HomeOpinionCommentaryMarches and Protests Predated 1964 March on Washington

Marches and Protests Predated 1964 March on Washington

Although many are nostalgically reflecting on 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, there was no universal agreement on what tactics to deploy in the fight for equality, according to a report on the movement by the Economic Policy Institute.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), both based in Atlanta, were born during the movement and favored direct-action over lawsuits, commonly used by the older National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by Roy Wilkins.

"There were differences in philosophies and tactics. Eventually younger, more militant protestors, many of them associated with SNCC, broke with the nonviolent creed and tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC and embraced 'Black Power,'" stated the report titled, "Looking Back on the Fight for Equal Access to Public Accommodations."

The path to the 1964 landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s has been a long, tortuous one.

In fact, there were strong laws on the books more than 100 years before passage of the 1964 law. There were Civil Rights Act of 1866, which supported Black citizenship, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that guaranteed all American citizens access to public accommodations. However, Southern state largely ignored them.

The United States Supreme Court also played a pivotal role in maining racial segregation.

In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In 896, the Supreme Court backed government-sanctioned segregation when it upheld Louisiana's "separate but equal" rail travel policies in Plessy v. Ferguson, and "set the course of Southern race relations for the next 58 years."

The report focused on about a dozen cities and towns across the South that faced significant direct-action protests: Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennesse; St. Augustine, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Atlanta; Albany, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Danville, Virginia; Orangeburg, South Carolina; Cambridge, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi.

In 1960, four college students launched the "sit-in movement" in Greensboro, NC that quickly to Nashville and across the South. That protest was followed by Freedom Riders who desegregated intrastate buses traveling through the South and efforts to desegregated restaurants, theaters, libraries and other public facilities.

The report chronicled the Atlanta student movement, one of the longest in the nation.

"First, it used modern technology, including two-way radios, to assign and move demonstrators. Second, the masses of black Atlantans broke with their more timid older leaders and supported the students in a very effective boycott of downtown merchants," stated the report. "And third, it produced a 'poster boy' of the movement, Julian Bond."

Adult civil rights leaders in the Black community urged caution, as college students initiated a "sit-in blitz in downtown Atlanta," blanketing lunch counters, restaurants, government buildings, train stations, and downtown department stores.

Despite the increased pressure from outside forces, Atlanta's lawmakers failed to desegregate lunch counters and restaurants and agreed to limited desegregation in other public spaces at a snail's pace. Lunch counters and restaurants remained segregated until September 1961.

Birmingham, AL was known as "Bombingham" because the homes of civil rights leaders were dynamited, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the SCLC. In 1962, Black students at Miles College launched a boycott of restaurants and shops in downtown Birmingham and reached an agreement with some of the store owners to desegregate their businesses on a limited basis, but Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor trumped up building code violations, intimidating the business owners who eventually abandoned their efforts to desegregate the lunch counters and drinking fountains, according to the report.

During the spring of 1962, children were infused into the Birmingham protests.

"On May 2, children ranging in age from six to 18 left the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, adjacent to downtown, and marched into the streets of Birmingham. Bull Connor, policemen, and firemen greeted them with snarling, biting police dogs and high-pressure water hoses," stated the report. "The youngsters as well as adults in the march were knocked to the ground killing and against buildings and trees by the force of the water. Several were also struck by police billy clubs. Hundreds were arrested, adding to those already incarcerated. As the jails overflowed, some protesters were imprisoned at the city's state fairground."

Following the May 2 protests, King negotiated a deal with White businessmen in Birmingham to desegregate "lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains in large downtown department and variety stores, as well as the hiring of an unspecified number of black sales clerks."

But schools, theatres, hotels, restaurants remained segregated, said the report, and White violence continued.

On Sunday, September 12, Birmingham's most famous bomb detonated at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Black girls attending Sunday School: Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14).

The EPI report said that brutality and oppression in Birmingham "viewed nightly on television around the world," combined with pressure from Black leaders, ultimately forced President John F. Kennedy to act, first in helping get Dr. King out of jail and later when he nationalized the Alabama National Guard to protect two Black students who desegregating the University of Alabama in June of 1963.

The Civil Rights Act of 1963 was introduced in Congress, but Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans worked together to block the bill. It was only after Kennedy's assassination and the violence and racial tension cooled long enough for the nation to mourn the fallen commander-in-chief that President Lyndon Johnson was able to use his political powers to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress and signed into law.

Although the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is often credited with proving the impetus for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EPI report noted that it was the accumulation of much smaller, grassroots movements that started the groundswell of support.

Today, there is ample evidence that neither the law nor the march were sufficient to eradicate the stain of racism.

"Still, more than 50 years after the March on Washington, the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, have not been fully achieved," stated the report.

A disproportionate number of Blacks continue to live in poor, segregated neighborhoods, lack access to high quality education and suffer unemployment rates double the national rate.

The report stated, "As we continue to press for achievement of these goals as well, there are important lessons to be learned from places such as Greensboro, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama, about how individuals and communities can leverage their collective power to set new standards and effect change.

 

 

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