Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Day - Sixties Civil Rights Tactics

MLK Day seems a good time to refresh our collective memories on the tactics of 60's civil rights organizations and compare them to some of the protests that have been recently occurring.
What makes a protest organization effective? 

MLK leading a march in Selma, Alabama to end the suppression of black voting rights.


From 1954 to 1965, the Civil Rights Movement focused on challenging segregation laws in the South. The earliest and one of the most effective civil rights organization was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Originating from W.E.B. DuBois' Niagara Movement, the NAACP had a mission. They found injustice wherever it existed and then sued to draw attention to the injustice and, hopefully, find legal remedy for it. They continue this quest to this day.

This image from
Fighting the system within the system has been effective both then and now despite continuing racial de facto discrimination in America. Key court decisions have undoubtedly laid the groundwork for social change. In the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system...

...We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place...
The court came to this conclusion after the arguments made by Thurgood Marshall which were pretty darned good -

...the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to deprive the states of power to enforce Black Codes or anything else like it. We charge that they are Black Codes. They obviously are Black Codes if you read them. They haven't denied that they are Black Codes, so if the Court wants to very narrowly decide this case, they can decide it on that point. is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for. - (See the full argument here.)


Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) emerged in 1957 as a network of local groups committed to non-violent protest. Their first efforts focused on educating and registering black voters in time for the 1960 election.

They also coordinated with local organizations like the Montgomery Improvement Association to protest segregation (Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and promote voting rights in Birmingham and Selma.

BTW, there is a new movie out called "Selma" so #marchon. 

By 1962, the SCLC also focused on the economic plight of African Americans, many of whom faced discrimination in the workplace and lived in poverty.

All of us learn that MLK had a dream that one day his kids would grow up in a world without racial discrimination, but most forget that the "March on Washington" was actually the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." 

The idea originated with A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters) who wanted to protest the exclusion of African Americans from wartime jobs in the defense industry back in 1941.

Even so, it didn't happen until 1963 when Randolph and King coordinated their efforts and, working with President Kennedy and other civil rights groups, amassed 200,000 in Washington to promote a comprehensive civil rights bill to stop segregation, protect black voting rights, and end workplace discrimination.

Although there has been some historic debate about the degree of leadership within each of the civil rights groups, no one can deny that King and the SCLC gave some cohesiveness to the network of local movements and added clout to their interactions with politicians and community leaders.

The SNCC or "Snick"

The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged in 1960 as an offshoot of the "Greensboro Four" sit-in. Although the SCLC and SNCC worked cooperatively in the early years, this youth organization was separate from the SCLC and took on some of the riskiest non-violent protests, like sit-ins and the Freedom Rides.

Although the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) planned the Freedom Rides and started them, it was members of SNCC who continued them when things got ugly.

Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg after the stop in Montgomery, Alabama
SNCC leaders Diane Nash and Jim Zwerg at Fisk University in Nashville realized that to give up on the rides would mean to give in to segregation. This was not something they were willing to do, and they willingly put their lives on the line to continue the rides. This determination and willingness to accept the punishment meted out to them by citizens and law enforcement throughout the South was instrumental in highlighting the wrongness of what was being done to them -- the wrongness of the system.

John Lewis, the Freedom Rider and SNCC Chairman

John Lewis, the Democratic Congressman from Georgia's 5th District
SNCC's success under the leadership of John Lewis, and its uncompromising stance on immediate civil rights, would lead them into some conflict with other civil rights leaders and organizations. At the March on Washington, John Lewis softened his planned speech at the behest of A. Philip Randolph, but it became clear afterwards that SNCC was moving in a more confrontational direction than the more political NAACP and SCLC. After 1965, and the shift of power from John Lewis to Stokely Carmichael, SNCC would become the voice of "Black Power" and begin to exclude white Americans and embrace a more separatist and more defensively violent philosophy.


The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is a Chicago-based organization that started some of the early protests and worked cooperatively with other civil rights organizations. Although it still exists, the organization was at its height in the early civil rights period. CORE organized some of the early sit-ins in Chicago in the 1940's and the Greensboro Four sit-in in 1960 that sparked other organizations (like SNCC) to start them.

Four Freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University staged a sit-in
at the Woolworth's lunch counter.

The Freedom Rides were organized by CORE and the name "Freedom Rides" was coined by one of the first Freedom Riders (and publicity officer), James Peck. Like the other three organizations above, CORE was a non-violent protest organization that worked to end segregation.

James Peck was attacked on the Freedom Rides in Anniston, Alabama.
The work of these "Big Four" civil rights organizations resulted in two significant pieces of legislation:

While many argue that this was not nearly enough and we can all agree that the work was not (and is not) finished, these organizations managed to push a reluctant nation and political system into action and achieved tangible and long-lasting results. Even if the work was not done, it was still a significant building block - a step in the right direction.

These early civil rights organizations did something right. So what was it?

First, these organizations were ORGANIZED. They didn't achieve success by accident. They gathered together, set specific goals, planned ways to achieve them, and then implemented the plans.

Second, they were INCLUSIVE. These groups lived by the philosophies they preached. This was not a "blacks only" or "whites only" movement. This was a people's movement. It was comprised of people who shared a common goal of equality and practiced it in their own lives.

Third, these organizations were NON-VIOLENT. They understood the simple concept of "two wrongs do not make a right." The power comes from being right - not from being able to overpower physically.

Today, protest tactics range from simple public awareness campaigns to "hacktivism" to armed rebellion or even terrorism.

Image from
While it is certainly debatable which tactics are most effective, if the goal is positive social change, it must be remembered that escalating violence does more to undermine that goal than to achieve it. Which leads me to my bigger question -- one of my favorite kind -- the kind without a single right answer...

Is violent protest ever justified? If so, where is the line and who draws it?

No comments:

Post a Comment