Exactly one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation for them, Negroes wrote their own document of freedom in their own way. In 1963, the civil rights movement coalesced around a technique for social change, nonviolent direct action. It elevated jobs and other economic issues to the summit, where earlier it had placed discrimination and suffrage. It thereby forged episodic social protest into the hammer of social revolution.
Within a few months, more than 1,000 American cities and towns were shaken by street demonstrations, and more than 20,000 nonviolent resistors went to jail. Nothing in the Negro’s history, save the era of Reconstruction, equals in intensity, breadth and power this matchless upheaval. For weeks it held spellbound, not only this country, but the entire world. What had moved the nation’s foundations was a genuinely new force in American life. Negro power had matured and was dynamically asserting itself.
The impact of this new strength, expressed on a new level, means among other thing that the civil rights issue can never again be thrust into the background. There will not be “One hundred years of litigation,” that cynical threat of the segregationists. Nor will there be easy compromises which divert and stagnate the movement. The problem will now be faced and solved or it will without pause torment and agonize the political and social life of the nation.
In the past two decades, the contemporary world entered a new era characterized by multifaceted struggles for human rights. Continents erupt under the pressures of a billion people pressing in from the past to enter modern society. In nations of both the East and the West, long-established political and social structures were fissured and changed. The issues of human rights and individual freedom challenged forms of government as dissimilar as those of the Soviet Union, colonial Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.
The Negro freedom movement reflects this world upheaval within the United States. It is a component of a world era of change, and that is the source of its strength and durability. Against this background the civil rights issue confronts the 89th Congress and the Presidential campaign of 1964.
Earlier civil rights legislation was cautiously and narrowly drawn, designed primarily to anticipate and avoid Negro protest. It had a double and contradictory objective: to limit change, and yet to muffle protest. The earlier legislation was conceived and debated under essentially calm conditions. The bill now pending in Congress is the child of a storm, the product of the most turbulent motion the nation has ever known in peacetime.
Congress has already recognized that this legislation is imbued with an urgency from which there is no easy escape. The new level of strength in the civil rights movement is expressed in plans it has already formulated to intervene in the Congressional deliberations at the critical and necessary points. It is more significantly expressed in plans to guarantee the bill’s implementation when it is enacted. And reserve plans exist to exact political consequences if the bill is defeated or emasculated.