A Small Few Making A Huge Difference
Scharff: Great things sometimes appear first as small disruptions in
the normal routine. On Feb. 1, 1960, four freshmen from North Carolina
Agricultural and Technical College walked into a Woolworth's store in
Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat down at the lunch counter, and one said,
"I'd like a cup of coffee." "We do not serve Negroes," they were told.
But instead of leaving, the students stayed. Each day they returned to the
Woolworth's lunch counter, with more and more supporters joining them. And by
week's end, a thousand students, most of them black, but a few whites,
demonstrated in downtown Greensboro. Within two months, student demonstrations
against segregation had broken out in fifty-four cities, in nine states, and by
end of the year, some 70,000 people in 150 cities and towns had participated in
The participants knew from the beginning that they were making history. The
movement that swept through the South and across the nation in the 1960s did
not happen overnight. Its roots reached back to the African Americans who had
struggled against slavery, and to Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, fighting
terror and betrayal after the Civil War; and to the activists who had opposed
Jim Crow in the early twentieth century; and more recently, to the NAACP's
legal victories and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s.
By the early 1960s, among African Americans all over the South, there was a
spark of rising expectations. The federal government had begun to come around.
President Truman had taken the first step after World War II, desegregating the
armed forces. In the mid-`50s, the Warren Court's landmark decision in Brown v.
Board of Education had declared, after more than half a century of legalized
race discrimination, that separate public facilities were inherently unequal,
and were therefore against the law.
Pressured by the Brown decision, President Eisenhower grudgingly committed
federal troops to escort African American students who went to register at
formerly all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas. It seemed that a
second Reconstruction was under way. The movement had more money, more federal
support, more grassroots organization, and a growing army of student volunteers
to join community activists.
In 1960, political organizer Ella Baker had helped the students to form their
own group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC.
Meanwhile, Reverend Martin Luther King became the movement's charismatic
leader. By the early `60s, hundreds of white volunteers -- students, clergy, lay
people moved by King's appeal to their consciences -- had joined thousands of
African Americans in the struggle.
The revolution demanded activists' courage in the face of potentially deadly
violence. In May of 1961, CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, organized
"freedom rides" on buses from Washington to New Orleans, a direct action
attempt to desegregate interstate transportation. In town after town as they
moved through the deep South, the Freedom Riders were threatened, mobbed,
beaten, and jailed.
John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights
President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, watched
closely as the movement grew, but they worried about alienating powerful white
Southern Democrats. And in truth, the Kennedy brothers were a lot more
interested in the Cold War against communism than in dismantling segregation at
home. While the President sent a secret invasion force on a disastrous mission
into Cuba's Bay of Pigs, and went to the brink of nuclear war over the
installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, he dragged his feet on civil rights.
Kennedy's inaction infuriated black activists like James Baldwin and Malcolm X,
already impatient with the pace and direction of change. "Back off the campaign
of direct actions," the Kennedys told civil rights leaders. "Focus on voter
registration." Movement veterans were reluctant to give up any tactic, but they
did scale up voter registration drives in the southern towns and cities, where
whites had long prevented blacks from even registering to vote.
Whites responded with intimidation and terror and murder. Harassed, assaulted,
shot at, SNCC activists who worked in the South marveled at the courage of the
local people who gave them food and shelter at such great risk. The SNCC
activists determined to put their lives on the line for justice.
In Birmingham, Alabama, in May of 1963, police chief Bull Connor turned fire
hoses and attack dogs loose on crowds of demonstrating schoolchildren. It was
hard to turn away when the television networks broadcast images like this one.
These kinds of events finally pushed President Kennedy to announce that he
would introduce major civil rights legislation.
Kennedy: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the
Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the
question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal
By August of 1963, a national television audience watched, live on all three
networks, as Martin Luther King led the massive March on Washington, and told
about his dream. King: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up,
live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal." A new
commitment, a new spirit. But President Kennedy was assassinated in November.
Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights
The torch passed to the new president, Lyndon Johnson. Now Johnson was
sincerely dedicated to ending legal discrimination. But he was also
calculating: he hoped to go down as one of the greatest Presidents in history,
and he believed that he could make his reputation, for all time, on the cause
of civil rights. Civil rights legislation could be the cornerstone of a larger
program of reform, a program to rebuild the cities, train the poor for jobs,
provide health care to indigent and elderly people, to declare War on Poverty,
and bring about a Great Society.
Johnson: "We are going to build a Great Society, where no man or woman is a
victim of fear or poverty or hatred."
Johnson was a human volcano, a
contradictory personality who embodied the deep conflicts of his time. Full of
good intentions and strong beliefs, he also had a huge ego and a legendary
capacity for vulgarity and manipulation.
A patriot, a pragmatist, and a self-deceiver, he was both good ol' boy and
genius politician. Kennedy's sophisticated circle called him "Uncle Corn-Pone."
But he was also a master manipulator to the Senators who had known his power as
Johnson's presidential press secretary, George Reedy, recalled that "there was
no sense in which he could be described as a pleasant man. His manners were
atrocious; not just slovenly, but frequently calculated to give offense. "And
yet, at the same time, Reedy said, Johnson was capable of doing "something so
magnificent that all of his nasty characteristics would fade."
As President, Johnson had the experience, the savvy, and the nerve to push
through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act banned race
discrimination in public accommodations, restaurants and theaters, and hotels
and motels, and outlawed segregation in state-supported institutions like
schools and libraries and parks and playgrounds. It gave the Justice
Department new powers to enforce citizens' civil rights, and it established a
commission to handle discrimination in private employment.
And with a word inserted, almost as a joke, into Title VII of the law, a
provision that would have an impact nobody foresaw at the time, the act even
banned discrimination on account of "sex." In Johnson's words, the revolution
had been "written in the books of law." But for SNCC volunteers who had lived
with the fear and reality of bloody violence, who had seen the effects on
African Americans of the grinding poverty and denial of basic opportunity, and
attacks on human dignity, the Civil Rights Act was a halfway measure. It was
just too little, too late.
The 1964 Democratic Convention
When the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a SNCC-led group, went to the
Democrats' 1964 presidential convention in Atlantic City, and challenged the
all-white Mississippi state party's delegates' credentials, Johnson was
furious. He tried to get the Freedom Democrats to go home and quit spoiling
Freedom Democrat Fanny Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper and the granddaughter
of slaves, saw Johnson's reaction as betrayal.
In 1963, Hamer had been beaten nearly to death just for trying to register
voters in Mississippi. "I question America," she said, as national television
audiences watched, riveted. Hamer: "Is this America, the land of the free and
the home of the brave, where our lives be threatened daily because we want to
live as decent human beings in America?"
Another SNCC volunteer, Stokely Carmichael, put the matter differently. Black
people, he said, had learned that they could not rely on their so-called white
allies. African Americans needed to learn to fend for them-selves, to develop
Carmichael: "The real problem with violence is that we have never been violent.
We have too non-violent, too non-violent."
It appeared that the interracial
coalition that powered the movement was beginning to unravel.