The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was a long, primarily nonviolent struggle to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. The movement has had a lasting impact on United States society, in its tactics, the increased social and legal acceptance of civil rights, and in its exposure of the prevalence and cost of racism.
The American Civil Rights movement has been made up of many movements. The term usually refers to the political struggles and reform movements between 1945 and 1970 to end discrimination against African Americans and other disadvantaged groups and to end legal racial segregation, especially in the U.S. South.
This article focuses on an earlier phase of the struggle. Two United States Supreme Court decisions—Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which upheld “separate but equal” racial segregation as constitutional doctrine, and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) which overturned Plessy — serve as milestones. This was an era of stops and starts, in which some movements, such as Marcus Garvey‘s Universal Negro Improvement Association, were very successful but left little lasting legacy, while others, such as the NAACP‘s painstaking legal assault on state-sponsored segregation, achieved modest results in its early years but made steady progress on voter rights and gradually built to a key victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
After the Civil War, the U. S. expanded the legal rights of African Americans. Congress passed, and enough states ratified, an amendment ending slavery in 1865—the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment only outlawed slavery; it provided neither citizenship nor equal rights. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified by the states, granting African Americans citizenship. All persons born in the U. S. were extended equal protection under the laws of the Constitution. The 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) stated that race could not be used as a condition to deprive men of the ability to vote. During Reconstruction (1865–1877), Northern troops occupied the South. Together with the Freedmen’s Bureau, they tried to administer and enforce the new constitutional amendments. Many black leaders were elected to local and state offices, and many others organized community groups, especially to support education.
Reconstruction ended following the Compromise of 1877 between Northern and Southern white elites. In exchange for deciding the contentious Presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, the compromise called for the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South. This followed violence and fraud in southern elections from 1868–1876, which had reduced black voter turnout and enabled Southern white Democrats to regain power in state legislatures across the South. The compromise and withdrawal of Federal troops meant that white Democrats had more freedom to impose and enforce discriminatory practices. Many African Americans responded to the withdrawal of federal troops by leaving the South in what is known as the Kansas Exodus of 1879.
The Radical Republicans, who spearheaded Reconstruction, had attempted to eliminate both governmental and private discrimination by legislation. That effort was largely ended by the Supreme Court‘s decision in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), in which the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress power to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals or businesses.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld state-mandated discrimination in public transportation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. As Justice Harlan, the only member of the Court to dissent from the decision, predicted:
- If a state can prescribe, as a rule of civil conduct, that whites and blacks shall not travel as passengers in the same railroad coach, why may it not so regulate the use of the streets of its cities and towns as to compel white citizens to keep on one side of a street, and black citizens to keep on the other? Why may it not, upon like grounds, punish whites and blacks who ride together in street cars or in open vehicles on a public road or street? . . . .
The Plessy decision did not address an earlier Supreme Court case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886), involving discrimination against Chinese immigrants, that held that a law that is race-neutral on its face, but is administered in a prejudicial manner, is an infringement of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While in the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to overturn state statutes that disfranchised African Americans, as in Guinn v. United States (1915), with Plessy, it upheld segregation that Southern states enforced in nearly every other sphere of public and private life. The Court soon extended Plessy to uphold segregated schools. In Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45 (1908), the Court upheld a Kentucky statute that barred Berea College, a private institution, from teaching both black and white students in an integrated setting. Many states, particularly in the South, took Plessy and Berea as blanket approval for restrictive laws, generally known as Jim Crow laws, that created second-class status for African Americans.
In many cities and towns, African Americans were not allowed to share a taxi with whites or enter a building through the same entrance. They had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, be buried in separate cemeteries and swear on separate Bibles. They were excluded from restaurants and public libraries. Many parks barred them with signs that read “Negroes and dogs not allowed.” One municipal zoo listed separate visiting hours.
The etiquette of racial segregation was harsher, particularly in the South. African Americans were expected to step aside to let a white person pass, and black men dared not look any white woman in the eye. Black men and women were addressed as “Tom” or “Jane”, but rarely as “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs,” titles then widely in use for adults. Whites referred to black men of any age as “boy” and a black woman as “girl”; both often were called by labels such as “nigger” or “colored.”
Less formal social segregation in the North began to yield to change. In 1941, however, the United States Naval Academy, based in segregated Maryland, refused to play a lacrosse game against Harvard University because Harvard’s team included a black player.
Paul Robeson addresses segregation in Major League Baseball, 1943
In December 1943, the singer and activist Paul Robeson became the first black man to address baseball team owners on the subject of integration. At the owners’ annual winter meeting, Robeson argued that baseball, as a national game, had an obligation to ensure segregation did not become a national pattern. The owners gave Robeson a round of applause. Although Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis remarked after the meeting that there was no rule on the books denying blacks entry into the league, he had stood in way of integration for more than 20 years. His death in 1944 removed a significant obstacle to integrating Major League Baseball. Still, Robeson is credited with helping to pave the way for Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball four years later.
Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut, 1947
Jackie Robinson was a sports pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, best known for becoming the first African American to play professional sports in the major leagues. Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers of Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947. His first major league game came one year before the U.S. Army was integrated, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, eight years before Rosa Parks, and before Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Civil Rights Movement.
Following the Civil War black leaders made substantial progress in establishing representation in the Republican Party. Among the most stunning was the rise of Norris Wright Cuney to the chairmanship of the Texas Republican Party. These gains led to substantial discomfort among many white voters, some of whom left the party to join the Democrats.
During the 1888 Texas Republican Convention, Cuney coined the term Lily-White Movement to describe efforts by white conservatives to oust blacks from positions of party leadership and incite riots to divide the party. Increasingly organized efforts by this movement gradually eliminated black leaders from the party. The writer Michael Fauntroy contends that the effort was coordinated with Democrats as part of a larger movement toward disfranchisement of blacks in the South, but by the late 19th century, the Democratic Party had retaken most state legislatures in the South and accomplished disfranchisement of blacks without Republican assistance.
Nationally, the Republican Party responded to black demands. For instance, opposition to lynching was part of the Republican platform at the 1920 Republican National Convention. Lynchings, primarily of black men in the South, had increased in the decades around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Leonidas C. Dyer, a white Republican Representative from St. Louis, Missouri, worked with the NAACP to introduce an anti-lynching bill into the House, where he gained strong passage in 1922. His effort was defeated by the Southern Democratic block in the Senate, which filibustered the bill that year, and in 1923 and 1924.
Opponents of black civil rights used economic reprisals and sometimes violence in the 1870s and 1880s to discourage blacks from registering to vote. By the turn of the 19th to 20th century, white Democratic-dominated Southern legislatures disfranchised nearly all age-eligible African-American voters through a combination of statute and constitutional provisions. While requirements applied to all citizens, in practice, they were targeted at blacks and poor whites (and Mexican Americans in Texas), and subjectively administered. The feature “Turnout in Presidential and Midterm Elections” at this University of Texas website devoted to politics, shows the drastic drop in voting as these provisions took effect in Southern states compared to the rest of the US, and the longevity of the measures.
Mississippi was the first state to have such constitutional provisions, such as poll taxes, literacy tests (which depended on the arbitrary decisions of white registrars), and complicated record keeping to establish residency, litigated before the Supreme Court. In 1898, in Williams v. Mississippi, the Court upheld the state. Other Southern states quickly adopted the “Mississippi plan”, and from 1890–1908, ten states adopted new constitutions with provisions to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. States continued to disfranchise these groups for decades, until mid-1960s federal legislation provided for oversight and enforcement of voting rights. Blacks were most adversely affected, and in many states black voter turnout dropped to zero.
Poor whites were also disfranchised. In Alabama, for instance, by 1941, 600,000 poor whites had been disfranchised, as well as 520,000 blacks.
It was not until the 20th century that litigation by African Americans on such provisions began to meet some success before the Supreme Court. In 1915 in Guinn v. United States, the Court declared Oklahoma’s ‘grandfather clause’ to be unconstitutional. Although the decision affected all states that used the grandfather clause, state legislatures quickly employed new devices to continue disfranchisement. Each provision or statute had to be litigated separately. The NAACP litigated against many such provisions.
One device which the Democratic Party began to use more widely in Southern states in the early 20th century was the white primary, which served for decades to disfranchise the few blacks who managed to get past barriers of voter registration. Barring blacks from voting in the Democratic Party primaries meant they had no chance to vote in the only competitive contests. White primaries were not struck down by the Supreme Court until Smith v. Allwright in 1944.
Criminal law and lynching
In 1880, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880) that African Americans could not be excluded from juries. But, beginning in 1890 with new state constitutions and electoral laws, the South effectively disfranchised blacks in the South, which routinely disqualified them for jury duty which was limited to voters. This left them at the mercy of a white justice system arrayed against them. In some states, particularly Alabama, the state used the criminal justice system to reestablish a form of peonage, through the convict-lease system. The state sentenced black males to years of imprisonment, which they spent working without pay. The state leased prisoners to private employers, such as Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation, which paid the state for their labor. Because the state made money, the system created incentives for the jailing of more men, who were disproportionately black. It also created a system in which treatment of prisoners received little oversight.
Extrajudicial punishment was more brutal. During the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, white vigilante mobs lynched thousands of black males, sometimes with the overt assistance of state officials, mostly within the South. No whites were charged with crimes in any of those murders. Whites were so confident of their immunity from prosecution for lynching that they not only photographed the victims, but made postcards out of the pictures.
The Ku Klux Klan, which had largely disappeared after a brief violent career in the early years of Reconstruction, reappeared in 1915. It grew mostly in industrializing cities of the South and Midwest that underwent the most rapid growth from 1910 to 1930. Social instability contributed to racial tensions from severe competition for jobs and housing. People joined KKK groups who were anxious about their place in American society, as cities were rapidly changed by a combination of industrialization, migration of blacks and whites from the rural South, and waves of increased immigration from mostly rural southern and eastern Europe.
Initially the KKK presented itself as another fraternal organization devoted to betterment of its members. The KKK’s revival was inspired in part by the movie Birth of a Nation, which glorified the earlier Klan and dramatized the racist stereotypes concerning blacks of that era. The Klan focused on political mobilization, which allowed it to gain power in states such as Indiana, on a platform that combined racism with anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-union rhetoric, but also supported lynching. It reached its peak of membership and influence about 1925, declining rapidly afterward as opponents mobilized.
Republicans repeatedly introduced bills in the House to make lynching a federal crime, but they were defeated by the Southern block. In 1920 the Republicans made an anti-lynching bill part of their platform and achieved passage in the House by a wide margin. Southern Democrats in the Senate repeatedly filibustered the bill to prevent a vote, and defeated it in the 1922, 1923 and 1924 sessions as they held the rest of the legislative program hostage.
Segregated economic life and education
Besides excluding blacks from equal participation in many areas of public life, white society also kept blacks in a position of economic subservience or marginality. After widespread losses from crops from disease and land from financial failures in the late 19th c., black farmers in the South by the early 20th century worked in virtual economic bondage as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. In Mississippi particularly, many blacks had become landowners before the financial failures of the late 19th century. Employers and labor unions generally restricted African Americans to the worst paid and least desirable jobs. Because of the lack of steady, well-paid jobs, relatively undistinguished positions, such as those with the Pullman Porter or as hotel doorman, became prestigious positions in black communities in the North. The expansion of railroads meant that they recruited in the South for laborers, and tens of thousands of blacks moved North to work with the Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, during the period of the Great Migration.
The Jim Crow system that excluded African Americans from many areas of economic life led to creation of a vigorous, but stunted economic life within the segregated sphere. Black newspapers sprang up throughout the North, while black owners of insurance and funeral establishments, and other services for blacks, acquired disproportionate influence as both economic and political leaders.
This period saw the maturing of independent black churches, whose leaders were usually also strong community leaders. Blacks had left white churches and the Southern Baptist Convention to set up their own churches free of white supervision immediately during and after the American Civil War. With the help of northern associations, they quickly began to set up state conventions and, by 1895, joined several associations into the black National Baptist Convention, the first of that denomination among blacks. In addition, independent black denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and AME Zion Church, had made hundreds of thousands of converts in the South, founding AME churches across the region. The churches were centers of community activity, especially organizing for education.
Continuing to see education as the primary route of advancement and critical for the race, many talented blacks went into teaching, which had high respect as a profession. Segregated schools for blacks were underfunded in the South and ran on shortened schedules in rural areas. Despite segregation, in Washington, DC by contrast, as Federal employees, black and white teachers were paid on the same scale. Outstanding black teachers in the North received advanced degrees and taught in highly regarded schools, which trained the next generation of leaders in cities such as Chicago, Washington, and New York, whose black populations had increased in the 20th century due to the Great Migration.
Education was one of the major achievements of the black community in the 19th century. Blacks in Reconstruction governments had supported the establishment of public education in every Southern state. Despite the difficulties, with the enormous eagerness of freedmen for education, by 1900 the African-American community had trained and put to work 30,000 African-American teachers in the South. In addition, a majority of the black population had achieved literacy. Not all the teachers had a full 4-year college degree in those years, but the shorter terms of normal schools were part of the system of teacher training in both the North and the South to serve the many new communities across the frontier. African-American teachers got many children and adults started on education.
Northern alliances had helped fund normal schools and colleges to teach African-American teachers, as well as create other professional classes. The American Missionary Association, supported largely by the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, had helped fund and staff numerous private schools and colleges in the South, who collaborated with black communities to train generations of teachers and other leaders. Major 20th-century industrialists, such as George Eastman of Rochester, New York, acted as philanthropists and made substantial donations to black educational institutions such as Tuskegee Institute.
In 1862, the US Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established federal funding of a land grant college in each state, but 17 states refused to admit black students to their land grant colleges. In response, Congress enacted the second Morrill Act of 1890, which required states that excluded blacks from their existing land grant colleges to open separate institutions and to equitably divide the funds between the schools. The colleges founded in response to the second Morill Act became today’s public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and, together with the private HBCUs and the unsegregated colleges in the North and West, provided higher educational opportunities to African Americans. Federally funded extension agents from the land grant colleges spread knowledge about scientific agriculture and home economics to rural communities with agents from the HBCUs focusing on black farmers and families.
In the 19th century, blacks formed fraternal organizations across the South and the North, including an increasing number of women’s clubs. They created and supported institutions that increased education, health and welfare for black communities. After the turn of the 19th to 20th century, black men and women also began to found their own college fraternities and sororities to create additional networks for lifelong service and collaboration. These were part of the new organizations that strengthened independent community life under segregation.
The Black church
As the center of community life, Black churches were integral leaders and organizers in the Civil Rights Movement. Their history as a focal point for the Black community and as a link between the Black and White worlds made them natural for this purpose. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was but one of many notable Black ministers involved in the movement. Ralph David Abernathy, Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth, and C.T. Vivian are among the many notable minister-activists. They were especially important during the later years of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Niagara Movement and the founding of the NAACP
At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Booker T. Washington was regarded, particularly by the white community, as the foremost spokesman for African Americans in the U. S. Washington, who led the Tuskegee Institute, preached a message of self-reliance. He urged blacks to concentrate on improving their economic position rather than demanding social equality until they had proved that they “deserved” it. Publicly, he accepted the continuation of Jim Crow and segregation in the short term, but privately helped to fund national court cases that challenged the laws.
W. E. B. Du Bois and others in the black community rejected Washington’s apology for segregation. One of his close associates, Monroe Trotter, was arrested after challenging Washington when he came to deliver a speech in Boston in 1905. Later that year Du Bois and Trotter convened a meeting of black activists on the Canadian side of the river at Niagara Falls. They issued a manifesto calling for universal manhood suffrage, elimination of all forms of racial segregation and extension of education—not limited to the vocational education that Washington emphasized—on a nondiscriminatory basis.
Du Bois joined with other black leaders and white activists, such as Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, William English Walling, Henry Moskowitz, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, and Stephen Wise to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. W. E. B. Du Bois also became editor of its magazine The Crisis. In its early years, the NAACP concentrated on using the courts to attack Jim Crow laws and disfranchising constitutional provisions. It successfully challenged the Louisville, Kentucky ordinance that required residential segregation in Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917). It also gained a Supreme Court ruling striking down Oklahoma‘s ‘grandfather clause’ that exempted most illiterate white voters from a law that disfranchised African-American citizens in Guinn v. United States (1915).
The NAACP lobbied against President Woodrow Wilson‘s introduction of racial segregation into Federal government employment and offices in 1913. They lobbied for commissioning of African Americans as officers in World War I. In 1915 the NAACP organized public education and protests in cities across the nation against D.W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation, a film that glamorized the Ku Klux Klan. Some cities refused to allow the film to open.
The American Jewish community and the civil rights movement
Many from the American Jewish community tacitly or actively supported the civil rights movement. Several of the co-founders of the NAACP were Jewish. Many of its white members and leading activists came from within the Jewish community. The great majority of American Jews who were active in promoting civil rights were secular Jews, Reform Jews and Conservative Jews, especially during the later years.
Jewish philanthropists actively supported the NAACP and various civil rights group, and schools for African Americans. The Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald funded the creation of dozens of primary schools, secondary schools and colleges for segregated black youth. In partnership with Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee University, Rosenwald created a fund which provided seed money for building 5,000 schools for black Americans, mostly in the rural South. Tuskegee architects created model school plans. What is most remarkable is that black communities essentially taxed themselves twice to pay for such schools, which required community matching funds. Often most of the residents in rural areas were blacks. Public funds were committed for the schools, and blacks raised additional funds by community events, and sometimes by members’ getting second mortgages on their homes. At one time some forty percent of rural southern blacks were learning at Rosenwald elementary schools.
The PBS television show From Swastika to Jim Crow discussed Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. It recounted that Jewish scholars fleeing from or surviving the Holocaust of World War II came to teach at many Southern schools, where they reached out to black students:
- Thus, in the 1930s and 1940s when Jewish refugee professors arrived at Southern Black Colleges, there was a history of overt empathy between Blacks and Jews, and the possibility of truly effective collaboration. Professor Ernst Borinski organized dinners at which Blacks and Whites would have to sit next to each other — a simple yet revolutionary act. Black students empathized with the cruelty these scholars had endured in Europe and trusted them more than other Whites. In fact, often Black students — as well as members of the Southern White community — saw these refugees as “some kind of colored folk.”
“The New Negro”
The experience of fighting as part of World War I, along with exposure to the different racial mores of Europe, influenced the black veterans; they created a widespread demand for the freedoms and equality they had fought for abroad. Those veterans found conditions at home as bad as ever; some were assaulted for having the impertinence of wearing their uniforms. This generation responded with a far more militant spirit than the generation before, urging blacks to fight back when whites attacked them. A. Philip Randolph introduced the term the “New Negro” in 1917; it became the catchphrase to describe the new spirit of militancy and impatience of the post-war era.
A group known as the African Blood Brotherhood, a socialist group with a large number of Caribbean émigrés in its leadership, organized around 1920 to demand the same sort of self-determination for black Americans that the Wilson administration was promising to Eastern European peoples at the Versailles conference in the aftermath of World War I. The leaders of the Brotherhood, many of whom joined the Communist Party in the years to come, were also inspired by the anti-imperialist program of the new Soviet Union.
In addition, during the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved to northern industrial cities starting before World War I and through 1940. Another wave of migration during and after World War II led many to West Coast cities, as well as more in the North and Midwest. They were both fleeing violence and segregation and seeking jobs, as manpower shortages in war industries promised steady work. Continued depressed conditions in the farm economy of the South in the 1920s made the north look more appealing. Those expanding northern communities confronted familiar problems—racism, poverty, police abuse and official hostility— but these were in a new setting, where the men could vote (and women, too, after 1920), and possibilities for political action were far broader than in the South.
Marcus Garvey and the UNIA
Marcus Garvey‘s Universal Negro Improvement Association made great strides in organizing in these new communities in the North, and among the internationalist-minded “New Negro” movement in the early 1920s. Garvey’s program pointed in the opposite direction from mainstream civil rights organizations such as the NAACP; instead of striving for integration into white-dominated society, Garvey’s program of Pan Africanism has become known as Garveyism. It encourages economic independence within the system of racial segregation in the United States, an African Orthodox Church with a black Jesus and black Virgin Mother that offered an alternative to the white Jesus of the black church, and a campaign that urged African Americans to “return to Africa”, if not physically, at least in spirit. Garvey attracted thousands of supporters, both in the United States and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and claimed eleven million members for the UNIA, which was broadly popular in Northern black communities.
Garvey’s movement was a contradictory mix of defeatism, accommodation and separatism: he married themes of self-reliance that Booker T. Washington could have endorsed and the “gospel of success” so popular in white America in the 1920s with a rejection of white colonialism abroad and any hope of reform of white society at home. The movement at first attracted many of the foreign-born radicals also associated with the Socialist and Communist parties, but drove many of them away when Garvey began to suspect them of challenging his control.
The movement collapsed nearly as quickly as it blossomed, as the federal government convicted Garvey for mail fraud in 1922 in connection with the movement’s financially troubled “Black Star Line“. The government commuted Garvey’s sentence and deported Garvey to his native Jamaica in 1927. While the movement floundered without him, it inspired other self-help and separatist movements that followed, including Father Divine and the Nation of Islam.
The Labor movement and civil rights
The labor movement, with some exceptions, had historically excluded African Americans. While the radical labor organizers who led organizing drives among packinghouse workers in Chicago and Kansas City during World War I and the steel industry in 1919 made determined efforts to appeal to black workers, they were not able to overcome the widespread distrust of the labor movement among black workers in the North. With the ultimate defeat of both of those organizing drives, the black community and the labor movement largely returned to their traditional mutual mistrust.
Left-wing political activists in the labor movement made some progress in the 1920s and 1930s, however, in bridging that gap. A. Phillip Randolph, a long-time member of the Socialist Party of America, took the leadership of the fledgling Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at its founding in 1925. Randolph and the union faced opposition not only from the Pullman Company, but from the press and churches within the black community, many of whom were the beneficiaries of financial support from the company. The union eventually won over many of its critics in the black community by wedding its organizing program with the larger goal of black empowerment. The union won recognition from the Pullman Company in 1935 after a ten-year campaign, and a union contract in 1937.
The BSCP became the only black-led union within the American Federation of Labor in 1935. Randolph chose to remain within the AFL when the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from it. The CIO was much more committed to organizing African-American workers and made strenuous efforts to persuade the BSCP to join it, but Randolph believed more could be done to advance black workers’ rights, particularly in the railway industry, by remaining in the AFL, to which the other railway brotherhoods belonged. Randolph remained the voice for black workers within the labor movement, raising demands for elimination of Jim Crow unions within the AFL at every opportunity. BSCP members such as Edgar Nixon played a significant role in the civil rights struggles of the following decades.
Many of the CIO unions, in particular the Packinghouse Workers, the United Auto Workers and the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers made advocacy of civil rights part of their organizing strategy and bargaining priorities: they gained improvements for workers in meatpacking in Chicago and Omaha, and in the steel and related industries throughout the Midwest. The Transport Workers Union of America, which had strong ties with the Communist Party at the time, entered into coalitions with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the NAACP and the National Negro Congress to attack employment discrimination in public transit in New York City in the early 1940s.
The CIO was particularly vocal in calling for elimination of racial discrimination by defense industries during World War II; they were also forced to combat racism within their own membership, putting down strikes by white workers who refused to work with black co-workers. While many of these “hate strikes” were short-lived: a wildcat strike launched in Philadelphia in 1944 when the federal government ordered the private transit company to desegregate its workforce lasted two weeks and was ended only when the Roosevelt administration sent troops to guard the system and arrested the strike’s ringleaders.
Randolph and the BSCP took the battle against employment discrimination even further, threatening a March on Washington in 1942 if the government did not take steps to outlaw racial discrimination by defense contractors. Randolph limited the March on Washington Movement to black organizations to maintain black leadership; he endured harsh criticism from others on the left for his insistence on black workers’ rights in the middle of a war. Randolph only dropped the plan to march after winning substantial concessions from the Roosevelt administration.
The Left and civil rights
The Scottsboro Boys
In 1931, the NAACP and the Communist Party USA also organized support for the “Scottsboro Boys“, nine black men arrested after a fight with some white men also riding the rails, then convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women dressed in men’s clothes later found on the same train. The NAACP and the CP fought over the control of those cases and the strategy to be pursued; the CP and its arm the International Labor Defense largely prevailed. The ILD’s legal campaign produced two significant Supreme Court decisions (Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama) extending the rights of defendants; its political campaign saved all the defendants from the death sentence and ultimately led to freedom for most of them.
The Scottsboro defense was only one of the ILD’s many cases in the South; for a period in the early and mid-1930s, the ILD was the most active defender of blacks’ civil rights, and the Communist Party attracted many members among activist African Americans. Its campaigns for black defendants’ rights did much to focus national attention on the extreme conditions which black defendants faced in the criminal justice system throughout the South.
The NAACP devoted much of its energy between the first and second world wars to fighting the lynching of blacks and investigating the serious race riots in numerous cities throughout the United States in what was called the “Red Summer” of 1919, resulting from postwar economic and social tensions. The organization sent Walter F. White, who later became its general secretary, to Phillips County, Arkansas in October 1919 to investigate the Elaine Race Riot. In that year, it was unusual for being a rural riot: more than 200 black tenant farmers were killed by roving white vigilantes and federal troops after a deputy sheriff’s attack on a union meeting of sharecroppers left one white man dead. The NAACP organized the appeals for twelve men sentenced to death a month later, based on their testimony having been obtained by beating and electric shocks. They obtained a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision in Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86 (1923) that significantly expanded the Federal courts’ oversight of the states’ criminal justice systems in the years to come.
The NAACP also spent more than a decade seeking federal legislation barring lynching. It regularly displayed a black flag stating “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” from the window of its offices in New York to mark each outrage. Efforts to pass an anti-lynching law foundered on Southern Democratic power in Congress. For instance, while Republicans achieved passage in the House of an anti-lynching law in 1922, Southern Democratic senators filibustered the bill in the Senate and defeated it in the 1922, 1923 and 1924 legislative sessions. The Southern Democratic block controlled important chairmanships in both houses of Congress and defeated all lynching legislative proposals.
The NAACP led the successful fight, in alliance with the American Federation of Labor, to prevent the nomination of John Johnston Parker to the Supreme Court. They opposed him because of his opposition to black suffrage and his anti-labor rulings. This alliance and lobbying campaign were important for the NAACP, both in demonstrating the NAACP’s ability to mobilize widespread opposition to racism and as a first step toward building political alliances with the labor movement.
After World War II, returning African-American veterans were spurred by their sacrifices and experiences to renew demands for the protection and exercise of their constitutional rights as citizens in US society. One serviceman reportedly said,t “I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I’m hanged if I’m going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirree-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I’m comin’ out a man.” From 1940 to 1946, the NAACP’s membership grew from 50,000 to 450,000.
The NAACP’s legal department, headed by Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, undertook a campaign spanning several decades to bring about the reversal of the “separate but equal” doctrine announced by the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Instead of appealing to the legislative or executive branches of government, they focused on the judiciary, reasoning that Congress was dominated by Southern segregationists, while the Presidency could not afford to lose the Southern vote. The NAACP’s first cases did not challenge the principle directly, but sought instead to show that the state’s segregated facilities were not equal.
Even those more modest goals helped lay the foundation for the ultimate reversal of the doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson by showing the irrational nature of the distinctions that the states drew to preserve segregation and the humiliating impact it had on the black subjects of “separate but equal” treatment. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), holding that state-sponsored segregation of elementary schools was unconstitutional, was a first step in dismantling segregation in the South. It was a historic milestone in reframing the national debate over segregation by putting state-sponsored discrimination beyond constitutional defense.
Marshall eventually decided to go beyond the initial aims of the NAACP, thinking that the time had come to do away with “separate but equal”. The NAACP issued a directive stating that their goal was now “obtaining education on a nonsegregated basis and that no relief other than that will be acceptable.” The first case Marshall argued on this basis was Briggs v. Elliott, but cases were also filed in other states. In Topeka, Kansas, the local NAACP branch determined that Oliver Brown would be a good candidate for filing a lawsuit; as an assistant pastor and the father of three girls, he was an ideal candidate. The NAACP instructed him to apply to enroll his daughters at a local white school; after the expected rejection, Brown v. Board of Education was filed. Later, this and several other cases made their way to the Supreme Court, where they were all consolidated under the title of Brown. The decision to name the case was apparently made “so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely southern one.”
Some in the NAACP thought Marshall was being too enthusiastic, fearing that the Southern judge, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who would almost certainly oppose overruling Plessy, could destroy their case. One historian stated: “There was a sense that if you do this and you lose, you’re going to enshrine Plessy for a generation.” A government lawyer involved in the case agreed that it was “a mistake to push for the overruling of segregation per se so long as Vinson was chief justice — it was too early.” In December 1952, the Supreme Court heard the case, but could not come to a decision. Unusually, the case was pushed back by a year to allow the lawyers involved to research the intention of the framers who drafted the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In September 1953, Vinson died due to a heart attack, leading Justice Felix Frankfurter to proclaim: “This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God.” Vinson was replaced by Earl Warren, who was known for his moderate views on civil rights.
After the case was reheard in December, Warren set about persuading his colleagues to reach a unanimous decision overruling Plessy. Five of the other eight judges were firmly on his side, while another two were persuaded by Warren’s promise that the decision would not touch greatly on the question of Plessy’s legality, focusing instead on the principle of equality. The remaining holdout, Justice Stanley Reed, was swayed after it was suggested that a Southerner’s lone dissent could be more dangerous and incendiary than a unanimous decision. In May 1954, Warren announced the Court’s decision, authored by him, which declared that “segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race” deprived “the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities”.
The decision was strongly resisted by a number of Southerners; the Governor of Virginia, Thomas B. Stanley, insisted he would “use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia.” One survey suggested that only 13% of Florida policemen were willing to enforce the decision in Brown; while 19 Senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives, including the entire congressional delegations of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, signed “The Southern Manifesto“, all but two of the signatories were Southern Democrats: Republicans Joel Broyhill and Richard Poff of Virginia also promised to resist the decision by “lawful means”. By the fall of 1955, Cheryl Brown started first grade at an integrated school — the first step on the long road to eventual equality for African Americans.
The Regional Council of Negro Leadership: Laying a Civil Rights Foundation
On December 28, 1951, T.R.M. Howard, an entrepreneur, surgeon, fraternal leader and planter in Mississippi, founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) along with other key blacks in the state. At first the RCNL, which was based in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, did not directly challenge “separate but equal” (much like the initial stance of the Montgomery Improvement Association), but worked to guarantee the “equal.” It often identified inadequate schools as the primary factor responsible for the black exodus to the North. Instead of demanding immediate integration, however, it called for equal school terms for both races. From the beginning, the RCNL also pledged an “all-out fight for unrestricted voting rights.”
The Board of RCNL represented some of the key black business, fraternal, agricultural, educational, and governmental leaders in the state. Sixteen relatively autonomous committees, each headed by a respected leader in business, education, the church, or the professions, formed the backbone of the RCNL. The committees, in turn, reported to an executive board and board of directors headed by Howard.
The RCNL’s most famous member was Medgar Evers. Fresh from graduation at Alcorn State University in 1952, he had moved to Mound Bayou to sell insurance for Howard. Evers soon became the RCNL’s program director and helped to organize a boycott of service stations that failed to provide restrooms for blacks. As part of this campaign, the RCNL distributed an estimated 20,000 bumper stickers with the slogan “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Rest Room.” Beginning in 1953, it directly challenged “separate but equal” and demanded integration of schools.
The RCNL’s annual meetings in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1955 attracted crowds of ten thousand or more. They featured speeches by Rep. William L. Dawson of Chicago, Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, Alderman Archibald J. Carey Jr. of Chicago, and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall. Each of these events, in the words of Myrlie Evers, later Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of Medgar, constituted “a huge all-day camp meeting: a combination of pep rally, old-time revival, and Sunday church picnic.” The conferences also included panels and workshops on voting rights, business ownership, and other issues. Attendance was a life-transforming experience for many future civil black leaders who became prominent in the 1960s, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry and George W. Lee.
The RCNL also played a key role in the search for witnesses and evidence in the Emmett Till murder case in late 1955, and Howard spoke at many rallies throughout the country in the aftermath of the trial.
On November 27, 1955, Rosa Parks attended one of these speeches at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery. The host for this event was a then relatively unknown Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Parks later said that she was thinking of Till when she refused to give up her seat four days later.