A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History
By Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, won a 2014 NAACP Image Award & the 2013 Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Assoc. of Black Women Historians.
Page: 2, It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten. . . . We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful. —Eduardo Galeano
American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it. —James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”
Page: 2, Civil rights mis-histories befuddle us. Inspiring and powerful, they leave us in our feelings of sadness, surprise, awe, and guilt, and in doing so, help to obscure what the movement entailed, how it happened, what it stood for, and how it challenges us today.
By diminishing the substance and scope of American racism and what the movement actually involved, these renderings work to maintain current injustice, at times chastising contemporary protesters in ways similar to the ways civil rights activists were demonized, and blind us to how we might do it again.
Page: 2, “The historian’s task,” as British historian Tony Judt reminds, “is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly. A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”24
Page: 2, Over and over, from fast-food workers in the Fight for $15 to activists of the Moral Mondays movement to BLM organizers across the country, I have heard how these fuller histories of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement are more challenging and empowering for where we are today, sustaining community organizers in their work, identifying the forces of injustice more fully, and furthering their imagination in the struggle for a more just society.
Page: 2, …chilling misuses of Parks and King. These two freedom fighters have been turned into Thanksgiving parade balloons—floating above us larger than life; unthreatening, happy patriots. Asking little of us, they bob along proud of our progress.26 King and Parks are embraced yet simultaneously stripped of their political substance and courageous steadfastness (and what their legacies demand of us today). These elaborate spectacles of honor and tribute function to distract us from the responsibility of harnessing such resolve in ourselves and from reckoning with what Parks’s and King’s legacies reveal about the nation and its current policies and direction.
Page: 2, National histories provide narratives about the past that ennoble the present. “Writing our national history,” the late historian Nathan Huggins reminds, “we do so with a master narrative in our heads that sustains our collective sense of national purpose and identity, and resonates with our most compelling myths.” What is needed, Huggins argued, is to “face the deforming mirror of truth.”28
Page: 2, This fable conveniently makes it seem as if the United States was destined to have a great civil rights movement, and that most people did the right thing at the time. This is a pleasurable idea, to be sure, but one that obscures a much more sobering reality: how hard and infrequent such courage was; how tenacious and steadfast activists had to be; how much pressure people exerted against the movement; and how part of that counter-resistance has been to dim and diminish the movement’s goals, trajectories, and visions.
Page: 2, Fables are tales that provide morals on how to live or ways of understanding society. While containing real heroes and villains and nuggets of fact, they are stories embellished, fabricated, and distorted for a purpose. This history we get is a fable. Distorting and obscuring the truth, what has become the national story of the civil rights movement provides ways of understanding the past that have political uses in the present.
Page: 2, Far from being acceptable, passive, or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and deeply persevering. It had a broad vision for what justice looked like and what equality would entail. Those who drove it forward were old and young, women and men, and most were labeled troublemakers for their work, not just in Selma and Birmingham but also in Detroit and New York. A majority of Americans didn’t like it, the federal government feared it, and many good people kept a distance.
Page: 2, There was nothing natural or inevitable about the changes the movement wrought, highlighting the relentless courage, effort, and vision it took to imagine a different America.
Page: 2, In an America of disproportionate Black poverty and persistent school inequality, with a criminal justice system riven with inequalities and an imperial foreign policy that justifies far-ranging constitutional abuses and record numbers of deportations, a fuller history of the movement is imperative for seeing a way forward. In an America that, across party lines, asserts its own exceptionalism, this history reveals long-standing investment in and deflection of racial injustice domestically and globally.
Page: 3, Now that he is safely dead, Let us Praise him, Build monuments to his glory, Sing Hosannas to his name. Dead men make such convenient Heroes. They cannot rise to challenge the images We would fashion from their Lives. And besides, it is easier to build monuments Than to build a better world. —Carl Wendell Hines Jr., “A Dead Man’s Dream”
Page: 3, King had been deeply unpopular at his death. A 1966 Gallup poll found 72 percent of white Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the civil rights leader.1 Major newspapers, including the New York Times, had editorialized against him, particularly when he publicly condemned US involvement in Vietnam. Many political leaders did not believe King’s work rivaled that of Christopher Columbus and George Washington. Others admired King but did not feel like his legacy had been put to the test of time. Still others saw King as un-American and dangerous,
Page: 4, “If Washington established the Nation, Martin led the Nation to understand that there can be no nationhood without brotherhood.”
Page: 4, Symbolic acts, Reagan realized, could be used to defer more substantive action. Marking this history two decades after King’s death could be a way to demonstrate racial sensitivity, pay tribute to the movement’s successful and now completed battle against racism (in the process altering who King was), and thwart ongoing calls for racial justice.
Page: 5, We should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.5 Reagan’s remarks zeroed in on what would soon become key elements of the national fable of the civil rights movement: that there had been an injustice, but once these courageous individuals freely pointed it out, it was corrected, and so proved the greatness of American democracy. In the years following the signing, as historian Justin Gomer notes, Reagan “routinely position[ed] himself thereafter as the inheritor of King’s colorblind ‘dream’—a society in which ‘all men are created equal’ and should be judged ‘not . . . by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’—in order to attack civil rights.”
Page: 5,“The sins of our racial past gave way to an emphasis on individual merit and responsibility.”
Page: 6, In the years before the trip back to Little Rock, Clinton had signed three landmark pieces of legislation—the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the Crime Bill (which enshrined “three strikes” as federal policy and provided more money for building more prisons); the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (which “ended welfare as we know it” and gutted the nation’s social safety net); and the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which expanded federal power in law enforcement and cut off avenues by which people could challenge their convictions). All three traded on rampant stereotypes of people of color as dependent, debauched, and dangerous—“superpredators” and “deadbeats,” in Clinton’s words—to amplify criminalization, limit public assistance, foreclose avenues of due process and redress, and make good on Clinton’s appeals to white voters.
Page: 8, …rights movement as a key signal of progress and the power of American democracy—
Page: 9, A man who risked his life and went to jail thirty times to challenge the scourge of American racism; who was quick to point out the racism of the North along with that of the South; who wrote from jail in 1963 that the biggest problem was not the KKK but the “white moderate” who “preferred order to justice”; who criticized the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism”; whose sermon the Sunday after he was assassinated was going to be “Why America Is Going to Hell”—that man of God and courage is now honored with a memorial that refuses to speak the problem of racism.
Page: 12, A memorial statue of the civil rights movement was deemed relevant to the present day, while the movement’s goals of enforced voting rights protection were not. In many ways, the statue dedication embodied an increasingly familiar use of civil rights history as a national redemption story and Horatio Alger tale of American courage. In this way, the intersection of the Parks statue dedication and the Supreme Court hearing was not merely ironic but emblematic of a larger politics of historical memory at work for a nation that wanted to place this history firmly in the past and diminish the vision of its heroes now put on pedestals.
Page: 12, The March on Washington had made a series of compromises in 1963, eliminating civil disobedience from the day’s plan and narrowing the scope of the demands. But as writer Gary Younge reminds, the one thing they did not compromise on was their plan that no politician was to speak; it would be the people speaking.
Page: 13, Referencing Ferguson and the police killing of Mike Brown, the president made clear that the nation’s work was not over. But in the speech’s most troubling moment, he explicitly asserted that racial injustice was no longer systemic: “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom.” Just weeks before, the Department of Justice had issued its own report on the Ferguson police department, showing “African Americans experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system”—but the president asserted that racial injustice was neither endemic nor legally or socially sanctioned.27
used to tell a story about the glorious evolution of US democracy and the scrappy Americans who prove its power. They cast civil rights activists in the cloak of sanctified, not-angry nobility, who struggled respectably and were destined to win because American democracy is an inspiration for the world. These tributes tell tales about the power of American values—of the disenfranchised’s ability to use the levers of democracy and of the willingness of the powerful to change. The many ways Americans by their actions and inactions enabled, protected, and continue to maintain injustice at home and abroad fade
By stripping King and Parks of the breadth of their politics—which interwove economic justice, desegregation, criminal justice, educational justice, and global justice—many of these national tributes render Parks and King meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid, and relentless, and thus not relevant or, even worse, at odds with a new generation of young activists. These memorials purposely forget the decades when these activists were surveilled, harassed, ostracized as troublemakers, and upbraided as “extremists”—how
Galvanizing around the issues of police brutality, criminal injustice, and mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter came to national prominence after the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
its various local incarnations have encompassed a broad palette of issues affecting Black lives, from enduring school inequality to living-wage struggles, and from police accountability to gender justice. Taking to the streets, blocking traffic, disrupting political events and commerce, and launching die-ins on college campuses, this new leader-full movement, organized predominantly by young Black people but joined by a rainbow of others and Black people of all ages, has forced the nation to grapple with issues of racial injustice in law enforcement and the legal system.
Fed up with the prominent misuse of history against Black Lives Matter, sixty-six former SNCC activists published a statement in July 2016 marking the continuities of struggle: “Fortunately, today, as in the past, the protesters who have taken to the streets against police violence will not be intimidated by slander or mischaracterization as ‘racist’ or ‘terrorist sympathizers’ born of the fear, ignorance and malice of their would-be critics. . . . We, the still-active radicals who were SNCC, salute today’s Movement for Black Lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth for a knowingly forgetful world.”64
Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks drew solace and sustenance from the long history of Black resistance before her time, placing her action and the Montgomery bus boycott in the continuum of Black protest. Her speech notes during the boycott read: “Reading histories of others—Crispus Attucks through all wars—Richard Allen—Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr. Women Phillis Wheatley—Sojourner Truth—Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune.”66 For Parks, the ability to keep going, to know that the struggle for justice was possible amidst all the setbacks they encountered, was partly possible through reading and referencing the long Black struggle before her. By denying a new generation their place in that lineage, a key form of sustenance is taken away.
Chapters 6 and 7 get beyond the “great man” view of history, examining the central role young people—in particular high school students—played in pushing the movement forward, and the adult discomfort with it, as well as the breadth of women’s leadership and the various barriers and gendered assumptions those women encountered. Chapter 8 focuses on the unpopularity of the movement, the toll this chilling climate took on activists, and the immense political repression they faced. Finally, chapter 9 revisits the iconic Montgomery bus boycott to return the story of organizing and the role of disruption, perseverance, and anger to our understanding of the movement.
the largest civil rights protest of the decade. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students and teachers stayed out of school to challenge the New York City Board of Education’s refusal to make a plan for comprehensive desegregation. Obama did not even make a presidential announcement, as he did for the sixtieth anniversary of Rosa Parks’s bus arrest, to mark the anniversary. The movement commemorated was depicted only in the South.
civil rights struggles outside the South, from the 1940s to the 1980s. Movements in Northern cities, like those in their Southern counterparts, used many tactics—nonviolent civil disobedience and marches, meetings with city officials and disruptive direct action, boycotts and door-to-door canvassing. They took on redlining and housing segregation, school segregation, job exclusion, discriminatory public services, welfare exclusion, police brutality, and criminalization. And these movements were repeatedly met with similar claims, from public officials and citizens alike: this is not the South; we don’t have that kind of racism here; disparities exist because Black people haven’t adopted the right behaviors for success.
As historian Matthew Lassiter documents, the framework of “de facto” segregation (as compared to “de jure,” or by law) was created to appeal to Northern sensibilities, to make a distinction between the segregation so evident in many Northern cities from the segregation many Northerners decried in the South. Thus Northern “de facto” segregation was cast outside the law, despite the many government policies that supported and legalized these practices (and judges from Boston to California would find intentional segregation in these school districts as well). Many scholars and journalists since the 1960s have clung to this false distinction between a Southern “de jure” segregation and a Northern “de facto” segregation, making Northern segregation more innocent and missing the various ways such segregation was supported and maintained through the law and political process.5 At the same time, looking carefully at these Northern movements reveals how hard community activists fought—not just in the South
Confronting the extent of the Northern struggle, as Newark activist and historian Komozi Woodard explains, is to see “how much we loved our children.” Black parents and community members built movements to challenge school segregation and inequality, protest housing segregation, confront police brutality, highlight job and union exclusion, and equalize public and social services. They took on cultural arguments blaming Black families and children for the conditions of their neighborhoods and schools, and relentlessly worked to pressure city officials for equity. Trying tactic after tactic to get change, they innovated strategies, shamed city officials, disrupted municipal life, and labored to bridge class and ideological divisions.
the Supreme Court had handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board outlawing segregation in schools, determining that separate could never be equal and laying out a promise of equal education: “In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
The board repeatedly claimed that whatever segregation existed was merely the result of housing segregation, and that it was powerless to do anything. As Jansen explained it, New York’s segregation was “natural” and not caused by anyone in the city: “We did not provide Harlem with segregation. We have natural segregation here. It’s accidental.”16 According to school officials, people just chose to live with their own. Clark’s
Partly an effort to appease Northern sensibilities and mark certain forms of segregation as innocent, Northern segregation had come to be termed “de facto.” As Black lawyer Paul Zuber, who litigated cases in New York and New Jersey, wrote in 1963: The word de facto segregation was never heard until the historic Supreme Court decision of 1954. . . . Now the law is clear, segregation by legislative act was illegal and in violation of the Constitution of the United States. Now the North needed a rationalization to continue its brand of racial segregation.
Short of his participation in the mainstream of American life in terms of the same education that everyone is getting, in terms of the same kind of housing that everyone else is getting, and in terms of the same kind of employment that everyone else is getting, he can’t have any kind of equality.”42 Galamison’s relentlessness made political
Black parents pushed on. They formed separate parent organizations when they were excluded from official school Parent Teacher Associations and tried to break through the doublespeak and bureaucracy that New York City officials employed to protect their segregated and unequal schools. They also sought to demonstrate their commitment to their children’s education and to challenge the ways many teachers and school administrators treated them and their children as the problem.
As the New York Age, one of the city’s African American newspapers, noted in 1952, many of the teachers being labeled subversives were Jewish people who actively worked on behalf of Black students: “Two disturbing facts about the continued firing and suspension of teachers in the Board of Education’s drive against subversives are that the ax appears directed primarily at Jews and that most of these teachers have been active in fighting against discrimination and for school improvements among minority groups.”48 Unlike other organizations of teachers in the city, the radical Teachers Union (TU) had joined Black community calls for teacher rotation (calling for the board of education to establish a policy of rotating better, permanent teachers into Black schools) and increased hiring of Black and Puerto Rican teachers.
Faced with the intransigence of the New York City Board of Education and city leaders, Black parent groups across the city, along with civil rights organizations and white and Puerto Rican activists, moved to a bigger action. Bayard Rustin, one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, brought his organizing skills to the task. On February 3, 1964, more than 460,000 students and thousands of teachers (about 43 percent of students and 8 percent of teachers) stayed out of school in response to the BOE’s unwillingness to formulate a comprehensive school desegregation plan.
Their numbers far outstripped—and nearly doubled—the number of people who had marched in DC in August 1963. But the protest met with much criticism from the media, little change from the BOE, and no pressure from the federal government.50 Many white New Yorkers were aghast at the protests—and stepped up their counter-organizing to ensure that change did not come to New York schools. While newspapers such as the New York Times were covering the Southern civil rights movement extensively and sympathetically by 1964, they took a very different, much more critical approach to a growing desegregation movement at home.
In drafting the act, the bill’s Northern and Western sponsors, mindful of their white constituents back home, drew a sharp distinction between segregation by law in the South and so-called “racial imbalance” in the North, amending Title IV, section 401(b), to read: “‘Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance” (emphasis added).
the summer after the bill passed, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin observed, “People have to understand that although the civil rights bill was good and something for which I worked arduously, there was nothing in it that had any effect whatsoever on the three major problems Negroes face in the North: housing, jobs, and integrated schools . . . the civil-rights bill, because of this failure, has caused an even deeper frustration in the North.”
According to Batson, the subcommittee also found a “general consensus” among principals that Black students did not do as well as white students because “the parents did not seem to care.”70 Similar to public officials in New York, Boston school officials did not defend segregation on its face, but blamed the problems in Black schools on Black children’s motivation and their parents’ values.
cities like Boston—one that framed white resistance to racial integration in a language of “neighborhood control,” “taxpayer’s rights,” and “forced busing,” and cast African American and Latino youth as “problem students” whose “cultural deprivations” hampered their educational success. In 1964, William O’Connor became the new head of the Boston School Committee, declaring, “We have no inferior education in our schools. What we’ve been getting is an inferior type of student.”71
busing in the 1960s was regularly used by the school committee to enable and protect segregated schools. And white parents did not object to this sort of busing. By 1972, 85 percent of Boston’s high school students were already being bused—a fact that the media conveniently ignored as it repeatedly validated white opposition to “busing” as the problem.
Boston passed an open-enrollment policy in 1961, much like the freedom-of-choice plans that popped up across the South in the mid-1960s. Black students were entitled to open seats in white schools. In reality, there were numerous barriers for Black families seeking to actually use open enrollment to access seats in less-crowded, better-resourced schools, while white families sometimes took advantage of it to transfer out of schools in transitional neighborhoods. The school committee forbade the use of school funds to bus children to these seven thousand open seats throughout the city, even though students were being bused to maintain segregated schools.
Latino children experienced similar problems. Excluded and underserved in BPS, five thousand Latino students, according to a 1970 report, were systematically excluded from school completely. Language barriers (including the lack of bilingual education), inadequate teachers and counselors, dilapidated buildings, shortages of books and other materials, and racist curricula meant that Latino students were receiving a separate and distinctly unequal education. Latino students were treated as deficient and were regularly cast as the problem in discourses that were similar to those used against Black students.
After two decades of meetings, rallies, student walkouts, parent organizing efforts, community initiatives, and independent schools, there was still little change in BPS. And so Black parents with the NAACP decided as a last resort in 1972 to file a federal suit against the school committee, Tallulah Morgan v. James W. Hennigan. At the time, 59 of the 201 schools in BPS taught the majority of the city’s Black students, and only 356 of 4,500 teachers in BPS were Black.80 By 1972, there were few neighborhood schools in Boston; 85 percent of high school students in Boston were already being bused, and thousands of white students not ensconced in all-white neighborhoods were bused past Black schools to white schools.81
In 1973, the Boston School Committee willingly gave up $65 million in state and federal funds rather than desegregate schools.83 In June 1974, Judge Garrity found the Boston School Committee had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities.” He explicitly rejected the school committee’s rhetoric of protecting “neighborhood schools,” citing open enrollment, magnet schools, city-wide schools, and widespread high school feeder programs as “antithetical” to a neighborhood school system. He ordered comprehensive desegregation to begin in September. This included mandates for hiring more Black and Latino teachers, the elimination of the feeder system that sent Black students to high school in ninth grade and white students in tenth, and the desegregation
sustained white resistance to desegregation and refusal to follow either state or federal law that had brought the city to this juncture. In the face of Garrity’s order, public officials and journalists repeatedly ignored well-established Black grievances and persistently claimed that systematic segregation did not exist in the Cradle of Liberty. They treated Garrity’s decision as surprising and unexpected, with many casting it as extreme and drastically out-of-line. (Garrity received so many death threats that a federal marshall was assigned to protect him.)
Each of these council members displayed a letter—R-O-A-R—in the windows of their office, spelling the acronym of the antidesegregation organization Restore Our Alienated Rights, and the council let the group use its chambers to meet. The police union had publicly opposed the court’s order, and many police officers were not committed to peaceful and effective school desegregation. According to Batson, many white Bostonians “believed that it all belonged to them, their school, their sidewalk.”85
Buses carrying elementary school students were stoned. Nine Black children were injured and eighteen buses were damaged. Black students desegregating South Boston High were met by a mob of whites throwing rocks, bottles, eggs, and rotten tomatoes, yelling “Niggers go home!”86 The situation grew worse over the weeks: fights broke out in the schools, and white crowds continued their attacks on Black students and bystanders. The courage of Black students who braved these schools continued as well.
though white middle-class neighborhoods known as the High Wards experienced significant racial violence, working-class South Boston was pictured as the problem. It was easier to lay the blame then and even forty years later on working-class South Boston than focus on the middle-class whites who also resisted desegregation and the levers of power that supported and encouraged white opposition to court-ordered desegregation.
Spotlighting the racism of South Boston helped make it seem as though what was happening in Boston wasn’t systemic, despite its similarities to white opposition to desegregation in Little Rock and Birmingham. Massive organizing and marches by Black residents and their allies in 1974 and 1975 received much less attention in the news. Most of the national media attention focused on white parents and children,
was. Black people became bit players in Boston’s most famous civil rights event—even though their organizing continued unabated. Following the discursive strategies of the time, many historians have continued to treat white Northern opposition to homegrown civil rights movements differently from Southern resistance. While “Southern segregationists” sought to prevent school desegregation, similar movements in Northern cities are often described as “white backlash” or “antibusing movements”; rarely are they termed “segregationist.”
focused on a Black family that was not active in the community and whose children embodied a variety of social ills. The pathological lens through which Lukas viewed the Twymons made enduring educational problems in the city largely the fault of Black culture and behaviors. By framing it as the “busing crisis” and not as massive white resistance—supported by all levels of power—to school desegregation, Lukas’s book rendered understandable Northern white defense of “their neighborhood schools.”
Repeatedly, Black parents and civil rights activists pressed for desegregation and were told their children were the problem. Repeatedly, school zones were redrawn in ways that maintained segregation, Black and Puerto Rican teaching applicants were screened out, and Black and Latino students tracked into vocational classes, in schools with more policing and punishment.
Alongside local resistance to more substantive desegregation, the US Supreme Court by the 1970s also limited the implementation of Brown’s promise of equality. In 1973, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court reversed a Texas district court’s decision that education was a fundamental right that rendered inequalities of school financing constitutionally pressing.
Supreme Court acknowledged that Brown had affirmed that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” it found that “education, of course, is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution. Nor do we find any basis for saying it is implicitly so protected.”
the court maintained that reliance on local property taxes to fund public schools, even while causing significant disparities, was constitutional because local control over schools represented a legitimate state interest. This decision, in effect, ensured that poorer districts would never receive equal funding to build equal schools—and that having a right to equal protection did not extend to attending an equally funded school.
Marshall, in his dissent, noted: that a child forced to attend an underfunded school with poorer physical facilities, less experienced teachers, larger classes and a narrower range of courses than a school with substantially more funds—and thus with greater choice in educational planning—may nevertheless excel is to the credit of the child, not the State. Indeed, who can ever measure for such a child the opportunities lost and the talents wasted for want of a broader, more enriched education? Discrimination in the opportunity to learn that is afforded a child must be our standard.93
Despite extensive evidence of the intentional nature of metro Detroit’s school segregation, the decision exempted suburban districts from any role in or responsibility for remedying school segregation and subsequently reinforced the existing trend of white flight from city public schools to suburban school districts. Calling the decision “a giant step backwards” from Brown and an “emasculation of our constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws,” Thurgood Marshall
Racial inequities in schooling have continued to widen in the four decades since Milliken. In 2007, the Supreme Court, in Community Schools v. Seattle, went a step further. Asserting that Brown’s goal had long since been realized and even voluntary school desegregation programs in Seattle and Louisville were an “extreme approach,” it struck down these programs as “more faithful to the heritage of Brown.”
Ignoring the explicit language of the Brown decision that “the right of the opportunity of an education . . . must be made available to all on equal terms,” the court stated that Brown had only sought to address the use of race in school assignment rather than the ways the use of race was a mechanism to promote inequality. In other words, fundamental school inequality didn’t pose a constitutional problem, only the explicit denial of a seat next to a white kid did.
Given this history, then, it should not be surprising that a 2014 University of California, Los Angeles, study found that New York had the most segregated schools in the country (with charter schools in New York City some of the most segregated)—and that many Northern metropolises were more segregated than Southern ones.95
the Campaign for Fiscal Equity brought suit in 1993, challenging the inequitable funding of New York’s schools using the state’s constitutional guarantee of a sound and basic education for all students. In 2001, Judge Leland de Grasse found deep racial inequities in terms of funding, but New York State appealed the case. When a court of appeals sided with de Grasse in 2003, the state refused to comply. De Grasse determined that $5.6 billion in operating aid and $9.2 billion in capital funding were needed, but the state committed only $2.3 billion in 2007–2009, then froze the funding with the recession.
Grappling with a fuller history of the Northern movement that steadfastly challenged educational inequality and school segregation raises important and unsettling questions. The problem did not rest with the poor values of Black parents or poor behaviors of Black students (as many Northern officials tried to claim) but with a deeply inequitable school system that provided educational resources, small class size, up-to-date facilities, and jobs disproportionately to white people.
Systemic school inequality extended above the Mason–Dixon Line, and activists fought for decades to challenge it, but city elites, white citizens, and much of the mainstream media—with tacit and sometimes explicit support from the federal government—protected systemic inequality in Northern cities. By ignoring this history, the fable makes it seem as though injustice is vanquished in the end, and that society, in time, appreciates those who fight injustice through proper channels.
organized, persistent, and peaceful direct action in New York and Boston (two cities that pride themselves on their openness and liberalism), white officials and citizens resisted change. They continued to cast Black and Latino youth as the problem, amplifying criminalization and programs for “juvenile delinquency,” while persistently ignoring or demonizing Black and Latino demands for equitable resources, open hiring, and desegregation.
long-standing Black movement that repeatedly raised issues of police brutality, housing and school segregation, urban renewal, and job exclusion but had been disparaged and dismissed for years before the uprising. Fifty years earlier, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Parks had pointedly criticized the willful disregard of movements and “resistance to change” in Los Angeles and Detroit in the years leading up to the uprisings in both cities.
their work in the North and particularly the way they framed the uprisings of the 1960s are hardly acknowledged. Both had pressed for change and joined with movements in these cities demanding housing and school desegregation, jobs and public assistance, and an end to police brutality for years before the uprisings—and were attacked for it. And both insisted that the story did not begin with the riots of the mid-1960s, as the media and political officials suggested, but with the long history of injustice and frustrated Black struggle in the North that preceded them.
By refusing to recognize the long history of Black struggle in the city challenging school and housing segregation, job exclusion, and police brutality and own up to the massive white resistance to it, Angelenos conveniently avoided their responsibility. While offering concern about civil rights in the South, they had maintained and defended systems of inequality at home that had created the conditions for the uprising. King found this double standard deeply troubling. This willful blindness
Black communities there are cast as angry, alienated, and unwilling to work through “proper channels.” The problems of Northern Blacks are treated as much more complicated—cultural as much as structural; Northern youth pictured as inherently rejecting nonviolence and organized struggle; and no civil rights movement depicted in these cities before the riots.
King’s work in and perspectives on the North are mistakenly understood to start only after these riots—a gross distortion of his actual political life, in which he had crisscrossed the North in the early 1960s to highlight not only Southern inequality but also Northern injustice. By 1960, King was publicly making clear “the racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem.”4 Throughout the early 1960s, he took part in rallies, meetings, and marches from Boston to Los Angeles highlighting the problems of school and housing segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality in those cities.
King pointedly explained that “segregation, whether it is de jure segregation of certain sections of the South or de facto segregation of the North, is a new form of slavery covered up with certain niceties.”5 And in the Saturday Review piece, King pointed out that most Northern white people who praised his efforts challenging segregation and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
in the decade before 1965, Black Angelenos, like their counterparts in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Birmingham, and Montgomery, took to meeting rooms, mass gatherings, and the streets to protest the systemic racial inequality at the city’s core. They held regular demonstrations demanding desegregation and equity in Los Angeles’s public schools, protested widespread police brutality in the city, and fought racially exclusive housing developments and a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
1964, which returned to Californians their right to discriminate in the sale and rental of their property. Focusing on that decade of struggle before the uprising reveals that in the face of mounting Black protests, white leaders and citizens developed a variety of mechanisms to ignore them: diminishing the problem, refusing to listen, reshaping the problem, asking for proof, demonizing activists as “… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Reckoning with the history of Black organizing before the uprisings in those cities upends our popular narrative of the era and forces us to confront the years of white disregard and opposition to Black demands for justice that laid the groundwork for these rebellions of the mid-1960s. It requires us to see movements in each of these cities that were long ignored… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Marnesba Tackett, who migrated to Los Angeles in 1952 and soon became a leading civil rights activist, “found . . . very little better than what I found in the South.”7 In the early 1950s, Tackett led the Los Angeles NAACP’s Education Committee, which began attacking school segregation, the lack of Black teachers, and the presence of racial stereotypes in the city’s school curriculum.8 The Los Angeles Unified School… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The 1960 US Census revealed Los Angeles was more segregated than any city in the South, and the California Eagle reported, “more Negro children attend all-Negro schools in Los Angeles than attend such schools in Little Rock.”10 School segregation worsened in Los Angeles, as it did in many Northern and Western cities, after the Brown decision. As Black migration to the city increased, the board kept readjusting zoning lines to keep Black students ensconced in increasingly overcrowded Black schools.
Teachers and administrators often called Black students “monkeys,” “thugs,” and “tramps.”11 Textbooks were old and often contained “happy slave tales” and other demeaning portrayals of Black people in history and literature.12 Patterns of school segregation did not derive simply from racialized housing patterns, as school officials liked to claim. Rather they resulted from these officials’ own actions gerrymandering school zoning lines, restricting the hiring of Black and Chicano teachers, apportioning school resources unequally, tracking Black and Chicano students into vocational rather than college programs, and providing few college-preparation classes in Black and Chicano schools.
you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.”13 The turnout at these events and the tenor of the coverage in local Black newspapers indicate that African Americans in Los Angeles viewed themselves as part of a national freedom movement. While the fable paints King as out of touch with racial issues in the North and West before Watts erupted, his repeated appearances in the early 1960s decrying education inequity, housing segregation, and police injustice in Los Angeles reveal this as a dangerous, if convenient, distortion.
my priority was in trying to get equal education right here in Los Angeles, where we had a lot of discrimination, a lot of work done in terms of the way boundaries were drawn. . . . It all needed to be worked on at one and the same time.14 Inspired by King’s visit to create a united front movement in Los Angeles, seventy-six community and political groups formed the United Civil Rights Council in June 1963. Tackett was unanimously selected as the UCRC’s education chair.
The UCRC drew up a list of demands, calling on the board to redraw district lines, transfer Black students out of overcrowded schools, diversify the curriculum, and change the teacher-hiring process to increase the number of nonwhite teachers and distribute them throughout the entire district. But the board did nothing, preferring to study the issue.
Instead of desegregation, Los Angeles school officials proposed increased funding to “culturally disadvantaged” schools, including money for new programs aimed at addressing “juvenile delinquency” and reducing dropout rates, and blamed “the lack of hope and motivation among some of these families which leads them into negative attitudes toward education and the demands the school makes on their children.”17
response, the UCRC began holding marches downtown throughout the summer of 1963, and held sit-ins, sleep-ins, and study-ins in the fall. Purposely echoing King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a group of the city’s Black leaders issued a critical statement in June 1963: “All deliberate speed has meant no speed at all. The spirit of Birmingham means integration now in every way.”18 Hundreds of student protesters marched; they lined the halls of the BOE building with a study-in, and disrupted a meeting with a sing-in
On April 27, 1962, Los Angeles police killed the twenty-nine-year-old unarmed secretary of the local Nation of Islam (NOI), Ronald Stokes, and wounded six others outside Muslim Temple 27. None of the seven men were armed. The fracas began when officers stopped two men, claiming they were suspicious because they were loading clothes into their car and there had been burglaries nearby. Stokes was shot at close range with his hands up. Police arrested seventeen members of the NOI, including those wounded, and blamed them for the trouble.24 Yet despite an autopsy that established that Stokes was shot at close range and had been stomped, kicked, and bludgeoned while dead or dying, the public inquest into his death found that the police shooting was “justified” in “self-defense.”25
to hold city authorities accountable for Stokes’s death, Malcolm X joined NOI members, Christian ministers, Black politicians, the NAACP, and thousands of Angelenos to work toward creating a united front movement against police brutality in the city.26 Three thousand people packed a joint mass meeting at Second Avenue Baptist Church with Malcolm X, NAACP leaders,
In 1964, the burgeoning Black freedom movement in Los Angeles had to shift its organizational energies in an effort to defeat a menacing ballot initiative. Proposition 14 sought to repeal the new Rumford Housing Act, which banned racial discrimination in the sale and rental of property—a law activists had fought for years to achieve. Supporters of Proposition 14 explicitly denied any racial animus but asserted their property rights and claimed the 1963 act, by mandating antidiscrimination, denied them equal protection under the law.
would provide a template for citizen movements seeking to maintain segregation by asserting the right to private property and freedom from government intrusion: “Neither the state nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall . . . limit or abridge . . . the right of any person . . . to decline to sell, lease, or rent property to such . . . persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.”
The Japanese American Citizens League and the Mexican American Political Association joined the fight, as did Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Los Angeles multiple times to campaign against Proposition 14, saying its passage would be “one of the most shameful developments in our nation’s history.”32 Many white Angelenos labeled him a Communist for this work, picketing the SCLC’s western office with signs reading “King Has Hate, Does Travel” and “Thank God for Chief Parker.”33 Supporters of Proposition 14 drew on “culture of poverty” images to justify patterns of racial inequality in the city. LA County Young Republicans president Robert Gaston claimed, “Negroes are not accepted [in white neighborhoods] because they haven’t made themselves acceptable.”34 Calling the 1963 Fair Housing Act “the Forced Housing Act,” supporters raised contrasting images of happy, suburban Anglo families and dysfunctional, deviant families of color.
Proclaiming California as a “state without racial discrimination,” Governor Brown flew home immediately, informing reporters that “nobody told me there was an explosive situation in Los Angeles.”39 It was a willful, comforting shock. Even though the Los Angeles Times had covered many of the protests of the past decade, reporters and editors refused to call city leaders to account for their long deafness to Black grievances and instead helped legitimate this frame of surprise.
1964 Harlem uprising, King had similarly called for a civilian-complaint review board to monitor the New York Police Department—and been roundly criticized by city leaders.)40 The “surprise” also obscured the role many in the city had played in dismissing Black protest and maintaining inequality. By erasing this long history of struggle, many Angelenos could conveniently evade responsibility for maintaining these systems of inequality and creating the conditions for the uprising.
The uprising was more targeted than public officials suggested. Aimed at commercial interests (such as banks that charged Black people high rates, and grocery stores that marked up prices and sold rotten food), most housing was untouched, as were many Black businesses,
The Los Angeles Riot Study, conducted by UCLA, on Black attitudes about the riot found that 58 percent of the Black people surveyed felt that favorable results would follow the riot, 62 percent considered the riot a Negro protest, and 64 percent thought the attack was deserved.43 This is not to say that every Black Angeleno saw the riots as a form of protest (a significant minority of the Black community clearly did not), nor that those who did linked it directly to the long-ignored activism of the previous decade.
a mountain of evidence from the research, testimony, and investigation that followed the uprising, including that of the McCone Commission convened to investigate it, made the case that the “riots” were political rebellions against racism in the city and nation. The social profile of the “rioters” culled from the arrest data indicates that they had better than average educations, and that they were employed, socially conscious, and aware of international news.
On June 20, 1963, four years before the uprising, nearly two hundred thousand Black people marched through Detroit highlighting pervasive inequality in the city and the unwillingness of city leaders to recognize Black grievances and address segregated schools, housing, or job exclusion. March co-organizer Reverend C. L. Franklin explained to the Detroit News that the march would serve as a “warning to the city that what has transpired in the past is no longer acceptable to the Negro community.”46 Active in union and open housing movements in the city, Rosa Parks appeared at the front of Detroit’s Great March alongside Franklin, the Reverend Al Cleage Jr., and Martin Luther King Jr.
Parks described Detroit as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t.”47 While a number of the public displays of segregation on buses, at drinking fountains, and on elevators were thankfully gone, she didn’t find “too much difference” in race relations between Montgomery and Detroit and the systems of school segregation, housing segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality in both cities.48
Like the Parkses, many Black people couldn’t afford their own places. Decent housing for Black people to rent or buy was in desperately short supply. During the 1960s, the city began using urban renewal to clear Black neighborhoods to make room for development, gobbling up many Black homes and neighborhoods in the process. Forty-three thousand Detroiters were displaced by urban renewal—70 percent of them Black. Activists began calling it “Negro Removal.”
After years of trying to draw attention to issues relating to jobs, schools, housing, and city planning, the 1963 march was organized as a way to disrupt the indifference of most white Detroiters to the inequalities and injustices that shaped Black life in the city. The numbers of marchers rivaled those at the March on Washington in DC two months later. Labor activist General Baker remembered the Great March’s massiveness: “We didn’t have to walk but were pushed up Jefferson.”52
In the early 1960s, Cleage joined with Richard and Milton Henry to build the Group on Advanced Leadership, an all-Black organization, “because something more needed to be done about police brutality, Negro removal disguised as urban renewal, Negro-hating textbooks, and the lack of black business.”56
As Al Cleage wrote in the Illustrated News (the bimonthly newspaper he founded in 1961 that developed a circulation of more than 35,000), “All Negroes are not automatically suspicious because of the fact that they are Negroes. . . . No grounds were given for the arrest for Cynthia Scott. Her arrest was therefore illegal and she had the right to walk away. An officer who kills a citizen who refuses to submit to an illegal arrest is guilty of murder and must be brought to trial!”
In 1960, the Detroit NAACP lambasted the “chronic” nature of the problem and presented its own records of 244 cases of police brutality between 1955 and 1960, with 47 resulting in hospitalization.60 In 1964, NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins sounded the alarm that police relations in Detroit had worsened drastically.61 In 1965, people marched to protest five police killings in two years—Cynthia Scott, Kenneth Evans, Clifton Allen, Nathaniel Williams, and Arthur Barrington—and the brutal beatings of six others.62 On top of outright brutality, police officers regularly took money and other items of value
a trumped-up charge of drunkenness, disorderly conduct, or resisting arrest.63 Police expanded the practice of arresting Black people simply on “investigation”; about a third of their arrests were made for this reason.64 And they gave scores of tickets to increase revenue. “There’s a certain time of month . . . that you can’t hardly drive around the block. They follow you around just waiting for you to do something wrong,” one young man explained.
the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, “had a standing agreement not to cover issues of police brutality.”67
Despite local calls, protests, rallies, and walkouts for concrete action to remedy Detroit’s segregated schools and housing, reform police practice, and open up job possibilities, little changed.68 Yet many whites in the city, including the city’s white political leadership, believed Detroit the apex of racial progress, with two Black congressmen, a strong NAACP, a liberal mayor, and a prosperous auto industry that appeared to offer Black and white workers economic opportunity.
“What really went on was a police riot,” Congressman John Conyers would later observe.72 In certain neighborhoods, police shot out the streetlights, causing further chaos. The only Black bookstore in Detroit, Vaughn’s Bookstore—a frequent gathering place for young activists—was intentionally destroyed by police, witnesses reported. Police firebombed the building, mutilated the artwork, damaged many photographs, and left the water running, ruining the vast majority of books.
By spring of 1968, with half the 3,200 looting cases cleared, 60 percent had resulted in dismissal and only two had resulted in convictions on the original charge.77 Understanding that these maneuvers were aimed at keeping Black and poor people “off of the streets,” newly elected Recorder’s Court judge George Crockett was sickened by the ways in which the judiciary acted as an extension of the police
before deciding to run for Detroit’s Recorder’s Court in 1966. He observed: “There is no equal justice for black people in our criminal courts today, and what’s more, there never has been. And this is the shame of our whole judicial system. . . . And this is so, not because the written law says it shall be so, rather it is so because our judges, by their rulings, make it so.”78 Crockett would use his powers as judge very differently than his colleagues and try to right the scales of justice, often freeing or giving lenient sentences to first-time offenders and for nonviolent offenses,
Parks thus located the uprising in the context of white resistance and deafness to Black grievances in Detroit: “The establishment of white people . . . will antagonize and provoke violence. When the young people want to present themselves as human beings and come into their own as men, there is always something to cut them down.”80 Bookstore owner Ed Vaughn echoed this in an interview with Black reporter Louis Lomax: “You told them; Martin Luther King told them; everybody who cares, white and black told them. They did not listen.”
Association, King reframed the question of riots by highlighting the injustice and white illegality that produced the conditions in Northern cities: “When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.”82
King made clear, the police themselves were doing illegal and immoral things, as were landlords and city officials, often protected by the cloak of whiteness. Despite rampant police harassment and brutality during the uprising, a pattern of impunity followed—and it became clear that there would be no accountability for police misconduct. Following a speech by H. Rap Brown in Detroit, young militants took up the call for a “People’s Tribunal” to bring the evidence of what happened in front of the community and hold the police accountable for their actions during the riot, particularly the killings of the three young men—Carl
Cleage wrote after in the Michigan Chronicle. “There is no way to put down on paper the sheer horror of the recital of events by witness after witness. . . . The packed auditorium became more quiet than a courtroom.”84
[A] riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.85 In the years following these uprisings, California and Michigan became key sites in the development of Black Power.
access to health care, affordable housing and liberatory education, the right to self-defense, the need both for reparations and fundamental economic transformation, and a changed relationship between law enforcement and the Black community. But the urge was to present this militancy as coming out of nowhere, rather than as having emerged from years of work, struggle, and reflection by local organizers, from reflection, and from the “resistance to change long before.”
While recent uprisings in Ferguson, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Baltimore have prompted much important reporting on the nature of injustice in law enforcement, municipal policy, and the court system in these places, few stories have focused on the groups and organizers in these cities that have highlighted problems for years. Much like after the Watts and Detroit uprisings, journalists today have not forced city leaders and citizens to grapple with the reasons why these movements and the issues they amply highlighted for years have been neglected for so long.
As King and Parks pointed out fifty years ago, it is easier to cast people as unwilling to work through the proper channels than wrestle with the ways society didn’t listen and wouldn’t change, even when people did work through the proper channels. It is easier to cast protesters as reckless and dangerous than face the comfort and cruel convenience of those on the sidelines of injustice.
it is easier to frame the situation as unfortunate but outside of our control, rather than come to grips with the ways the country has maintained an unjust criminal justice system and the long-standing protest that preceded these moments.
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice . . . who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963
Such invocations invite all Americans to identify with and be inspired by the power of ordinary people to change the course of the nation. The danger in such identification is that the forces of injustice, complicity, and complacency—the Goliath—are placed at a distance. With the exception of a few ubervillains like Eugene “Bull” Connor and J. Edgar Hoover, the perpetrators go unmarked.
“That’s because so much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice,” writer Gary Younge observed. “Leaders ‘get assassinated,’ patrons ‘are refused’ service, women ‘are ejected’ from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.”1 Our popular history of the movement largely sidesteps how and by whom racial inequality was perpetrated and maintained.
Without understanding how and why a system of racial injustice was propelled not only by people who were yelling but by people who were silent, not just by violence but by state bureaucracy, and by refusing to grapple with the various interests and benefits this system accrued for many and the fears people harbored of standing up against it, we miss a key lesson from this history.
a view of racism as personal hatefulness—“Southern backwardness,” as civil rights historian Charles Payne has termed it. Racism is pictured as the governor snarling at the University of Alabama entrance, the Mississippi voter registrar continually slamming the door on would-be Black voters, the white mother spitting at Black children—key embodiments of those who perpetrated racial injustice but not the only manifestations of it. Our image of racism is violent, aggressively personalized, and continually located in the “barbaric South,” historian Heather Ann Thompson argues.
Other “polite” embodiments of racism were endemic across the country in maintaining white supremacy—public officials and citizens who preferred framings like “separation” and “neighborhood schools”; who utilized sociological theories of crime and “cultural dysfunction” to justify inequalities in city schools, services, housing, and policing; and who denied jobs, limited access to government programs, and maintained segregation through bureaucratic means.
While many White Americans supported segregation with their actions, others supported it through their inaction—their unwillingness to see how their home, neighborhood, school, or desire for police protection derived from disparity. Many refused to prioritize antiracism, looking the other way when friends, coworkers, or politicians labored to preserve racially inequitable systems.
other Americans knew that this system was deeply wrong but felt there was little they could do about it or feared risking their family’s safety and security, so they hung back. This history is humbling—showing how hard it is to do the right thing and exposing the many barriers to unseating the status quo. It reveals that the perpetration of injustice is not always about hatred but often about indifference, fear, and personal comfort.
When racism is cast as the actions of a small cast of mean individuals, the rest of the people who supported, allowed, or stood aside for it are harder to see, and the solutions often become about changing hearts, about diversity training and tolerance. And when the focus is on individual prejudice, the systems people support that maintain and excuse injustice recede into the background.
parents asserting their rights as taxpayers and questioning whether the Brown decision applies to “their schools”; if it is shown in calls for more “law and order” and “fiscal responsibility”; if it is demonstrated in the lack of public will to address differentials in resources and services in schools, streets, policing, and housing; if it is revealed in the kinds of issues the news media chooses not to cover; if it is illustrated in who stays silent when inequality is brought to light—then it raises questions about where we are today.
If racism is understood not just as an affair of the heart but about material advantage and personal comfort, then the remedy is much different because it means it will cost something to alter.
Violence was one tactic in the South and in the North. White citizens made their opposition to movement activism known and sent a message to Black people who “got out of their place.” Black people moving into “their neighborhoods” or “their schools” from Michigan to Mississippi often faced arson, property destruction, and physical attacks.6 But increasingly in the North and in the South, white people turned to state violence and the police to maintain the status quo.
Law enforcement—and its use of force and control—held power, legitimacy, and palatability, allowing local citizens to see their own hands as clean. Economic violence was even more widespread. Many movement activists, North and South, lost their jobs. Historian Charles Payne, in his study of Mississippi, found that every woman he interviewed who was active in the movement lost her job.
Demonizing dissent was another tactic. The red-baiting most longtime civil rights activists encountered, and the firings that sometimes accompanied it, were convenient weapons of the “civilized,” because they demonized the protester and sent a message to an entire community about the costs of dissent.
what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little.”8 As Judt illuminates in his examination of World War II and the rise of Nazism, what was required was both many people’s obsession with the Jews and many other people’s indifference about the unjust conditions and suffering Jewish people
Similarly, the way racial injustice flourished in the United States required people obsessed with racial difference and the maintenance of white rights who were willing to construct whole systems to delineate, hierarchize, and police it. But it also required—and continues to require—many people to care so little, who would not get involved, and who saw little urgency in the fact of Black suffering.
required many to believe that they had gained what they had through hard work and that other people hadn’t fared as well because they lacked the right values and work ethic. And it stemmed from the inaction of people who saw inequality and injustice as unfortunate—or even horrible—but out of their control (unconnected to their neighborhood, their school, their municipal services, or their law… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
To understand fully how systems of white supremacy functioned means taking into account all the people who allowed inequality to happen and the practices, policies, and cultures they created and supported that countenanced it. Segregation… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When movement activists pushed desegregation of schools and housing and jobs, some people attacked, but others stood by and let them attack. Many asserted their rights as “parents and taxpayers” and thought a lot about their children and little about other people’s children. They said, “Prove there’s a harm being done; we all just like to live with our own.” Then, faced… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
“Polite racism” worked through multiple means: through language that disguised it, through government bureaucracy and the leveraging of channels of power that enabled it, and through sociological framings of cultural dysfunction that… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The lexicon they employed celebrated “color blindness” and expressed “surprise” at Black anger; it cast African American and Latino youth as “problem students” whose behavior (and that of their parents) hampered their educational success and whose communities were filled with “crime;” and it highlighted “property rights” and framed resistance to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Movements to oppose racial equality in large cities like New York and Los Angeles were often described as “backlashes,” or “antibusing” activism, rather than as “segregationist,” conveniently distinguishing them from their Southern counterparts and, ideally, from… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
forcing community activists outside the South to prove that racial segregation and inequity in these liberal cities was real and harmful, and that it was the product of official policies. Historian Karen Miller has documented the ways “… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
“Northern racial liberalism,” Miller contends, “is the notion that all Americans, regardless of race, should be politically equal, but that the state cannot and indeed should not enforce racial equality by… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This frame of color blindness became the Northern way to not see school and housing segregation, differential employment rates, or brutal policing. With public support of racial segregation viewed as the distasteful purview of Southern racists, “color-blind” discourses provided a socially acceptable rhetoric to harness many Northern whites’… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Part of the appeal of these “color-blind” discourses, then, is the cloak of deniability they provided for Northerners (a hypocrisy that Southern leaders often called out). In this way, New York City school officials praised the Brown decision but claimed they weren’t sure how it applied to them. They gave the matter to a committee to study, miring civil rights activists like Ella Baker and Kenneth Clark in work to demonstrate the problem… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
And even when they provided reams of documentation, school officials refused to rezone, claiming the problem was not their doing, while offering money for programs to address juvenile delinquency (preferring to cast Black and Latino… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Martin Luther King observed in 1968, Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white America at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America, including many of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap—essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects retain it.
The second tool of “polite racism” involved the workings of government bureaucracy and policy, and the use of political sway to maintain it. Historian Carol Anderson has termed this “white rage.” According to Anderson, “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies.
understanding that you didn’t need a governor at a schoolhouse door if you had BOE officials constantly adjusting school zoning lines to maintain segregated schools. You didn’t need a burning cross if the bank used maps made by the Federal Housing Authority to mark Black neighborhoods as “dangerous” for investment and deny Black people access to home loans. You didn’t need white vigilantes if the police were willing to protect and serve certain communities while containing and controlling others.
attendance boundaries, feeder patterns, transportation policies, teacher-hiring practices, and other methods to ensure that the vast majority of students of color attended segregated, underresourced schools. And when school officials made moves to adjust those lines even a bit for Black children (from South Gate, California, to Brooklyn, New York), white parents fought back. HOLC ratings, restrictive covenants, veterans’ loan policies, block associations, and banks all worked together to solidify and maintain housing segregation.
Many employers refused to hire Black workers or restricted the number or types of jobs they could hold; many unions excluded Blacks altogether, and government officials granting contracts turned a blind eye to the hiring practices of those they awarded. Much of this was done bureaucratically,
Southerners came to follow suit. Suburban Southern whites, as historian Kevin Kruse argues, “abandon[ed] their traditional, populist, and often starkly racist demagoguery [by the late 1960s], and instead craft[ed] a new conservatism predicated on a language of rights, freedoms, and individualism.”17 Thus, in many ways, Northerners developed the tactics that are now associated with some of the reddest Southern states in the union.
As Lee Atwater explained, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
As Nixon explained to his domestic advisor H. R. Haldeman, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”21 What Nixon introduced to the national stage, and what Ronald Reagan later crystallized with the “Reagan Democrats,” were strategies that Northern politicians already had employed successfully
Professions of the value and importance of equality, married with sustained resistance to the methods by which it might be implemented, were a political gold mine to be tapped by both Republicans and Democrats—and criminalization and cultural arguments were instrumental to explaining away existing inequalities.22
“culture of poverty” explanations provided a socially acceptable rationale to harness many Northern whites’ virulent opposition to housing, school, and job desegregation. A way to blame Black people for their own situation in the “neutral” language of social science, “culture of poverty” framings necessitated strategies to “uplift” the Black community, rather than desegregation, which, political officials claimed, wouldn’t address the real problem.
what was needed were programs to address “juvenile delinquency,” teach positive cultural adaptations and good work habits, and support family values. And if these didn’t work, more punitive approaches would be required.
With biological arguments discredited after World War II, culture became the way to talk about race, in part aided by the rise of academic social science.
By the 1960s, urban social science was booming, and scholar after scholar went to the “ghetto” to investigate this “other America.”30 While many portrayed these cultural adaptations in the context of systemic discrimination, poverty, and disfranchisement, they still depicted a dysfunctional culture holding Black people back.31 They lamented the “tangle of pathologies,” “family structures,” and “cultural deprivation/dysfunction”
Political expediencies led many public officials to focus on the cultural part and jettison the focus on structural factors such as unemployment and unequal public services.32 As the Moynihan Report put it so starkly, “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”33 This set of Black and white academic voices dovetailed with white political elites’ notions of the problem, and so their approaches were elevated.
At the same time, they legitimated remedial and punitive responses. Because certain people’s behaviors were the problem, if they proved unwilling to change, the solution was further order and control, thus legitimating the role of discipline and policing to maintain such control. More extreme forms of school punishment came to school districts including Los Angeles’s in the wake of the Brown decision, as did more policing.
these formulations also accrued political benefits for Black leaders willing to talk tough to Black people.38 Seeing the ways “cultural” explanations were used to thwart demands for desegregation and explain inequity in the civil rights era, particularly by many Northerners seeking to distinguish their opposition from that of Southerners, provides a much different window on their contemporary use.
this “cultural” explanation has recurred decade after decade to explain and justify disparity—and has proved disturbingly effective in disparaging Black demands for equity and justice by placing the solution on changing Black people’s values and behaviors and deflecting public responsibility in ways palatable to liberal sensibilities. Recognizing the centrality of polite racism—of silence, coded language, and the demonization of dissent; the leveraging of bureaucracy and political power;
the use of cultural explanations to account for disparities—also reveals the enduring use of these strategies in maintaining racial inequality from the civil rights era to the present. These methods are slippery; many who employ them will assert that they hate racism and fight hard against racial demagogues like Bull Connor or former Ku Klux Klan Wizard David Duke.
So too for us today: silence, disregard, political influence, and cultural explanations are key tools for maintaining racial injustice then and now. This history asks us to refuse the comfort redneck racism allows and confront the responsibility of a much broader swath of American society who continue to prefer “order” to justice.
endless capacity for surprise at these “crises”: How is this happening here? Why are they so angry? It was a shock that stood in the way of a sober consideration of racial injustice in either city—a shock that ignored history and discriminatory city institutions and long-standing movements and instead legitimated the blinkered perspectives of many of its white readers.
often a paternalistic tone, these news outlets tended to treat local Black leaders as largely irrelevant or as troublemakers demanding too much too fast—functioning, as Stokely Carmichael put it, as “self-appointed white critics.”12 By covering local issues as individual protests or disturbances rather than as a movement, they devoted little space to what segregation looked like in their cities, how it functioned, and who the people who protected it were.
Northern Black people and the movements they built were deemed marginal, unreasonable, and disruptive. Or they were not pictured at all. Media historians Matthew Delmont and Mark Speltz both have found that coverage of race relations in Northern cities tended to focus on white backlash rather than Black protests—and on riots.
one of the most glaring omissions of its coverage: the absence of the fact of long-standing Black organizing and the ways that city had ignored and disparaged nonviolent Black protests for years prior to the uprising, as well as after. A similar problem exists today.
It is easier to castigate protesters as “thugs” unwilling to work through the proper processes than for media outlets to hold accountable neighbors and public officials who didn’t listen when they had. It is easier to cast the people who rose up as the problem, rather than focus on the readers who stayed silent for years amidst police injustice after injustice.
myth of the media as the good guys lets the role news outlets played as maintainers of injustice off the hook. It assumes that if you have a righteous struggle, news outlets will cover it, when they often didn’t. Or that when people work through the “proper channels,” the media would take note, which they often didn’t.
Many times, these news organizations treated nonviolent protests in their own backyards as silly, unreasonable, or even violent. Other times they ignored them. While they came to see Southern surprise at Black protest as contrived, they largely did not question white surprise at Black grievances
Largely, they proved unwilling to shine a significant light on the racial inequities embedded in their city’s schools, policing, or municipal structures—or to challenge the “but I’m not a racist” claims of many middle- and upper-class Northerners who labored mightily to preserve segregated and unequal structures in their hometowns.
At home, this would have required turning the light on the racial politics of their own communities and challenging the “fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity,” as King put it in 1967, that most white Americans who “consider themselves sincerely committed to justice” lived within.75 Unfortunately, it was easier for these papers of record to maintain the fantasy.
Beyond a Bus Seat The Movement Pressed for Desegregation, Criminal Justice, Economic Justice, and Global Justice I have never been what you would call just an integrationist. I know I’ve been called that. . . . Integrating that bus wouldn’t mean more equality. Even when there was segregation there was plenty of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white person, not us. . . . [My aim was] to discontinue all forms of oppression. —Rosa Parks1
the movement itself has been constricted and diluted, framed narrowly around bus seats and lunch counters, rather than the equity, access, and justice these activists demanded. Tellingly, Parks and her comrades typically used the term “desegregation” rather than “integration” to signify that their struggle was not a matter of having a bus seat or a school desk next to a white person but of dismantling the apparatus of inequality.
It was about access, equality, resource reallocation, political transformation, jobs, justice, and tying the futures of all families together, so that material advantages, opportunities, and expectations given to some would be available to all. Narrowing the goal of civil rights activists to a seat diminishes the expansive vision of justice they fought for, making the movement smaller,
The goal necessitated transforming the structures of opportunity, not simply changing attitudes or seeing beyond color.
In 1960, as students put their bodies on the line sitting-in to strike a blow at downtown segregation, organizer Ella Baker brought these young leaders together at a meeting at Shaw University, which led to the founding of SNCC. She made clear that they were “concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger.”
goals were “not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South . . . [but] the moral implications of racial discrimination for the ‘whole world.’”4 Because segregation was about material denial, resource hoarding, and restrictions on the terms of first-class citizenship, desegregation sought to disrupt those limitations, spread the resources around, and demand full social citizenship.
Activists sought substantive desegregation, massive transformation of the criminal justice system, antipoverty programs and welfare rights, school equity and the incorporation of Black history into the curriculum, jobs and union rights, anticolonialism, and an end to the United States involvement in Vietnam.
In building its campaigns in the Deep South, SNCC sought real power for Black people to control their own economic and political lives. It established a research department because it was committed to understanding the breadth of the problem. As Julian Bond explained, [SNCC] had the best research arm of any civil rights organization before or since.
“Power structure” was no abstract phrase for SNCC’s band of brothers and sisters, but a real list with real people’s names and addresses and descriptions of assets and interlocking directorships. . . . Knowledge of who owned what was crucial to SNCC’s strategies. From it, we knew that Southern peonage was no accident, but rather the deliberate result of economic policies determined thousands of miles away from the cotton field.6 But this broader vision of human rights and economic justice does not often make it into popular fables
civil rights movement, which often distort its goods into a narrow notion of personal freedom, seats next to white people, and color blindness. As the late historian Vincent Harding explained, “Our struggle was not just against something, but was trying to bring something into being.”7
The mounting militancy of the later 1960s didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from ignoring, denigrating, and rejecting the demands community organizers had made for years for real school desegregation and educational equity, open and affordable housing, jobs and a robust social safety net, equitable municipal services, and the transformation of the criminal justice system.
the demand for Black Power was much broader than popularly portrayed. But there’s a convenience in making Black radicalism all about the guns and leather jackets because it obscures the larger goals for social, political, and economic transformation that ran through the Black freedom struggle and the deep resistance Black activists encountered.
The Montgomery bus boycott was sparked in part by the recent acquittal of the two men who had lynched fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. In the decade before the boycott, Montgomery’s small cadre of activists—including E. D. Nixon, Johnnie Carr, Irene West, Rufus Lewis, and Rosa Parks—targeted the criminal justice system as a key arena of injustice. They worked on two interrelated problems: the ways the justice system disproportionately and discriminatorily targeted Black people for policing and prosecution, and the ways that brutality, violence, and sexual aggression against Black people often went unaccounted for and unpunished.
Four days later, when bus driver James Blake told her to move, Rosa Parks thought about Emmett Till and—“pushed as far as she could be pushed”—refused.19 “Let us look at Jim Crow for the Criminal he is,” she thought.20 Understanding that it was a system of white supremacy that countenanced segregation and allowed Till’s murderers to walk free, Parks saw an opportunity to strike a blow at that system. Thus, her decision to remain sitting and get arrested and the boycott that ensued stemmed not only from resistance to bus segregation but also from outrage at systemic criminal injustice.
King laid out how America had given Black people a “bad check.” The country had “defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” and so they had come to Washington to collect on a debt stemming from generations of economic exploitation and rights abridgement.
Crucial to King’s vision at the march was the idea that Black people were owed restitution by the nation and had come to claim their rightful payment; understanding that dramatically shifts our view of the political vision of that day—the idea of material redress as necessary to undo the debt the nation owed to African Americans.
March leaders, according to historian Will Jones, “insisted that such racially egalitarian measures would be ineffective unless coupled with a minimum wage increase, extension of federal labor protections to workers in agriculture, domestic service, and the public sector, and a ‘massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.’”
Despite its well-defined demands for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and construction of more affordable housing, the Poor People’s Campaign was criticized by many in Congress and the media as “unruly” and needing “clarity.”32 Resurrection City was torn down by police on June 24. It made poverty visible, but it did not succeed in getting Congress to act. It did, however, alter relations with local officials;
Beginning at kitchen tables and community centers across the country, local groups of welfare recipients had organized in the early 1960s. Growing directly out of the civil rights movement, the welfare rights movement was led by Black women, many of whom had been active in earlier desegregation and voting rights campaigns. In 1967, they coalesced to form the National Welfare Rights Organization, in part through the initiative of former CORE organizer George Wiley. The NWRO was largely Black but included whites, Latinas, and Native Americans. It framed welfare as a right and a matter of equality.
first battleground of local and national welfare rights organizing was access—taking on the exclusions embedded in the New Deal social citizenship. Deriving from mothers’ pension programs of the early twentieth century, welfare was nationalized through the 1935 Social Security Act, which created Aid to Dependent Children (changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC, in 1962) to provide cash assistance to women and children.
“suitable home” provisions, giving case workers great discretion in determining who qualified for aid. Because welfare was administered by the states, and because white politicians feared losing African American and Latina women’s agricultural and domestic labor, suitable home provisions were often enforced on a racial basis, and women of color gained little access to ADC in its first decades—they would be barred during the cotton harvesting season or intimidated from even applying.
Northern politicians were invested in elevating white workers and mothers, and the shape of the Social Security Act reflected that.36 Until the 1960s, Black and Latina workers were rendered ineligible for other wage and union protections as the New Deal created what historian Jill Quadagno calls a “racial welfare state” that denied people of color “the full perquisites of citizenship,” while ensuring their availability as a flexible, low-wage workforce for US employers.37
Challenging the stereotypes of poor women of color as lazy, promiscuous, and undeserving of full rights, they successfully fought to overturn “man of the house” rules, establish a right to due process to maintain or obtain welfare benefits, and ensure enforcement of little-known regulations outlining minimum standards for people on welfare. In their public campaigns, they sought to break the stigma of poverty and social assistance, reframing it as a matter of citizenship and self-determination.
Panthers’ survival programs, including the free breakfast, free food, and free shoe programs they built, free medical clinics they founded, and free ambulance services they started, were an active attempt to redress the material needs of Black people largely left out of the New Deal.38 The welfare rights movement exposed the racialized and gendered ideas undergirding the denial of social assistance to poor women and the public disgust expressed toward them.
Tillmon had been born in Arkansas but moved to Los Angeles. Having worked all her life as a sharecropper and then as a shirt-line operator at a California laundry, when she got sick, she went on public assistance and was astonished by the dehumanizing treatment recipients received. In 1961, she formed Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous
By 1967, Los Angeles had more than a dozen welfare rights groups. According to historian Alejandra Marchevsky, following the establishment of the NWRO, a coalition of welfare rights groups, which had grown out of collaborative efforts in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Mexican American and African American women in South Los Angeles to demand fair treatment from the California Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), formed the LA Welfare Rights Organization (LAWRO).
In a blistering article, “Are Welfare Recipients Human?,” published in La Raza in 1968, Escalante zeroed in on the process of dehumanization: Notice to all welfare clients: You are not taxpayers; you don’t support yourselves. You don’t take good care of your kids; they are hungry, dirty, not clothed properly. [. . .] You are no good; you should be sterilized, your children put in homes; you should be forced to go to work; you should be ashamed of yourselves for living.
Welfare rights campaigns, according to historian Premilla Nadasen, “sought to instill pride in welfare recipients by debunking the racial and sexual stereotypes of AFDC and affording recipients a degree of control and autonomy over their lives.”47
by 1971, over 90 percent of eligible families were receiving AFDC, up from less than 33 percent in 1960. With the mechanization of Southern agriculture and deindustrialization in Northern cities throwing more Americans into extreme poverty, the need for assistance also grew. By 1974, 10.8 million people were receiving AFDC, up from 3.1 million in 1961. This expansion of access to AFDC and the introduction of food stamp benefits began combating hunger and malnutrition in America.
By the time Bill Clinton rode into office in 1992 on his promise to “end welfare as we know it,” the fact that welfare rights had been part of the civil rights movement had long since been repudiated and forgotten. The welfare rights movement may have been one of the era’s most paradigm-shifting—but now it is one of its least known, despite a wealth of scholarship on it.
the vision welfare-rights activists put forth of social assistance as self-determination, imagines a different possibility for the country today.
Vietnam has “played havoc with our domestic destinies,” King explained at an address at the National Cathedral the week before he was assassinated, as he questioned the nation’s priorities, noting that killing a single Viet Cong soldier cost “about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.”
Raisin was based upon the Hansberry family’s own struggle against restrictive covenants in Chicago. Her own life story was even more somber. Her father, with the NAACP’s help, tried to challenge these neighborhood restrictions in court. In an unpublished 1964 letter to the New York Times, she highlighted the costs of “respectable” dissent in America:
“My memories of that ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat on, cursed, and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in Washington court.”52 Despite his use of the proper channels to attack housing segregation, Hansberry’s father would be forced into exile in Mexico
understanding that the structures of white supremacy, segregation, and economic disfranchisement that characterized Black life in America were reflected in US practices, as well as other colonial enterprises, around the world.
In diluting it to a bus seat—to something palatable, narrow, and finished—the fable conveniently makes the movement less relevant for where we are today and misses its far-reaching challenge. Grappling with civil rights activists’ internationalist, anti-imperial vision and their critiques of the injustices embedded in the US economy and criminal justice system raises questions about the United States’ role in the world today and foregrounds the enduring need “to turn sharply from our present ways.”
The Great Man View of History, Part I Where Are the Young People? We waited a long time for those folks to do something to improve our schools, but they let us down and so we have decided to do the job ourselves. —Jefferson High School student, March 19681 The most important learning I do at this age in my life is learning from young people. —Angela Davis, 20172 EVEN THOUGH MANY civil rights memorials are aimed at “uplifting youth,” the central role young people played in the Black freedom struggle, from Brown to Birmingham to the Los Angeles blowouts, is often omitted.
Johns decided to organize the student strike in 1951 after some of her male classmates, who worked at the white high school after school, told Johns and her friends how nice the white school was. “I remember thinking how unfair it was.” Students assembled to hear Johns speak. She told her classmates that “it was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent high school, time for the students themselves to do something about it.”4
Their initial case was lost in federal district court in 1952, but the NAACP appealed to the US Supreme Court, making it one of the five cases that formed the basis of the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
in 1955, months before Rosa Parks made her stand, two teenagers—Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith—refused to give up their seats on the bus and were arrested. The Black community was outraged, particularly following Colvin’s arrest, but a mass movement did not develop, in part because Colvin and Smith were young and adults did not fully trust them. But both cases, particularly Colvin’s, caused rising indignation within Montgomery’s Black community and contributed to the decision, when Rosa Parks was arrested, to call for a boycott.
Both Colvin and Smith became plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal case that Montgomery activists, with lawyer Fred Gray, proactively filed three months into the boycott. These two young women agreed to take part in the case when most adults did not have the courage to do so. Gray could not find a minister or other male leader to serve as one of the plaintiffs—and one of the original plaintiffs, Jeanetta Reese, pulled out a day later when she and her husband were threatened.
two teenagers paved the way for the movement that emerged after Rosa Parks’s bus stand, and then went the distance in signing on to the federal case. In May 1956, three judges of the Middle District of Alabama heard the case. Both Colvin and Smith testified. “Our leaders is just we, ourselves,” Colvin explained.8 Colvin and Smith met for the first time at the hearing. “I was proud” Colvin recalled, “that two teenaged girls had stood up.”9 The case ultimately went to the US Supreme Court and led to the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses.
High school and college students led sit-ins that swept the country in 1960 to protest downtown business segregation and job exclusion in Southern cities. As one student explained, “I myself desegregated a lunch counter, not somebody else, not some big man, some powerful man, but little me. I walked the picket line and I sat in and the walls of segregation toppled. Now all people can eat there.”10 Many of their parents did not approve,
But some elders, such as Rosa Parks, rejoiced in this youth militancy. Ella Baker, who helped form SNCC, insisted that young people establish their own separate group, rather than become a youth wing of SCLC or the NAACP, which wanted to subsume them. “There comes a new and young fresh group of people,” Parks observed months into the sit-ins, “who have taken this action in the sit-in demonstrations . . . [and] put more pressure to bear than many of us have done in the past.”11 And it was teenagers in Birmingham in 1962 and 1963 who formed the backbone of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Project
While the Birmingham movement and the visuals of young people being sprayed by firehoses is much-remembered, the students whose actions gained that attention are not taken seriously as actors, but are often assumed to have been puppets of King. Part of the reason the SCLC turned to young people was that these young people were ready and organized, and insistent on taking part. In the late 1960s, students walked out of high schools across the North, Midwest, and West.
still segregated (despite movements challenging them for years). They had biased and often racist curricula, few Black and Latino teachers and administrators, and often criminalized young people through suspensions and expulsions. Black and Latino high school students had had enough and decided more militant action was needed.
Aware of the kind of schooling they were receiving, many students objected to the ways they were characterized as anti-intellectual, “problem students” or criminalized in school. Attempting to voice their grievances, they were ignored or treated like troublemakers (as their parents had been), and then moved to more confrontational action. Fears of juvenile delinquency and the rise of more extreme forms of school discipline drastically escalated in the mid- to late-1950s
That shift took place in the decade after Brown, often alongside protests for comprehensive desegregation in cities. Many districts, from New York to Los Angeles, cast Black and Latino students as “problem students,” invested in new modes of punishment, and poured large amounts of money into new rehabilitation programs to address juvenile delinquency, in part to deflect calls for desegregation. At the same time, many Northern and Western cities were seeing a great deal of Black migration from the South, Mexican migration to the Southwest, and Puerto Rican migration to the Northeast.
children of migrants were channeled into increasingly overcrowded, segregated, punitive schools. Resources were limited and buildings were often decrepit. Even working bathrooms were in short supply. Parents were treated as part of the problem—and weren’t taken seriously when they tried to intervene on behalf of their children’s educations and protested repeatedly, as earlier chapters… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
dramatized the lack of resources and inferior schooling conditions where Black and Chicano children were educated. Students pressed for college-prep courses, more Black and Chicano teachers and administrators, and community control of schools. The LA walkouts show commonalities in the types of discrimination Black and Chicano students faced in city schools, and in the ways Black and Chicano young people together took the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
In 1966, young people, including a number of Chicano college students who would play an important role assisting the East LA walkouts, organized the reform-oriented Young Citizens for Community Action; by 1968, inspired in part by the Black Panther Party, the YCCA reformulated to call itself the Brown Berets. With the help of a local priest, YCCA opened La… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
According to historian Ernesto Chavez, “The coffeehouse remained, however, a gathering place for young people run by young people, with little and only nominal supervision.”15 Police would often harass the young patrons of La Piranya, claiming that it was a hangout for hoodlums. La… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
a central committee formulated a list of demands, which included “reduced class size, more teachers and counselors, expanded library facilities, and an end of the requirement that students contribute janitorial services. By and large, however, the demands focused on community control of the schools: the students called for bilingual education, more Mexican teachers, the implementation of a citizen review board and the establishment of a Parents’ Council.”16 Part of the issue was the high dropout rate, as… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
(Black students were required to wear their natural hair no longer than two inches. Homeroom and physical education teachers would measure students’ hair with a ruler, and students were sent home if their hair was too long. The physical inspection and monitoring were deeply violating to students.) Two student leaders at Jefferson, Brenda Holcomb and Larry Bible, told the LA Sentinel that dissatisfaction about conditions at the school had been building for a while but students’ grievances hadn’t been taken seriously. Students were frustrated with the ways their concerns had been brushed aside and decided to take measures
Issues of class size, curriculum, hiring, and college preparation had been long-standing grievances that community activists had been pressing for years. Bible explained: “We picked up on what was already started.” Students had formed a Black Student Union in 1966 and looked to Malcolm X as an inspiration. At four Black high schools—Fremont, Jordan, Washington, and Jefferson—students boycotted school in May 1967 to honor Malcolm X’s birthday. Moreover, like their Chicano peers across town, students at Jefferson noted that LAUSD’s curriculum almost completely ignored the literatures, histories, and experiences of Blacks and Latinos.
The criminalization of Black and Chicano youth in the city’s schools was staggering. Over 50 percent of Chicano high school students were forced to drop out, according to historian Ernesto Chavez, “either because of expulsion and transfers to other schools or because they had not been taught to read and thus failed their classes.”20 A star track athlete at Jefferson, Bible believed he was made an example of because of his activism, suspended from school and followed home by the police.21
again in the fall of 1969, students walked out of Jefferson to protest overpolicing at school. Policing—and the disproportionate security forces at schools serving students of color—would continue to be a significant grievance of Black and Latino community activists and young people in years to come. Many of the high school student organizers went on to be leading educators, artists, politicians, journalists, and scholars in the city. Similar walkouts occurred across the country.
They had five demands: recruit Black teachers, recruit Black guidance counselors, end harassment of Black students, grant amnesty to all striking students, and commission an independent study of racial patterns in the city’s schools. Many of their demands were similar to those that the NAACP had presented to the School Committee eight years earlier. Foregrounding the history of high school activism shows the powerful organizing and leadership roles young people played. Directly challenging the idea that they were at fault for their educations,
young people put forth a vision of the kind of education they deserved but weren’t getting. A record of their actions provides, as LA walkout organizer Moctezuma Esparza explained decades later, a “manual on how to organize, you know, what the risks are, what has to be thought of, and what could happen, and what needs to be done.”34 The power of this history lies in what high school students accomplished and envisioned, often over the objections of many adults.
These young people demonstrated that they and their families were committed to educational excellence, but city leadership continued to provide them with a separate and unequal education and treat them as “problem students.” Students fought back to show that they were not the problem but that the education they were being provided was—a lesson this country still wants to ignore.
Part II Where Are the Women? MUCH OF THE national memorialization of the civil rights movement maintains a “great man” version of history. Women regularly appear in tributes to the movement, but a clear sense of their leadership, lives, and organizing efforts is often missing. The women who are celebrated, such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, are too often shrunken versions of themselves,
Celebrating these women’s “quiet” and “unassuming” natures also erases gender issues within the movement, along with government interests, that often sought to keep these women quiet. By casting them as gentle, beautiful, and accidental, these tributes obscure their substantial leadership roles and those played by many other women, ignore the marginalization women at times experienced, and implicitly castigate most other women as too poor or loud or angry—and therefore not worthy for national recognition.
Civil rights women were charismatic leaders and behind-the-scenes organizers, visionary thinkers, and pragmatic doers. In challenging the great man view of the movement, we need to both examine and critique the gender roles and assumptions that were embedded in it and to grapple with the full expanse of women’s organizing efforts, leadership, and intersectional vision within the struggle itself.
Majoring in music and elementary education, she encountered discrimination at Antioch when the college sided with the local school system’s decision not to allow her (or any Black person) to student-teach in the city’s schools. “This . . . made me determined to become more involved in addressing issues of social and political injustice.”10 A strong supporter of racial progressive Henry Wallace’s 1948 third-party bid for the presidency, she attended the Progressive Party convention, one of 150 Black people in attendance.
Montgomery would be where Martin’s civil rights commitment first caught national attention, when he emerged as the young leader and spokesman of the Montgomery bus boycott. But Coretta played a decisive role there as well. Seven weeks into the boycott, the Kings’ house was bombed. Coretta and ten-week-old baby daughter Yolanda were at home when the bomb went off, but they escaped uninjured. Terrified by this violence, both Martin and Coretta’s fathers traveled to Montgomery to pressure the family—or at least Coretta and baby Yolanda—to leave. She refused.
the next morning at breakfast he said, ‘Coretta, you have been a real soldier. You were the only one who stood with me.’”14 Had Coretta flinched in this moment, the trajectory of the bus boycott and the emerging civil rights movement might have been very different. While the Montgomery bus boycott is customarily seen as the advent of Martin Luther King’s leadership, Coretta was vital to its emergence. “During the bus boycott I was tested by fire and I came to understand that I was not a breakable crystal figurine,” she said. “I found I became stronger in a crisis.”
their phone rang incessantly with hate calls, and Coretta often had to answer them. She took to quipping, “My husband is asleep. . . . He told me to write the name and number of anyone who called to threaten his life so that he could return the call and receive the threat in the morning when he wakes up and is fresh.”16
In 1957, she was one of the founders of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1958, Scott King spoke on her husband’s behalf at the Youth March for Integrated Schools. Drawing inspiration from India’s march to the sea, led by Mohandas Gandhi, and from the Underground Railroad, she praised the young people for “proving that the so-called ‘silent generation’ is not so silent.” In 1959, she and her husband traveled to India for five weeks to learn from Gandhi’s work, meeting with India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and dozens
In 1962, she was a delegate for the Women’s Strike for Peace to the seventeen-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.17 Joining the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she became even more vocal on peace issues as US involvement in Vietnam escalated in the early 1960s.
After he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, she stressed to him “the role you must play in achieving world peace, and I will be so glad when the time comes when you can assume that role.”19 Following the award, she pressed him to make the international dimension of the philosophy of nonviolence more prominent; their belief in nonviolence and commitment to human rights necessitated speaking out on global human rights as well as domestic ones.
Coretta Scott King remained steadfast in her public opposition to the war. In 1965, two years before her husband’s famous sermon against the war at Riverside Church, she addressed an antiwar rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the only woman to address the crowd. Late in 1965, when her husband backed out of an address to a Washington, DC, peace rally, she kept her commitment to speak.22 Following her appearance, a reporter asked Martin if he had educated his wife on these issues. He replied: “She educated me.”23
After her husband’s assassination in Memphis, where he had gone to take part in a sanitation workers’ strike, Coretta Scott King stepped in to fill the political void and lead the march he was supposed to have headed. “I gave a speech from the heart and some people ‘saw’ me for the first time,” she recalled.26 As historian Michael Honey observes, [Coretta and Martin’s] partnership came not only from personal love but also from a joint political commitment.
“The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.”28 Her leadership was not always recognized. According to biographer Barbara Reynolds, after Martin’s assassination, “Many of the men told her she should step aside, and let them run things” but she refused.29
“Every man deserves a right to a job or an income so that he can pursue liberty life, and happiness.”
She saw the war abroad and economic injustice at home as “two sides of the same coin.” Our policy at home is to try to solve social problems through military means, just as we have done abroad. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all of their devastating potential. There is no reason why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted by poverty, disease and illiteracy. It is plain that we don’t care about our poor people, except to exploit them as cheap labor and victimize them through excessive rents and consumer prices.31
call to the power of women to “heal the broken community now so shattered by war and poverty and racism.” Even though her husband had kept a distance from welfare rights, Coretta linked the struggle for economic justice to the need for a real safety net for poor families. She decried a proposal before Congress to cut welfare benefits as misguided and un-American: “It forces mothers to leave their children and accept work or training, leaving their children to grow up in the streets as tomorrow’s social problems.” She called for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans as a moral imperative—and
encouraged people to join welfare mothers for Mother’s Day at the nation’s capital to “call upon Congress to establish a guaranteed annual income instead of these racist and archaic measures, these measures which dehumanize God’s children and create more social problems than they solve.”32 Coretta Scott King helped kick off the Poor People’s Campaign the month after her husband’s death. Martin had been working to build a poor people’s movement to descend on Washington… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
She declared her own dream, “where not some but all of God’s children have food, where not some but all of God’s children have decent housing, where not some but all of God’s children have a guaranteed annual income in keeping with the principles of liberty and grace.”33 Coretta Scott King’s dream was not ephemeral but one rooted in economic justice. Her Christianity was not an… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
on Solidarity Day, June 19, 1968, in the midst of the Poor People’s encampment on the National Mall, she gave a powerful speech to fifty thousand people at the Lincoln Memorial calling on American women to “unite and form a solid… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
she criticized the hypocrisy of a society “where violence against poor people and minority groups is routine.” She reminded the nation of its own acts of violence: “Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. . . . Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. Even the lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.”36 Coretta reframed the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
according to historian Komozi Woodard, was a key driving force behind the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. She struggled with being marginalized in SCLC, in part because she was a “strong woman, not one to be pushed aside. . . . Most thought that women should stay in the shadows; however I felt that as women, we had much to contribute. In fact for the longest time, way before I married Martin, I had believed that women should allow our essence and presence to shine, rather than letting ourselves be buried or shunted to the sidelines.”38
Scott King played a pivotal role in the push for governmental guarantees relating to full employment in the 1970s.40 Alongside her commitment to welfare rights, Scott King stressed unemployment as a crucial issue to be addressed: “if we could solve the unemployment problem most of the social problems we have could be solved. In fact, most of the social problems stem from unemployment.”
Guaranteed jobs, Scott King believed, was a way to link the needs of Black and white workers, who were often pitted against each other. In 1974, she founded the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council, which, according to Stein, “was the energetic lobbying force behind the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. The law set the goal of getting the country down to 3% unemployment within five years and attempted to hold the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve accountable to elected officials.”
In the months leading up to the second Iraq War, Scott King came out against the invasion: “A war with Iraq will increase anti-American sentiment, create more terrorists, and drain as much as 200 billion taxpayer dollars, which should be invested in human development here in America.”43 She also became a vocal advocate of gay rights and a supporter of same-sex marriage. In the late 1990s, despite criticisms from civil rights leaders and her own children, she reminded the nation that “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement. . . . Women have been the ones who have made it possible for the movement to be a mass movement. In Montgomery, it was mostly women who rode the buses because most domestic workers were women. If a boycott is employed, women are the ones who must stop buying.47 In this 1966 piece, she highlighted a problem that had run through the movement: while women played crucial leadership and organizing roles throughout,
What about Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the only woman on the march committee, who was largely responsible for the significant presence of white Christians at the march? Raised in Minnesota and a graduate of Hamline University, Hedgeman worked for the YWCA and then the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1954, she became the first Black woman to hold a cabinet position in New York City government before taking a job with the National Council of Churches.
As coordinator for special events for the Commission on Religion and Race, Hedgeman played a determining role in getting large numbers of white Christians to the march. Indeed, as Hedgeman’s biographer Jennifer Scanlon notes, the interracialism of the march wasn’t happenstance—Hedgeman organized to make the sizeable presence of white Protestants a reality.49 This was not a given; white Christian support of civil rights had been limited up to this point and needed to be shamed, cultivated, and brought out.
she managed to bring many white Christian leaders and laypeople into the civil rights struggle. The March on Washington would be the first mass civil rights event with a large percentage of whites (estimated at 25 percent of the marchers). Hedgeman also facilitated many of the day’s logistics, including Operation Sandwich, in which she commanded a massive volunteer effort to produce eighty thousand box lunches for marchers.
civil rights activist lawyer Pauli Murray wrote A. Philip Randolph: I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. . . . The time has come to say to you quite candidly, Mr. Randolph, that “tokenism” is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes.52
Graduating as valedictorian from Howard Law School in 1944, Murray had been a trailblazer for years in highlighting the twin harms of racial and gender injustice. Murray “coined the term ‘Jane Crow,’” according to historian Brittney Cooper, “to name the forms of sexist derision she encountered during her time at Howard” and afterward.54 Part of Murray’s work would be used by Thurgood Marshall and Spottswood Robinson in their legal brief in Brown. Indeed, it was as a law student at Howard that she made a bet with Robinson, her law professor, that Plessy would be overturned within the next quarter century and wrote a paper on how to do it.
1940, Murray had been thrown off a train when she refused to sit in the back; like Ida B. Wells, she hated—and challenged—bus segregation because it “permitted the public humiliation of black people to be carried out in the presence of privileged white spectators, who witnessed our shame in silence or indifference.”55 In the 1960s, Murray was one of the first to argue that the equal protection clause could be used for gender as well as race, but when she had brought up this legal reasoning at Howard,
The movement Richardson led in Cambridge had been inspired by SNCC. Richardson herself had joined initially because her daughter was involved. The movement she helped build married economic demands with calls for desegregation—they had surveyed the community for priorities and found housing and jobs were key needs for Black Cambridge. Using nonviolent civil disobedience, and with the participation of students and many working-class community members, they began conducting regular protests and sit-ins in 1963,
Dorothy Height later surmised that the more-feisty SNCC students got speaking roles even when no woman did: “They knew that the women were not going to turn over the Lincoln Memorial, but the students might.”67
Black women activists, according to Height, became “much more aware and much more aggressive” in calling out the sexism of the male leadership of the movement. While white women are often credited with the flowering of the feminist movement of the mid-1960s, Black women sowed these seeds in the civil rights movement and in the wake of the March on Washington.
John Lewis was repeatedly described as the only living speaker during the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations—even though Gloria Richardson was alive and well in New York City.76 The public memorialization of the march, in many ways, has repeated the marginalization of women of fifty years ago, with little mention of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray, and Gloria Richardson—despite the important roles Black women played in the march’s organization and their attempts to challenge their marginalization at the event.
There was sexism, but women played crucial leadership, organizational, and intellectual roles in the struggle, and challenged sexism at the time. Recognizing this means jettisoning the tendency to cast the fight for gender justice as occurring largely outside of the Black freedom struggle, rather than as interwoven in it. And it demands moving women out of the background of civil rights history and into the center.
Extremists, Troublemakers, and National Security Threats The Public Demonization of Rebels, the Toll It Took, and Government Repression of the Movement White America came to embrace King in the same way that most white South Africans came to accept Nelson Mandela—grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realised that their dislike of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice. —Gary Younge1
The popular fable of the movement makes it seem like most decent people were in favor of the movement. They were not. The civil rights movement was deeply unpopular and most Americans did not support it. They thought it was going too far, that movement activists were being too extreme. Some thought its goals were wrong; others, that activists were going about it the wrong way—and most white Americans were content with the status quo. And so they criticized, monitored, demonized, and at times criminalized those who challenged it, making dissent very costly.
legion of people who red-baited, collaborated, and looked the other way to make the widespread repression of the civil rights movement possible. Most popular renderings of the movement miss how the very people we celebrate today were viewed as scary or crazy or unwelcome in their own day. And they sidestep the kinds of reckoning this history demands:
how people who questioned the racial practices of the status quo and refused to live by them were treated as “radicals, sore heads, agitators, trouble makers, to name just a few terms given them,” as Rosa Parks put it.2 This meant the civil rights movement was built painstakingly and often at great cost to people’s mental health and community relationships.
It is striking how much Rosa Parks wrote about the difficulty of dissent—how much she pinpointed the effort and ostracism of being a rebel and the ways the system was designed to prevent it. “Such a good job of brain washing was done on the Negro,” Parks observed, “that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to them, many times ridiculed by others of his own group.”5 Struggling with this hostile environment for more than a decade before the bus boycott began, she despaired, along with comrades like E. D. Nixon, that despite their efforts, no mass movement was emerging.
“There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. . . . The line between reason and madness grows thinner.” Those who thought and acted outside the norms of society were made to feel crazy. Parks’s writings about her loneliness also reveal what being a longtime freedom fighter entailed: the ability to act and persevere, even amidst her fears and sense of desolation. She continued to act, holding tight to a larger vision of justice and deep Christian faith but having no indication change would occur in her lifetime.
she observed that it was “not easy to remain rational and normal mentally in such a setting.”7 Her personal notes reveal she had reached her limit that December evening on the bus: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it any more.”8 Parks well understood the impact that years of pressing for change with little result can have on a person. Like many young radicals, she had grown impatient with the pace of change and vehemence of white resistance by the mid-1960s.
She was insistent that people not comment from the sidelines but take “a critical honest look at ourselves in regards to the contribution we are making.”10 Critiquing the idea that people can possess endless forbearance, she noted the effect years of white intransigence had on young people: “The attempt to solve our racial problems nonviolently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard-core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution.”11
Many civil rights activists, such as Septima Clark, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and Endesha Ida Mae Holland, faced criticism from their own families.12 Clark had been a teacher in South Carolina for nearly forty years when, in the wake of the Brown decision, the state legislature passed a law that no city or state employee could be a member of the NAACP, asserting it was a “foreign” (read, Communist-linked) organization. Clark refused to give up her membership in the NAACP, which “bothered my family. . . . They weren’t fighters.
home was firebombed, killing her mother.17 Holland’s activism continued, and she was jailed repeatedly for her civil rights work. But the costs of activism were significant. Indeed, there was much disagreement within the Black community about appropriate tactics and the best way forward, given the fearsome climate. Black clergy aligned with the movement were in the minority of Black ministers. As the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou notes, “in Montgomery there are about a hundred or so Black churches—less than a dozen participated in the bus boycott. In Birmingham, there are upward of 500, and less than a dozen participated in the marches.”18
Young people with SNCC criticized King’s approach for not developing local leadership and not being bold enough—but so did the NAACP, which saw King’s belief in mass protest as ineffective and inefficient. So, there was not a single “unified” approach in the movement.
In a May 1961 Gallup survey, only 22 percent of Americans approved of what the Freedom Riders were doing, and 57 percent of Americans said that the sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom buses, and other demonstrations by Negroes were hurting the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South. Just before the March on Washington, Gallup found only 23 percent of Americans had favorable opinions of the proposed civil rights rally.20
in 1964 (a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act), a New York Times poll found a majority (57 percent) of New Yorkers said the civil rights movement had gone too far. “While denying any deep-seated prejudice,” the Times reported, “a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites.” Fifty-four percent of those surveyed felt the movement was going “too fast.”21 Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt the Negro cause, and 80 percent opposed school pairings to promote school desegregation
In 1966, a year after Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, only 36 percent of white people said King was helping the cause. Eighty-five percent of white people said that demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights hurt the advancement of civil rights, while 30 percent of Black people felt they hurt.22 Seventy-two percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of King.23 In a 1968 Gallup poll taken shortly after King’s assassination, 73 percent of whites said that Blacks in their community were treated the same as whites.
On the Selma-to-Montgomery march, in 1965, White Citizens’ Councils had plastered huge billboards along the route with King and Parks pictured attending a “Communist training school” (actually Highlander Folk School). When newly elected congressman John Conyers decided to hire Rosa Parks to work in his Detroit office in 1965, the office was deluged with hate mail, threatening calls, watermelons, voodoo dolls, and other racist trinkets, informing Parks and Conyers that she was not wanted in the North. The last time King and Parks saw each other was at a speech King gave in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a month before he was assassinated. King said it was the most disruption he had ever faced in an indoor meeting.
in the national fable of the civil rights movement, this relentless opposition prevalent across the country is often left out. The national fable also erases how much and how long federal and state governments targeted the Black freedom struggle as dangerous. Rampant government harassment and the FBI’s monitoring of now-beloved figures are treated as unfortunate mistakes, rather than as a systematic strategy.
Numerous congressmen condemned the August demonstration as decidedly “un-American.” Extensive FBI surveillance in the months leading up to the March on Washington and the outsized police presence there dovetailed with public fears of civil rights activism. The Kennedy administration had rigged the microphone so it could be turned off if it was deemed necessary.27 Every cop was on duty that day—and 150 FBI agents were on hand to monitor the crowd.28 King’s influence and eloquent power alarmed the federal government. In the wake of the march and King’s growing national stature, the FBI described him as “demagogic” and “the most dangerous . . . to the Nation . . . from the standpoint . . . of national security” and pursued greater surveillance of him.29
Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on intrusive surveillance of his living quarters, offices, phones, and hotel rooms and those of his associates. FBI surveillance of King thus expanded after the march and further under the Johnson administration, particularly after King denounced US policy in Vietnam, and it continued until King’s assassination in 1968.
longtime organizer Ella Baker “was under FBI surveillance off and on from the 1940s through the 1970s. . . . Even though at certain points agents reported her to be a ‘non-threat’ her files were repeatedly closed only to be reopened.”30 Also monitored were the Harlem Nine in their challenge to New York City school segregation in the late 1950s. And so was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which SNCC built to challenge the regular Democratic Party’s systematic disfranchisement of Black people.
The 1976 Church Committee would later reveal the full extent of the spying on the MFDP: “Approximately 30 Special Agents . . . ‘were able to keep the White House fully apprised of all major developments during the Convention’s course’ by means of ‘information coverage, by use of various confidential techniques, by infiltration of key groups through use of undercover agents, and through utilization of agents using appropriate cover as reporters.’”32 FBI agents posed as NBC reporters (with full support of the network) to solicit information from the MFDP delegates, including the identities of those who supported their efforts on the credentials committee.
The idea that the FBI was completely rogue, or that Johnson’s work on behalf of civil rights meant that he didn’t also consider the movement a threat and endorse FBI surveillance at certain points, are convenient fictions.
The agency considered the movement’s growing power a threat. From ordering the intrusive wall-to-wall surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. beginning in 1963 to the surveillance of Coretta Scott King for years after her husband’s assassination, the bureau targeted the King family relentlessly. It sent Martin a letter urging him to commit suicide and mailed to Coretta a tape of Martin’s sexual indiscretions. Two days before King’s assassination, Hoover leaked a story that King was planning to stay at the Holiday Inn, at the time considered too “fancy” for a Black person; King changed to the Lorraine Motel, where on the evening of April 4, he would be assassinated coming out of his room.38 And the FBI stepped up its surveillance of Coretta after King’s death,
the Nixon administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were kept in the loop on the “nearly constant” surveillance of Coretta in the years following Martin’s death.40 From World War II on, the FBI also took aim at the Nation of Islam. FBI agents visited Elijah Muhammad’s home in 1942, investigating him for sedition and draft evasion, and confiscating sixteen boxes of files on the Nation of Islam.41 Muhammad served four years in prison. Heavily monitoring Malcolm X from 1950 until his death in 1965, the FBI relished the growing rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad in the mid-1960s and sought to widen it, sending fake letters and disseminating information to keep it in motion.42 On June 5, 1964, Hoover sent the FBI’s New York office a telegram: “Do something about Malcolm X
As the bureau sent an army of Black informants into groups like the Black Panther Party, it finally desegregated its own ranks. Hoover had resisted hiring Black people except for menial jobs. In 1962, under pressure from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI hired two Black special agents. But as the FBI’s surveillance of the Black struggle expanded rapidly, it was forced into more hiring—and into developing a wide cadre of Black informants, in essence weaponizing members of the Black community against the freedom struggle. The FBI also surveilled the burgeoning women’s movement, and by the 1970s took aim at growing militant indigenous rights activism, particularly the American Indian Movement organization.
While the FBI could find no proof of Communist influence on Martin Luther King (its alleged justification for wall-to-wall surveillance of him), it did gather evidence of his adultery, which it passed along to journalists and other government officials, hoping to discredit King’s leadership.
No government official ever intervened to halt or divulge the surveillance. No journalist ever exposed the monitoring of King, though many knew at the time. The surveillance of the civil rights movement only began to be revealed to the public after activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971, took records, and sent them to three news outlets. Under pressure from the government not to publish, the New York Times and Los Angeles… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
As Betty Medsger, the Post reporter who broke the initial story, details, the Media files revealed the extent of surveillance of the Black community: To become targets of the FBI it wasn’t necessary for African Americans to engage in violent behavior. It wasn’t necessary for them to be radical or subversive. Being black was enough. The overall impression in directives written by Hoover, other headquarters officials, and local FBI officials was that the FBI thought of black Americans as falling into two categories—black people who should be spied on by the FBI and black people who should… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
agents were required to develop informants in the Black community. Even if an agent was in charge of an overwhelmingly white area, the agent was still expected to have a Black informant and “a fairly elaborate bureaucratic process was required to assure that an agent who worked in a white area was not penalized for not having black informers .”46 There was a pervasive assumption of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Students and campus Black organizations were targeted especially. A 1970 memo by Hoover noted, “Increased campus disorders involving black students pose a definite threat to the Nation’s stability and security.”47 Hoover then “required agents to investigate and, if possible, infiltrate every black student organization at two-year and four-year colleges and universities, and to do so without regard for whether there had been disturbances on campus.”48 Every Black… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
demonstrates its willingness to claim “national security” to protect its dirty laundry. Attorney General John Mitchell called the Post twice to say that reporting on the files would endanger national security and the lives of federal agents and would reveal national defense secrets, though “he had neither read the documents nor had been briefed on them.”49 What the files did contain, as Mitchell knew, was some suggestion of the extent of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When Muhammad Ali died in 2016, there was wall-to-wall celebration of his life, but as Medsger notes, there was little acknowledgment of the years of relentless surveillance of Ali “beginning with [the FBI’s] investigation of his Selective Service case. Some of his phone conversations were tapped, and FBI informers gained access to, of all things, his elementary school records in Louisville.”50 Given public suspicion of the Nation of Islam, FBI informants closely monitored Ali’s connections with the group, the proceedings of his divorce from his first wife, and his traffic tickets.51 His bold, poetic voice and deep courage of conviction; his decision to join the Nation of Islam and change his name in 1964; and his subsequent refusal to be drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1967—all
By illuminating the ways full-throated dissent from nonwhite communities has long been regarded as “extremist” and “dangerous,” this history demonstrates that claims of “new urgency” and “imperiled times” used today to justify surveillance and monitoring are similar to the rationales used fifty years ago against the civil rights movement. Fears of Communist subversion that provided justification for mass surveillance of Black communities are replicated in the fears of terrorism that justify counter-radicalization theories and the widespread monitoring of Muslim communities today.
surveillance of King or through its COINTELPRO program fifty years ago has been largely legalized in measures like the USA PATRIOT Act. The tools of secrecy are now even more robust, making government overreach even harder to expose and root out. The mass targeting of Black student groups and the development of tens of thousands of Black informants in the 1960s bear a sobering resemblance to the mass targeting of Muslim student groups and development of tens of thousands of FBI informants in Muslim communities in post-9/11 America.
Growing reports attest to FBI and local police monitoring of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, and revelations from a leaked FBI counterterrorism memo claiming “Black Identity Extremists” are a rising threat.56
To take seriously how “power is abused” requires looking more soberly at our fears and who we monitor today. It necessitates identifying new forms of political repression, rethinking the ways we have conducted a domestic War on Terror over the past two decades, and seeing the ways present-day fears have countenanced a vast apparatus of surveillance and targeting of Muslim Americans and Black activists with eerie parallels to the civil rights era.
Learning to Play on Locked Pianos The Movement Was Persevering, Organized, Disruptive, and Disparaged, and Other Lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott If we lock up Martin Luther King, and make him unavailable for where we are now so we can keep ourselves comfortably distant from the realities he was trying to grapple with, we waste King. All of us are being called beyond those comfortable places. . . . We can learn to play on locked pianos and to dream of worlds that do not yet exist. —Vincent Harding1
THE MOST depoliticizing aspect of the national fable is the way it removes the organizing from the struggle. It makes it seem like the movement happens naturally, taking the power and the difficulty, the messiness and the magnificence out of it. In James Baldwin’s words that began this book, the civil rights movement was longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than it has been remembered. And in omitting the work and the collectivity of it, these national fables take the movement away from the people who built it and make it much more difficult to imagine how to construct webs of struggle today.
Parks is cast as the candle that can destroy the darkness. A massive, yearlong community boycott follows naturally and inevitably. The action of one right individual becomes the key, not the collective effort that turned her act into a movement nor the vast groundwork that had been laid in the decade preceding her stand nor the accumulation of anger, sorrow, and indignation that pushed people past fear to act. In newer versions of the fable, the community’s rejection of fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin is noted, and Parks becomes the “right one,” as if one respectable individual is all it takes to carry a movement. King and Parks are put on pedestals, furthering a Horatio Alger mythology
making it difficult for people today to imagine being like either of them. The hard and repeated choices people made to push forward and the collective action required are glossed over. The how of it—the fact that the Montgomery movement began much earlier, took much longer, was fraught with tension and conflict, and was unbearably difficult and only possible because a few, then some, then many more people joined together—is
in fact, the movement’s righteousness was made through the conviction, imagination, sacrifice, and decades of struggle and tenacity of the Montgomerians who built it. There was nothing natural and preordained about it. People chose, amidst searing conditions, amidst threats to their person and their livelihood, to make it happen. Looking at a fuller history of the Montgomery bus boycott reveals the work, sacrifice, perseverance, coalition-building, disappointment, disruptiveness,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
as movement historian Vincent Harding reminds us, community activists “learn[ed] to play on locked pianos.” One caveat: the Montgomery bus boycott was a Black, community-wide mass movement; many of the most successful struggles of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were not community-wide but undertaken by relatively small groups of Black people that grew over time. It certainly didn’t take a fully unified community for a movement to begin or be successful. To see how they did it—what it actually took to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The first and perhaps most important lesson is the role of perseverance—the decade of largely unsuccessful struggle that preceded the Montgomery bus boycott, the small band of people who pushed forward regardless, and how… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
“I have told the press time after time,” longtime organizer E. D. Nixon explained, “that we were doing these things before December 1955, but all they want to do is start at December 1 and forget about what happened . . . over a long period of time to set the stage.”2 In the decade before Rosa Parks’s bus stand, a small cadre of NAACP activists, including Parks, Nixon, and Johnnie Carr, struggled with how difficult it was to move people to action. Parks joined the NAACP in 1943, in part because she wanted to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Nixon, Parks, Carr, and a small group of NAACP members would spend the next decade transforming the Montgomery NAACP into a more activist branch. In 1944, Nixon, Parks, and Carr organized around the case of Recy Taylor, a Black woman who had been gang-raped by six white men. They tried unsuccessfully to get an indictment.3 In 1945, Nixon won the presidency of the NAACP branch, opposing its more middle-class leadership and seeking to make the branch more political. Middle-class members of the branch were unhappy with his “politicking” and appealed to the national NAACP to intervene,
This was dangerous work, as Parks traveled through Alabama taking down people’s stories of rape and white brutality, hoping to file affidavits with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Most of their efforts produced little change. Parks explained: “It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be and let it be known that we did not wish to continue being treated as second class citizens.”6 The work was discouraging—the DOJ looked the other way, and many Black people who had been willing to talk to Parks were unwilling to put their name on affidavits or testify publicly.
was very difficult to keep going,” Parks admitted, “when all our work seemed to be in vain.”7 A small trickle of people stood up to bus segregation in Montgomery in the decade before Rosa Parks’s stand. Viola White was arrested in 1944 for refusing to give up her seat; she filed a case against bus segregation and in retaliation, police raped her daughter. The state then tied up her case in court, and she died before anything happened
In 1950, veteran Hilliard Brooks (who was Rosa Parks’s neighbor at the Cleveland Courts projects), refused to reboard from the back of the bus after paying his fare; the bus driver called the police and the police killed Brooks. Parks herself had been thrown off the bus for refusing this demand by some bus drivers that Black people pay in front but reboard from the back. Many in Montgomery, including Martin Luther King, Jo Ann Robinson, and Rosa Parks’s mother, Leona McCauley, had also had humiliating experiences on the bus.8
arrested for resisting on the bus. Colvin’s arrest outraged Montgomery’s Black community and many stopped riding the buses temporarily. But a mass movement did not result, in part because the city and bus company made promises to change that they did not keep, and in part because many adults saw Colvin as too young, poor, and feisty to rally behind.9 Parks fund-raised for Colvin’s case and encouraged her to take a leadership role in her NAACP Youth Council—the only adult, according to Colvin, who kept in touch with her that summer of 1955.10
certainly their youth, feistiness, and class status were factors that led adults to not rally behind them. But there is a danger in minimizing the impact of these young women’s actions. Had Colvin and Smith not done what they did, adding to the weight of community outrage and growing frustration, it is unlikely Parks’s arrest would have galvanized people the way it did. Movements do not result from the first or second outrage but from an accumulation of injustice that brings people to a breaking point. “Over the years I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested,”
For two decades before she refused to give up her seat on the bus, she had made stands, other people she knew had made stands, and by and large nothing had changed—except that people had been ostracized, hurt, or killed for these actions. This was not Parks’s first act of bus resistance. She had been thrown off the bus for refusing the practice some bus drivers insisted on, that Black people pay in the front but reboard in the back. In fact, by that December evening, she had grown quite bitter and pessimistic about the possibility of change.
she told those gathered that “Montgomery was the Cradle of the Confederacy, that nothing would happen there because blacks wouldn’t stick together. But she promised to work with those kids.”14 In other words, Rosa Parks left Highlander not holding out much hope in her generation and placing her hope for change with the young people she was mentoring in the NAACP Youth Council. On December 1, coming home from work, Parks refused bus driver James Blake’s order to move.
felt adults in the community “had failed our young people.”15 Parks had had enough: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore. . . . We soothe ourselves with the salve of attempted indifference accepting the false pattern set up by the horrible restriction of Jim Crow laws.”16 One of Parks’s most valued traits was the ability to be “stout-hearted,” because she understood how difficult it was to keep on in the face of pressure. Well aware of the dangers Black women faced in getting arrested, she was “resigned to the fact that I had to express my unwillingness to be humiliated in this moment.”
perseverance finds little place in the fable; the fact that activists did things over and over, for years and then decades without success, is a crucial lesson that these memorials do not teach. The second lesson is the role of anger and the ways people fashion that anger into action.
As Reverend Vernon Johns, who had preceded King as the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, explained, Parks “caught a vision”—she was able to see an opportunity to strike a blow at the system of white supremacy.20 Late that night, after talking with Nixon, white allies Clifford and Virginia Durr, her husband, and her mother, Rosa decided to pursue her case in court, calling upon attorney Fred Gray for help. Knowing how outrage had been percolating, Gray called Jo Ann Robinson, head of the
The WPC decided late on the night after Parks’s arrest to call for a one-day boycott on the Monday when Parks would be arraigned in court. The boycott thus was the result of an accumulation of perseverance, anger, and relationships built over years. The third lesson is how the sense of possibility grows by being in action. In the middle of the night, Robinson snuck into Alabama State College, and with the help of two students and a colleague, ran off thirty-five thousand leaflets on the mimeograph machine. (Robinson later got in trouble with the college for doing this.)21 The leaflet began, “Another woman has been arrested on the bus.” In the middle of the night, Robinson called Nixon to advise him of the plans. She did not call Parks—in
the WPC’s determination to act quickly (and avoid what happened with Colvin), as well as class differences between the more middle-class Robinson and working-class Rosa Parks (who lived at the Cleveland Courts projects). So, Rosa Parks did not find out till the middle of the next day that a boycott had been called in her name.23 People galvanized behind Parks for a number of reasons. Solidly working-class, Parks was known to many in Montgomery’s working-class Black west side for her community and church work, and for her steadfastness. She was forty-two the day of her arrest, married, active in her church and the NAACP, and known to be brave—so people trusted she wouldn’t flinch under the pressure. And many in Montgomery’s Black community across class lines saw themselves in her arrest.
grievances will be recognized. This misses the incredible, harrowing, tedious work that went into the yearlong boycott, and the belief in things unseen. And it distorts the actual experiences of Rosa Parks—who was not middle class and whose bus stand would plunge her family into economic trouble. Moreover, Parks was not viewed as respectable by white people at the time.
Early the next morning Nixon, began calling Montgomery’s political ministers to get them on board. About 6 a.m., Nixon called twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King, who’d been in Montgomery for about a year and was active with the NAACP. Nixon wanted to use King’s church for a meeting of the ministers; it was centrally located and King was new in town and didn’t have enemies. Nixon woke King up. The Kings had a baby only three weeks old and King hesitated: “Let me think about it awhile and call me back.”25
nothing destined about this, no lightning bolt. Like all of Montgomery’s activists, King would have to step into this action. When Nixon called back in a few hours, King agreed. In the days and months ahead, King would assume an important leadership role. But there was nothing easy about it. Nixon also savvily used the media to get attention for the upcoming boycott, calling Montgomery Advertiser reporter Joe Azbell. Azbell was no liberal but Nixon knew to give him the “scoop.” Azbell took the bait
published the story on the front page, ensuring that many who had not known about the Monday boycott now did. “We couldn’t have paid for the free publicity white folks gave our boycott,” Nixon noted.26 At first, many of Montgomery’s longtime activists worried about whether people would support the boycott. Having struggled for years to bridge class lines, many feared that Black people wouldn’t stand together, and the community would be humiliated.
“We surprised the world and ourselves at the success of the protest.”31 Buoyed by the power of the one-day stand, the community voted that night in a packed and overflowing mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church to continue on with the boycott. The power of collective protest changed the participants—from a one-day boycott to a long-term one, from the initial demand for courteous, first-come, first-served seating to full desegregation of the bus. The fourth lesson is the power of collective organizing, which created a car-pool system that sustained the thirteen-month bus boycott.
fifteen thousand to twenty thousand rides per day.33 The MIA set up forty stations across town, and three hundred people volunteered their cars. People would use the “V for victory” sign to identify themselves to riders and drivers. As the boycott went along, using money donated by churches, organizers were able to buy fifteen station wagons to supplement the volunteer cars. The MIA’s elaborately organized car pool required tremendous effort and resolve, and considerable fund-raising. Working-class organizers, such as Nixon, were amazed at the cross-class solidarity of the car pool—middle-class people were willing to take poor people in their cars and have their cars driven by others.
As the boycott continued beyond the first month, the MIA realized—given the scope of the car-pool system it had created—it would need to fund-raise across the country and sent King, Ralph Abernathy, Parks, and others across the country. Despite popular focus on the ministers involved, women played foundational roles in maintaining and sustaining the boycott. Two groups of women—one calling itself the Club from Nowhere, led by cook and midwife Georgia Gilmore and her friends, and the Friendly Club, headed by Inez Ricks—spearheaded fund-raising and engaged in friendly competition to see who could raise more.
they knew how to fund-raise and began selling sandwiches, dinners, pies, and cakes to raise money each week. Every Monday evening at the weekly mass meeting, they would present their fund-raising accomplishments to a standing ovation. Women also provided the backbone of the boycott as walkers, car-pool riders, drivers, and organizers. The boycott, according to Jo Ann Robinson, had a transformative power, for it allowed people “to retaliate directly for the pain, humiliation, and embarrassment they had endured over the years.”35
Clifford and Virginia Durr, the Reverend Robert and Jeannie Graetz, Aubrey Williams (publisher of Southern Farmer), and librarian Juliette Morgan all lent key support to the movement. The Durrs provided critical legal help, particularly the first night in getting Parks out of jail (Nixon had tried to call but the police station wouldn’t give information to a Black person, so lawyer Clifford Durr called to figure out what happened). Virginia Durr, who had become friendly with Rosa Parks years earlier when she hired Parks to do sewing for her, realized the economic trouble the Parkses were in after both Rosa and Raymond lost their jobs because of the boycott.
Williams provided crucial financial and logistical support, including money for Parks to attend Highlander. The Graetzes and Morgan became particular targets of incessant white harassment and violence because of their steadfast support of the boycott. The Graetzes’ home was bombed twice, and Morgan was so harassed after she wrote a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser sympathetic to the boycott (and unsupported, even by her own family), that she ultimately took her own life.36 (Black Montgomerians were forbidden to attend her funeral.)
While typically known only for her role in galvanizing the boycott, Parks played a key role sustaining it, spending much of the year on the road from Los Angeles to Seattle, Detroit to Pittsburgh, raising attention and money for the movement at home. She became one of the MIA’s most successful fund-raisers. It wasn’t inevitable that the Montgomery bus boycott would become nationally known—people had to work and travel to make sure it was seen, thus turning a local struggle into a national one.
white citizens created a counter-campaign, calling on white people to ride the buses to try to reduce the impact of the bus boycott. The MIA sought to unsettle the status quo, disrupting the order of segregation. To increase the pressure on the city, it called on Black people to boycott downtown businesses and forsake Christmas shopping to underscore Black economic clout in the city and the unacceptability of segregation. It was meant to be disruptive to Montgomery life and economic well-being.
massively harassed the car pool that sustained the boycott. Police gave out hundreds of tickets to drivers. They staked out the pickup stations to scare riders, and the MIA was regularly forced to change locations. White citizens attacked the cars.
The sixth lesson is the cost and sacrifice activism entails. The activism took a considerable toll. On January 30, 1956, the Kings’ house was bombed. Coretta and the couple’s tiny baby, who were both home, managed to escape unscathed. The police commissioner and mayor, curiously among the first people on the scene, seemed disappointed by King’s and the assembled crowd’s decision not to meet this shocking act of violence with violence. The next day, Nixon’s house was bombed.42
most boycotters saw no contradiction in their embrace of organized nonviolence and long-standing belief in the right of self-defense. Many Black people in Montgomery, including the Parks family, Jo Ann Robinson, and E. D. Nixon, owned guns. A number of drivers in the car pool were Korean War veterans who carried their guns with them to safely ferry their passengers from one side of town to another.43 At the same time, they relished the power of collective nonviolence to engage on their own terms and disrupt white people’s ideas of Black people.
Her husband was forced to give up his job when his employer, Maxwell Air Force Base, prohibited talk of the boycott or “that woman” in the barber shop where he worked. The Parkses never found steady work in Montgomery again. Raymond, angry at their situation, drank heavily as the death threats to their home mounted; he was “furious” at many things during the boycott year, according to Rosa: furious at himself “for being a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Midway through the boycott, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Rosa developed ulcers and chronic insomnia. Even after the boycott’s success, the Parks family continued to receive death threats, as did many other boycott leaders, and they still couldn’t find work. Eight months later, they were… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
it was not until 1966—eleven years after her arrest—that the Parkses registered an annual income on their income tax forms ($4,026) comparable to what they made the year of her bus arrest ($3,749 combined annual income).46 The stress also took its toll on many other activists. Nixon developed high blood pressure. Many took to drinking, according to Parks, “to be able to sleep at night.”… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
after the boycott’s successful end, the violence continued. King’s house was shot at; the Graetzes’ and Abernathys’ houses were bombed, as were four Baptist churches in Montgomery. Random violence occurred against Black people waiting at bus stops. The seventh lesson is the importance of mentoring and building a community of support. Activists need other activists, and mentoring… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
They helped train Parks in the decade before the boycott in developing her own voice and organizing skills. Parks and Baker met in the mid-1940s, when Baker organized an NAACP leadership training event for local organizers that Parks and Nixon attended. Parks and Baker kept in touch, and Baker often stayed with her when she came to Montgomery. During the boycott, Baker… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When Parks met Septima Clark at Highlander Folk School the summer before her bus stand, she marveled at Clark’s calm strength. Parks felt “tense” and “nervous” from years of unsuccessful struggle. Clark, who led the workshop, had recently been fired from her teaching job because she refused to give up her NAACP membership but was undeterred in her actions. Parks at one… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Clark and Myles Horton, Highlander Folk School’s founder, understood that leadership and vision come in different packages, and so they created spaces to enable and nourish them. According to Horton, Parks was the “quietest participant” in the workshop that summer: “If you judge by the conventional standards she would have been the least promising probably. We don’t use conventional standards, so we had high… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When Clark heard that Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat five months after returning from the workshop, she thought to herself, “Rosa? She was so shy when she came to Highlander, but she got up enough courage to do that.”51 Clark and Horton provided key solidarity and material support during the boycott. Parks journeyed back to Highlander a number of times during the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Parks mentored others, including twenty-five-year-old lawyer Fred Gray and the young people in her local NAACP Youth Council. The year before the boycott, when Gray returned to Montgomery after finishing at Western Reserve University School of Law (he had been forced to go out of state since no law schools in Alabama admitted Black people), she would often walk from her job at… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
she encouraged him to pursue issues of racial justice through his law practice: “She gave me the feeling that I was the Moses that God had sent Pharaoh and commanded to him to ‘Let My People Go.’”53 When she decided to pursue her bus case late the night she was arrested, she called him to represent her. Parks had re-founded the NAACP Youth Council in 1954 and encouraged the small group of young people to take greater… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The weekend following her bus arrest, Parks had organized a workshop, but most of her young charges didn’t show up. She was extremely discouraged, having spent weeks organizing it, only later learning they had been passing out leaflets about the upcoming boycott. “They were wise enough to see . . . it was more important to stand on the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The eighth lesson is the importance of learning. People learned from each other, from their own political experiences, and from previous bus boycotts. In early November 1955, a month before Parks’s arrest, E. D. Nixon invited New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell to speak to the Progressive Democratic Association in Montgomery. Many people key to the boycott, including Parks, attended. Powell had helped lead a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Montgomery activists had also watched and been inspired by a successful bus boycott in Baton Rouge in 1953. Parks’s trip to Highlander and the comrades she met there, meanwhile, provided additional ideas and support. Following events around the country, Montgomery’s activists read, and shared newspaper clippings (Parks read multiple newspapers a day). They had also learned from the way Viola White’s case had been tied up in state court in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The ninth lesson is the multiple ways that white people in Montgomery tried to thwart the protest and how activists coped and strategized against this opposition. In our public imagination, Montgomery racism is typically portrayed in violence and epithets, which were certainly a fearsome part of white opposition. A number of homes of boycott leaders were bombed, and many received… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
One of the first tactics city leaders employed was to assert that the bus problem was the fault of “a few bad apple” bus drivers or “rough bus drivers”—the problem was not segregation but “rude” drivers who needed to be disciplined.57 City leaders then claimed they wished Black people had brought matters to their attention earlier (… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
At critical junctures, the city attempted to treat the MIA and the White Citizens’ Council as two interest groups with competing claims that required balancing, rejecting the frame of morality or rights that King tried to bring to the meetings. When King protested the presence of a White Citizens’ Council member in the negotiating sessions, he was criticized for introducing mistrust into the meeting. White members of the negotiating committee also accused King of dominating the discussion and having “preconceived ideas” himself.59 He was treated as inflexible and unreasonable to deflect the MIA’s position and allow city leaders to feel balanced and acting in good faith.
The police repeatedly harassed and ticketed car-pool drivers. They regarded the boycott as confrontational, annoying, and a threat that needed to be dealt with. In doing so, they criminalized its leaders. Three months in, when ticketing and harassment hadn’t broken the back of the protest, the city dredged up an old anti-boycott law and indicted King and eighty-nine other boycott leaders (including Parks and Nixon).
The city’s indictment strategy backfired tremendously. The community’s resolve strengthened after the arrests; they had “committed the sin of being tired of segregation . . . and [had] the moral courage to sit up and express our tiredness,” as King put it the night after the arrests, and they were not going to be deterred.62 The MIA’s demands grew to full desegregation of the bus. And it was the city’s move to indict these eighty-nine boycott leaders (more than the boycott itself) that garnered national media attention and prompted the New York Times and Washington Post to begin seriously covering the Montgomery protest.63
tenth lesson is the value of multiple strategies of resistance. After months of boycott, with the city engaging in numerous tactics to break it, young lawyer Fred Gray, with the assistance of community activists, decided to file a proactive federal case, Browder v. Gayle, challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation. Nixon had worried that the state would just tie up Parks’s case, like it had a decade earlier with Viola White. Gray had hoped to get a minister or another man to be a plaintiff, but no one was willing, so the four plaintiffs were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith.
In June 1956, in a surprise decision, two judges in a three-judge panel of the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama declared Montgomery’s bus segregation unconstitutional. Six months later, the US Supreme Court upheld that decision, and on December 20, 1956, after a 382-day boycott, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated and Black people could sit wherever they liked. The success of the Montgomery bus boycott was accomplished through a combination of tactics: years of spadework to lay a foundation for the movement to emerge;
Rosa Parks’s willingness to pursue her case in state court; the yearlong consumer boycott and corresponding car-pool effort built by local people and their grassroots organization; the federal legal case Browder v. Gayle, with four women plaintiffs; a tremendous amount of fund-raising; and a campaign to get the word across the country about what was happening. All were necessary to build momentum, power, and community capacity to gain the national attention that led to decisive change in Montgomery.
An accumulation of injustice brings people to the breaking point; once that breaking point was reached—once Michael Brown’s body had lain on the pavement for hours, once yet another woman had been arrested on the bus—there was no turning back. Many were angry, and that anger transformed into resolve. But that no-turningback shift was disruptive. It often meant breaking the law and norms of propriety. It was not unified—civil rights activists often stepped out ahead of their family and neighbors, at times facing criticism as they did. And from Montgomery to Ferguson, the people who made those movements were diverse—poor as well as middle class, teenagers and parents and community elders, longtime activists and new freedom fighters—all people who were able to “do the uncomfortable.”
disruption; civil disobedience; an analysis that interweaves race, poverty, and US war making; steadfast moral witness; and a willingness to call out liberals for their inaction is what it actually means to “be like King,” and many follow in his footsteps.
The story of the Montgomery bus boycott shows the capacity of a community to build structures and use existing ties to sustain a yearlong boycott. Here again, the story parallels the interplay of existing ties and new structures being built by movements like Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, #Not1More, Moral Mondays, #NoDAPL, the Fight for $15, and the new Poor People’s Campaign. So too does the wariness of national organizations toward more confrontational tactics and their unwillingness to commit needed resources.
Just as activists of the civil rights movement did, activists today are asking us to see the legitimacy of their anger at systemic racial injustice and the need for massive societal transformation and public accountability. Such outrage and disruption makes society uneasy today, as it did sixty years ago. Like many activists today, civil rights activists were accused of being reckless, unreasonable, and inflexible, out for their own gain, and un-American.
too, the myriad ways political officials, citizens, and law enforcement responded by dismissing and thwarting demands for racial justice; the silences of many who might see the injustice but felt powerless to challenge it; and the use of theories of cultural deficiency to explain and excuse present-day disparities—all were evident a half century ago as well as today.
James Baldwin observed a half century ago, “is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. . . . As one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”1 What a fuller history shows is that there was nothing clear or destined about the civil rights movement. “It was hard to keep going when all our efforts seemed in vain,” as Parks explained.2 Over and over, they tried to find justice—and over and over there was no justice. They couldn’t find lawyers to represent people. People became scared and refused to provide testimony. And when they did stand up, the cases went nowhere.
most Black people in Alabama saw the NAACP as a futile undertaking; few individuals possessed the stamina, bravery, and vision required for active participation. There was “almost no way,” Parks said, to see any discernible progress.3 But her small crew kept at it, growing more tired and more bitter but plugging along because, as she put it, “someone had to do something”
It is this courage of perseverance—the courage of raising an issue when people do not want to acknowledge it, and when the costs of raising one’s voice are so high and so depleting—that gives us our heroes and heroines. This is not the fable in which courage is… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
when change does happen, it is often because people labored for decades and sometimes generations in the wilderness. These activists were slurred and ignored, slammed and surveilled, and ignored again. They kept going when all their efforts seemed in vain. In witnessing their persevering courage, other people found their own. They used tactics that had been used before and forged new ones, combining economic disruption, painstaking organizing, outside support, internal… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
goal was much more than a bus seat—it was about access to jobs and criminal justice, educational justice, equitable city services, and full citizenship rights. And people around the nation watched, learned, and were inspired, taking up new paths in their own struggles. And still the movement was not over and there was more work to be done. This… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
By expanding our understanding of who the courageous were, it suggests who will lead us today: welfare moms, high school students, and church ladies, rural and urban, women and men, teenagers through octogenarians, Brooklyn to Birmingham to the Bay Area. Enlarging our imagination of what is possible, this fuller history demonstrates what is necessary: combining disruption, ongoing protests, study groups, legal strategies and civil disobedience; creating…