What Were the Strategies of the Civil Rights Movement?
Chapter 3 Preface
Following the emancipation of the slaves, a variety of individuals and organizations rose to the political fore to advance racial justice and equality. Despite a few significant gains that forced a modicum of change—the creation of constitutional amendments that established citizenship rights and guaranteed voting rights and equal protection of the law, for example—progress in the civil rights arena was slow, if not nonexistent at times. Not until the 1950s, after almost a century of efforts on the part of blacks, would the issue of civil rights become a nationally celebrated cause.
The civil rights movement that blossomed in full force between 1954 and 1965 produced a number of remarkable leaders and organizations committed to the cause of racial justice. During this time of profound upheaval, there was little consensus on how to best secure the rights that had long been denied to black Americans. Some, most notably Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, thought that change could be effected only through legal means. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference endorsed nonviolent direct-action campaigns—marches, strikes, and rallies—to draw attention to their cause. At the same time, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to believe that these strategies were overly cautious and instead advocated more retaliatory and confrontational measures. While some denounced...
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Federal Legislation Will Strengthen Civil Rights
John F. Kennedy’s ascendancy to the White House in 1960 generated hope among blacks that the federal government would lend support to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Kennedy, though, took a somewhat moderate stance on racial issues during the first part of his presidency. By 1963, however, pressure for racial equality was mounting, particularly in Alabama, where violent confrontations between demonstrators and police in Birmingham were gaining national attention. At the same time, the state’s governor, George Wallace, was making headlines as he attempted to defy the court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama by personally blocking the entrance of two black students.
In response to these highly publicized events, Kennedy took action: On June 11, 1963, the president addressed the issue of civil rights—and rising racial violence—before the American public. In his televised speech, excerpted here, Kennedy both endorses the goals of the civil rights movement and proposes federal legislation as a means to racial equality.
Good evening, my fellow citizens.
This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who...
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Federal Civil Rights Legislation Is Inadequate
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation and discrimination through nonviolent resistance at restaurants, waiting rooms, and other public areas. Despite its pacifist origins, however, CORE evolved with the political climate: As the quest for black rights intensified in the sixties, CORE, under the leadership of Executive Director James Farmer, began to abandon its long-held belief in nonviolent protest and promote a more militant, separatist agenda.
The following is excerpted from Farmer’s report on civil rights to the 1965 CORE Convention. For Farmer, the key to enhanced civil rights is not federal legislation or governmental programs. Farmer calls the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, for example, only marginally effective as a tool for the acquisition of greater equality—and certainly not a panacea for the racial ills plaguing the country. Rather, Farmer advocates a strategy whereby blacks harness their group power through independent political action and community organization.
As CORE meets at its 23rd Annual Convention, we have behind us many successes achieved and victories won. But this report will not be a recounting of past successes; to rest on one’s laurels is to atrophy and die. Past victories—in public accommodations, in voting rights, in the support of law and public policy— have been in battles preceding the major encounter.
The major war now confronting...
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Blacks Must Employ Nonviolent Resistance
A young black preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., took center stage in the civil rights movement when he led the movement to desegregate the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. In the wake of the boycott, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a pacifist organization through which King mobilized thousands of demonstrators to voice black grievances. His broad appeal to both whites and blacks was based, in part, on his belief that well organized and executed nonviolence could be a potent weapon against racism, and that the racial divide could be breached only through love.
Throughout his years on the civil rights front—as violent confrontations erupted in Selma, Albany, Birmingham, and other hot spots—King’s commitment to nonviolence would be seriously tested. Yet King remained a steadfast proponent of passive resistance until his death, by assassination, in 1968. The following is excerpted from Stride Toward Freedom, King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott—and the positive role of nonviolence.
When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its...
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Nonviolent Resistance Is Not Enough
Following the initial gains and boundless expectations of the early civil rights years, the mid-sixties gave rise to a growing faction of blacks frustrated with the slow pace of the movement. Moreover, whereas early civil rights struggles targeted southern racial practices, focus soon shifted to northern urban communities, where de facto segregation continued to affect housing, education, and employment opportunities. Police brutality, too, was rampant.
The subsequent debate about solutions to the nation’s racial problems brought new leaders to prominence, most notably Malcolm X. A charismatic and provocative speaker, Malcolm X, perhaps more than any other civil rights leader, gave voice to the black nationalist fervor which was emerging in northern communities. In 1964, Malcolm delivered the following speech in which he advocates the use of any means necessary to secure black eco- nomic and political independence from a crippling white power structure. Malcolm X was assassinated the following year.
Friends and enemies, tonight I hope that we can have a little fireside chat with as few sparks as possible tossed around. Especially because of the very explosive condition that the world is in today. Sometimes, when a person’s house is on fire and someone comes in yelling fire, instead of the person who is awakened by the yell being thankful, he makes the mistake of charging the one who awakened him with having set the fire. I hope that this...
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Blacks Should Strive for Black Power
The civil rights movement entered a new phase in the later part of the 1960s, when “black power” became the rallying cry of black militant groups across the country. Leading this new movement was Stokely Carmichael, the fiery young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Carmichael first popularized black power—and ignited great controversy—when he used the term in 1966 to encourage blacks to see themselves as a power bloc. At the same time that black power buoyed the hopes of black nationalists, however, it terrified many whites, who viewed it as combative and antiwhite.
In the following article, which originally appeared in a 1966 SNCC publication, Carmichael endorses a black power program to liberate blacks from political, cultural, and economic oppression. To this end, Carmichael exhorts blacks—heretofore dependent on the dominant white society—to return to the ghetto to organize and control their own communities.
In 1967 Carmichael left the SNCC, which had significantly hardened its stance on racial matters under his leadership, to join the Black Panthers. Shortly after, he moved to Guinea, Africa, and adopted the name Kwame Ture to reflect his African roots.
One of the most pointed illustrations of the need for Black Power, as a positive and redemptive force in a society degenerating into a form of totalitarianism, is to be made by examining the history of distortion that the concept has...
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Black Power Is Ineffective
The noted psychologist Kenneth Clark is most often remembered for his contribution to the NAACP brief that led to the historic 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed school segregation. In the following address delivered in October 1967 before the convention of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Clark addresses the failed promises of the civil rights revolution— and the subsequent rise of black power. In his analysis, Clark concedes that black power does indeed exert a tremendous psychological boost to frustrated and disillusioned blacks. In the end, however, black power is pragmatically futile, as it tends to subjugate rational thought and planning to “dogmatism and fanaticism.” Instead, blacks must find implementable solutions to the overwhelming racial problems that continue to plague American society.
The “nuclear” irony of American history and the American social, political, and economic system is that the destiny of the enslaved and disadvantaged Negro determines the destiny of the nation. The fundamental fact around which all questions of national survival pivot is the fact of inherent racial inter-relatedness— or integration, if you please—in spite of the persistent demands and attempts to impose racial separatism. The problems of the American Negro are problems of America. The conflicts, aspirations, confusions, and doubts of Negro Americans are not merely...
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King’s Protest Campaigns Had a Limited Impact on Civil Rights
Denton L. Watson charges that Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent direct action campaign played a limited role in the civil rights movement. In truth, the NAACP was the real vanguard of the movement. Watson uses the Montgomery bus boycott as a case in point: Although it publicized black demands, the boycott would not have been successful without the legal backing of the NAACP. Indeed, throughout the pivotal years of the civil rights movement, the NAACP created meaningful legislation and protected the constitutional rights of blacks, which, in turn, profoundly altered the social, economic, and political conditions that affected African Americans. Watson is the author of Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell Jr.’s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws. He contributed the following article to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Given the extent to which scholars have rewritten history by making Martin Luther King, Jr., the pivotal figure in the civil rights struggle, few of those now criticizing him for plagiarism are qualified to cast the first stone. His admirers have built him up to the point where it is easy to knock him down. Scholars have not looked objectively at his whole personality and have credited him with accomplishments of others; they must recognize that King’s strategies had serious weaknesses, his aura of greatness was waning later in the movement, and his assassination contributed greatly to his stature....
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King’s Protest Campaigns Bolstered Civil Rights
In the following viewpoint, Adam Mack writes that Martin Luther King Jr.’s direct-action and mass mobilization campaigns played a pivotal role in promoting positive racial change during the civil rights movement. Specifically, King’s mass protests against Jim Crow—in Birmingham and Selma, for example— drew national attention to the cause of civil rights and compelled the federal government to take decisive action. In contrast, the NAACP’s legalistic approach was limited, primarily because many of the legal rulings that pertained to civil rights had little or no impact outside of the courtroom. For example, many southern schools succumbed to massive white resistance and remained segregated even after the Supreme Court mandated desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Mack is an instructor at the University of South Carolina.
In 1989 veteran activist Bob Moses wrote that the Civil Rights movement was characterized by two distinct organizing traditions. The first was concerned with large-scale community mobilization, generally for national goals, and was represented by familiar events such as the March on Washington and the protests in Birmingham and Selma. The second tradition involved work at the local level, focusing on grassroots organizing and development of indigenous leadership. Representing departures from the legalistic strategy practiced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), these two...
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