1956

1958

1957

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Founded (Jan)
Robert Williams & Armed Self-Defense in Monroe NC (1957-1961)
Prayer Pilgrimage to DC for Civil Rights (May)
Royal Ice Cream Sit-in — Durham, NC (June)
Tuskegee Merchant Boycott (1957-1961)
Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme
Civil Rights Act of 1957 (September)
The Little Rock Nine (September)

 

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Founded (Aug)

In the immediate aftermath of the December 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott victory, Dr. King convenes a meeting at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta on January 10-11, 1957. Calling themselves the Southern Leaders Conference on Transportation and Non-Violent Integration, the 60 Black ministers from across the South discuss coordinating protests against segregation, promote nonviolence as a strategy, and provide mutual aid in time of struggle (see Southern Negroes Leaders Conference Agenda). They issue a Statement to the South and Nation.

After discussions with Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Joeseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other advisors, Dr. King convenes a second meeting in August to form a permanent organization. Initially, the new organization is named "Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration" but is soon changed to "Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (SCLC)

Unlike the NAACP and CORE, where individuals join and work through local chapters, SCLC is an organization of affiliates which are either community organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHMR), or individual churches or other entities. SCLC is governed by an elected Board, and establishes a small office on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

Throughout the South, only a handful of Black churches affiliate with SCLC. Ministers, deacons, and church elders know that association with SCLC and Dr. King puts them at grave risk from the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council — and the state. For generations, the South has been ruled by a reign of terror, and those who challenge the status-quo face evictions, firings, boycotts, beatings, false arrest, church burnings — and death.

There are also deep divisions within the religious community over the proper role of religion and the church. Many ministers hold that churches should focus only on the spiritual needs of their congregation and performing charitable works to aid the needy. Some view Dr. King and SCLC as dangerous "radicals" because they challenge segregation and engage in social-political-economic action in the community and nation. Others take the position that segregation should be challenged in the courts and that Direct Action — protests, boycotts, marches — endanger everyone and make the situation worse. Over the years that follow, some communities are bitterly divided between those churches that support the Freedom Movement and those that urge their members to "stay out of that mess." This ideologic struggle over the role of religion in secular affairs is intense, and continues in various forms to this day.

For more information on SCLC:
Books: SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) for partial list of books.
Web:
     Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for web links.
     SCLC Documents
     SCLC Constitution & Bylaws

 

Robert Williams & Armed Self-Defense in Monroe NC

After returning to North Carolina from military service in WWII, Robert F. Williams organizes the Union County Branch of the NAACP. After a Black child drowns in an unsupervised swimming-hole in 1957, they ask that Blacks be allowed to use Monroe's city-owned swimming pool one day a week. The city council refuses on the grounds that if Blacks use the pool the water has to be drained and replaced before white children can use it. Williams leads a group of Black children who attempt to integrate the tax-supported pool. Monroe is a center of Ku Klux Klan activity, and they threaten to kill the parents of the Black children. Williams organizes Black military veterans into armed self-defense teams. KKK night-riders attack a Black neighborhood but are driven off.

In 1958, two Black boys (ages 7 and 9) are seen kissing a 9 year old white girl on the cheek while playing together. They are convicted of "rape" under North Carolina's anti-miscengenation laws. They are sentenced to reform school. Williams organizes their legal defense in what becomes widely known as the "Kissing Case." He brings in a civil rights lawyer to plead their cause. He also widely publicizes the case, creating international condemnation of Southern racism. Protest demonstrations are held in Paris, Rome, Rotterdam, and Vienna to the embarassment of the U.S. Department of State. Eventually, the Federal government orders the two boys released.

Because he advocates armed self-defense, Williams is suspended by the NAACP. He responds that he is calling for self-defense, not acts of war: "We as men should stand up as men and protect our women and children. I am a man, and I will walk upright as a man should. I will not crawl." Though he's an advocate of nonviolence, Dr. King acknowledges that Blacks have a right to defend themselves against attack, "When the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support — he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects."

See Frame-up, Escape, & Exile of Robert F. Williams (1961-1969) for continuation of events.

For more information on the Monroe Civil Rights Movement:
Books:
     Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power
     Negroes With Guns
Web: Monroe NC Movement & Self-Defense
Documents:
     Swimming Pool Showdown, Robert Williams. Southern Exposure
     The Single Issue in the Robert Williams Case, NAACP

 

Prayer Pilgrimage to DC for Civil Rights
Photo

CORE leads a "Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington" from Richmond, VA to Washington, DC to protest the closing of public schools in Virginia to avoid court-ordered desegregation.

On May 17, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Dr. King, and others organize demand that Eisenhower enforce the Supreme Court's Brown decision and pass effective civil rights legislation in 1957. This is an effort to counter the South's "Massive Resistance" anti-integration strategy and oppose the Court's "Brown II" ("All Deliberate Speed") ruling.

Drawn from Movement, religious, labor, and student organizations, 30,000 people rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 3rd anniversary of the Brown ruling. This is the largest civil rights demonstration up to this time. In her first (but not her last) involvement with the Movement, gospel-great Mahalia Jackson sings for the crowd. Dr. King gives his first major speech to a national audience outside of Alabama.

Similar, "Youth Marches for Integrated Schools" come to Washington in 1958, and 1960.

For more information:
Web:
     "Give Us the Ballot" Address (King Papers Project, Stanford University)
     Prayer Pilgrimage For Freedom (CRDL ~ Univ. Georgia)

 

Royal Ice Cream Sit-in — Durham, NC (June)
Photos

In 1957, the Royal Ice Cream parlor occupies the corner of Dowd and Roxboro streets in Durham, North Carolina. The main entrance on the corner is for "Whites Only," the back door on Roxboro is for "Colored." A partition divides the parlor, separating the races into two sections. The ice cream is the same for everyone.

On June 23, Rev. Douglas Moore, the 28-year old pastor of Asbury Temple Methodist Church, leads six young Black men and women into the parlor and they take seats in the "White" section. Joining Moore are students Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, Claude Glenn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Virginia Williams and Melvin Willis. They are ordered to go sit in "their" section. Politely, nonviolently, they refuse. They are ordered to leave. They refuse. The manager calls the cops. They are arrested.

[Historic note: The term "sit-in" has not yet come into wide use, so they are identified in the press as "strikers."]

Moore had been a classmate of Martin Luther King at Boston University where as students they had discussed and argued the use of nonviolent direct action against segregation. Years later, he explained: "I was more educated than most of the Whites that segregated against us. I was just tired of riding on the back of transportations, walking through colored entrances, sipping out of different water fountains, and made to feel by other Black folk that it was okay."

The next day the "Royal Seven" are convicted of trespassing and fined $10 plus court costs. According to the prosecutor, segregation laws provide the legal justification for charging prospective customers with "trespass." The seven appeal to Superior Court and demand a jury trial. An all-white jury again convicts them. They appeal to the state Supreme Court which upholds the guilty verdicts based on segregation ordinances. They appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court which refuses to hear their case. They end up paying $433 in fines (equal to $3,500 in 2012).

See Durham Sit-ins and Protests 1960-61 for subsequent events.

For more information:
Books: North Carolina Movement
Web: North Carolina Movement

 

Tuskegee Merchant Boycott (1957-1961)

In the mid-1950s, Macon County AL — home of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) — is 84% Black, though few Blacks are registered to vote. The town of Tuskegee is also mostly Black, but whites own all the businesses and hold all municipal offices. Blacks associated with the Institute begin a voter registration drive that has some success, which means that they are eligible to vote in the next municipal election. To prevent them from electing Black city officials, the Alabama legislature redraws the Tuskegee town boundaries from a simple square to a twisted, 27-sided, "gerrymandered" shape that excludes the Institute and all but a handful of Black voters.

In response to the legislature's action, the Institute's college-educated Blacks unite with the town's working-poor Blacks. 3,000 Tuskegee citizens meet at Butler Chapel in June of 1957. Under the leadership of professor Charles Gomillion, they call for a "Crusade for Citizenship" and launch a "Trade with Friends" economic boycott of the white-owned stores in Tuskegee. "We are going to buy goods and services from those who help us, from those who make no effort to hinder us, from those who recognize us as first-class citizens," states Gomillion.

The boycott lasts four years, with Blacks making the 80-mile round trip to Montgomery to buy food, clothing, and other necessities. It is highly effective, with devastating economic consequences for the white merchants who would rather go out of business than allow Blacks to vote. The boycott ends in 1961 when the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that gerrymandering districts to restrict Blacks from voting is unconstitutional and the old town boundaries are restored.

For more information on the Tuskegee Civil Rights Movement:
Web: Butler Chapel AME Zion Church (Tuskegee) (National Park Service)

 

Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme

See Clinton, Tennessee — First White School Desegregated preceding events.

The "Brown II" ("All Deliberate Speed") ruling provided loopholes that local school districts can use to delay and prevent effective school desegregation as required by the first "Brown" decision. One example is Nashville TN's "Grade-a-Year" desegregation plan.

Under the Nashville Plan, a single grade is to be desegregated each year, starting with 1st Grade. This means that desegregation will only apply to students enrolling in 1st Grade the following year, and never apply to the grade of any child who is already enrolled in a segregated school. The plan permits parents to transfer their children out of any school where the majority of students are of a different race (in other words, white kids will not have to attend a school where the majority of students are Black). The Board of Education then gerrymanders the school district boundaries so that only a small fraction of Black children are eligible to enroll in the 1st Grade of a formerly all-white school.

A number of Southern school systems copy or adapt the Nashville Plan. Other systems use other methods to evade real desegregation using the loopholes opened by "Brown II."

See The Little Rock Nine for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web:
A First Step Toward School Integration, Ann Holden, Nashville CORE
School Desegregation

 

Civil Rights Act of 1957 (August)

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 is debated and passed in the context of an awakening freedom movement — the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Talahassee, and other cities, the voting struggle in Tuskegee, the Brown and "Brown II" decisions, the Massive Resistance campaign, and the looming desegregation crises in Little Rock, along with many other events. This young movement is beginning to focus public attention on issues of race, rights, and justice that Congress has avoided since the end of Reconstruction in 1876.

Politically, it has been more than 80 years since any civil rights legislation has been enacted into law. After Reconstruction, the "Jim Crow" system of anti-Black segregation, voter disenfranchisement, and denial of fundamental human rights was imposed across the South (and other regions). All efforts to pass Federal, race-related civil rights legislation that would in any way limit white supremacy (such as anti-lynching laws or the repeal of poll-taxes) have been blocked in the Senate by Southern filibusters.

In 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) is preparing his run for the Presidency in 1960. In his 20 years in office, Johnson has never voted for a civil rights bill or amendment. But with the fledgling Freedom Movement beginning to stir, he knows that he cannot win the Democratic nomination if he is seen in the North as opposing civil rights for Blacks. Yet to win the nomination he also needs the support of the "solid South" — the segregationists.

In March of 1957, Eisenhower's Attorney General proposes a civil rights bill that strengthens the Federal government's ability to protect civil rights, permits moving civil rights cases from state to Federal court, authorizes the Justice Department to file lawsuits to protect civil rights, prevents interference with the right to vote, and applies Federal election law to primaries and special elections. The draft bill has broad bipartisan support from Republicans and Northern Democrats.

Using his power as "Master of the Senate," LBJ maneuvers to gut the bill of all significant provisions. Most significantly, he strips out Title III. This section empowers the Federal government to act on its own to enforce court orders and previous civil rights legislation. It would allow the Justice Department to file civil rights suits on behalf of the public, move civil rights related cases from state to Federal court, and give the U.S. government the power to intervene directly in southern racial issues.

Without that power, the Attorney General cannot take action against racial discrimination until someone files a lawsuit in Federal court. A main purpose of the White Citizens Council is to keep Blacks from doing just that. Blacks who petition a court for racial justice in the South face economic retaliation, beatings, false arrests on trumped up charges, bombings, burnings, and lynching. If no one dares file an enforcement suit, the laws have no effect, and therefore Constitutional protections of Black civil rights are nullified. In other words, without Title III the bill is toothless.

Johnson also eviscerates Part IV which allows contempt of court orders and injunctions to restrain or prevent those who intimidate, threaten, or coerce voters or potential voters. He does this by adding a special provision that anyone brought to court under this section can demand a jury trial (which is normally not the case in Federal civil actions). Since Blacks are systematically excluded from southern juries, and all-white juries almost never rule against other whites in race-related cases, this "jury-trial" clause effectively guts Title IV.

With the bill now so watered down to the point of being meaningless, he convinces the Southern senators that it is better to allow a sham bill to pass without a filibuster rather than risk the outside chance that growing public support for civil rights might be strong enough to break the filibuster and pass a real bill that might actually provide some protection for Blacks. This strategy allows him to pose as a civil rights supporter in the North when he seeks the 1960 nomination, while still retaining the "solid-South" support of the segregationists.

At the end of August, the Civil Rights Act 1957 is passed by Congress and signed into law. From the point of view of the Civil Rights Movement, it's two main provisions:

Though recognizing that passing any race-related civil rights bill is an achievement in itself, most Movement supporters consider the bill "a crumb" and "worse than nothing." Though touted by Johnson as a "voting rights bill," the reality is that fewer Blacks vote in the 1960 election than had voted in 1956. Yet, despite its weaknesses, passage of this national voting rights legislation does reaffirm and strengthen the legal premis that we are all citizens of the nation rather than citizens of the individual states, and that national law can preempt and override state laws regarding voting.

And the law of unintended consequences remains in full force. Though neither LBJ nor anyone else ever intended it, the clause granting Federal courts jurisdiction over matters related to voting rights ends up providing crucial protection for civil rights workers in the 1960s. When field organizers working on voter registration campaigns in the Deep South are falsely arrested on trumped up charges, the Justice Department is able to transfer the cases to Federal court where they disappear. Similarly, when young nonviolent protesters are unjustly arrested, and some connection to voting rights can be made, their cases too are diverted and eventually dropped. The result is that in most situations local sheriffs are unable to halt the Freedom Movement by imprisoning civil rights activists on phoney charges.

Seven years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed. It contains many of the provisions gutted out of the 1957 Act. But during the seven years between 1957 and 1964, many are killed for demanding the right to vote, hundreds are beaten, thousands jailed, and tens of thousands suffer economic retaliation in the struggle for basic human dignity. The Federal government says it does not have the legal authority to stop civil rights abuses. Movement lawyers dispute their claim that they lack legal means to protect American citizens — and most Movement veterans believe that the cause of Federal inaction is political rather than lack of adequate laws — but there is no doubt that had the Civil Rights Act of 1957 been passed in its original form, much of the loss and suffering endured by those who fought for freedom might have been prevented.

For more information:
Book: Part V of Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro. Vintage, 2002
Web: Civil Rights Act — 1957

 

The Little Rock Nine (September)

See Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme for preceding events.

By 1957, "Massive Resistance" to the Brown school desegregation decision is widespread across the South. In Arkansas, NAACP President Daisy Bates organizes the Black community against the Little Rock school board's "All Deliberate Speed" stalling tactics. They force the board to allow a small number of Blacks to enroll in previously all-white Central High School when it opens in September.

Nine courageous Black teenagers volunteer to integrate Central High. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls become known as the "Little Rock Nine." But in truth, they should be known as the "Little Rock Ten" because Daisy Bates stands by them, guides them, protects them, and endures with them the ordeal that follows.

The segregationist White Citizens Council and racist politicians whip up mass hysteria against the plan to desegregate an Arkansas public school. On the first day of school, Governor Orval Faubus orders the state's National Guard to surround Central High and prevent the Black students from entering. NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Wiley Branton win a Federal court ruling ordering that the Nine be admitted. Faubus refuses to obey the order. After 18 days of futile negotiation with Faubus, President Eisenhower finally federalizes the National Guard and orders them to allow the Little Rock Nine to attend class.

The following day a huge crowd of angry whites surround the school determined to prevent any Black child from attending. Violence breaks out when Elizabeth Eckford approaches the building. She is jeered, taunted, and threatened by the mob. The Arkansas National Guard do nothing to protect either her or Black journalists who are viciously attacked and beaten. Eckford's courage, and her grace under fire, become a symbol of pride and determination for a generation of Black youth.

The next day the mob is even more violent. The Nine have to be taken out of school when the Little Rock police cannot protect them. The chief of police requests assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice. Eisenhower sends 1,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to carry out the orders of the federal courts, and protect nine Black children from racist violence. Governor Faubus labels the soldiers an "army of occupation."

Parents of the Little Rock Nine are pressured to withdraw their children from the "white" school. They are threatened with death. Four loose their jobs. But they stand tall and none back down. Applying a tactic used across the South to attack the NAACP, the Little Rock city council orders the arrest of Daisy Bates and other NAACP leaders for refusing to turn over NAACP membership lists and financial data to a government agency (who will then pass it on to the White Citizens Council for economic retaliation).

Inside Central High, day after day, the Little Rock Nine endure cruel hardship and abuse from the white students — beatings, shoving, jeers, insults, and constant humiliation. Their lockers are destroyed and fireballs thrown at them in the restrooms. A lighted stick of dynamite is hurled at Melba Pattillo, she is stabbed, and acid is sprayed in her eyes. Only the quick action of a soldier from the 101st saves her from being permanently blinded. In December, Minnijean Brown is suspended for dumping a bowl of chili on a boy who is taunting her. In January she is expelled for answering back to a taunter. Gleeful white students hand out cards reading: "One down...eight to go!"

Over the following years, throughout the South thousands of other Black children endure similar humiliation, vicious abuse, and cruel injustice when they in their turn are the first Blacks to integrate an all-white school. These school integrators are the unsung heroes and heroines of the Freedom Movement (see also Integrating Americus High School).

The next year, before the September 1958 term begins, Faubus and the state legislature pass a law allowing the Governor to shut down schools and lease them to "private school" corporations as a way of preventing integration. He closes all of Little Rock's high schools. In a referendum where few Blacks are eligible to vote, Little Rock's white citizens support Faubus and oppose integration by a vote of 130,000 to 7,500.

Under intense pressure, two of the Little Rock Nine families are forced to move away. With Ernest Green graduated and the expelled Minnijean Brown now attending Lincoln High in New York, the five remaining students take corresponence courses while waiting for the courts to reopen the schools. A year later (June 1959) the school-closing law is declared unconstitutional and the high schools are reopened for the Fall 1959 term. The five remaining Little Rock Nine students eventually graduate from formerly white-only high schools. But it is not until 1972 — 18 years after the Brown decision and 15 years after the crises at Central High — that all Little Rock public schools are finally integrated.

See Youth March for Integrated Schools — Washington, DC for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation


1956

1958

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