A Conflict in Black and White
During the 90 years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, racism had a way of hiding from Americans who didn't want to see it. According to the Constitution, blacks had the right to vote; but in fact, all over the South they were kept away from the polls by taxes, literacy tests, and shotguns. According to custom, blacks had equal — though separate — facilities; but in fact, their schools were run-down and their bus seats were at the back. According to law, murder was illegal; but in fact, week after week, blacks were lynched on dark nights while white sheriffs looked the other way.
All of this began to change in December 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks took a seat in the front of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five days later, a 26-year-old preacher from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived to lead a boycott that ended bus segregation in Montgomery.
What followed was the civil rights movement — a wave of nonviolent protest that forced racism out of the closet and put it on view. For 10 years, Americans watched on the evening news as protesters were beaten and arrested simply for sitting at an all-white lunch counter, or for trying to register to vote. Eventually, public outrage forced the federal government to act. Little by little, public facilities were integrated, voting rights insured, and protesters protected.
But progress was slow and frustrating. And though blacks gained legal equality, they were left behind economically, shut out of good jobs and stuck in underfunded schools. In 1965, just after a major civil rights act was passed, a black ghetto in Los Angeles called Watts erupted in anger. When the smoke cleared, 34 were dead, 1,000 wounded, and 4,000 arrested. The battleground had shifted.
New black voices began to speak. The young leaders wanted power; they wanted control over schools, jobs, and communities. And they would get it not with nonviolence, but, in the words of Malcom X, "by any means necessary."
In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by a white assassin. That night, blacks rioted in cities across the country, and it was clear, once and for all, that the mass struggle for civil rights by peaceful means had ended.
LIVING IN SEPARATE WORLDS
In the South in the 1950s, blacks and whites might live next door to one another and still inhabit separate worlds. Segregation in the South was rigidly enforced by state officials like Alabama Governor George Wallace. And it extended from schools to bus stops to restaurants and lunch counters, even to public drinking fountains.
In the first major challenge to the color barrier, 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. led a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. He urged boycotters to be willing to go peacefully to jail to end segregation. King himself was arrested during a march. The boycott ended after 12 months, when the Supreme Court ordered Montgomery to end bus segregation.
John Lewis, who is now a congressman, and Jim Zwerg, were part of an interracial group of "Freedom Riders," who rode buses through the South in 1961 to challenge segregation. In several cities, riders were badly beaten by angry mobs. In the end, the rides forced the U.S. to enforce antisegregation laws.
Sit-ins, an equally dangerous form of protest, spread across the South in 1960 after four black students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave. Bad publicity and boycotts forced department stores to start serving blacks — but not before hundreds of protesters had been beaten, abused, and arrested. In Nashville, in 1963, jeering whites poured ketchup over student protesters.
KING vs. CONNOR
In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Martin Luther King and other nonviolent leaders found a perfect adversary in Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. When people started marching to demand integration, Connor put them right in jail. Pretty soon, black parents pulled their kids out of school and had them march. When there was no more room in the jails, Connor loosed police dogs and firehoses on the teenage marchers. The brutality instantly became international news and Birmingham was publicly embarrassed. King, after being arrested for leading a march, wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." And city leaders agreed to desegregate public washrooms, drinking fountains, and lunch counters, and to employ more blacks.
ANGER IN THE STREETS
In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life was snuffed out by a bullet from a high-powered rifle. While mourners viewed his body in Atlanta, riots raged in 124 cities across the nation. New York was one of the cities where blacks rejected the peaceful protest that King had preached. From 1965 to 1968, militants in overcrowded ghettos around the country fought police, and burned white-owned businesses.
Members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, expressed the rage of the new generation. Their program called for full employment, decent housing, an end to police brutality, and the power to control their own communities. But their ideas were usually overshadowed by their image: angry men and women carrying guns and flaunting raised fists.
This article was originally published in Scholastic Search, April 1992.