Modern history

Civil Rights

Back home, the most critical issue facing the nation in the early 1960s was the intensification of the civil rights movement. As a candidate, Kennedy had promised vigorous action on civil rights, but as president he did little to follow through on his promises. With southern Democrats occupying key positions in Congress and threatening to block any civil rights proposals, Kennedy hesitated to upset this critical component of his political base. Following Kennedy’s death in 1963, President Johnson succeeded in breaking the legislative logjam and signed into law three major pieces of civil rights legislation. He did so under considerable pressure from the civil rights movement.

MAP 26.1

The Vietnam War, 1968 The United States wielded vastly more military personnel and weaponry than the Vietcong and North Vietnamese but faced a formidable challenge in fighting a guerrilla war in a foreign country. Massive American bombing failed to defeat the North Vietnamese or stop their troop movements and supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 1968 Tet Offensive demonstrated the shortcomings in the U.S. strategy.

Freedom Rides

The Congress of Racial Equality took the offensive on May 4, 1961. Similar to Bayard Rustin’s efforts in the 1940s, CORE mounted racially integrated Freedom Rides to test whether facilities in the South, from Virginia to Louisiana, were complying with the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated bus and train stations serving passengers who were traveling interstate. CORE had alerted the Justice Department and the FBI of its plans, but the riders received no protection when Klan-dominated mobs in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, attacked two buses containing activists, seriously wounding several passengers.

After safety concerns forced CORE to forgo the rest of the trip, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rushed to Birmingham to continue the bus rides. The Kennedy administration urged them to reconsider, but Diane Nash, a SNCC founder, explained that although the group realized the peril of resuming the journey, “we can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead.” When the replenished busload of riders reached Montgomery on May 20, they were brutally assaulted by a mob. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who supported the rides but had not participated in them, subsequently held a rally in a Montgomery church, which became the target of renewed white attacks that threatened the lives of King and the Freedom Riders inside the building. Faced with the prospect of serious bloodshed, the Kennedy administration dispatched federal marshals to the scene and persuaded the governor to call out the Alabama National Guard to ensure the safety of everyone in the church.

The president and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worked out a compromise to let the rides continue with minimal violence and publicity; at the same time, Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue an order prohibiting segregated transportation facilities, which went into effect in November 1961. Despite the ICC declaration, many southern communities refused to comply. When Freedom Riders encountered opposition in Albany, Georgia, in the fall of196l, SNCC workers remained in Albany and helped local leaders organize residents of the town against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. Even with the assistance of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Albany movement stalled, as the Kennedy administration refused to provide support.

The Government Responds on Civil Rights

Despite the setback in Albany, the civil rights movement kept up pressure on other fronts. In September 1962, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett tried to thwart the registration ofJames Meredith as an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi. Barnett’s obstruction precipitated a riot on campus, and as Eisenhower had done at Little Rock, President Kennedy dispatched army troops and federalized the Mississippi National Guard to restore order, but not before two bystanders were killed.

The following year, King and the SCLC joined the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s freedom movement in Birmingham, Alabama, in its battle against employment discrimination, segregation in public accommodations, and police brutality. With the white supremacist Eugene “Bull” Connor in charge of law enforcement, civil rights protesters, including children ranging in age from six to sixteen, encountered violent resistance, the use of vicious police dogs, and high-powered water hoses. Connor ordered mass arrests, including Dr. King’s, prompting the minister to write his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he justified the use of nonviolent direct action. Seeking to defuse the crisis and concerned about America’s image abroad, President Kennedy sent an emissary in early May 1963 to negotiate a peaceful solution that granted concessions to Birmingham blacks and ended the demonstrations. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, however, a few months after the successful end of the conflict, the Ku Klux Klan dynamited Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a freedom movement staging ground. The blast killed four young girls attending services.

Meanwhile, after several years of caution, the president finally decided to speak out about the nation’s duty to guarantee equal rights regardless of race. On June 11, 1963, shortly after negotiating the Birmingham agreement, Kennedy delivered a nationally televised address. He acknowledged that the country faced a “moral crisis” heightened by the events in Birmingham, and he noted the difficulty of preaching “freedom around the world” while “this is a land of the free except for Negroes.” He proposed congressional legislation to end segregation in public accommodations, increase federal power to promote school desegregation, and broaden the right to vote.

Events on the day Kennedy delivered his powerful speech reinforced the need for swift action. Earlier that morning, Alabama governor George C. Wallace, a segregationist, had stood in front of the administration building at the University of Alabama to block the entrance of two black undergraduates. To uphold the federal court decree ordering their admission, Kennedy deployed federal marshals and the Alabama National Guard, and Wallace, having dramatized his point, stepped aside. Victory soon turned into tragedy. Later that evening, the president learned of the killing of Medgar Evers, the head of the NAACP in Mississippi, who was shot in the driveway of his Jackson home by the white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. (Following two trials, de la Beckwith remained free until 1994, when he was retried and convicted for Evers’s murder.)

Nonetheless, Congress was still unwilling to act. To increase pressure on lawmakers, civil rights organizations held a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, carrying out an idea first proposed by A. Philip Randolph in 1941 (see chapter 23). With Randolph as honorary chair, his associate Bayard Rustin directed the proceedings, delivering 250,000 black and white peaceful protesters to a rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Two speakers in particular caught the attention of the crowd. John Lewis, the chairman of SNCC, expressed the frustration of militant blacks with both the Kennedy administration and Congress. “The revolution is at hand. . . . We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress,” Lewis asserted. “But we will take matters into our own hands.” In a more conciliatory tone, King delivered a speech expressing his dream for racial and religious brotherhood. Still, King issued a stern warning to “those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content. . . . There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Freedom Summer and Voting Rights

Following Kennedy’s death and three months after the March on Washington, President Johnson took charge of the pending civil rights legislation. Under Johnson’s leadership, a bipartisan coalition turned back a southern filibuster (a tactic that delays or prevents action in Congress) in the Senate and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, increased federal enforcement of school desegregation and the right to vote, and created the Community Relations Service, a federal agency authorized to help resolve racial conflicts. The act also contained a final measure to combat employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex.

Yet even as President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, black freedom forces launched a new offensive to secure the right to vote in the South.

The 1964 act contained a voting rights provision but did little to address the main problems of the discriminatory use of literacy tests and poll taxes and the biased administration of voter registration procedures that kept the majority of southern blacks from voting. Three years earlier, the Kennedy administration had brokered a deal to secure private funding for voter registration drives in the South directed by the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project. Civil rights workers believed that the Justice Department would provide federal protection for voter drives, but the Kennedy and Johnson administrations let them down. Beatings, killings, arson, and arrests became a routine response to voting rights efforts. Although the Justice Department filed lawsuits against recalcitrant voter registrars and police officers, the government refused to send in federal personnel or instruct the FBI to safeguard vulnerable civil rights workers.

To focus national attention on this problem, SNCC, CORE, the NAACP, and the SCLC launched the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi. They assigned eight hundred volunteers from around the nation, mainly white college students, to work on voter registration drives and in “freedom schools” to improve education for rural black youngsters stuck in inferior, segregated schools. White supremacists fought back against what they perceived as an enemy invasion. In late June 1964, the Ku Klux Klan, in collusion with local law enforcement officials, killed three civil rights workers. This tragedy brought national attention, and President Johnson pressed the usually uncooperative FBI to find the culprits, which it did. However, civil rights workers continued to encounter white violence and harassment throughout Freedom Summer.

One outcome of the Freedom Summer project was the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDp). Because the regular all-white state Democratic Party excluded blacks, the civil rights coalition formed an alternative Democratic Party open to everyone. In August 1964, the mostly black MFDP sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to challenge the seating of the all-white delegation from Mississippi. One of the MFDP delegates, Fannie Lou Hamer, who had lost her job on a Mississippi plantation for her voter registration activities, offered passionate testimony broadcast on television. To avoid a bruising political fight, Johnson hammered out a compromise that gave the MFDP two general at-large seats, imposed a loyalty oath on members of the regular delegation to support the Democratic presidential ticket, and prohibited racial discrimination in the future by any state Democratic Party. Although both sides rejected the compromise, four years later an integrated delegation, which included Hamer, represented Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Freedom Summer highlighted the problem of disfranchisement, but it took further demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, to resolve it. After state troopers shot and killed a black voting rights demonstrator in February 1965, Dr. King called for a march from Selma to the capital of Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace to end the violence and allow blacks to vote. Local law enforcement officials answered their peaceful protests with arrests and beatings. On Sunday, March 7, as black and white marchers left Selma, the sheriff’s forces sprayed them with tear gas, beat them, and sent them running for their lives back to town. A few days later, a white clergyman who had joined the protesters was killed on the streets of Selma by a group of white thugs. On March 21, following another failed attempt to march to Montgomery, King led protesters on the fifty-mile hike to the state capital, where they arrived safely four days later. Tragically, after the march, the Ku Klux Klan murdered a white female marcher from Michigan.

Events in Selma prompted President Johnson to take action. On March 15, he addressed a joint session of Congress and told lawmakers and a nationally televised audience that the black “cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” In the words of the civil rights movement anthem, Johnson added, “And we shall overcome.” On August 6, 1965, the president signed the Voting Rights Act, which banned the use of literacy tests for voter registration, authorized a federal lawsuit against the poll tax (which succeeded in 1966), empowered federal officials to register disfranchised voters, and required seven southern states to submit any voting changes to Washington before they went into effect. With strong federal enforcement of the law, by 1968 a majority of African Americans and nearly two-thirds of black Mississippians could vote in the South (Figure 26.1).


Black Voter Registration in the South, 1947-1976 After World War II, the percentage of black adults registered to vote in the South slowly but steadily increased, largely as a result of grassroots voting drives. Despite the Kennedy administration's support for voter registration drives, a majority of southern blacks remained prohibited from voting in 1964. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act removed barriers such as literacy tests and poll taxes, strengthened the federal government's enforcement powers, and enabled more than 60 percent of southern blacks to vote by the late 1960s. Source: Data from David Garrow, Protest at Selma (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1976.


• What role did the federal government play in advancing the cause of racial equality in the early 1960s?

• How did civil rights activists pressure state and federal government officials to enact their agenda?

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