The Civil Rights movement was an organized movement led by black Americans that occurred after World War Two until the late 1960s to end legal discrimination based on race. The movement saw non-violent protests challenge discrimination in the political arenas but also pushed for desegregation in sports, film, television, and popular music.
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The Civil Rights Movement: 1946-1953
Like they had following the Great War, black soldiers returned from WWII as champions of democracy to a society that treated them as second-class citizens. That older generation of “new negroes,” the first to come of age after both slavery and Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous case that legalized racial segregation in 1896, had pushed a civil rights agenda during the 1920s with minimal success. The Great Depression had hit black Americans especially hard, and little gain had been made since the New Deal. Despite the Great Migration of 1910-1940, most blacks still lived in the South under Jim Crow, where state laws kept them segregated in all areas of public life—parks, restaurants, theaters, sporting events, cemeteries, beaches, hospitals, public transportation, and in the public schools. Even blood for transfusions was segregated. Blacks had made no real progress in political power either. At the beginning of WWII only 2 percent of eligible southern African Americans were registered to vote.
But WWII had brought about irrevocable change. Over a million black soldiers had served in uniform. The share of defense jobs held by blacks had increased from 3 to 8 percent. Nearly half a million people belonged to the NAACP. In 1944, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that all-white primaries in the South violated his black client’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection. The case, known as Smith v. Allwright, was an 8-1 victory. A new sense of mission was forged as black Americans, joined by some white allies, began to express resistance to passive acceptance of the pre-war status quo. Black soldiers led the way as the number of black registered voters in the South increased to 12 percent by 1947.
These efforts at democratic expression met with stiff resistance by southern whites. When Medgar Evers and four others went to vote in Mississippi, they were driven away at gunpoint. White supremacist Eugene Talmadge won the Georgia governorship in 1946 by promising to defy Smith v. Allwright (he died before taking office). Several blacks who attempted to vote in Georgia were murdered, and when one of the victim’s wives recognized one of the murderers, she was murdered too. In rural Mississippi, war veteran Etoy Fletcher tried to register to vote and was told by the registrar, “Niggers are not allowed to vote in Rankin County, and if you don’t want to get into serious trouble, get out of this building.” Fletcher was then grabbed by 4 whites at the local bus station, driven into the woods, and beaten.
The Columbia Race Riot, 1946
In Columbia Tennessee, on February 25, 1946, a dispute erupted between James Stephenson, a black Navy veteran, and a white shopkeeper, who was threatening violence against Stephenson’s mother over a disputed radio repair bill. The subsequent scuffle resulted in the clerk crashing through a store window. The Stephensons were arrested for disturbing the peace, pleaded guilty, and paid a fifty dollar fine. Later in the day, a new arrest warrant was issued for Stephenson on the charge of assault with the intent to commit murder. Later that night several police officers were wounded in the segregated black business section of town known as Mink Slide. The next day, White police and citizens swarmed through the district, violating civil rights, illegally confiscating weapons, and arresting a hundred blacks. Two days later, Columbia policemen killed two black prisoners in custody. Thurgood Marshall flew in from Nashville to mount a legal defense. Several blacks were convicted for the shooting and wounding of white officers. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate charges of police misconduct, but the all-white jury absolved them of any wrong doing. On the way out of town, Thurgood Marshall was arrested on trumped up drinking and driving charges. After a long and anxious drive though the countryside, apparently intended as a warning, he was set free.
The Isaac Woodard Story
In February 1946 a black soldier named Isaac Woodard was on his way home in South Carolina, having just been mustered out of the Army. At a stop along the way, Woodard had a verbal altercation with the driver over permission to use the restroom. After using the restroom, he returned to his seat without incident. At Batesburg, the next stop, the diver contacted Sheriff Linwood Shull, who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of officers took Woodard, still in uniform, to a nearby alleyway and beat him with nightsticks. He was then taken to jail and arrested for disorderly conduct. Overnight, more beatings and jabs in the face with a nightstick resulted in both of Woodard’s eyes being ruptured, and the onset of partial amnesia. The next day, Woodard was brought before a local judge, found guilty, and fined fifty dollars. Not knowing where he was and still suffering from amnesia, Woodard ended up in a nearby hospital receiving substandard care. It took his family ten days to find him. The story eventually reached the ears of President Truman, who angrily demanded that the Attorney General take action. The resulting trial of Sheriff Shull, who admitted he had blinded Woodard, was a shameful failure, resulting in the courtroom breaking into applause when Shull was acquitted after 30 minutes of deliberation [Read lyrics to the song, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” by Woody Guthrie].
President Truman’s Response
The postwar era was characterized by a total lack of response to the needs of Black Americans from the legislative branch of government. President Truman, however, was angry over the treatment of black Americans, particularly war veterans, and although his commitment to civil rights was tempered somewhat by political necessity, several milestones were achieved during his administration. On December 5, 1946, Truman established by executive order the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures to strengthen and protect the civil rights of American citizens. In the meantime, Truman became the first president to address the NAACP, at the Lincoln Memorial on July 29, 1947.
In December the committee produced a 178 page report. Its recommendations included improving the existing civil rights laws; establishing a permanent Civil Rights Commission, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice; development of federal protection from lynching; creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC); and abolishment of poll taxes, among other measures. On February 2, 1948, Truman became the first president to send a Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights, in which he requested that Congress implement the committee’s recommendations.
On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning segregation of the armed forces. Although this was done over the protests of senior military officials, the Korean War soon necessitated the integration of combat units, without the predicted loss of combat effectiveness. In fact, by the end of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration was promoting the integrated military as an example of American freedom that served to deny communist propaganda which claimed that American-style democracy was institutionally racist.
President Truman, despite his call for aggressive federal action on the issue, gave his backing to party platform language that duplicated the 1944 plank. Liberal Democrats insisted on the insertion of a “minority plank” to the party platform that would commit the Democratic Party to calling for an end to segregation in public schools, legislation against lynching, and an end to job discrimination based on race. Truman’s aides lobbied to avoid forcing the issue on the Convention floor, but the Mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, defied them. Humphrey passionately told the Convention: “To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Humphrey and his allies succeeded in getting their “minority plank” adopted. Consequently, the South revolted. The Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegation, 35 in all, stormed out of the hall. Many Southern Democrats subsequently formed the Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond. The Dixiecrats called for States Rights, Social Conservatism, and continued racial segregation. The goal of the Dixiecrats was to see the Democrats suffer such a defeat that they would forever abandon the civil rights cause. What they hadn’t anticipated, however, was the surge of black votes for Truman in the North that allowed the President to win a surprise victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Humphrey was elected to the Senate.
The actions by President Truman, though important, were largely symbolic without congressional legislative action, and they failed to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of black Americans. The president failed to use the power given to him by the 14th and 15th amendments to execute laws strong enough to combat discrimination. Especially in the critical arena of voting rights, black Americans in the South continued to be denied. In Florida in 1948, a black voting rights activist’s home was bombed, crippling one of his children. D.V. Carter was severely beaten in Montgomery County, Georgia, after ignoring warnings from the KKK to cease voter registration efforts there. Army veteran Isaac Nixon, whom Carter had persuaded to vote, was murdered in 1948 for exercising his voter rights. Two whites were charged in the murder but where acquitted by an all-white jury. And justice continued to be denied African Americans when accused of other crimes against white society. In Albany Georgia, sharecropper Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons were sentenced to death in the self-defense killing of an armed white farmer who had attacked Mrs. Ingram with a rifle butt while she and her sons were working in the field.
In May 8, 1951, Willie McGee was executed for raping a white housewife in Laurel, Mississippi; even though the evidence suggested that the charges were brought out of fear that their consensual affair was about to become public knowledge. Despite the attention his case received from such notable personalities as William Faulkner and Albert Einstein, President Truman resisted calls to pardon McGee, and he was executed by electric chair. That same year, the Florida home of Harry T. Moore, founder of that state’s Progressive Voters’ League, was bombed on Christmas night, killing Moore and his wife.
And these civil rights violations were not confined strictly to the south. In 1948, six African-American defendants were convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of an elderly white shopkeeper in Trenton, New Jersey. The victim, William Horner, had been hit over the head with a soda bottle in his second-hand furniture store. Mrs. Horner could not agree on how many men were actually involved, nor could she identify the “Trenton Six,” as they came to be known, as the men in her store. The men were all arrested without warrants, were held without being allowed access to legal representation, and were questioned for as long as four days before being brought before a judge. As a result, 5 of the 6 were coerced into signing confessions. No forensic evidence was introduced in court, all of them subsequently repudiated their false confessions, and all six were able to provide alibis. Nevertheless, all were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Trenton Six received high profile legal counsel from the Communist Party USA (who championed civil rights causes for ideological reasons), and the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall. Two of the six were ultimately declared guilty, while the remaining four were found not guilty.
In 1952, the country elected as its President, the former Supreme Allied Commander of WWII, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican showed no real signs of interest in the race issue. But the forces of change had been set in motion. When real change came, it would arrive from both ends of the social strata. It would be championed from the churches and tenant farms of Georgia, and from the Supreme Court of the United States, where former California Governor Earl Warren would shock traditionalists and president Eisenhower, who had nominated him, by rallying the court for the most activist era of judicial decisions in that body’s history.
The Civil Rights Movement Surges Forward: 1954-1960
The Civil Rights movement coalesced in the 1950s and turned into a protest movement with clear goals, a well-structured leadership, and mobilized activists. Its greatest challenges came in this period, but it made possible the ground-shifting legal changes of the 1960s. Here are the main events that occurred during this period.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
Brown v. Board was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. In doing so, the court overturned the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision from 1896, which had legalized and justified such segregation, (although in the area of public transportation), on the merits of “separate but equal.” Brown was a class-action suit named after Oliver Brown, a parent chosen to head the case in part because he was a solid family man with a respectable history of work and service in the community as an assistant pastor at his church. Thirteen parents were involved in the suit, each of them having been rebuffed in their attempts to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood schools for the fall 1951 term. Each had instead been directed to segregated schools. The Brown case had evolved out of a myriad of segregation cases following WWII, and combined 5 other cases that had all been sponsored by the NAACP.
The Kansas case, filed in 1951, was unique in that the plaintiffs made no contention that separate schools in Topeka had unequal facilities, curriculum, or staff. Instead, Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal in public education had a detrimental effect of Negro children. In fact, the District Court had agreed with this argument but they had declined to rule in favor of Brown on the grounds that there was no state-sponsored inequality in the services offered. The Supreme Court heard Brown v. Board of Education for the first time in December 1952, but was planning to re-hear the case in the October session of 1953, with special attention given to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited segregated public schools. But then, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died just days before the fall session. The person chosen to become the new Chief Justice was not even on the court at the time. He was the Governor of California, Earl Warren.
The appointment to the Supreme Court of California Governor Warren by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower did not seem a monumental moment at the time. Warren was a unifying figure in the Republican Party. First elected California’s governor in 1942, he had won all of the major party’s primaries for the Governorship in 1946, and was reelected that year with 90% of the vote. In 1948 he was the #2 on the national ticket with Thomas Dewey, losing in a surprising result to Truman. He was still popular in 1952, though Richard Nixon had outmaneuvered him to create the winning ticket with Eisenhower that year. President Eisenhower picked Warren to be the new Chief Justice because of his moderate progressive politics and because of his prior legal experience as a district attorney for Alameda County, California and as Attorney General of California. No one, least of all Eisenhower, anticipated the era of liberal activism that was about to occur, or the incredible ramifications it would have on the individual rights of Americans. The unanimous decision in Brown was handed down on May 17, 1954.
In forming and rendering its opinion, the Supreme Court was influenced by recent scholarly work. One was “The Race Question,” a 1950 statement published by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the UN. Signed by some of the leading experts in the fields of psychology, biology, cultural anthropology, and ethnology, the statement rejected race theories and pseudo-science used to justify the Holocaust, which in turn had been heavily influenced by the early 20th Century Eugenics movement (largely created in and exported from the United States). The Court’s opinion also referenced An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). This 1,500-page study of race relations, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (chosen because it thought that, as a non-American, Myrdal could offer a more unbiased opinion) painstakingly detailed the obstacles to full participation in that African-Americans faced in 1940s American society.
Additionally, the court considered research performed by educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark, especially the “doll test” studies, which grew out of Mamie Clark’s master’s degree thesis. Their studies found contrasts among children attending segregated schools in Washington, D.C. versus those in integrated schools in New York. They found that Black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black ones. When asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, the children frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate. Most famously, the children assigned “good” and “pretty” attributes to the white dolls, and “bad” and “ugly” attributes to the black dolls. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in one of the cases that was combined with the Brown case. The Supreme Court viewed their work as evidence that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation. The court wrote:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
President Eisenhower’s Response
President Eisenhower showed little interest in racial issues during his presidential campaign, or during his first years in office. He did connect the issue with national security by pointing out that the Communists around the world were using racial discrimination in the U.S. as anti-American propaganda, but he did little to impact the day-to-day lives of black American. Frustration with the administration was even expressed by black musicians. Blues guitarist J.B. Lenoir, for example, recorded “Eisenhower Blues” in 1954, in which he laments the lack of social gain or economic opportunity afforded blacks. As far as action goes, the day after the Brown v. Board decision was handed down, Eisenhower told District of Columbia officials to make Washington a model for the rest of the country in integrating black and white public school children. On January 15, 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10590, establishing the President’s Committee on Government Policy to enforce a nondiscrimination policy in Federal employment.
Defiant Pioneer, Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was sitting on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, thinking about a paper she had written at school about a law that forbade blacks from trying on white clothes in department stores, sitting in the center bus section where blacks were allowed to sit, provided there were no white people needing seats. When a white woman got on the bus and was left standing, the driver ordered her and two other black passengers to get up. Colvin refused. She was removed from the bus by two police officers and arrested for violating the segregation law, and for assault. The legal case that ensued combined complaints from Colvin and 3 other black women who had been abused Alabama’s segregation law and the Montgomery bus system. Aurelia Browder’s name was used as it was thought that Colvin, who after her arrest conceived a child with a married, older man (she was thus unmarried and pregnant), and who had been charged with assault, should not be directly associated with the case. Browder v. Gayle would be the basis for overturning Alabama’s public transportation segregation law in 1956.
Following the Brown v. Board decision, schools soon requested some form of relief regarding the task of desegregation. On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in what became known as “Brown II,” that the task of carrying out school desegregation was delegated to district courts, with orders that desegregation occur “with all deliberate speed.” Many Southern states and school districts interpreted “Brown II” as legal justification for resisting, delaying, and avoiding significant integration for years—and in some cases for a decade or more—using such tactics as closing down school systems, using state money to finance segregated “private” schools, and “token” integration where a few carefully selected black children were admitted to former white-only schools but the vast majority remained in under-funded, unequal black schools.
Autherine Lucy, 1955-1956
On June 29, 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in Lucy v. Adams, that black citizens could not be refused admission to the University of Alabama solely on account of their race or color. Autherine Lucy subsequently became the first black student to attend the University of Alabama, in 1956.
She enrolled on February 3, 1956. On the third day of classes, a hostile mob assembled to prevent Lucy from attending classes. A thousand rioters attempted to storm the car in which she rode to class with the Dean of Women. When the campus president’s home was attacked, the administration suspended Lucy, just three days after admitting her. Lucy and her attorneys filed suit to have the suspension overturned. The University then expelled her on the grounds that her lawsuit had slandered the university. The University of Alabama finally overturned her expulsion in 1980.
Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, 1955
In November 1955, the Warren Court ruled in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, that the non-discrimination language of the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation of black passengers in buses traveling across state lines. The case had grown out the frustrations felt by a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) private who experienced this form of discrimination while traveling in uniform in the service of her country. It was the first time the court applied the Brown v. Board logic to the field of interstate transportation. The ruling was issued on November 7, but was made public just one week before Rosa Parks refused to give up a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
Southern Violence, 1955
Despite these legal gains, or perhaps in part because of them, 1955 was a notable year for southern violence against African Americans. On May 7, NAACP activist Reverend George W. Lee was hit with three shotgun blasts while sitting in his car in Belzoni, Mississippi. Lee was a successful businessman and was able to pay the poll taxes imposed on poor blacks to prohibit voting, and he worked hard to register other black voters. He had refused to give in to intimidation and threats of violence.
The sheriff investigating his murder tried to claim that the metal found in Lee’s mouth from buckshot was just dental fillings and that Lee had died from a car accident. The U.S. Attorney General ordered the Justice Department to investigate. Lee’s wife insisted on an open-casket funeral, and a photo of his mutilated corpse was published in the Chicago Defender. No charges were ever brought.
On August 13, 1955, civil rights activist Lamar Smith was shot to death in broad daylight at close range on the lawn of the Lincoln County courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Smith was a WWI veteran and a voter registration activist. Reports indicated that numerous white witnesses, including the local sheriff, saw a white man covered with blood leaving the scene. Three men were arrested, but no white witnesses would come forward, and all charges were dropped.
The Murder of Emmett Till, 1955
On August 28, 1955, one of the most famous events in the early days of the civil rights movements occurred, when 14-year-old Emmett Till, from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi where he had gone on vacation to visit relatives. Till and others went to buy candy at a small grocery store whose main clientele were area blacks. Outside the store, Till showed a photograph of a white girl to some other teenagers and boasted that he had “made time” with her. The incredulous youths, brought up in the rigid social caste that Till was unaware of, dared him to speak to the female proprietor in the grocery store. Till entered the store and allegedly spoke or whistled flirtatiously to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. Exactly what he said and did remains disputed. He may have whistled suggestively at her. If he whistled, he may have been trying to overcome a speech impediment before asking for bubble gum, a technique he sometimes employed, according to his mother. Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date, and that he had used “unprintable” words. Whatever happened, Bryant was upset enough that she ran outside to retrieve a pistol kept under the seat of a car. The teenagers saw this and left immediately. Bryant told others what had happened, and the story spread quickly. Carolyn’s husband Roy returned from a trip a few days later. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam came to the house where Till was staying. They asked for him, told him to get dressed and come outside, and then told the other family members to go back to sleep. Till was never seen alive again. When his body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later, it was apparent that the men had beat him and gouged out one of his eyes. Then they shot him in the head, tied a cotton gin fan to him with barbed wire so as to weigh him down, and tossed him in the river.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that the body be sent back to Chicago, and then further insisted on an open casket funeral. She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy. Tens of thousands of people came to the viewing, and thousands more attended his funeral. Photographs of Emmett’s corpse were published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, and were circulated around the country. They drew an intense public reaction. After about an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, partly because of issues involving positive identification of the body. A year later, protected by double jeopardy, they admitted to killing him in an interview with Look magazine, for which they were paid several thousand dollars.
In the interview, the men told Look that their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him.” But numerous attempts to scare Till proved fruitless. Milam said, “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”
Perhaps no episode was a catalyst for the passion that would engage the civil rights movement as the murder of Emmett Till. Even white Americans who were indifferent to the plight of African Americans were appalled by the brutality of this particular murder. Some black Americans who would soon become instrumental in the struggle ahead, like Anne Moody, recount how the murder of Emmett Till made them realize for the first time that they could be killed just for being black.The Emmett Till story was told in a 1955 recording by the Ramparts, written by A.C. Bilbrew.
The murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till were spotlighted in the 1955 NAACP pamphlet, “M is for Mississippi and Murder”.
Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956
On December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks, a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama department store, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man at the order of driver James Blake. Parks’ action was one in a series of defiance by black women against public transportation segregation laws. In circumstances similar to those involving Claudette Colvin, Parks and four others were ordered to move from their seats when the driver moved the color line toward the rear of the bus in order to accommodate white passengers. Three of the riders complied, Parks did not. After Blake confirmed that Parks would not give up her seat, he called the police. Parks was arrested and charged with violating the segregation law. Four days later, Parks was tried for violating that law, and for disorderly conduct. She was found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs. Parks appealed her conviction. Immediately following her arrest, Parks became the catalyst for the boycott of the Montgomery buses. Parks, a well-respected, humble person, was the symbol local activists had been waiting for upon which to take a moral stand. After an initial one-day boycott ended successfully, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at Reverend L. Roy Bennett’s Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. They created an organization to lead the boycott effort, called the Montgomery Improvement Association, and elected as its president the relatively unknown minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for 381 days.
The majority of the bus system’s patrons were black, many of them women who rode the buses on their way to go cook and clean for affluent whites. The boycott did significant damage to the finances of the bus transit company. Some segregationists retaliated with terrorism. Black churches were burned and bombed. Martin Luther King’s home was bombed on January 30, 1956. The boycott ended not because of the legal case brought by Parks, but because of the District Court’s ruling in the Browder v. Gayle case. On November 13 the Supreme Court upheld that decision, and the court order to desegregate arrived in Montgomery on December 20. The bus boycott ended the next day. However, more violence followed, as snipers fired into buses and more churches were bombed. King’s home was bombed a second time.
1956 was a presidential election year. By February, the segregation issue was dominating Democratic Party politics. On February 24, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., declared a policy of “massive resistance” in Virginia. Byrd ran a political machine that controlled state politics. He stated, “If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.” New Virginia laws were designed to punish state schools that integrated and to provide funding for white students to be able to attend private, segregated schools. “Massive Resistance” started a series of battles over school integration that ultimately led to the courts forcing integrated schools to remain open and funded in 1959-1960. “Massive Resistance,” once declared, was immediately followed by the Southern Manifesto against school integration, created and signed by members of the Congressional delegations of Southern states, including 19 senators and 81 members of the House of Representatives, notably the entire delegations of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. The Southern Manifesto was released to the press on March 12, 1956.
Mississippi went even further by creating the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission; its objective to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from “federal encroachment.” The Commission attempted to undermine the civil rights movement within the state by covert means. It planted informants, informed the police about planned marches and boycotts, and encouraged police harassment of African Americans who were part of, or cooperated with civil rights groups, especially those pushing voter registration.
At the federal level, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the agency to begin the COINTELPRO program to investigate and disrupt “dissident” groups within the United States. FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources were used to target so-called “subversive” groups, including civil rights groups and leaders (MLK included).
African Americans in the South formed their own groups in order to project an organized front. In June 1956 the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was formed in Birmingham, Alabama, with Bethel Baptist Church pastor Fred Shuttlesworth it president. The following January the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was named chairman of this organization, operating out of Atlanta, which expanded the earlier goal of targeting discrimination in busing law to ending all forms of discrimination. The main task of SCLC was to gain footholds in the black churches and communities across the South, who were often reluctant to risk repression and violence from whites. Retaliation often involved the targeting of church leaders, arson, and bombings. Some churches were also against the idea that churches should engage in social activism.
The SCLC would play a leading role in the civil rights movement, especially in the early 1960s. The Bethel Baptist Church was bombed by white terrorists 3 times during the civil rights movement; on December 25, 1956, on June 29, 1958, and on December 14, 1962. Alabama used state law to specifically target King. In 1960, MLK was indicted in Alabama on tax evasion charges. He was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury statute. King was acquitted by an all-white jury due to the sheer tenacity and legal brilliance of his lawyer, William Robert Ming. A “reluctantly admiring” Alabama lawyer was quoted as saying, “Negro or not, he is a master of the law.” The trial was a turning point for King, causing him to reflect on how “justice” might look in the South if all blacks had access to such competent legal counsel.
In 1957 the SCLC gave its support to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom rally, held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on May 17. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last speaker and it was the first time he addressed a national audience. King spoke in front of about 25,000 participants, which was the largest non-violent demonstration for civil rights up to that time. King’s speech has been named the “Give Us the Ballot” speech; it was a call for voting rights for African Americans on moral grounds. King also urged participants to use only non-violent resistance.
The Little Rock Integration Crisis, 1957
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, the NAACP undertook to register black students at previously all-white schools in Southern cities. In Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, the school board agreed to comply with the Brown ruling. Their plan of gradual integration was approved on May 24, 1955, to be implemented during the fall of 1957. By that time, the NAACP had registered nine black students, selected for their exemplary grades and attendance, at Little Rock Central High, . They came to be nicknamed, the “Little Rock Nine.” On September 4, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus exercised his authority to deploy the state National Guard to support segregationist protestors who were physically blocking access to the school. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, became separated from the group when she tried to approach a bus stop through a white mob, who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. When she reached the bus stop she was visibly distraught. A reporter, Ben Fine, sat down next to her to comfort and protect her. They were joined by a white woman named Grace Lorch. Images of American soldiers in uniform blocking nine black children from attending high school brought national attention to the crisis.
President Eisenhower attempted to de-escalate the situation and summoned Governor Faubus to the White House. They met on September 14. The President warned the governor not to interfere in the Supreme Court’s ruling. On September 20, a judge ordered that the National Guard troops be removed and replaced by police, who would attempt to escort the students inside on the 23rd. On that day an angry mob of more than 1,000 whites protested in front of Central High School, while the nine black children were escorted inside. A number of white students, including a female named Sammy Dean Parker, who had been part of the mob threatening Elizabeth Eckford on the 4th, jumped out of windows to avoid contact with the black students.
The Little Rock police couldn’t control the mob and, fearing for their safety, removed the nine children from the school. Three black journalists covering the story were first harassed and then physically attacked and chased by the mob. They finally ran to safety in a black section of town. President Eisenhower called the rioting “disgraceful” and the next day, sent the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock. He used his executive power to federalize the entire10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking power away from Faubus. The 101st took up positions at the school, and the nine students successfully entered the building the following day, September 25. For the rest of the school year, the “nine” endured physical and verbal abuse at the hands of white students, who were punished only if their behavior was both egregious, and witnessed by an adult. One student, Minnejean Brown, resisted the bullying and was suspended several times. She subsequently transferred to a school in New York City.
A few white students, including Sammy Dean Parker, were disciplined for distributing cards at school the next day that read, “One down, Eight to go.” Parker was suspended in February 1958 when she and her mother “viscously and physically attacked” (according to the Natioal Guard report), the school’s assistant principal at an evening conference with the superintendent and other school officials. The family sued and Parker was re-admitted a month later after promising to be good.
The following year, Governor Faubus undertook a series of legal and political maneuvers in an attempt to maintain de facto segregation. His plan closed all public schools and attempted to lease them to private entities, who would continue to educate students in segregated environments.
The plan failed, in part as a result of the Cooper v. Aaron Supreme Court decision (discussed below), but resulted in the “the Lost Year,” in which education in Little Rock never took place. When the dust cleared, the integrated schools re-opened for the fall 1959 year, but black students bore the brunt of the frustration felt by white students and their parents.
The iconic photograph from the event, taken by Will Counts, depicts the moment Eckford became separated, with an angry mob barking at her heals (see above). The photograph was named by the Associated Press as one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th Century. The student seen taunting Eckford directly behind her was identified as Hazel Massery. Massery was one of the first whites associated with the event to express remorse for her behavior. In 1997, Eckford and Massery posed together for photographer Will Counts outside Central High School for the 40th anniversary of the event. The two struck up a friendship which, in the years since, has been a complicated one.
President Eisenhower and Civil Rights Legislation
1957 was a turning point for President Eisenhower on the race issue. In addition to the leadership shown during the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower also proposed to Congress the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. In January, Martin Luther King, Jr. had written to the President, urging him to assume leadership of the civil rights cause. Eisenhower expressed skepticism of what another speech could do, and King followed up with another telegram in February, expressing “a profound disappointment to the millions of Americans of goodwill, north and south, who earnestly are looking to you for leadership and guidance in this period of inevitable social change.” King then tried to get a meeting with Eisenhower, but by that time the president had submitted his civil rights bill to congress, and the President was advised to avoid the political scrutiny that would accompany a meeting with the young civil rights leader.
King was directed instead to meet with the Vice President. Nixon and King met for two hours, and Nixon came away impressed enough to say that the President would enjoy talking with him. When Eisenhower’s bill came up for final vote, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina staged the longest filibuster in history, at 24 hours and 18 minutes, to delay the legislation. Thurmond read every state’s election laws, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and his mother’s recipe for biscuits. The bill passed the House 270-97, and the Senate 60-15. Eisenhower signed it on September 9, 1957. The goal of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 had been to ensure voting rights for African Americans. The bill passed only through the skillful guidance of Democratic Senate leader Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX), and because it was drastically modified from its original form to mollify enough of Johnson’s fellow Southerners. Black voting numbers actually decreased in the South from 1957 to 1960. The Act was significant, however, because it established the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department, increasing investigative manpower.
In 1960, Eisenhower signed another Civil Rights Act, a weak bill that established federal inspection of local voter registration polls and introduced penalties for obstructing attempts at registering or voting. This bill too was delayed, this time by a coordinated filibuster that lasted over 43 hours and took up a total of more than 125 hours. By this time the 1960 election was looming, and after the U-2 shoot down crisis in August, the outgoing President had expended his political capital.
The last two years of the decade were also notable for further recognition of civil rights by the U.S. Supreme Court. In NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP was not required to release membership lists to continue operating in the state. In Cooper v. Aaron, the court ruled that the states were bound by the Court’s decisions, and could not choose to ignore them.
As the civil rights movement grew, it expanded into other parts of the South, to the West, and into the minds and hearts of America’s black youth. Individuals and small groups began to organize and to take on integration in local businesses, store-by-store. 1958 saw the beginning of the form of resistance called the sit-in; a non-violent occupation of a place. The first organized lunch-counter sit-in for the purpose of integrating segregated establishments began in July 1958, in Wichita, Kansas. The protest targeted a drug store in the old Rexall chain. By early August the drugstore was integrated. An NAACP Youth Council-led sit-in occurred at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in Oklahoma City. Over the next fear years, the group, led by Clara Luper, successfully integrated all of Oklahoma City’s eating establishments.
The Greensboro Four
On February 1, 1960, four freshman students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down at a “white’s only” lunch counter inside a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ordered coffee. They were refused, and the manager asked them to leave. The four men stayed at the counter until the store closed. The next day, more than 20 black students accompanied the men as they returned to the store, and joined in the sit-in. They read books, ignored heckling by white patrons, and were again refused service. This second day of peaceful demonstrations was covered by reporters, and on the 3rd day more than 60 people came to the store. Woolworth’s national headquarters issued a statement saying that the company would “abide by local custom” and would maintain its segregated policy. On the 4th day, more than 300 people took part, so many that they split the protest between Woolworth’s and the lunch counter inside Greensboro’s Kress store. The “Greensboro Four,” while not the first to use the sit-in, sparked the movement into something larger. Within a weak there were sit-ins all across North Carolina. The peaceful protests soon spread to Virginia and Tennessee. Tensions in Greensboro grew, but the students then began a boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Lunch sales at these establishments dropped by a third, forcing the store owners to abandon their segregation policies. Although violence did occur in some instances, the majority of these transitions occurred peacefully. Also during this time, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed in Raleigh, North Carolina. This group of young men and women would have a significant impact on the civil rights movement in the coming years.
In October 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. and fifty others were arrested at a sit-in at Atlanta’s Rich’s Department Store. On probation for earlier infractions, King’s probation was revoked, and he was transferred to Reidsville State Prison. On the 26th, just days before the Presidential election, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy telephoned King’s wife Coretta and expressed his concern over the situation. King was freed on bond largely after intervention from Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate’s brother and campaign manager. King’s father publicly announced he was changing his support from Nixon to Kennedy. After one of the closest elections in history, the young Senator from Massachusetts assumed the executive legacy of America’s civil rights history.
The Road Ahead
Before the inauguration, another U.S. Supreme Court decision came down that would shape much of the civil rights history of the coming years. On December 5, in Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial segregation in bus terminals violated the Interstate Commerce Act and was illegal. This ruling, in combination with the 1955 Keys v. Carolina Coach decision, effectively outlawed segregation on interstate buses and at the terminals servicing such buses. Well into 1961, however, these rulings were largely being ignored. Beginning that year, young civil rights activists, black and white, would ride buses into the south and test the Boynton decision. These dangerous journeys were known as the Freedom Rides.
Black Athletes, Movies Stars, and Musicians
The postwar years was the era of the integration of America’s professional sports. Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Bill Willis and others became household names. Beyond sports, black movie stars made had significant cultural milestones during the decade, while television appearances remained typed and relatively rare. Music, particularly rock and roll, had a unifying influence on the youth culture of America. The postwar era coincided with congressional anti-Communism investigations, and black writers and performers were investigated for having expressed sympathy for communism, an ideology that claimed it eschewed racism.
Black Athletes in the Civil Rights Era
Football: The sport was integrated in 1946. That year, 4 black athletes took to the professional gridiron. Bill Willis, playing for the Cleveland Browns, is considered to be the first black starter in football. Marion Motley played for the Browns that year, while Kenny Washington and Woody Strode played for the Los Angeles Rams. Strode would go on to a career in film.
Baseball: In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and played with their farm team in Montreal. The following year, six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues, where he played initially as a first baseman. Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field in front of 26,623 spectators, including 14,000 African Americans. Robinson’s presence caused some racial tension amongst his teammates, until Dodgers management sent a clear message. Manager Leo Durocher told the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” The Baseball Commissioner and the National League President squelched a potential strike by racist players by threatening to suspend them. Nevertheless, Robinson endured racial abuse from both fans and players. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Phillies players called Robinson a “nigger” from their dugout and yelled that he should “go back to the cotton fields”. On May 14, on the Dodgers’ first visit of the season to Cincinnati, Robinson was subjected to a torrent of racial abuse from fans. They also hurled insults at teammate Pee Wee Reece, because Reece was a Southerner, born just across the river from Cincinnati in Kentucky, and here he was “playing ball with a nigger,” Robinson later recalled. During the episode, Pee Wee left his position and walked over to Robinson at second base. He put his arm around his shoulder and stood talking until the jeering stopped. Robinson recounted these episodes in a later interview.
Robinson endured the taunts and death threats stoically, however, and his flawless fielding at first base, timely hitting, and 29 stolen bases helped the Dodgers capture the National League pennant and won him the title Rookie of the Year. Two years later, in 1949, he won the batting championship with a .342 average and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Golf: In 1948, Ted Rhodes became the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open golf championships since John Shippen prior to WWI. Charlie Sifford was the first black American to receive tour playing privileges, in 1961.
Basketball: Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted in NBA history in 1950. Cooper was picked in the second round of the draft by the Boston Celtics. In the eighth round, Earl Lloyd was picked by Washington. Later, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was signed by the New York Knicks. Lloyd made his debut first, on October 31, 1950.
Tennis: In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first black American to compete at any of tennis’ “majors,” at the U.S. Championships. On August 28, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 in the first round. She was escorted off the court by former champion Alice Marble, and a mixed crowd of smiling fans. The following year Gibson also competed at Wimbledon. She became the first African American, man or woman, to win a major at the 1956 French Open. By the end of the 1958 season she had added two Wimbledon and two U.S. Championships in singles competition, as well as 6 major doubles titles.
Hockey: In 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first back to play in professional hockey, with the Boston Bruins. O’Ree was not an African American, however, as he held Canadian citizenship. O’Ree noted that “racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.” He would remain the only black to have played professional hockey for 15 years.
Although many stereotypes of African Americans were still prevalent during this time period, some gains were made. An example of the former is the Walt Disney postwar film, Song of the South, in which a Civil War era Uncle Tom character named Uncle Remus regales the cute master’s children with Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby stories, and one famous song of slave hyper-contentedness called “Zip A Dee Doo Dah”. On the other hand, James Baskett was the first black male actor to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award, for his performance as Uncle Remus. Following that film, however, Hollywood began to examine race issues, including tensions between African Americans and whites, and the issues of race and self-identity. 1949 alone saw 3 such movies: Intruder in the Dust, Lost Boundaries, and Pinky. In 1950, Sidney Poitier starred in No Way Out, a racial thriller about a black doctor who operates on two white racists, setting off a violent chain reaction of events. In 1954, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge starred in Carmen Jones, directed by Otto Preminger. This update of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen featured an all black cast, with rousing musical performances. Additionally, the two co-stars were perhaps the first on-screen black couple whose sex appeal clearly cut across the color line. Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category, but lost to Grace Kelly.
Dandridge and Belafonte also were paired together in Island in the Sun (1957), a film that explored interracial romance in the Caribbean. The film, however, was fraught with compromises. The onscreen romance between Dandridge and actor John Justin, who played a white British diplomat , was not allowed to progress beyond dancing and a brief physical embrace. At one emotional moment they move in for the kiss, but end up just rubbing cheeks. A handshake between Harry Belafonte and white actress Joan Fontaine was the only on-screen physical contact they were allowed. One wonders why director producer Darryl F. Zanuck even took on this subject if
he was going to cave in to political pressure. Despite the compromises made, the miscegenation theme was enough for the South Carolina legislature to introduce a bill to fine any movie house $5,000 for showing it. The bill failed, but many Southern theater owners rejected the film anyway. Yet the Dandridge-Justin scene was the first one in which a black woman was held in the arms of a white man in an American movie, making the film culturally significant. Dandridge, under contract to 20th Century Fox, was a star that they didn’t know what to do with. She was continually frustrated by a lack of roles, and her career declined. Harry Belafonte also participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held in Washington, DC on May 17, 1957, appearing with Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr.
McCarthyism put a chill on Hollywood’s penchant for examining social issues, and no more films about race relations in America were released until 1958’s The Defiant Ones, a groundbreaking film with a plot centering on two escaped convicts, one white and one black, who are chained together. Although they despise each other, their circumstances force them to rely in each other for survival. By the end of the film the two have gotten to know each other as human beings, and have even forged a friendship. For his role, Sidney Poitier became the first African American male actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. He would go on to a successful and culturally significant career in the 1960s.
The Defiant Ones was followed by Imitation of Life and I Passed For White, two films that explored race and self-identity. In 1960, Sergeant Rutledge was released, about an African-American “buffalo soldier” accused of rape and murder, starring former football player Woody Strode. Rutledge is successfully defended in his 1881 all-white jury trial by a white officer. Witnesses give testimony relived in flashbacks, revealing the sergeant’s gallantry and eventually the shocking truth–that a white man raped the girl.
The 1950s was something of a transitional decade for African Americans in film. Although stereotypes continue to crop up to this day (especially the coon & the brute), their prevalence in Hollywood was largely coming to an end the 50s. Sidney Poitier, in particular, would forge new ground in the coming decade.
The 1950s was the decade in which television transfixed Americans. A luxury item that many African American families, largely left out the the burgeoning middle class consumerism, couldn’t afford. 1950s television programming, paid for by advertising dollars, largely reflected the sponsor’s target demographic. Black characters were rare and mostly in the background. The first television show to star a black actor was Beulah, which ran for 3 seasons on ABC from 1950-1952. Beulah had evolved from radio, where Hattie McDaniel of Gone With the Wind fame played the title character beginning in 1947, also a first for radio. In the television show the main character was first played by Ethel Waters, and then by Louise Beavers. Beulah, the so-called “queen of the kitchen,” was a mammy caricature, the loyal domestic servant of legend that originated during the days of slavery. In the modern setting, she toiled for the white Henderson family. Part of the show revolved around her never-ending efforts at getting her boyfriend Bill to marry her, who always found some coonish way out of the agreement. Although it was significant that a television show named after and featuring a black character existed as early as 1950, Beulah’s main role was the self-sacrificing problem-solver for the Hendersons, and she essentially served to modernize the mammy caricature to white, middle class viewers.
Over on the CBS network, a television version of the long-running radio staple, The Amos ‘n Andy Show was produced from June 1951 to April 1953. Although the radio show had been done by white actors applying voice talents they learned from the minstrel show genre of entertainment, the visual aspect of television forced CBS to cast black actors in the series. In an ironic twist, these black actors were told to sound as close as possible like the white actors who played black characters on the radio. Although the radio show had sponsored some criticism, those protests paled in comparison to the critical response to the television show. The NAACP mounted a formal protest over the show’s coon caricatures, saying that the show “tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed or prejudiced peoples that Negroes and other minorities are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.” They called for a boycott of the sponsor’s product, Blatz beer. The show lasted only 3 seasons, but was shown in syndication until 1966, when pressure from the civil rights movement finally forced it off the air.
Rock and Roll
As one documentary on the history of African American caricatures put it, “black song and dance has long been held in mythical esteem by whites.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Black blues, jazz, and big band artists achieved mainstream commercial success. Count Basie and Duke Ellington were legends, as were black singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.
In the 1950s a new genre of popular music evolved out of a combination of blues, country, jazz, and gospel music. This new sound, which came to be called rock and roll, was adopted by the youth culture of the 1950s. This phenomenon represented a new level of cultural fusion in the United Sates. Although the genre’s biggest stars would be white musicians who sounded like the black “race music” artists (and often recorded covers of songs written and recorded by black artists), several black rock and roll stars emerged during this era. The artist credited with fusing blues into rock and roll is Bo Diddley, whose guitar work was also influential on artists such as Jimmy Hendrix in later years. In 1955 Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he infuriated the host by playing a song that was not one that Sullivan had requested.
Fats Dominoe sold a million copies of “The Fat Man” in 1949, but he really achieved pop mainstream success with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955, and he achieved his biggest hit the following year with “Blueberry Hill.” Dominoe eventually had 37 top 40 singles. Little Richard produced amazing, explosive performances on such classics as “Tutti Frutti,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and when audiences went to see him, they typically started out segregated, but ended up all mixed together in a shared cultural experience. Lloyd Price had a string of hits in the late 1950s, although he is best remembered for an earlier rocker, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” from 1952. Southern racists created PSAs to warn the public that “Rock n Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation. It is sexualistic, unmoralistic and … brings people of both races together.”
Much of the late 50s belonged to Chuck Berry, whose top ten hits from that era include “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” In 1959, the Motown record label was founded, destined to take black mainstream music to a new level, and black R&B artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke also enjoyed mainstream success in the late 1950s. In 1956, Nat King Cole hosted the first show of The Nat King Cole Show. The show went off the air after only 13 months because no national sponsor could be found. However, Black rock and roll artists did enter the homes of millions of American teenagers through the medium of television, appearing and performing on such pioneering shows as Alan Freed, Ed Sullivan, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The success of both white and black rock and roll artists and the appropriation of the genre by the youth culture encouraged racial cooperation and shared experience.
Anti-Communism Actions & Black Americans
In 1949, Jackie Robinson was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At issue were public statements by singer/actor Paul Robeson, that Black Americans would be sympathetic to a communist form of government because the ideology was incongruous with racism. The baseball player acknowledged that minorities suffered greatly in America, but denied that the Black mainstream would ever consider propagating communism in the United States. Critics, citing Paul Robeson as an example, disagreed.
Paul Robeson was one of the most celebrated Americans of his generation. He went to Rutgers University on a scholarship, where he earned 15 varsity letters, was an All-American in football, was one of only 3 classmates accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated as class valedictorian. He then earned a law degree at Columbia in New York. He was said to be conversant in 20 languages. Robeson was widely recognized as one of the country’s most talented baritones, and a fine actor, but Hollywood tended to cast him in demeaning stereotyped slave and servant roles, virtually the only roles available for black actors at the time. Robeson spoke openly about the endemic racism of American society, and he was an activist against lynching. Robeson found solidarity with the anti-racist ideology of communism. He joined the Communist Party of America, traveled frequently to the Soviet Union, and was under surveillance by the FBI for much of his life. In 1948 he was investigated by HUAC, which attempted to cite him for refusal to sign a non-communist declaration. On May 31, 1948, Robeson testified before the U.S. Senate against the Mundt-Nixon Bill, which had passed the House ten days earlier. Mundt-Nixon would require all members of the Communist Party of the United States to register with the government. The bill died, but was taken up a few years later and parts of it were incorporated into the McCarran Act.
In 1949, a riot broke out at a Robeson concert at Peekskill, New York. The concert was to benefit the Civil Rights Congress, and it was opposed by anti-Communist and anti-civil rights members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters and by local residents. The concert had originally been scheduled for August 27, but was postponed until September 4 after a white mob attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. On
the 4th, the concert went on without trouble, but as patrons were exiting the event they were attacked by a white mob who chanted “Go back to Russia you white Niggers” and “Dirty Kikes,” while throwing rocks through the windshields of cars and buses. Some were reportedly dragged from their cars and beaten. Police and New York state troopers were caught on film joining in the beatings of concert goers, including WWI decorated aviator Eugene Bullard.
By 1950, the U.S. government believed that a blacklisted existence inside the United States borders would offer Robeson less freedom of expression than his presence internationally would, and so the State Department denied Robeson a passport, effectively confining him to the United States until the Supreme Court banned such practices in 1958. During this time Robeson gave several symbolic concerts. One was at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and British Columbia on May 18, 1952. Robeson performed on the back of a flat bed truck on the U.S. side of the border to a crowd of around 30,000 on the Canadian side. He repeated the concert the following year. In 1957 Robeson sang over the telephone to 5,000 at the annual Eisteddfod Music Festival in Wales, where he had been invited to perform by Welsh miners.
In 1956, Robeson again appeared before HUAC. He pleaded Constitutional immunity when queried about alleged affiliations and associations and then denounced America and the congressional Committee, accusing the latter of being unpatriotic and Un-American. He told them, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” In 1957, Robeson and his wife appeared with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held in Washington, DC, but by this time he was seen as a liability to the civil rights cause and was largely ignored. Robeson’s popularity among black Americans re-emerged with the 1958 publication of his autobiography, Here I Stand. He was honored as a civil rights pioneer on the occasions of his 70th and 75th birthdays, and when he died in 1976, 2,500 attended his funeral. Surprisingly little media of Robeson exists. This is because he was actively purged from the historical record during the 50s and 60s because of his political views.
Josephine Baker was an African American entertainer who grew up on the 1920s vaudeville circuit and, after moving to Paris in 1925, gradually became a glamorous European star. Although she was American, she was often cast in the role of the French colonial African, and many of her European fans came to see her that way. During WWII she earned high honors through her work with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French. After the war she developed into a masterful night club performer. When Baker returned to the U.S. for a 1951 tour, she used her status to force the integration of the clubs where she performed. She also spoke at a rally in defense of Willie McGee, a Southern black who was executed for allegedly raping a white woman. In July, she staged a citizen’s arrest of a Dallas salesman who publicly refused to patron a Los Angeles hotel that accepted blacks. Baker was harassed by the U.S. government, but remained politically active until her death in 1975.
Another Black American impacted by the anti-communism politics of the postwar years was writer and poet Langston Hughes. Like Robeson, Hughes was drawn to the anti-racism ideology of communism. In 1932, at one of the worst moments in the history of capitalism, he was part of a group of African Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union. Hughes was also active in promoting the injustice surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Boys. He was politically active during the rest of the decade promoting causes that were supported by communist organizations. Hughes was against American involvement in WWII because of the hypocrisy of fighting for injustices perpetrated by Fascism. He ultimately changed his mind and came to support the war effort as an opportunity for Black American to promote their own civil rights at home. When considered as a whole, Hughes seems to have been more of a Communist sympathizer than an activist. Unlike Robeson, he did not join the Communist Party of the United States. After the war, Hughes denied that he was a Communist. In 1950 he was listed in the right-wing anti-Communist publication, Red Channels. In 1953 he was called before Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Subsequently, he distanced himself from Communism. Also in 1953, Hughes participated in an interracial intergroup educational conference held at the Downtown Community School in Manhattan. In this clip, he discusses the creation of his character Simple, Hughes’ main vehicle for political thought and observations about American society.
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