The Civil Rights Movement achieved great successes and suffered bitter failures. Both North and South, freedom was the fundamental goal. Freedom, meaning an end to generations-old race-based systems of political, economic, social, and psychological oppression and exploitation.
In the North, our goal was freedom, but our specific focus was on eliminating employment discrimination, ending residential segregation, and halting northern-style school segregation. In those endeavors we were only partially successful. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation and court rulings halted overt, legally sanctioned race and gender bias in employment. That put a long-desired end to explicit "Colored jobs" and "women's work" occupational categories. But to this day, substantial covert hiring and promotion discrimination continues against people of color, women, seniors, those with disabilities, and those with nontraditional lifestyles or sexual orientations.
Similarly, many overt housing segregation practices and policies on the part of government and business were outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and similar state laws. Explicit racial redlining and most restrictive covenants were eliminated, as was overt racial bias in rentals and home sales by large landlords and developers. But covert methods of segregation continue to to this day. Today, people of color who have the money — and the desire to do so — can usually live outside racial ghettos if they are willing to endure the suspicions and prejudices of white neighbors, merchants, and police. But in most northern cities and suburbs the majority of nonwhites still live in racially defined neighborhoods, though the boundaries of those districts are now diffuse and blurry, no longer delineated with the knife-edge sharpness they had in the 1960s.
Against northern de facto school desegregation based on neighborhood districts drawn by race and economic class, our success was minimal. Despite decades of protests, boycotts, lawsuits, and legislative efforts, northern schools continue to be mostly segregated. And though there are exceptions, by and large the predomominandly Black and Latino schools are underfunded and underserved, with the lowest graduation rates and the fewest students going on to college. In most urban areas, parents and students know which are the "good" schools serving the white middle class and which are the "failing" schools serving nonwhites and poor whites.
In the South, our goal was freedom and our initial demands were eliminating separate white and Colored school systems, eradicating public segregation with its white-only humiliations and restrictions, and ending race-based denial of voting rights. We largely achieved those goals.
In 1857, Supreme Court Justice Taney ruled that "A negro of the African race had no rights which a white man was bound to respect." From that date forward for more than a century, Taney's edict was the governing principle of the southern way of life. The Freedom Movement fundamentally altered and ended that system. From Maryland to Texas, the defiant protests, steadfast courage, and resurgent pride of the African-American community struck a decisive blow against southern-style white supremacy and old Jim Crow. Race relations in the South were permanently altered for the better.
It was Black parents acting through the Freedom Movement who brought the five Brown v. Board of Education cases before the Supreme Court. It was the Freedom Movement that compelled them to re-examine Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine of "separate but equal." It was the Freedom Movement that pressured the court to rule that separate is inherently unequal and that segregated school systems have no place in America. And it was the courage and determination of young school integrators, their parents, and the movement lawyers and activists who supported them, who finally ended the dual-school system in the South — though not without painful, bitter, and sometimes violent struggle.
Today, explicit, legally-mandated racial segregation in higher education no longer exists, though race-related economic barriers still persist. For public grade schools, the results are mixed. Yes, the separate and deeply unequal segregated school systems are now gone. Overt, legally sanctioned segregation was ended. But many whites withdrew their children from the public schools and placed them in segregated private academies that still receive varying degrees of overt and covert state support.
Today in some locations such as Selma Alabama, public school student bodies are almost entirely African-American. In some cases, Blacks comprise 95% or more of the total enrollment with almost all the white kids attending restricted private academies. In other places, such as Grenada Mississippi, it's mostly just the upper-income whites who send their children to private school while less affluent whites go to the thoroughly integrated — but desperately underfunded — public schools. Throughout the South, the great majority of Black children still receive inadequate educations from resource-starved public institutions controlled by authorities more concerned with keeping taxes low than providing a quality education for the have- nots of society.
It was the Freedom Movement that forced Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending overt racial apartheid in America. That act overturned the thousands of state and local segregation laws that mandated who could sit, walk, drink, learn, shop and socialize where — and with whom. It also made subject to court challenge the crazy-quilt maze of race-related social customs and segregation traditions that blanketed the South — and elsewhere. Yes, it's true that today whites and Blacks often voluntarily self-segregate, congregating and socializing with those of their own color, but neither sheriff nor court can enforce such behavior, nor suppress those who choose to eat, ride, shop, or play wherever they wish.
It was the Freedom Movement that forced Lyndon Baines Johnson and the United States Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) — the most effective civil rights law in American history. The VRA restored to African-Americans the voting rights that had been stripped away by the Republican-Democrat "compromise" of 1877. And by restoring voting rights for African-Americans, the Freedom Movement won them for all citizens of color.
Yes, today the VRA has been weakened and is under partisan attack by a Republican Party determined to suppress Democratic Party votes. But the VRA provisions that overturned a century of broad, race-based denial of voting rights still stand — and resistance to Republican voter suppression and defense of the VRA is rising and becoming the focus of a new voting-rights movement.
For generations, racially-motivated murders — lynchings — were an American phenomenon, particularly in the South. And the victims weren't only African-Americans — Latinos, Indians, Asians, Jews and "undesirable elements" like labor organizers were also subject to "lynch law," both in the South and elsewhere around the nation. Until the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, lynchings were so frequent and so normalized that only rarely did the national media report them. Local papers usually ignored them as well, though in some instances they were covered as if they were a sports event.
Lynching and other forms of violent terrorism were the foundation on which was built the Jim Crow southern way of life. African-Americans who in any way questioned or challenged white supremacy risked being brutalized, raped, bombed, and killed. Racial terrorism was carried out by one or two individuals, by KKK "action teams," and by white mobs. The obvious impunity that such killers enjoyed made plain that to one degree or another lynch-law violence was socially-sanctioned by both government and a large portion of the white community. The published photos of smiling children brought to a public hanging by their parents confirms the wide acceptablility of racial brutality and murder.
The number of such lynchings can never be fully counted because so many were not reported at all, or reported but not officially recorded, or recorded but not officially categorized as a racially-motivated murder. But the true scope of racial terrorism in the Deep South was brought to light in July of 1964 when Navy divers searching for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman dragged the rivers of central Mississippi and discovered the bodies of eight African-American men — three whom had been reported as "missing" and another five who were never identified at all. Eight Black bodies in one month, in one river system, in one portion, of one southern state.
Though it didn't happen instantly, over time the Civil Rights Movement so changed America's culture that today lynching and other forms of racially-motivated violence are no longer socially or politically acceptable — not even in the Deep South. We changed that. Yes, some racially-motivated murders do still occur though their number has been greatly reduced. But when a lynching occurs today it is usually reported and often becomes a mass media sensation. The murder is investigated, the killers are usually prosecuted, and most of the time they are convicted by integrated juries and sent to prison. None of that was the case before the Freedom Movement.
Against state terrorism inflicted on nonwhites and their supporters by police and courts we had less success — though not from lack of trying. Blacks who challenged white authority risked being arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges, beaten by club-wielding "lawmen," sentenced to years of brutal slavery on southern chain gangs, or shot to death for "resisting arrest."
Throughout the '60s we tried to raise public awares of police brutality inflicted on nonviolent protesters and anyone else with the temerity to defy the southern way of life. We demanded legislative and policy changes. We filed lawsuits against cops and troopers who shot and killed demonstrators and activists — Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion Alabama and Benjamin Brown in Jackson Mississipi to name just two. But in both North and South the mass media, prosecutors, judges, and juries almost always accepted without doubt or question police justifications and outright lies regardless of eye-witnesses testimony by reporters and others.
It was not until the advent of video-taped evidence in the 1990s followed later by cellphone videos that nonwhite citizens and protesters had a prayer of proving that a particular instance of police violence was wrongful. Without photographic evidence we were unable in the 1960s to expose the vast discrepencies between official statements and brutal reality.
Today, organizations like Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders — who most Freedom Movement veterans cherish as our political grandchildren — have taken up the fight against racial shootings by law enforcement. It remains a hard struggle even with videos and the public awareness created by mass protests. Only rarely are cops who shoot and kill without reasonable cause called to account. But now the fact that they might be brought to book is beginning to at least reduce "shoot first and justify later" behavior patterns that for generations were deeply embedded in far too many police department cultures.
Ending the Southern Way of Life
Taken as a whole then, the victories won by the Freedom Movement decisively ended the Jim Crow southern way of life. They significantly changed for the better both the South as a region and the individual lives of Black and white southerners. To be clear though, none of those victories were magnanimously bestowed by benevolent authorities. None of them were spontaneous acts of social compassion on the part of judges or legislators. Rather, they were forced up from below by a mass movement of African-Americans determined to be free.
Veteran SNCC organizer Charlie Cobb later wrote:
What defines this era is that people and communities began speaking for themselves, making demands for the kind of society they wanted instead of standing aside silently while others, sympathetic advocates or white supremacists, spoke for them and of them. What the country began to hear clearly in the mid-twentieth century — or at least could no longer ignore — were insistent African-American voices from the grassroots. Through words and actions they refuted any idea that they were indifferent, apathetic, or willing to accede to the myth that they considered full citizenship rights "white folks' business." The public actions of ordinary black people across the South — among them sharecroppers, day workers, small farmers, factory workers, maids, and cooks — who found their own voices made the difference; they defeated Jim Crow. This period culminated with the passage and signing into law of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. — On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail
Poverty & Economic Justice
There's no question that the human suffering caused by abject, systemic poverty was the tap root from which grew the Freedom Movement. The initial demands for dismantling Jim Crow, ending school segregation, and winning voting rights, were all — at least in part — aimed at combating economic misery. Yet of all the issues that the Movement awakened us to, alleviating poverty is the one where we had the least success — though not from lack of trying.
On the upside, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed explicit race and gender employment discrimination. More importantly, overt racism and sexism became socially unacceptable. Help Wanted ads, for example, could no longer legally specify "white" or "male" as job requirements, nor would the public accept it. But covert employment bias did not, and has not, ended. Substantial inequality in employment continues to this day.
Nevertheless, in the decades after passage of the Act, average income for nonwhites and women rose significantly as more and better jobs became available. As a result, many nonwhite Americans and a significant portion of white women and were able to climb out of poverty into the middle class.
Those gains, however, went almost entirely to those with the education and skills to find jobs in the previously closed occupations. Nonwhites and women at the bottom of economic and educational ladders benefited little, if at all, because the wages paid for traditional "Colored work" and "women's work" — particularly in the agriculture, unskilled labor, and service sectors — remained stagnant or actually declined in purchasing power. And mechanization, technology, and the transfer of jobs to low-wage, non-union states (and later to slave-wage foreign nations) made that work scarcer and harder to find.
So for us, the painful reality remains that while Movement efforts resulted in a long-term rise out of poverty for a significant portion of nonwhite America, most of the sharecroppers, maids, and day-laborers who put their lives on the line by joining the Movement continued to be economically impoverished — though their children benefited from opportunites their parents never had.
For example, when the Movement came to Grenada Mississippi in June of 1966, some 70% of the African-American population lived below the federal poverty line. Today, only a third subsist below that line. By comparison, today just 17% of the white population is officially "poor," a ratio not all that different from the 1960s. Much of the drop in Grenada's Black poverty (as officially defined) can be traced to the ending of the old Jim Crow, hand-labor system of plantation agriculture which relied on masses of Black field hands enduring a form of feudal-like peonage. On the other hand, a portion of the increase in African-American income levels can be attributed to the Freedom Movement's partially successful campaigns against employment discrimination and exploitation. Today, the number of Blacks in Grenada with middle-class jobs and livelihoods has significantly expanded since 1966. Yet the steadier, better-paid jobs still remain more likely to be filled by whites, and lower-wage and part-time employment is the lot of most African-Americans.
Once the Voting Rights Act passed, Movement organizations across the South began seeking ways to alleviate systemic poverty and fight for economic justice — particularly for sharecroppers, laborers, domestics, and others at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In Mississippi, efforts included the Freedom Labor Union in the Delta, the Greenville Air Force base occupation, and the Poor People's Committee in Grenada MS. In several Deep-South states there were efforts (mustly unsuccessful) to elect African-Americans to the critical ASCS county committees that governed who did — and who did not — benefit from federal agriculture subsidies and programs.
A variety of co-ops and similar programs were created. Some like the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association and the Gee's Bend quilters achieved some notable measure of success, others faltered from lack of capital, inexperience, and ferocious opposition from white power structures and business interests. Dr. King's final campaign sought to build a multiracial alliance of the poor to fight on their own behalf for economic justice. He was assasinated in Memphis while supporting striking garbage workers and his dream of a united Poor People's Campaign died with him.
So for the most part, our efforts to win economic justice for the very poor and the poorly-educated were either limited and contained or defeated outright by fierce resistance from the power elites and the weight of government opposition at all levels — local, state, and federal. We were unable to prevent a significant number of African-American sharecroppers and agricultural laborers being forced off the land and out of the South — and therefore out of the electorate. Most of them drifted into urban ghettos, joining the ranks of the inner-city poor where they and their descendants remain.
The result is that if you drive the back roads of the Deep South today almost all the old sharecropper shacks are gone — burned or bulldozed down. Yet across the region, poverty, economic inequalities, significant racial discrimination, and great education disparities still remain. Yes, the Southern Freedom Movement broke down barriers that denied people access to facilities based on race, but income barriers to even basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing remain. If they have the money, a Black family can now join the country club, but large numbers of African-Americans have no access to decent-quality health coverage for themselves or their children. As a practical reality today, many of the social and economic problems that grew out of slavery and a century of Jim Crow oppression continue to fester.
Nevertheless, despite our inability to eliminate pervasive, systemic poverty, it's obvious that Freedom Movement successes, and the struggle itself, had immense social and psychologic effects on African-American communities and individuals — and on people of color in general. As a white man, I'm not competent to describe or analyze those effects, though I certainly sensed them, as did every other white person in America. In 1951, for example, Morton Sobell was jailed during the Red Scare era for spying. When he was released in 1969, his stepdaughter, a Movement activist in Atlanta, asked him what he found different in society after 18 years in prison. He replied, "Black people look you in the eye, they never used to look you in the eye."
Jean Wiley, a Black freedom fighter who worked in Alabama and the Atlanta SNCC office, later recalled:
I think there were many successes, but you kind of have to have been there before. When I talk to my son and his friends about it, it's like I'm talking about the 15th century. There were enormous successes, but what amazes me is that the movement could have existed at all given the level of terror and resistance. That's what strikes me most when I think back about it. How, despite that, that you could begin to open up. I think people ought to study the Freedom Rides more than they do because it's inconceivable now, especially to young people, that you couldn't hop on a bus and go wherever the hell you want to go, and sit wherever you wanted to sit without fear of safety. — Jean Wiley Oral History
Ron Bridgeforth who worked for SNCC in Starkville Mississippi, later observed:
The most fundamental and important change was how we saw ourselves. Agency. The act of going down to register to vote. Changes you. It changes people who see you. It changes how white folks see you. They might kill you for it; they may take your job for it, but other Black folks are always watching very carefully. And everybody's got to make their own journey.
My wife and I talk a lot about the '60s and how things have changed. She said that we thought we had won. And so we went on about our business of raising families and living our lives. And then you know, the rise of all this reactionary Republican stuff and poverty, starting to wash it all away. Passing all this legislation to take away the rights of women. Passing all this legislation to take away voting rights. And we thought we had won, and we could forget, since you didn't have to remain vigilant.
And here they come again. One of the things our kids said, this was when [the 2006 incident of racial injustice in] Jena, Louisiana happened, they said, "You didn't tell us about what it took for us to get here, this integration and freedoms and all this stuff that we enjoy. And so we are left unprepared." One of the things we've talked about is that we didn't tell our children, because we didn't want them to be bitter. But one of my theories is we didn't tell our children because we were ashamed [of how we had been treated]. — The Freedom Movement and Ourselves: Group E
In Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, activist Joann Christian Mants of Albany Georgia later described how her involvement in the Movement affected and shaped her life:
My sister and I sort of huddled behind the older SNCC folk, and they sort of patted us on the head as though they thought we were very cute. I was fourteen years old. I kept thinking, This is something else. We are going to be free. I was not sure where I would fit in, what my niche would be, but I knew I would do something. I didn't understand all their words and language then. I was naive and just wanting to be free, wanting all of us to be free. I continued to listen. I learned a great deal from these strange, new-thinking, new-talking, and new-acting SNCC folk. I continued to listen. Eventually I was able to understand them; some of their ideas became my ideas, and then I was able to create some of my own new ideas and concepts.
Looking back now across 50 years, it may be that the Movement's most significant achievement was changing the culture of what is acceptable in America regarding race. For someone who grew up surrounded by the explicit racism and bigotry that so characterized white culture in the 1950s the change is obvious — and profound.
Yes, of course there is still white racism and white supremacy. But in most milieus now it's covert rather than overt — or at least it was before the 2016 presidential campaign and the Trump/Republican partisan strategy of deliberately stoking racism. Where once in the 1950s and '60s politicians routinely spewed explicit words of hate on the campaign trail and Senate floor, today racist politicians, celebrities, and opinion makers have to disguise (or deny) their intent by using "dog whistles" that they piously pretend have no racial significance.
Where once the powerful few felt free to plainly speak their bigotry, now a billionaire basketball king is forced to sell his NBA franchise because of a comment no one would have noticed before the Freedom Movement changed America's culture. When we were kids, racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jokes, tropes, and memes were common around the dinner tables of many white families from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. Now famous TV stars lose their shows because of comments and tweets that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow before the Civil Rights Movement.
Yes, as I write these words I see Trump and the Republican Party enabling, stoking, and using racism in ways we thought we had put an end to 50 years ago. And we've returned to the streets to protest it, him, and them. So no, the Freedom Movement did not end racism. But it did for a while force white-supremacist America to lurk below the political surface. For a time. Yet they remained as vicious and hostile as ever, so it's no surprise that demagogues, corrupt politicians, their political operatives, and the corporate power brokers who finance them are now, once again, mobilizing race hatred for their selfish purposes.
What has surprised me in the years since the election of 2016 has been the breadth and depth of white rejection of, and opposition to, the reemergence of in-your-face racism, misogyny, and bigotry. White participation in anti-racist, women's rights, immigrant-defense, and anti-Trump protests has been numerically far larger than what we saw in the 1960s. Not just the 40,000 who showed up in 2017 on Boston Common to protest white nationalism after the Charlottesville violence, but more importantly the large and small groups of courageous Americans who persistently and steadfastly stand in city, town and village squares across the nation, week after week, month after month, to oppose the politics of hate.
There's no question in my mind that the cultural changes wrought by the Freedom Movement can take at least some of the credit for the number of whites who today resist a return to the bad old days of back-of-the-bus and white-only. And there's no question that despite our many shortcomings the mass Freedom Movement of the 1960s — made up mostly of African-Americans — forced fundamental changes in society, culture, and law. Advances that brought people of color into We the People and ended centuries-old systems of white supremacy and Black subservience that had been enforced by police authority, judicial power, economic coercion, social custom, and violent terrorism.
So why then, in the late '60s, did so many of us from the Southern Freedom Movement succumb to frustration, disappointment, and depression? Why did we feel — and in some cases publicly assert — that the Civil Rights Movement had failed?
For myself, I think it was the glaring truth that while the Black-led Freedom Movement achieved a social revolution by enlarging We the People to include nonwhites and gaining some share of political power on the local level, to this day white power structures of wealth and privilege continue to dominate our economy and government. And the bitter, burning reality of their power and greed sears my soul to this day.
It was inevitable, I think, that we who had fought so hard and held such high hopes would end up dissatisfied with our achievements because the struggle itself awakened us to issues of injustice, poverty, race, gender, and class that were beyond our reach to address. We so desperately wanted to make immense immediate improvements to lives oppressed by white supremacy and economic injustice that we were unable to accept that throughout history it has been incremental changes forced up from below by popular pressure that have steadily improved the human condition of the very many against the opposition of the elite but powerful few. What we wanted was the complete elimination of all forms of bigotry, exploitation, and oppression. What we achieved through fierce struggle was hard-won social progress — as did the generations who fought for justice before us.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford
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