The first moments of a recent documentary about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Rebels With a Cause, recall one of the signal images of the 1960s civil rights struggle: police training torrents of water from fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. According to its makers, the student New Left and the antiwar movement derived their principal inspiration from the struggle for black freedom.
In this phase of the movement blacks and their allies sought three rights: integrated public schools; desegregation of public accommodations such as trains and buses, restrooms and water fountains, restaurants and, in much of the South, the right to walk down a street unmolested; and perhaps most important, voting rights. Nearly forty years later the Birmingham confrontation reminds us not only of the violence of Southern resistance to these elementary components of black freedom but also how clear-cut the issues were. The simple justice embodied in these demands had lurked on the margins of political life since the 1870s betrayal of black Reconstruction by politicians and their masters, Northern industrialists. Not that proponents of black freedom were quiescent in the interim. But despite some victories and defeats, mainly in the fight against lynching and legal frame-ups, these demands remained controversial and were largely sidelined. In 1940 Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and many other regions of America.
World War II and its aftermath changed all that. Under threat of a March on Washington by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters union and other black leaders, in 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in military-industry hiring. But when millions of black veterans returned from the war and found that America had returned to business as usual–even as the United States was embroiled in a cold war, claiming to be at the forefront of freedom and democracy–pressure mounted for a massive assault on discrimination and segregation. Shrewdly looking forward to an uphill re-election battle, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, and the turbulent 1948 Democratic convention passed the strongest civil rights plank of any party since the Radical Reconstruction laws of 1866. Consequently, the party suffered the first of what became a long line of defecting Southern political leaders when Strom Thurmond bolted and ran as the Dixiecrat Party candidate for President. In the early 1950s the NAACP mounted a series of legal cases against school segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, sustaining the plaintiffs’ claim that the historic Court doctrine of “separate but equal” was untenable. The Court agreed that school integration was the only way to guarantee equal education to black children. The next year an NAACP activist, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus–a disobedience that sparked a monumental boycott that finally ended in victory for the black community. In 1962, flanked by federal troops, James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi, and, under similar circumstances, a black woman named Autherine Lucy broke the color bar at the University of Alabama.