January 16, 2017

A Brief History Of The Civil Rights Movement


As suggested by the title, this post was intended to be brief. Some of you may feel the result is otherwise. But it's important stuff. Read on. Please. I learned a thing or two by writing this; perhaps you will by reading it.

Today is the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to celebrate the birthday of the civil rights leader who helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Each year for the past three years I have written a blog post about Dr. King to coincide with a matinee game over at Verizon Center featuring my beloved Washington Wizards and some other team. So far, each of these blog posts have featured a trip report of sorts either to a memorial to Dr. King or a place where something significant in the Civil Rights Movement happened.

Traditionally, the NBA has passed over Washington on years of presidential inaugurations so honestly I didn't think I'd be writing something about Dr. King this year. But in a surprise move (probably because the holiday is just about as far away from inauguration day as possible this time around), there's a game. And because I didn't expect this to happen, I didn't make an effort to take a trip to somewhere related to Dr. King's life. Therefore I've decided to do something different this year.

I have to admit that I am not very well educated on the Civil Rights Movement. I was never taught about it in either high school or college (I suppose there might have been opportunities to learn in college that I either passed over or ignored) and it took place in cities and towns in the southeast of the United States which I would say I am generally pretty unfamiliar with. So as a way of starting to get my head around the history of the movement (and considering I'm unprepared to write about somewhere I've been in the last year that is relevant), I thought I'd write about the timeline of the Movement and highlight some of the significant events that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If it educates some other folks, well that's just a bonus.

I am focused here on the Civil Rights Movement that occurred mostly in the south of the United States and was focused primarily on the rights of black people in that area of our country. In the interest of space and keeping a narrow focus to this blog post, I am deliberately excluding the racial discrimination against Chinese, native Americans, Japanese, Mexicans and all sorts of other ethnic groups during this period of time. It is not intended to minimize the plight of those people at the hands of white America. I'm just not focused on that today.

Most accounts of the Civil Rights Movement consider a period from 1954 to 1964. I'm going to start with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and end with the Civil Rights of 1964 because I think the history way back to the end of the Civil War is useful context. 

1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first legislation passed by Congress that conferred equal rights to all people born in the United States "without regard to race, color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude." For the first time in history, all people of any color born in the U.S. were American citizens.

For those of you like me, I suspect some of you are thinking "weren't all the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1864?" The answer is yes and no. The Executive Order that was the Emancipation Proclamation merely freed slaves in the states under rebellion, which the Union had relatively little power to enforce. And the Thirteenth Amendment technically abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. But it didn't truly free former slaves because it didn't make them citizens.

Interestingly, Lincoln's vice president and successor Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 TWICE!!! Congress passed it by a 2/3 majority, overriding Johnson's vetoes.


1868: Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution codified many of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 into our Constitution but also added specific language that prevented states from denying equal protection under the law to any citizen. There was no substantive change from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 here other than incorporating some rights guaranteed under that Act into the Constitution.

1870: Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when the Army of Northern Virginia led by Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Five years later, acts and Amendments to the U.S. Constitution conferred citizenship on black Americans and former slaves but nothing had been enacted to guarantee voting rights for all Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment took care of that. 

Well, sort of. First of all, it only guaranteed voting rights for men; women wouldn't receive the right to vote until 1920 (!!!). And after the Amendment was passed, the Federal Government sort of stopped paying attention to this issue. And that last point is significant.

1877: Union Troops Withdraw from Confederate States
From the end of the Civil War to 1877, the United States had maintained federal troops in former Confederate state capitals to enforce the policies of Reconstruction enacted by the Federal Government following the defeat of the rebellious states in the War. in 1877 with the election of Rutherford Hayes, all that ended. From that point on, little oversight was provided to the former Confederate states, which meant that life could return to the way it used to be to the extent that the states had control over it. And it turned out they had a lot of control.

The March Against Fear, Mississippi, 1966.
1890: Constitution of the State of Mississippi
Following the defeat of the Confederacy, the constitutions of the individual states participating in the rebellion were re-written in 1868 to ban slavery and enact equal rights for all citizens regardless of race or former slave status. With the withdrawal of Federal troops in 1877 and Washington no longer really paying attention to what the states were doing down south, Mississippi decided to take action in 1890 and re-write their constitution.

The 1890 Constitution enacted by the State of Mississippi didn't restore slavery; they couldn't really since it was prohibited by the United States Constitution. But it did impose two measures that would almost prohibit voting by former slaves: a literacy test and a poll tax.

The literacy test imposed by the 1890 Mississippi Constitution required all citizens demonstrate they could read. But not really. There were various methods of proving literacy including requiring a potential voter to read or interpret part of the 1890 Constitution. Now at that time, there were many people in the state both black and white who would be unable to demonstrate literacy on this basis but the State added a "grandfather" provision which waived the test in cases where someone's grandfather had previously voted in an election. And only whites had voted previously. Convenient, right?

If you were a former slave who managed to pass the literacy test, all you had to do to vote was pay a poll tax, which is a fee to register to vote. In 1890s Mississippi, the poll tax was $2; that's about $55 today. If you can get over the fact that you shouldn't have to pay to get at a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, how do you as a former slave come up with $55? Remember when former slaves were freed, they weren't provided with any property or money. In most cases they had absolutely nothing to their name and no skills other than farming on a plantation which in most cases forced them into lives of sharecropping under terms and conditions imposed by their former masters. In other words, $55 would be extremely hard to come by.

In 1892, there were 76,742 eligible black voters in the State of Mississippi and 58% of the state's population was black. After literacy tests and poll taxes, there were 8,615 black voters. The new constitution had ensured that the white minority in Mississippi would do as they please despite the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the recent amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Following Mississippi's lead, the other former Confederate states enacted similar constitutions over the next 18 years.

1909-1950: Nothing
As near as I can tell after Georgia re-wrote their constitution in 1908, nothing at all substantive to change the rights of black people in the United States happened for the next 43 years. That's not to say that there were not efforts to do so. But the white people in power in the south and Washington either saw to it that change was stamped out or just ignored the issue completely. I'm positive this is an oversimplification of the truth but I'm also confident it's not far off.

It is difficult for me to imagine what life must have been like in the United States for someone who was not white in the late nineteenth and first two thirds of the twentieth centuries. Indeed I cannot even relate very well to what that is like today. But consider this: the Equal Justice Initiative estimates that between 1877 and 1950 more than 4,000 black men, women and children were "hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs." Just because of the color of their skin. That's horrific.


1951: Walkout at Moton High School
In 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled that educational facilities segregated by race were constitutional provided the facilities were equal in accommodate. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia was built as an all black high school in 1939. By 1951, the school served twice as many students as it was designed for and lacked both a cafeteria and gymnasium. 

On April 23, 1951, 16 year old Barbara Rose Johns led a walkout to protest the conditions the students of the school were subjected to. The walkout ultimately led to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and which was rejected by the State Court of Virginia on the basis that the State was making efforts to integrate schools. The verdict was appealed to the United States Supreme Court and was ultimately rolled up into a landmark decision later on that same decade.

1954: Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a class action lawsuit was filed by 13 parents of black students in Topeka, Kansas, maintaining that the "separate but equal" educational facilities afforded to their children were anything but based on, among other things, the distance their children had to travel to get to their school. The District Court in Kansas ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public schools in the State of Louisiana were constitutional. The plaintiffs, led by parent Oliver Brown, pursued the case all the way to the nation's Supreme Court.

When being heard by the chief justices of the land, the NAACP, whose lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall were trying the case, combined Brown v. Board of Education with several other similar cases. The Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the plaintiffs and established a ruling that separate but equal educational facilities were in fact unconstitutional and all state constitutions, such as those established between 1890 and 1908, requiring or permitting such separation were in violation of federal law.


Oddly enough, there were a number of references to the optics of this case to the rest of the world in the Court's ruling. Ironic that our country, which places similar pressures of human rights on other nations today, just 62 years ago felt the same sort of shame from elsewhere in the world.


1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott
Brown v. Board of Education closed the book on the legal status of separate but equal public educational facilities, but it neither enforced anything nor did it address other aspects of society such as public accommodations like public transportation or private businesses or public entities segregating their facilities on the basis of race. 1956 was the year a small step was made toward de-segregating publicly operated bus systems.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery (Alabama) Chapter of the NAACP, was ordered by a bus driver to give up her seat for a white passenger while sitting in the Whites Only section of a bus. Parks refused. Four days later she was arrested and drew national attention to the issue, which did nothing to solve the actual issue. That took more action.

Eventually the ordinance requiring segregation of buses in Montgomery was ultimately repealed, but only after a 381 day boycott of the Montgomery bus system by an estimated 90% of the black population in the city. Money talked here I suppose but ultimately it led to the right result and segregation never went back into effect.

Four years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation based on race on buses or in associated facilities was unconstitutional. After that, the states couldn't ever maintain that separate but equal was legal.


1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-In
By 1958, racial segregation in public school facilities had been declared illegal throughout the land (doesn't mean they were desegregated; just that they had been ruled unconstitutional) and the bus system in at least one southern city had been desegregated. But many stores that served both white and black customers still insisted on maintaining accommodations by race that were separate but anything but equal.

In July 1958, the NAACP staged a series of sit-ins at the lunch counter of a Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. These sit-ins consisted of black customers sitting at the whites only section the store and requesting lunch service, something that had always been refused. The sit-ins worked and after three weeks the store changed its policy of segregation.

The Wichita sit-in by all accounts was relatively successful and it was followed by others. The most significant of these was at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Not only did it take Woolworth's six months to change their policy of desegregated lunch counters, but the event drew national attention, based on photographs like the one above which shows white citizens dumping food and liquids on the heads of the protesters who were doing nothing more than just siting there. I can't imagine what these people were thinking that the hatred of someone with a different skin color eating at the same lunch counter as them would cause them to behave like that.


1963: Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington
In the fall of 2015, I visited Birmingham, Alabama to spend about an hour walking around Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park), site of a series of demonstrations by black school children which drew a brutal police response that was covered through national media and television. The actions by the school children were in response to the segregation policies of stores and businesses in downtown Birmingham. Since I've already written about these events in last year's MLK Day post, I'll refer you there for the full details. But significantly, the media coverage of the police response spurred discussion of passage of a Civil Rights Act in congress. 

Just three and a half months later, Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event intended to highlight the voting inequality that existed in parts of the country through laws that were designed to restrict the rights of black citizens to vote. It was during this March that Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The full text of that speech, along with other thoughts of mine, can be found in my blog post on this holiday two years ago.

1964: Civil Rights Act of 1964
On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted into law. It had been called for by President John F. Kennedy in his civil rights speech of June 11, 1963. By the time the Act became law, Kennedy had been assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson, his Vice President, was in the Oval Office.

The Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The effect of the Act was that it would (eventually) end the unequal application of voter registration laws and racial segregation in schools, the workplace and other public accommodations, including in stores like Woolworth's.

The 1866 Civil Rights Act conferred citizenship upon all persons born in the United States but didn't make discrimination against any segment of that population illegal. The 1964 Act took this one step further. And it "only" took us 98 years, which at that point was more than half our nation's history. Incredibly, about 30% of both the House and Senate voted against the Act; in the 11 former Confederate states, 95% of the Congressmen and Senators voted against it.

Now after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's not like everything was A-OK after that. There was still immediate work to do like registering thousands upon thousands of American citizens that had been intimidated into not voting or just denied voting rights entirely. And all of that would not be easy. But beyond that there was a lot of future work to do and there likely still is today, especially if the folks running the executive and legislative branches of our government starting Friday are as bad as their rhetoric sometimes is.

I know I skipped some things which are really important, particularly the hatred and violence that black high school and college students faced in Arkansas and Mississippi in breaking racial barriers and the Freedom Rides throughout the south. The stories of the vile mistreatment particularly of school age girls just trying to attend school are heartbreaking. I hope any boy or girl (now man or woman) who participated in the intimidation of a little girl attending school in those early days of school integration understands how wrong they were. Doesn't change anything I guess. I can't imagine how scared and how brave those first kids to break the race barrier at public schools were. 

I don't understand the work that remains. How could I? The logic of a white man writing a brief history of the Civil Rights Movement to help himself understand some (and I do mean like a tiny fraction) of the events in black history that led to the passage of the 1964 Act is a little silly. I did it to educate myself more, which I consider a small step towards more understanding. I know we still have a lot of work to do. I believe it is important to continue to talk about our nation's embarrassing past so we don't repeat it through forgetfulness. That's why I write about this subject on this day. 

Go Wizards! Let's make it 12 in a row at home today. 

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