Meredith was shot during his one-man March Against Fear, and SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael joined others in Mississippi to complete the march. It was in Mississippi where Carmichael, frustrated with the continued violence and the limits of legal protection, popularized the slogan “Black Power.” He explained its meaning by referring to SNCC’s organizing experiences in Lowndes County, Alabama, where voter fraud and intimidation guaranteed the total exclusion of black people from the franchise and where, by 1965, more whites were registered to vote than the 1,900 who were eligible. Local blacks began a voter drive that caught the attention of SNCC and together they formed a third party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO).
The LCFO was dubbed the Black Panther Party because its state-required ballot symbol was a black panther, a direct retort to the white rooster of the state’s Democratic Party and its logo of “white supremacy.” From the start, the LCFO went beyond voting and advocated political education, de-emphasized the focus on political expertise over lived experience, and fought for the redistribution of wealth through major tax reform, all in the face of constant violence.
The battle waged in “Bloody Lowndes” was lost, but the efforts of a grassroots southern movement for Black Power speaks to the full range of experiences that encompassed the fight for freedom. The movement fought southern Jim Crow and northern ghetto formation. Led by charismatic individuals and grassroots collectivities, its members turned to nonviolent action and armed self-defense, waging battle in courtrooms and on the streets. Understood in their full depth and scope, visions of the black freedom movement have yet to be fully realized.
Source: Davarian L. Baldwin – Trinity College