Politics Mondays: The Civil Rights Movement After Montgomery by Joe Allen
This past spring, massive demonstrations for immigrant rights shook the United States. Between early March and early May, immigrant workers, their families and supporters took to the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and other cities in unprecedented numbers.
These were not only the largest demonstrations of any kind in many years, but the mobilization on May Day in cities across the country was the largest demonstration by working-class people in the history of the country.
A new movement has been born that has the potential to transform the political landscape. Yet this movement has faced abuse and opposition from the two mainstream political parties, Republican and Democratic alike, from the federal government down to the state and local level. This backlash has led to further growth of racist vigilantism, led by the Minutemen, along with a revival of far right and fascist groups seeking to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.
A high level of organizing has continued in the wake of the springtime “mega-marches,” but many immigrant rights activists are also frustrated. They wonder what it will take for the new movement to win a major political victory?
The early days of the African American civil rights movements provide some important lessons for today--especially the years following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott, when the new movement faced widespread and overwhelming resistance from supporters of Jim Crow.
The roots of the civil rights movement can be traced back to the Second World War. The Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier newspaper raised the slogan during war of a “double victory”--“victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home.”
Black soldiers and their families’ expectations of change were raised. But an actual movement for civil rights was delayed for nearly a decade by the postwar political purge of Communists, socialists and other radicals from the mainstream institutions of American life--the result of McCarthyism.
Some of the leading figures of the early civil rights movement played a role in this, including A. Phillip Randolph, the leading Black trade unionist in the U.S., and Walter White of the NAACP. Throughout this period, the NAACP was quite conservative, focused on legal strategies and hostile to mass organizing.
As the historian Manning Marable wrote, “By serving as the ‘left-wing of McCarthyism,’” these individuals and organizations “retarded the Black movement for a decade or more.”
But in the mid-1950s, two historic events heralded the beginning of the modern civil rights struggle: the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The 1954 Brown ruling occurred at the height of the McCarthy’s witch-hunt and the Cold War. Nevertheless, led by Republican Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and ordered segregated school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “This decision brought hope to millions of disinherited Negroes who had formerly dared only to dream of freedom.”
The Brown ruling is still one of the most misunderstood by opponents of racism--a classic example of reform from above. Why did the Supreme Court destroy the legal basis of Jim Crow when there was no significant mass movement pressuring the federal government or the courts to do so?
Much of it had to do with the fact that Jim Crow racism had become an impediment to competing with the former USSR for influence in the newly emerging countries of the former colonial world, particularly in Africa.
While this wasn’t stated in the Brown ruling itself, it was the political background to a series of legal rulings made from the late 1940s onward--and the decision of President Harry Truman, a long-time supporter of Jim Crow from Missouri, to order the desegregation of all branches of the U.S. military in 1948.
Yet the Supreme Court ordering schools to be desegregated and local school boards actually desegregating them were two very different things. Accomplishing the reality would take a powerful mass movement.
It took a year and a half after the Brown ruling for the ramifications of the need for building the struggle on the ground to become clear.
In early December 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman with a long history of political activity in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person. She was arrested, and soon after, the most famous boycott in U.S. history was organized--the Montgomery bus boycott.
It was led by a group of Black ministers calling themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association. A young minister, newly arrived in Montgomery from Atlanta--Martin Luther King Jr.--became their leader. During the course of the yearlong boycott, virtually the entire Black population of Montgomery walked or car-pooled to work and other activities, rather than ride the public buses.
Despite threats, bombings and government harassment, Black residents emerged victorious after 13 months of boycotting--the segregation of Blacks and whites on Montgomery’s buses was abolished. “The Montgomery bus boycott was a crucial turning point in the black struggle of the ’50s--the crucial turning point where Blacks scored an important an unequivocal victory over whites,” wrote sociologist Jack Bloom.
How did supporters of Jim Crow respond to the one-two punch of Brown and Montgomery? With virulent defiance that historians have called a “strategy of massive resistance.” “By 1956, southern white opposition to desegregation had begun to mushroom at every level of society,” Manning Marable wrote.
It began with top political leaders of what was then called the “southern bloc” in Congress. North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat, drafted the racist “Southern Manifesto” in March 1956, calling for a defense of Jim Crow by all “legal means.” Ervin got support from 101 out of 128 members of Congress (almost all of them Democrats) from the 11 former states of the Confederacy.
Among the rabid racist demagogues who emerged as the new leaders of the Southern state governments, many toyed with the idea of abolishing public education for all students instead of complying with the Brown ruling. Several Southern state governments outlawed the NAACP or banned its members from holding public office or having state jobs.
Various Ku Klux Klan organizations re-emerged across the South and began a campaign of violence against civil rights activists and anyone (including whites) who supported them.
White Citizens Councils emerged in every Southern state. They were composed mostly of racist white businessmen--”the Klan without robes”-- as they were called. The councils mobilized hundreds of thousands in support of Jim Crow.
Racist mobs attacked Blacks attempting to integrate schools--most famously in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. The violence was so frightening and broadcast so widely on the new medium of television that Republican President Eisenhower, an opponent of the Brown ruling who courted the segregationist vote during the 1956 elections, was forced to send federal troops to Little Rock to protect nine Black students who wanted to go to Central High School.
In the face of this hurricane of resistance, the new civil rights movement stalled.
King created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he carefully claimed wasn’t meant to rival the NAACP, to spread the struggle throughout the south. But it met with few, if any, successes.
It seemed that Southern racist resistance had halted the forward movement of civil rights, despite the victories of Brown and Montgomery.
Only in February 1960 did the situation change dramatically, and the struggle regained momentum--when four Black college students held a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. By the end of April, over 50,000 students--mostly Black but some whites--had joined the sit-in movement across the South.
A new generation of activists were born in this period, including Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash and John Lewis. Out of the sit-in movement, a new organization was created--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--which for many people became the vanguard of the civil rights movement.
Historians August Meier and Elliott Rudwick said the student sit-in movement “speeded up incalculably the rate of social change in the sphere of racial relations; broke decisively the NAACP’s hegemony in the civil rights arena and inaugurated a period of unprecedented rivalry among racial advancement groups; and made nonviolent direct action the dominant strategy in the struggle for racial equality during the next half-decade.”
Ultimately, it took the emergence of mass struggle throughout the South--attacking the everyday institutions of racial oppression and led by militant organizations of new activists--to batter down the walls of Jim Crow.
Today, immigrant rights activist will have to remake old organizations or create whole new ones, and engage in similar militant struggles, to overcome the “massive resistance” they confront.
This article appears in The Socialist Worker
Monday, July 31, 2006