Founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, to help organize and direct the student sit-in movement. King encouraged SNCC’s creation, but the most important early advisor to the students was Ella Baker, who had worked for both the NAACP and SCLC. She believed that SNCC should not be part of SCLC but a separate, independent organization run by the students. She also believed that civil rights activities should be based in individual black communities. SNCC adopted Baker’s approach and focused on making changes in local communities, rather than striving for national change. This goal differed from that of SCLC which worked to change national laws. During the civil rights movement, tensions occasionally arose between SCLC and SNCC because of their different methods.
After the sit-ins, some SNCC members participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The Freedom Riders, both black and white, traveled around the South in buses to test the effectiveness of a 1960 Supreme Court decision. This decision had declared that segregation was illegal in bus stations that were open to interstate travel. The Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C. Except for some violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the trip southward was peaceful until they reached Alabama, where violence erupted. At Anniston one bus was burned and some riders were beaten. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the riders when they got off the bus. They suffered even more severe beatings by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama.
The violence brought national attention to the Freedom Riders and fierce condemnation of Alabama officials for allowing the violence. The administration of President John Kennedy interceded to protect the Freedom Riders when it became clear that Alabama state officials would not guarantee safe travel. The riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary, ending the protest. The Freedom Rides did result in the desegregation of some bus stations, but more importantly, they demonstrated to the American public how far civil rights workers would go to achieve their goals.
SCLC’s greatest contribution to the civil rights movement was a series of highly publicized protest campaigns in Southern cities during the early 1960s. These protests were intended to create such public disorder that local white officials and business leaders would end segregation in order to restore normal business activity. The demonstrations required the mobilization of hundreds, even thousands, of protesters who were willing to participate in protest marches as long as necessary to achieve their goal and who were also willing to be arrested and sent to jail.
The first SCLC direct-action campaign began in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, where the organization joined local demonstrations against segregated public accommodations. The presence of SCLC and King escalated the Albany protests by bringing national attention and additional people to the demonstrations, but the demonstrations did not force negotiations to end segregation. During months of protest, Albany’s police chief continued to jail demonstrators without a show of police violence. The Albany protests ended in failure.
In the spring of 1963, however, the direct-action strategy worked in Birmingham, Alabama. SCLC joined the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local civil rights leader, who believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene Bull Connor, would meet protesters with violence. In May the SCLC staff stepped up antisegregation marches by persuading teenagers and school children to join. The singing and chanting adolescents who filled the streets of Birmingham caused Connor to abandon restraint. He ordered police to attack demonstrators with dogs and firefighters to turn high-pressure water hoses on them. The ensuing scenes of violence were shown throughout the nation and the world in newspapers, magazines, and most importantly, on television. Much of the world was shocked by the events in Birmingham, and the reaction to the violence increased support for black civil rights. In Birmingham white leaders promised to negotiate an end to some segregation practices. Business leaders agreed to hire and promote more black employees and to desegregate some public accommodations. More important, however, the Birmingham demonstrations built support for national legislation against segregation.
Desegregating Southern Universities
In 1962 a black man from Mississippi, James Meredith, applied for admission to University of Mississippi. His action was an example of how the struggle for civil rights belonged to individuals acting alone as well as to organizations. The university attempted to block Meredith’s admission, and he filed suit. After working through the state courts, Meredith was successful when a federal court ordered the university to desegregate and accept Meredith as a student. The governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, defied the court order and tried to prevent Meredith from enrolling. In response, the administration of President Kennedy intervened to uphold the court order. Kennedy sent federal marshals with Meredith when he attempted to enroll. During his first night on campus, a riot broke out when whites began to harass the federal marshals. In the end, 2 people were killed, and about 375 people were wounded.
When the governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, threatened a similar stand, trying to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963, the Kennedy Administration responded with the full power of the federal government, including the U.S. Army, to prevent violence and enforce desegregation. The showdowns with Barnett and Wallace pushed Kennedy, whose support for civil rights up to that time had been tentative, into a full commitment to end segregation.
The March on Washington
The national civil rights leadership decided to keep pressure on both the Kennedy administration and the Congress to pass civil rights legislation by planning a March on Washington for August 1963. It was a conscious revival of A. Philip Randolph’s planned 1941 march, which had yielded a commitment to fair employment during World War II. Randolph was there in 1963, along with the leaders of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, the Urban League, and SNCC. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the keynote address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. His I Have a Dream speech in front of the giant sculpture of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, became famous for how it expressed the ideals of the civil rights movement.
Partly as a result of the March on Washington, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law. After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, strongly urged its passage as a tribute to Kennedy’s memory. Over fierce opposition from Southern legislators, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. It prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment. It also gave the executive branch of government the power to enforce the act’s provisions.
The year 1964 was the culmination of SNCC’s commitment to civil rights activism at the community level. Starting in 1961 SNCC and CORE organized voter registration campaigns in heavily black, rural counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. SNCC concentrated on voter registration, believing that voting was a way to empower blacks so that they could change racist policies in the South. SNCC worked to register blacks to vote by teaching them the necessary skillssuch as reading and writingand the correct answers to the voter registration application. SNCC worker Robert Moses led a voter registration effort in McComb, Mississippi, in 1961, and in 1962 and 1963 SNCC worked to register voters in the Mississippi Delta, where it found local supporters like the farm-worker and activist Fannie Lou Hamer. These civil rights activities caused violent reactions from Mississippi’s white supremacists. Moses faced constant terrorism that included threats, arrests, and beatings. In June 1963 Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in front of his home.
In 1964 SNCC workers organized the Mississippi Summer Project to register blacks to vote in that state. SNCC leaders also hoped to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism. They recruited Northern college students, teachers, artists, and clergyboth black and whiteto work on the project, because they believed that the participation of these people would make the country more concerned about discrimination and violence in Mississippi. The project did receive national attention, especially after three participants, two of whom were white, disappeared in June and were later found murdered and buried near Philadelphia, Mississippi. By the end of the summer, the project had helped thousands of blacks attempt to register, and about 1000 had actually become registered voters.
The Summer Project increased the number of blacks who were politically active and led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). When white Democrats in Mississippi refused to accept black members in their delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Hamer and others went to the convention to challenge the white Democrats’ right to represent Mississippi. In a televised interview, Hamer detailed the harassment and abuse experienced by black Mississippians when they tried to register to vote. Her testimony attracted much media attention, and President Johnson was upset by the disturbance at the convention where he expected to be nominated for president. National Democratic Party officials offered the black Mississippians two convention seats, but the MFDP rejected the compromise offer and went home. Later, however, the MFDP challenge did result in more support for blacks and other minorities in the Democratic Party.
In early 1965 SCLC employed its direct-action techniques in a voting-rights protest initiated by SNCC in Selma, Alabama. When protests at the local courthouse were unsuccessful, protesters began a march to Montgomery, the state capital. As the marchers were leaving Selma, mounted police beat and tear-gassed them. Televised scenes of that violence, called Bloody Sunday, shocked many Americans, and the resulting outrage led to a commitment to continue the Selma march. King and SCLC then led hundreds of people on a five-day, 80-km (50-mi) march to Montgomery. The Selma march created broad national support for a law to protect Southern blacks’ right to vote. President Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended the use of literary and other voter qualification tests. Later amendments banned these tests, which often prevented blacks from voting. In the three years following its enactment, almost a million more blacks in the South registered to vote. By 1968 black voters were having a significant effect on Southern politics. During the 1970s blacks were seeking and winning public offices in majority-black electoral districts.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the focus of the civil rights movement began to change. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to focus on poverty and racial inequality in the North. At the same time, younger activists challenged his leadership of the civil rights movement, criticizing his interracial strategy and his appeals to moral idealism; they no longer believed that appeals to idealism would cause whites to renounce racism.
In 1965 King joined protests against school discrimination in Chicago. The next year he led marches against housing discrimination in the same city. King’s Chicago efforts resulted in little positive change and were widely criticized. After 1965 King also focused on economic issues, particularly black poverty, and advocated income redistribution. In 1967 he began planning what he called the Poor People’s Campaign which included another march on Washington, D.C. It was intended to pressure national lawmakers to address the issues of black poverty and violence in cities. In 1968 King was supporting striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee when he was assassinated. The march on Washington for the Poor People’s Campaign took place in the spring of 1968 after King’s death, but it failed to achieve greater congressional commitment for addressing black poverty. It became clear that race problems in the Northern cities were serious and perhaps harder to address than segregation in the South because these problems were not the results of specific laws that could be changed.
The main opponent of King’s moderate policies was SNCC, led by Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term the Black Power. Black Power advocates were influenced by Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam minister who had been assassinated in early 1965. They viewed Malcolm’s black nationalist philosophy, which emphasized black separatism and self-sufficiency, as more realistic for dealing with racism in the United States. They also appreciated Malcolm’s emphasis on black pride and self-assertion.
The national media reported Black Power as a new and dangerous development in the civil rights movement, and the slogan immediately drew condemnation from whites for its racially separatist message. Leaders of the other national civil rights organizations also denounced Black Power. The slogan helped to undermine what had once been a national consensus for civil rights.
In 1967 Carmichael and his successor as chairman of SNCC, H. Rap Brown, became national symbols of black radicalism. Whites condemned them as instigators of racial division and violence. Opposition became stronger in 1968 when the Black Panther Party began promoting Black Power. The Panthers advocated violence to achieve their goals and battled police in Chicago and Oakland. Several of its leaders were killed, and others were imprisoned for killing policemen.
End of the Civil Rights Movement
For many activists and some scholars, the civil rights movement ended in 1968 with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Others have said it was over after the Selma march, because after Selma the movement ceased to achieve significant change. Some, especially blacks, argue that the movement is not over yet because the goal of full equality has not been achieved.
Racial problems clearly still existed in the United States after King’s assassination in 1968. Urban poverty represented a continuing and worsening problem and remained disproportionately high among blacks. A major controversy in the 1970s was desegregation of public education, where achieving a racial balance often required busing students outside of their school districts. A broader question concerned equal opportunity for blacks, an issue which affirmative-action programs attempted to address. These programs, which emerged in the 1970s, supported the hiring and promotion of minorities and women. Their fairness has been debated and litigated into the 1990s.
Although full equality has not yet been reached, the civil rights movement did put fundamental reforms in place. Legal segregation as a system of racial control was dismantled, and blacks were no longer subject to the humiliation of Jim Crow laws. Public institutions were opened to all. Blacks achieved the right to vote and the influence that went with that right in a democracy. Those were indeed long steps toward racial equality.