The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980 Questions and Answers
by Harvard Sitkoff

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Harvard Sitkoff opens The Struggle for Black Equality 1954–1980 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. This court case ended separate-but-equal schooling and is often considered a pivotal moment in the struggle for black equality. However, it was immediately met with massive resistance from white citizens, politicians, and government officials throughout the South, who were motivated to keep racial power dynamics the way they had been.

Schools that were faced with federal orders for desegregation often received orders from the state government to close. In addition, more private schools opened, allowing whites who could afford the tuition to guarantee that their children would not be schooled alongside black children. This resistance to court-ordered desegregation is cited by Sitkoff as the start of the nonviolent protest movement that is considered the hallmark of the civil rights era. Sitkoff refers to this period—starting in 1954 and ending in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act—as "Second Reconstruction."

Sitkoff describes many of the nonviolent actions that comprised the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks's famous beginning to the Montgomery bus boycott is covered in detail, showing how deliberately it was planned and executed. Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and was specifically chosen by the president of the chapter for her respectability—and, thus, her ability to create sympathy in the media.

To civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP officials, respectability like Parks's was critical to the kind of success they pursued. Their strategy relied heavily on making whites feel guilty for the effects of America's racial caste system. These leaders sought participation in the existing political order and so did not seek to challenge or destabilize it. They identified that violence would not be practical to achieving these ends, as the existing political order would kill them for it.

Sitkoff also discusses the sit-in movement that began in Greenboro, North Carolina, in 1960. The sit-ins were headed mainly by college students who were trained by religious leaders in nonviolence. These trainings included instruction to remain passive in the face of physically violent attacks. Sitkoff cites the sit-ins as an essential step towards desegregation and voter enfranchisement, even though he also calls them largely symbolic. Sitkoff believes that the protest movement was a critical piece of Kennedy's choice to introduce the Voting Rights Act in 1963; Sitkoff argues that Kennedy was scared that, without a victory, the movement would be taken over by extremists.

Still, President Johnson was not interested in passing a voting rights law, so black leaders chose to undertake massive action to attempt to force his hand. They chose Selma, Alabama, as the center of their next nonviolent protest push, because they knew the sheriff was vicious and would take the kinds of actions that whites throughout the US could not ignore. After hundreds of injures and arrests, Johnson finally requested the passage of a voting rights bill.

After the end of this "Second Reconstruction," Sitkoff chronicles how many black activists became disillusioned with nonviolent tactics and transitioned to a more militant, defense-oriented movement, one without the same strong, centralized leaders as were present during the civil rights era. Sitkoff describes the actions taken by groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as many of the riots that occurred between 1965 and 1980, as unplanned, though participants still felt they were calculated.

Ultimately, Sitkoff believes that the willingness of black people to defend themselves against individual and state violence was detrimental to the struggle to end the historical racial power system, a view held by many who aligned themselves with the civil rights movement.

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