History as It Happened

MODULE SIX: 1945-1965

DBQ: Was the overall strategy of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s successful? Describe at least four tactics that civil-rights leaders deployed during the period and evaluate their contributions to the movement’s effectiveness.


Source: “Negro Rights and the Supreme Court,” by Earl Dickerson, The Nation, July 12, 1952

The basis of the court’s failure to protect Negro rights is its refusal or inability to recognize that due process of law and equal justice are impossible in a climate of opinion which accepts and even exalts segregation. Illustrations of its apparent blindness to this fact are found in the Martinsville Seven and McGee decisions. In both these cases, the court was presented with substantive historical evidence that while many Negroes had been put to death following convictions for rape in the prosecuting states, no white person so convicted had ever been executed. [The court] refused, however, to review the sentences, and the Negro defendants were executed. Clearly the court must be made to see what is becoming increasingly evident to the American people—that the promise of equal justice for all will remain a fiction as long as segregation is tolerated. And as long as Negroes can obtain only unequal justice, the Fourteenth Amendment is deprived of a large part of its intended substance as a guarantor of the rights of national citizenship.


Source: “Washington in Focus,” by Max Freedman, The Nation, April 16, 1955

When the Supreme Court was hearing the segregation cases last year there was one exchange between leading counsel on both sides that touched the central dilemma. Mr. John W. Davis cautioned the opponents of segregation to beware of the perils of hasty reform which might provoke a revulsion that would endanger many of the social gains won by Negroes in recent years. Mr. Thurgood Marshall replied that Mr. Davis was simply trying to persuade the court that it is unwise to interfere with any wrong provided its pedigree is sufficiently old. By a unanimous verdict the Supreme Court last May ruled that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. But the issue raised by Mr. Davis still awaits adjudication. The court must still decide on the most orderly transition from the segregated schools to the unified system.


Source: “The Montgomery Boycott,” unsigned editorial, The Nation, February 11, 1956

Since December 5 some 40,000 Negroes in the “Cradle of the Confederacy” [Montgomery, Alabama] have declined to patronize the bus line, in protest against seating practices that allow drivers to uproot Negro riders at will (see The Nation, December 24, 1955). They are not challenging segregation per se, but are only seeking a first-come first-served allocation of seats on a racial basis. They have formed a jitney service of several hundred cars, have shared rides, and have simply walked. The solidarity, the good order and the high spirits they demonstrate are what especially gall local white supremacists. The seating arrangement they demand is that existing in most Southern cities.


Source: “Prison Notes of a Freedom Rider,” by Robert Martinson, The Nation, January 6, 1962

The freedom rides began as an effort to enforce the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case, but quickly developed into a prolonged, nation-wide campaign to fill the jails of Mississippi. This strategic shift in emphasis—from Freedom Ride to “jail-in”—was improvised under great pressure as a response to the unyielding tactics of Southern officialdom. Against the deadly reality of a “century of litigation” there seems to be no alternative to direct action.

Any form of direct action in the South today may lead to jailings. (The mass arrest of hundreds in Albany, Georgia, and New Orleans are only the most dramatic recent cases in point.) Nevertheless, the “jail-in”—a deliberate, planned effort to fill the jails—is something new.


Source 5: “Freedom Riders to the Polls,” by Staughton Lynd, The Nation, July 28, 1962

At the weeklong convention here [in Atlanta] of the NAACP, delegates repeatedly heard their leaders tell them to “go political.” “The ballot is one of the most vital instruments of power,” said Bishop Spottswood, chairman of the board of directors. Clarence Mitchell, director of the organization’s Washington bureau, spoke of a “Civil Rights Party” to open the way for more than token appointment of Negroes to high political positions. “If you think you will ever get these things without the ballot,” echoed James Nabrit, president of Howard University, “you don’t belong in the twentieth century.”


Source: “Hammer of Civil Rights,” by Martin Luther King Jr., The Nation, March 9, 1964

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 foundation 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 things that civil rights 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…[that] 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.


Source: “Mayor Daley Meets the Movement,” by Lois Wille, The Nation, August 30, 1965

It’s like the early black-white confrontations in the South—and that’s precisely the point of this dramatic shift in Chicago civil rights demonstrations. By moving the battleground to the Mayor’s sidewalk, the marchers hope to mold the city’s sporadic and somewhat aimless protests into the first genuine civil rights movement in any Northern city.

“The shock of Negroes walking into [the Chicago neighborhood of] Bridgeport must be compared to the shock of the first Southern demonstrations when Negroes walked downtown en masse,” says one member of the Chicago civil rights’ brain trust. “It’s a whole new concept for the North.”