In the 1900s many African Americans suffered prejudice, violence, and the devastating effects of racism. During the 1950s and 1960s it was a time of growing groups of African Americans speaking out against inequality and injustice. This struggle lasted for decades. Many strategies were used by the civil rights activists and organisations, and all contributed to gain constitutional and legal rights, outlaw discrimination and put an end to segregation. Most of the strategies implemented were non-violent protests like the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights movement and peaceful marches. These peaceful protests were met with a backlash of brutally violent acts from white supremacists that lead to the death and assault of many innocents. At the same time, they achieved their desired results and succeeded in introducing new laws for true equality for African Americans.
The Jim Crow Laws were established in the South in the late 1800s. They prevented blacks from using the same public facilities, live in the same areas and towns or go to the same schools. Many blacks couldn’t vote because they were unable to pass literacy tests. Though not adopted in the North, blacks still experienced discrimination when it came to jobs, buying a house, or getting an education. In 1955 Rosa Parks, in Alabama, sat in the designated black seats of the bus as segregation laws told her too. A white man couldn’t find a seat in the white seats and Rosa was told to give up her seat. She refused and was arrested, this ignited outrage and support, inspiring mass protests to speed the pace of civil rights. In protest, Martin Luther King started the Montgomery bus boycott, only days after her arrest. King’s slogan was ‘Don’t ride the bus today, don’t ride it for freedom’. A year later they succeeded. King was inspired by Gandhi to advocate a program of civil disobedience using non-violent methods to bring about change.
NAACP leaders gained additional support when the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. This was achieved with the Brown vs. Board of Education. It was an important milestone that told people that the Jim Crow laws weren’t working. They disproved the ‘separate but equal’ statement the Jim Crow laws were built on and explained that education and other services weren’t equal at all. In 1957 the formerly segregated High School in Little Rock had black students try to attend the school. These students were dubbed Little Rock Nine and chosen because of their excellent grades. The nine students were specially driven to school and escorted by military personnel. They endured a year of physical and verbal abuse from the other students. Only one graduated, after the year ended the school closed its public school completely rather than continue to integrate. Other schools across the South did the same. While not succeeding in blacks being accepted in those schools it did bring media attention to the issue of segregation.
One of the first major non-violent protests was the sit-in movement. In 1958 the NAACP Youth Council sponsored a sit-in at the lunch counter of a Dockum Drug Store in downtown Kansas. After three weeks the movement got the store to change its policy of segregated seats, soon all Dockum stores in Kansas were desegregated. That same year there were sit-ins at a Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City, also successful. In 1960, four students sat at a segregated lunch counter to protest Woolworth’s policy. The Greensboro sit-in was quickly followed by other sit-ins involving thousands of students in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. While some sit-ins were just met with confusion, students sitting-in across the south were confronted by police, officials, and violent crowds. Sometimes they used brutal force to physically remove them from the lunch counters. This tactic of nonviolent protest was influenced by King, it was intended to gain attention using media coverage.
Another popular form of protest was the Freedom Rides of 1961. This was brought about because bus companies in the south continued to segregate interstate buses, trains and stations. The Freedom Riders hoped to pressure the federal government into enforcing this law in the south. They were organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The 13 Freedom Riders were traveling to New Orleans, passing through Virginia and North Carolina. In Carolina a few were viciously attacked attempting to enter a whites-only area. In Alabama an angry mob of 200 white people pursued their bus, set fire to it using bombs, and then brutally beat them. Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor worked with the KKK to organise the attack. The Freedom Riders didn’t stop and were given another bus and more members, organised by Diane Nash, an activist from SNCC. The mob attacks, allowed by the police, didn’t stop once President John F. Kennedy insisted that the governor allow the Freedom Riders safe passage. President Kennedy threatened to send federal troops once a 3000-strong mob surrounded 1200 people participating in a service honouring the Freedom Riders, led by King. The authorities agreed to protect them if they were allowed to arrest them. The Freedom Riders new tactic was to fill up the city’s jails, over 400 people were arrested. Accounts of their abusive treatment in prison gained more widespread support for their cause. They received international media reports that documented the violent responses, embarrassing the US government. Though reluctant, they eventually ordered bus companies to introduce desegregation to their buses, toilets, waiting rooms and eating areas.
In 1963 almost 250,000 people took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was organised by leaders of the civil rights movement A. Philip Randolph, Whitney M. Young Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis and the main coordinator Bayard Rustin. The purpose was to campaign for the civil rights act, get rid of the Jim Crow Laws, reduce unemployment in African Americans, and outlaw discrimination in the creation and passes of Bills. King was the last speaker as all the others wanted to speak earlier, figuring the news reporters would head out half-way through. His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech wasn’t actually planned but after Mahalia Jackson called “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” he set aside his prepared speech. King then launched into the most famous speech of the day, describing his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. After the March on Washington there were ongoing demonstrations and violence that pressured politicians even more to act. On the same day Kennedy spoke his race speech he was assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson broke through the Congress stalemate a passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bills outlawed segregated public facilities and discriminatory acts in employment and voting. This led to an African American in parliament. Though this didn’t get rid of discrimination completely it was definitely a large step forward for African Americans.