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How far is it accurate to say that significant progress had been made in segregation from 1955 to 1963?
This period was certainly of prime importance. During this era, the rate of protest versus segregation really began to increase, building on the momentum of the decade before. It was also during this period that tension and resentment grew to the level that lead to the development of more radical organisations, although they did not come to the fore themselves before 1963 – 55 to 63 was mainly characterised by peaceful protest.
The highest profile and most remembered of these was in 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – a watershed for the movement, proving that peaceful resistance – especially when the action created economic fallout – could be successful in forcing change. The event also proved that, after the debacle of the ambiguous Brown Vs Board of Education ruling, that a grass roots approach could influence direct change.
The story is well versed; the NAACP was looking for an event with which to legitimise a boycott, and it came when Rosa Parks – an NAACP employee herself – was asked to leave her seat for a white man, and refused. After being arrested and fined, Martin Luther King proposed a boycott by all blacks of the city bus transit system, relying instead on carpools to get around, or taxis driven by blacks who modified their fares to be equal to that of a bus journey.
The protest lasted over a year, during which protesters were attacked, and buildings firebombed by white supremacists. However, once nationwide attention was brought to the cause, the tide turned in the boycott’s favour; in June 1956 the supreme court ruled that public transport segregation in Alabama was unconstitutional, a ruling Alabama finally accepted in December. The protesters emerged victorious, and the movement had found its first widely known leader – King. The event, undoubtedly, was a significant leap forward due to nationwide coverage brought the plight of southern blacks to the attentions of northern white moderates.
Other peaceful, grassroots protests followed, such as the Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins. Here, black students – along with white sympathisers – would defy segregation by sitting in white only areas, such as the lunch counter in the Greensboro Woolworth’s department store. On the first day of the protest, 4 students sat at the counter all day, refusing to leave (they were not served).
The next day, the number grew five fold to 20; this became 60 on the third; and more than 300 on the fourth, a monumental level of escalation, showing the amount of people opposed to segregation who were willing to step in. As with the bus boycott the breakthrough was the media attention generated, and, much like before, the protests became a national news story, drawing praise from the President. Although not the first sit-in, it was the highest profile one so far and inspired copycat protests all across the south, some with dramatic results (desegregation in Nashville, for instance.) By not responding to attackers (who poured hot coffee over them or beat them) the protesters, to most onlookers, were unequivocally the “good guys”, leading to the protest’s successes.
Also of note was the “Birmingham Campaign”, organised by King and the SCLC, which effectively shut down the city of Birmingham – a city of intense segregation. As with most of the other protests it was the national attention that the protesters sought, and they found it – due to police brutality and the use of water cannons against the protesters, something of a national outcry developed. Although desegregation in the city itself continued slowly, the city became generally more accepting of blacks and the incident played a major part in the 1964 civil rights act, proving its significance. King emerged from the campaign at arguably his highest popularity yet, and embarked on the March on Washington afterwards. Up to 300,000 blacks and moderates arrived at the capital and marched to the Lincoln memorial, where King delivered his timeless “I have a dream” speech. This was really the culmination of King’s popularity and national coverage of the civil rights issue – in fact, more cameras had been set up to film the event than at Kennedy’s inauguration.
However, the advances from 1955 to 63 were not all grassroots in nature, such as the Little Rock incident, in which 9 blacks were barred at first from enrolling in a local school and turned away by guards but later, under the protection of Brown Vs Board of Education were allowed in (soldiers were even drafted in to defend them), proving that, although the ruling had been ambiguous as to when exactly schools had to be desegregated, top down approaches could be effective when enforced directly.
However, there were serious limitations to the effectiveness of desegregation during this period. Even during this period, tensions within the civil rights movement were growing, and indignation built over the fact that so little seemed to have been accomplished. This was particularly pronounced with students; they had lived through segregation and unfair laws, and now that they were young adults, many of them had seen no change. King had promised much but delivered little within their lives, and a lifetime is a long time. Thus, many became disillusioned with King and what he preached – i.e, peaceful protest. As far as they had seen, peaceful process had accomplished nothing, and so, borne out of this was a new, more radical movement.
This began with the formation of more proactive organisations, such as the SNCC, and continued with the emergence of radical leaders such as Malcolm X, who had a very different view to King on how to achieve an end to Jim Crow. This was the beginning of not only more violent protesting but also black power, both of which went on to weaken the peaceful protestor’s cause as evident cracks emerged in the civil rights movement and its leaders. With blacks engaging in violence and black supremacy being taught, the civil rights movement lost the moral high ground in the eyes of many would-be moderates, and the influence of white supremacy groups grew as a result. Malcolm X’s constant attacks on King, including criticism of the March on Washington seriously undermined King’s position.
Another limiting factor was the sheer scale of the resistance in the south to desegregation, and the fierce adherence to tradition. This was encapsulated in the violence during the freedom rides, an entirely peaceful event – from the protestor’s side, anyway. The police ignored the violence and even flat out supported it (one of their excuses as to why they weren’t available to defend the protesters was that “all the officers had to go and see their mothers on mothers day”, an insultingly bad excuse, and one who’s meaning could not have been clearer: We honestly could not care less (or “could care less”, this being the US)).
Bearing in mind that all the protesters were doing was sitting busses moving through southern states the level of violence was truly shocking; white activists were not spared either. They were beaten, had their eyes gouged out, were burnt, and the busses trashed. Ambulances refused to take them to hospital – and, as had become so common, none of the attackers were arrested, with senior officials implying that the activists “had it coming”. Attitudes like this really test the notion that segregation had made significant progress; indeed, the rides themselves were for the purpose of seeing if, in these traditional southern states, rulings on interstate bus travel being desegregated had been accepted. The answer – an emphatic no.
Eisenhower leaned off slightly on civil rights after the progress made by Truman, leading to a slowdown in the activity of top-down desegregation approaches, although this was not entirely negative, seeing as many southern states had seen Truman’s executive orders as meddling, and resented federal intervention on a state level. Grassroots approaches had been shown to be significantly more effective because they came from within a state and were able to attack it directly. Kennedy, too, made no great headway with civil rights, promising to end segregation with the “stroke of a pen” before election but turning his attention towards Russia and the Cold War in office.
In conclusion, while, like the decade before, 55 – 63 was a major era for the advancements of civil rights and desegregation, with grassroot, peaceful activism making many gains and top down measures continuing to trickle through, the emergence of popular leaders and high profile, nationwide coverage of the plight of American Negroes becoming commonplace, and growing support from white moderates coming together to create significant victories and advances, drawbacks remained. These included the stubborn, traditionalist nature of the south, presidents who took a backseat when it came to civil rights and a fractured movement, with many young blacks rejecting the teachings of King. Overall however I feel that significant progress had been made in this period despite the drawbacks, rather than being nullified by them.