The Age of Great Dreams Questions and Answers
by David Farber

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What is chapter 4 of The Age of Great Dreams about, and what are your thoughts about the chapter?

Chapter 4 of The Age of Great Dreams is about the developments of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. The chapter covers the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, violence in Mississippi and Alabama in the early part of the decade, and the leadership of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. It also examines the formation and actions of groups like the Freedom Riders, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

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Chapter 4 of Daniel Farber’s The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s describes the struggle of African Americans during the 1960s against racism and discrimination. The growth of a nationwide movement and the emergence of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. have been traced in this chapter.

Farber points out how African Americans first began to realize that they could engage in direct action for equality and social justice. He describes the sit-ins which began at a lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spread to hundreds of segregated restaurants and stores throughout the South. African American students, supported by white students and youth, merely demanded to be served. At the end of 1960, some 70,000 people in over 150 cities had participated in such personal protests against racism.

In his analysis of what this decade meant to the movement against racism and inequality, Farber says,

In the 1960s, African-Americans took four crucial steps that dramatically changed their nation. First, Southern blacks took a stand against racial segregation, discrimination, and their relative public submission to the racist status quo; they formed an organized mass movement. Second, African-American activists in the North and South convinced the Democratic Party and the federal government to put racial equality and social justice among their highest priorities. Third, a powerful faction of activists and their supporters convinced the federal government that remedies for centuries of racist practices based on individual relief were not sufficient and that radical solutions would be necessary. And finally, by the late 1960s, many African-Americans rejected the ideal of a color-blind, melting-pot society and began to fight the legacies of oppression and racism by organizing a multifaceted program of black nationalism or Black Power. The United States would feel the impact of these actions.

Protests against discrimination had been seen even in earlier decades, such as the bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, sparked by Rosa Parks’s arrest for her refusal to sit in the back of a segregated bus in December 1955. But most African Americans in the South still attempted to keep their relations with whites peaceful by conforming to segregation. This was because many were employed as home help or farm workers, with a lot of personal contact with their employers. There was better integration for African Americans in the North, where they could find employment, cast their votes, and serve on juries. This was why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was able to hold meetings and raise funds for their cause in the North.

When mechanized farming began to push African American labor off the farms of the South, they found work by migrating North, or in city jobs that were more impersonal and did not require them to defer so much to white masters. These changing social conditions made it easier for African-Americans from both North and South to find common ground and stand together for an end to racism.

Farber has shown how the federal government was pushed into intervention in situations where violence against protesters began receiving negative attention in international reports. While President Kennedy did not at first give high priority to the civil rights movement and was more focused on the Cold War, he began taking more decisive action after racial violence in Birmingham and Montgomery broke out in the wake of the Freedom Riders’ arrival in the town. The Freedom Riders were a small group of mixed-race volunteers who took bus rides across the South to test whether interstate bus terminals had been desegregated following federal court orders. This group was supported by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In Birmingham, the group was attacked by Klansmen and subjected to violent beatings that were reported on the news across the world. The Ku Klux Klan had made a secret arrangement with Birmingham police, asking them to hold off for fifteen minutes while they beat up the bus riders. This pattern was repeated when the Freedom Riders reached Montgomery, where white men ganged up to beat the Riders using steel pipes. It was at this point that President Kennedy invoked powers granted to him under the Constitution and asked for a restoration of law and order.

However, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy still tried to contain the confrontation building up between Southern white supremacists and SNCC activists. This was because a number of influential leaders from the Democratic Party in the South also resisted desegregation, and Kennedy did not want to lose their support. The Kennedys convinced the SNCC leadership to focus on voter registration among African Americans rather than the Freedom Rides. Robert Moses from the SNCC had been engaged in such efforts even earlier. He began organizing black people in the Mississippi Delta, registering them as voters and spotting leaders in the community.

Besides the outright violence that African American protesters and their leaders faced, there was a long campaign to try and establish in the popular imagination that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an agent of international communism. This was the brainchild of J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the FBI from its founding in 1935 until his death in 1972. While no evidence could ever be found to prove this charge, it was clear that it had been made because Martin Luther King was acquiring supporters across the country and becoming the foremost leader of the civil rights movement.

President Kennedy used the US Army to restore order in Mississippi in September 1962 when James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran, attempted to register at the all-white University of Mississippi and was not allowed to do so despite federal court orders. Governor Ross Barnett resisted the Justice Department order and himself led a white supremacist rally on the issue. When President Kennedy sent five hundred US marshals to accompany Meredith, violence broke out that claimed two lives and led to the army being called in by the president.

As the movement led by Martin Luther King began using more confrontational tactics in April 1963, more violence was unleashed. In Birmingham, a group of peaceful protesters that included schoolchildren had fire hoses turned on them by police commissioner Bull Connor. As the images of powerful police dogs chasing children and water jets making a small black girl roll down the street began appearing on television, they spurred President Kennedy to take more decisive action against governors from his own party and racist men in high public office.

To me, this chapter provides a good summary of how the African American struggle for equality became an inseparable part of the fight for justice for all Americans in the 1960s. It brings together the various strands of leadership that shaped the civil disobedience strategies of the SNCC and similar groups. It ends with President Kennedy’s acknowledgement that what America was faced with was a moral crisis: Americans had to decide at this time in their history whether the land of the free meant freedom for all its people, or a lesser freedom for African Americans.

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