Civil Rights Movement History

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Founded (Jan)
Robert Williams & Armed Self-Defense in Monroe NC (1957-1961)
Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington, DC (May)
Royal Ice Cream Sit-in — Durham, NC (June)
Tuskegee Merchant Boycott (1957-1960)
Nashville "Grade-a-Year" School Desegregation Scheme
Civil Rights Act of 1957 (September)
The Little Rock Nine (September)
SCLC Crusade for Citizenship, 1957-1960


Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Founded (Aug)

In the 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 Nonviolent Integration, the 60 Black ministers from across the South discuss coordinating protests against segregation, promoting nonviolence as a strategy, and providing 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, Ella Baker, and other advisors, Dr. King convenes subsequent meetings in New Orleans in February and Montgomery in August after the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington DC. At the August meeting a permanent organization is formed. Initially, it is named "Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration" but is soon changed to "Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (SCLC) to reflect their vision of an organization that can mobilize the inherent power of Black churches around social causes such as voting rights, fighting segregation, opposing economic exploitation and alleviating poverty.

Additional meetings follow: Memphis in October, Clarksdale MS in May of 1958, and Norfolk VA in October of '58. A week long conference on nonviolent resistance to segregation is held at Spelman College in 1958. Working with SCLC member ministers and leaders, in 1958 and '59 Ella Baker tries to provide substance and implementation for SCLC's voter registration oriented Crusade for Citizenship and she also recruits witnesses to testify at the first Alabama and Louisiana hearings of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

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, initially staffed by Ella Baker who is given the title Associate Director.

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, the 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 only focus 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 advocate engaging in social-political-economic action in the community. 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.
     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:
     Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power
     Negroes With Guns
Web: Monroe NC Movement & Self-Defense
     Swimming Pool Showdown, Robert Williams. Southern Exposure
     The Single Issue in the Robert Williams Case, NAACP


Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington, DC


On May 17 — the 3rd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown decision — Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Stanley Levison, and others organize a "Prayer Pilgramage to DC" to demand that Eisenhower enforce the court's ruling 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.

As part of this action, CORE leads a caravan from Richmond VA to Washington DC to protest the closing of public schools in Prince Edward County to avoid court-ordered desegregation.

Drawn from civil rights, religious, labor, and student organizations, some 30,000 people rally at the Lincoln Memorial. This is the largest civil rights demonstration up to this time and includes Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem, singer Harry Belafonte, and in her first (but not her last) involvement with the Movement, gospel-great Mahalia Jackson sings for the crowd.

After Fred Shuttlesworth summarizes the situation in the South, for the first time, Dr. King rises to give a major civil rights address — known as the Give us the Ballot speech — to a national audience outside of Alabama.

Though the organizers had hoped for 50,000 participants, the crowd's enthusiasm propelled the event forward. In the words of National Student Association leader Harold Sim, "The air was filled with shouts of 'amen' and 'hallelujah' as the speakers sounded their voices in defense of civil rights. Handkerchiefs flew above the heads of the crowd as it listened to the fiery orators... They were jubilant sounds... sounds of disillusioned souls discovering their country."[3]

See Civil Rights Act of 1957 and Youth March for Integrated Schools — Washington, DC for continuation.


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


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" had not yet come into wide use, so they were initially 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 (1957-1960)

In the mid-1950s, Macon County Alabama — home of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) — is 84% Black though few Blacks are registered to vote. The town of Tuskegee is also overwhelmingly Black, but whites own all the significant businesses and hold all municipal offices. The Institute exists as a rare enclave of Afro-American middle-class life in a town, county, and state where poverty is the norm. Led by Professor Charles Gomillion, Blacks associated with the Institute begin a voter registration drive that has some success among the college-educated Institute community. The number of Black voters eligible to vote in municipal elections begins to approach that of whites, and in 1954 a Black woman runs — unsuccessfully — for the school board.

By 1957, Alabama whites are seething with anger at the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott desegregation victory. The thought that a town in their state — even one that is 85% Black — might one day elect an Afro-American public official is intolerable. To prevent that, the legislature redraws the Tuskegee town boundaries from a simple square to a twisted, 27-sided, "gerrymandered" shape that excludes the Institute enclave 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. Led by Gomillion, they call for a "Crusade for Citizenship" and launch a 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.

When the gerrymander came, there was a mass meeting. It was the most emotional experience I've ever had in my life. It just seemed to finally have awakened the people in the community. Dean Gomillion had tried in the past to organize "little trade with your friends," meaning trade with Negroes. We'd trade with our friends for about a month, and then it would sort of disintegrate. The new boycott to fight the gerrymander was the first time he really had massive and prolonged support. (We couldn't call it a boycott, of course, that was illegal. It had to be "selective buying.") ... I dare say that our boycott wouldn't have been successful if it were not for the bus boycott in Montgomery. This was one of the rallying cries — "Aren't we going to do what the people in Montgomery did? Are we going to be less proud than the people in Montgomery?" — Mrs. Louise Washington. [1]

The boycott lasts three years, with Blacks making the 80-mile round trip to Montgomery to buy food, clothing, and other necessities. The boycott is highly effective, with devastating economic consequences for the white merchants who would rather close their doors than allow Blacks to hold any share of political power. Some lose 70% of their trade, and 20 go out of business. The boycott ends in 1960 when the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that gerrymandering districts to restrict Blacks from voting is an unconstitutional violation of the 15th Amendment.

The old Tuskegee town boundaries are restored with Blacks now in the voting majority. In the next election, middle-class Afro-American leaders associated with the Institute choose not to support a Black professor running for mayor. They fear that whites will flee a town controlled by Blacks. "We didn't wish to control, merely to share," Gomillion tells an interviewer. In coalition with white "moderates" they elect a white mayor and a city council of four whites and two Blacks. The national news media and intellectual elite dub Tuskegee a "model town" of racial harmony.

See The Murder of Sammy Younge for continuation.

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
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 racial 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 its most significant provisions. Most importantly, 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 watered down, he convinces the Southern senators that it is better to allow a very weak 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 Freedom Movement, it's 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." 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.

The law of unintended consequences, however, remains in full force. Though neither LBJ (nor anyone else) intends it, the clause granting federal courts jurisdiction over matters related to voting 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 can choose to transfer the cases to federal court where in most cases they are eventually dismissed. Similarly, when young nonviolent protesters are unjustly arrested, and some connection to voting rights can be made, their cases too are sometimes diverted and eventually dropped. The result is that local sheriffs find it more difficult to halt the Freedom Movement through arrest and imprisonment. And the new Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department gives Afro-Americans an agency that — in theory — is explicitly charged with addressing race-related civil rights issues (though as it turns out, in real life, White House political calculations often slow, or even prevent, DoJ intervention.

Seven years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed. It contains some 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. During these seven years, the federal government claims it does not have the legal authority to stop civil rights abuses. Movement lawyers dispute the 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.

See Civil Rights Act of 1957 for text of the Act as enacted.

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.

I wanted to go to Central High School because they had more privileges. They had more equipment, they had five floors of opportunities. I understood education before I understood anything else. From the time I was two, my mother said, "You will go to college. Education is your key to survival," and I understood that. It was a kind of curiosity, not an overwhelming desire to go to this school and integrate this school and change history. Oh no, there was none of that. I just thought it'd be fun to go to this school I ride by every day. I want to know what's in there. I don't necessarily want to be with those people; I assumed that being with those people would be no different than being with people I was already with. — Melba Paitillo Beals. [2]

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 morning that we went to school, Daisy [Bates] had called us all up to meet at her house. And eight of us showed up. Elizabeth had missed the call — she didn't have a phone, I think — so she wasn't there. ... So that morning, we went by car to Central. We got to school. We were at one end of the school, 14th Street, and Elizabeth was at the other end, 16th Street, neither group knowing where the other was. Because it's a big place. Two blocks separating it. And we just made a cursory kind of attempt to enter school, but we were denied access. Elizabeth attempted to go through the guards and have the mobs behind her. It had to be the most frightening thing, because she had a crowd of a hundred, two hundred, white people threatening to kill her. She had nobody. I mean, there was not a black face in sight anywhere. Nobody that she could turn to as a friend except this white woman, Grace Lorch, came out of a crowd and guided her through the mob and onto the bus and got her home safely. None of us knew that until we met at Daisy's house. Elizabeth was there; she was in tears. The rest of us had not experienced anything like that. — Ernest Green. [2]

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 first day I was able to enter Central High School, what I felt inside was terrible, wrenching, awful fear. On the car radio I could hear that there was a mob. I knew what a mob meant and I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So we entered the side of the building, very, very fast. Even as we entered there were people running after us, people tripping other people. Once we got into the school, it was very dark; it was like a deep, dark castle. ... There has never been in my life any stark terror or any fear akin to that. I'd only been in the school a couple of hours and by that time it was apparent that the mob was just overrunning the school. Policemen were throwing down their badges and the mob was getting past the wooden sawhorses because the police would no longer fight their own in order to protect us.

So we were all called into the principal's office, and there was great fear that we would not get out of this building. We were trapped. And I thought, Okay, so I'm going to die here, in school. And I remember thinking back to what I'd been told, to understand the realities of where you are and pray. Even the adults, the school officials, were panicked, feeling like there was no protection. A couple of kids, the black kids, that were with me were crying, and someone made a suggestion that if they allowed the mob to hang one kid, they could then get the rest out. And a gentleman, who I believed to be the police chief, said, "Unh-uh, how are you going to choose? You're going to let them draw straws?" He said, "I'll get them out."

And we were taken to the basement of this place. And we were put into two cars, grayish blue Fords. And the man instructed the drivers, he said, "Once you start driving, do not stop." And he told us to put our heads down. This guy rewed up his engine and he came up out of the bowels of this building, and as he came up, I could just see hands reaching across this car, I could hear the yelling, I could see guns, and he was told not to stop. "If you hit somebody, you keep rolling, 'cause the kids are dead." And he did just that, and he didn't hit anybody, but he certainly was forceful and aggressive in the way he exited this driveway, because people tried to stop him and he didn't stop. He dropped me off at home. And I remember saying, "Thank you for the ride," and I should've said, "Thank you for my life." — Melba Patillo Beals. [2]

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.

For a couple of weeks there had been a number of white kids following us, continuously calling us niggers. "Nigger, nigger, nigger ," one right after the other. Minniejean Brown was in the lunch line with me. I was in front of Minnie, and there was this white kid, a fellow who was much shorter than Minnie. Minnie was about five foot ten. This fellow couldn't have been more than five five, five four. He reminded me of a small dog, yelping at somebody's leg. Minnie had just picked up her chili, out of this line. The help in the whole cafeteria was black, all black. And before I could even say, "Minnie, why don't you tell him to shut yup," Minnie had taken this chili, dumped it on this dude's head.

There was just absolute silence in the place. And then the help, all black, broke into applause. And the other white kids there didn't know what to do. I mean it was the first time that anybody, I'm sure, had seen somebody black retaliate in that sense. It was a good feeling to see that happen, to be able to let them know that we were capable of taking care of ourselves. With that the school board suspended Minnie. Part of it was the attitude at that time, which was somehow we were supposed to be so stoic that we weren't to retaliate to any of this. Finally, after the suspension, they moved to remove her from school, and Minnie went to school in New York, finished up the other semester outside of Little Rock. — Ernest Green. [2]

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


SCLC Crusade for Citizenship, 1957-1960

In the mid-1950s, there are roughly five million Afro-Americans of voting age in the South, but less than 25% of them are registered to vote (compared to 60% for whites) — and the bulk of those 25% are in Upper South states like Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. The farther south you go the lower the rate of Black registration. In the Deep South, Black registration ranges from 18% in Louisiana to 2% in Mississippi. While no state has an Afro-American majority, many counties in the Black Belt region do, and in most of those counties the number of Afro-Americans registered to vote ranges from zero to minuscule.

After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, white resistance to Black voting rights hardens and obstructions are intensified. Mid- and Deep-South states establish elaborate voter-registration procedures explicitly designed to deny the vote to nonwhites. Most of these states impose a so-called "literacy test" which is not actually an objective test of reading ability but rather a phony pretext allowing the Registrar to deny anyone he does not want to become a voter.

The term "literacy test" may be used to refer to the actual test itself, but it is more often used in the Black community and among civil rights supporters as a generic term for all of the strategems, tactics, and ploys used to deny the vote to Afro-American citizens, including the invasive application, the actual test, poll taxes, voucher requirements, gerrymandering, police intimidation and arrest on phony charges, economic terrorism orchestrated by the White Citizens Councils (firings, evictions, foreclosures, etc) and violent terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations.

In June of 1957, Black citizens of Tuskegee Alabama organize to oppose a gerrymander scheme by the Alabama state legislature to strip them of their hard-won voting rights. They call for an economic boycott of the white-owned stores in Tuskegee as part of a "Crusade for Citizenship." Meanwhile, Congress is debating and eventually enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson promotes as a bill to defend and ensure Black voting rights.

After starting the process of founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. King and his advisors begin developing a program to implement their vision for their new organization — mobilizing the inherent power of Black churches around social causes. Initially they hope to replicate the success of the Montgomery and Tallahasee Bus Boycotts, but attempts to launch new transportation boycotts in other cities and towns fizzle in the face of rapidly increasing white opposition and repression.

In October of 1963, King convinces the new organization to launch an ambitious "Crusade for Citizenship," a massive church-based, non-partisan voter registration campaign that aims to double the number of registered Afro-Americans in the South. Taking the rhetoric of white segregationists at face value, he assume they will not react with as much hostility to Black voting as they have to social integration.

"In almost all other spheres," Dr. King wrote, "confused people can argue the separate but equal doctrine. Here they cannot. ... The right to vote does not raise the issue of social mixing." —  [4]

His Crusade plan includes a central office in Atlanta, an executive director, two full-time organizers, and a $200,000 budget (roughly equal to $1.5 million in 2016). The Crusade, however, is immediately confronted with two huge problems. First, where is the money going to come from? Most Black churches are almost as impoverished as their parishioners with scant money to spare for social causes. Other than an $11,000 donation from the United Packinghouse Workers, little money is raised from outside sources.

Second, though under severe attack in the South, the NAACP is still the nation's dominant civil rights organization and it is fiercely resistant to the emergence of any potential organizational rival. Most of the ministers who are either formally affiliated with, or working with, the new SCLC are also simultaneously NAACP members who hesitate to risk offending the venerable organization that has led the struggle for equality 50 years.

Hidden behind the scenes there may also be a third impediment to the Crusade. Since the very popular Eisenhower cannot run again, the White House will be up for grabs in 1960. Both southern Republicans ("The Party of Lincoln") and the northern wing of the national Democratic Party hope to register and recruit Afro-American voters in anticipation of what they know will be a closely fought election in 1960. Some Movement activists believe that political operatives from both parties see the non-partisan SCLC Crusade as competition, so they dissuade their adherents from active participation and discourage philanthropists and liberal donors from contributing funds. (As it later turned out, the contest between Kennedy and Nixon was the closest presidential election in living memory up to that time, and many analysts credit JFK's victory to his margin with Black voters.)

By the beginning of 1958 not much has been accomplished on the Crusade. Starting in October there had been announcements and press releases setting a kickoff date for February 12, 1958 (Lincoln's birthday). But little additional money has been raised, as yet there is no office, no staff, and scant implementation. SCLC is, essentially, an organization of ministers for whom the needs of their congregations come first. But they've been unable to find a fellow clergyman to assume the duties of executive director and get the Crusade under way.

In January of 1958, King is in New York and he asks Bayard Rustin to come to Atlanta and get things going, but Rustin declines. In SCLC's world-view at this time, "leader" and "preacher" are synonymous, and in this era only men are ministers so no women have been considered. Nevertheless, Rustin manages to convince King to draft Ella Baker as an "acting" executive director on a temporary basis until a suitable minister can be hired.

There's no money, no staff, and at first no office, so Baker has to make do working out of Ebenezer Baptist Church, using the phone when it's available and a pay phone when it isn't. Soon an SCLC office is opened on Auburn Avenue, communications are flowing, literature is being written and distributed, and outreach to sympathetic ministers and community leaders across the South is underway.

The plan is to start the Crusade with simultaneous church-based voter registration rallies in cities and towns across the South on February 12. In some locales there is strong support from SCLC-affilitated ministers, in others not so much. And in some instances NAACP leaders deliberately undermine and stymie the effort. Some 21 rallies do eventually take place — fewer than had been hoped for back in October (see Memo: Crusade for Citizenship). Most of the events are well attended and enthusiastic. But in the days that follow, few new voter applicants show up at Deep South courthouses, and fewer still manage to add their names to the voter rolls.

As months and years go by, the Crusade struggles with little success to show. Dr. King's assumption that white resistance to Afro-American voter registration will be less intense than their opposition to integration is proved wrong — if anything, the white power-structure is even more adamantly determined to ruthlessly supress voter registration efforts than desegregation of buses and lunch counters. In the face of economic reprisals and violent intimidation, few Blacks try to register, and of those who do make the attempt, fewer still manage to overcome the various literacy test barriers.

Filling church pews with stirring oratory is inspiring, but absent an organized follow-up program, potential voters must go down to the courthouse and defy white-supremacy on their own as individuals — which for all but the most economically secure proves too daunting. Baker understands that in order to overcome the obstacles barring Blacks from registering, ongoing, group-oriented programs to identify, train, and transport applicants are necessary. As are methods of providing community support for those forced to endure white reprisals. Furthermore, registration attempts need to be made by small groups who can mutually sustain each other against white intimidation. But there are no resources for such programs, and that kind of community-organizing approach is foreign to many preachers whose training and experience is in exhorting congregations to individual acts of faith and conscience through sermons — not collective action.

Eventually, in 1961, SCLC's voter-registration efforts shift over to the Citizenship School program pioneered by Myles Horton, Septima Clark and the Highlander Center. Instead of public rallies and press conferences which draw the attention of white authorities, they focus on literacy, education, and clandestine, guerilla-style political and community organizing that prepare leaders and communities to act collectively and that lay the grounwork for the intense mass struggles to come.

For more information :
Books: Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) & SCOPE Project
     Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
     Citizenship Schools
     SCLC Documents
     Ella Baker Oral Histories


1957 Quotation Sources:

1. Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die ..., James Forman.
2. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Hampton & Fayer.
3. Prayer Pilgramage for Freedom (MLK Research & Education Center ~ Stanford Univ.
4. To Redeem the Soul of America: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr., by Adam Fairclough.



© Bruce Hartford
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