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The Sixties
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The Women's Movement Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

A Small Few Making A Huge Difference

[picture of Professor Scharff]

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 sit-ins.

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

[picture of John F. Kennedy]

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 opportunities."
[picture of Martin Luther King's march on Washington]

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 Majority Leader.

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."

[picture of Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act]

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 his convention.

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 Black Power.

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.



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