fbpx ‘That all men are created equal’ | HEROES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT Skip to main content

Civil rights movement

‘That all men are created equal’

The new decade began with a wave of activism focused across the South. On 1 February 1960, four young African American students sat down at a whites-only counter at Woolworth in Greenboro, North Carolina, and ordered coffee. Their request was denied and after the quartet refused to move, the police were called and all four were arrested.

Their act of non-violent direct action sparked a wave of similar protests, first across other towns and cities in North Carolina but then further afield. By the end of February 1960 there were sit-down protests in eight states, and before long in a further 11 states. Businesses in San Antonio, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, plus Arkansas, were forced to desegregate after sit-down protests there. But other states, particularly those in the Deep South, refused to buckle to the protests.

The importance of the sit-down movement went far beyond these individual diners. The image of peaceful and cheerful young people taking part in non-violent protests contrasted with the heavy-handedness and even violence of their opponents and were carried through televisions and newspapers into living rooms across the country. Many perceptions of African Americans were challenged, as were the claims of some white Southerners that Southern Blacks backed Jim Crow rules.

The sit-down protests also ensured that the doctrine of non-violence permeated throughout the majority of the Civil Rights Movement. Organisations such as CORE and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held training sessions on non-violent action, with CORE in particular emphasising how non-violence could increase the power and scope of the movement. In turn, the growing numbers of students participating in these protests fuelled the ranks of the wider Civil Rights Movement and increased coordination.

In April 1960, civil rights organiser Ella Baker organised a student conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, from which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sprung. The new group, she strongly believed, needed to be something “bigger than a hamburger”, as she wrote:

“We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon, and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship.”

These new, more action-orientated organisations eclipsed many of the well-established groups, such as the NAACP, and arguments broke out about strategy. The SNCC quickly took off, organising students and a new generation of African American community leaders.


Freedom Riders

Spurred on by the sit-down protests, CORE decided to test the South’s resolve to continue its segregationist policies despite the 1960 Supreme Court decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case, which held that racial segregation in public transportation was illegal because such segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.

In May 1961, 13 activists – seven African Americans and six whites – left Washington D.C. on a Greyhound bus, with the intention of reaching New Orleans a fortnight later. They identified themselves as the Freedom Riders.

It was not long before their action triggered an angry, and often violent, response. They were physically attacked as they travelled through South Carolina as they entered a whites-only waiting area, while a 200-strong white mob awaited their arrival in Anniston, Alabama, causing the driver to drive past the bus station. However, the mob gave chase and the bus was soon set alight, with the Freedom Riders on board.

The images of the burning bus and violence meted out to the civil rights activists influenced and mobilised public opinion, but it also stiffened white resistance. In Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor withdraw the police presence at the bus station in the full knowledge the Freedom Riders would be attacked.

With a wrecked bus, a refusal from drivers to drive and wounded Freedom Riders, the expedition was on the brink of collapse, but the determination of the activists, especially Diana Nash, who brought together a new team of activists, meant the Ride could continue.

There was further violence in Montgomery, Alabama, both at the bus station and then the following night at a support meeting held at the First Baptist Church. The ensuing riot led Martin Luther King Jr. to call President John F. Kennedy for protection.

The President responded by summoning federal marshals, who used tear gas to disperse the angry white mob. The Governor declared martial law and used the National Guard to restore order.

The U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother, called for a cooling off period after further trouble in Mississippi. His comments came after several Freedom Riders were arrested for using ‘white-only’ facilities and when they appeared in court, the judge turned and looked at the wall rather than listening to their defence. The Freedom Riders were arrested for 30 days in jail.

With the help of the NAACP, their convictions were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually reversed them.

The Freedom Rides continued for several months and in the autumn of 1961, under pressure from the President, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals. The Freedom Riders had won.


Albany Movement

The new Interstate Commerce Commission orders were immediately put to the test in Albany, Georgia, where a coalition of groups had formed the Albany Movement. While the desegregation of transportation was the spur for action, the Movement’s goal was more far-reaching as it sought to challenge all forms of segregation.

There had been little previous civil rights activism in the city before the formation of the Movement, but the arrival of SNCC members Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon energised both students and the local Black community alike. Following the strategy of non-violence, talks and training sessions sprung up across the city ahead of the showdown with the city authorities. Before long there were demonstrations, sit-ins, jail-ins, boycotts and litigation taking place.

Over 500 protesters were jailed in the following few weeks, though there was not the police violence that had been present in other cities and states, a deliberate policy by the police chief to avoid the worst media representation.

The Albany Movement reflected many of the wider tensions within the Civil Rights Movement over strategy and leadership. The involvement of Martin Luther King Jr. caused considerable irritation among some of the younger and more radical SNCC leaders, who feared that it sent out a message that only a few high-profile individuals could lead campaigns.

Despite their unease, King got involved and his presence did help bring national media attention to their cause and reassure wider elements of the African American community that it was safe to get involved. In mid-December, King spoke alongside the Albany Movement leaders at a mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church and soon found himself arrested and behind bars on charges of parading without a permit.

Worried by the image of King behind bars, the city authorities offered a deal to the protest leaders that if King left the city then they would comply with the ICC ruling. King duly complied, but the city authorities reneged on the deal, causing the media to depict it as a “stunning defeat” for King.

The tensions between the national and more moderate SCLC and the more radical SNCC were becoming the focus of media attention, with articles appearing in the national media about splits in the movement. King tried to play down the divisions as “miscommunication” but there was no disguising the clear differences.

King and his co-defendant Ralph Abernathy, one of the Movement’s leaders, were eventually convicted in July 1962 and ordered to pay $178 or serve 45 days in jail. They both choose to jail, with King saying:

“We chose to serve our time because we feel so deeply about the plight of more than 700 others who have yet to be tried…

“We have experienced the racist tactics of attempting to bankrupt the movement in the South through excessive bail and extended court fights. The time has come when we must practice civil disobedience in a true sense or delay our freedom thrust for long years.”

Their decision to serve their sentence only increased the protests, so much so that the police chief notified the pair that their fines had been paid by an unidentified Black man.

Following a third arrest in Albany in July 1962, King agreed to leave the city the following month and called on the protests to stop, despite their wider goals having not been met. King would later claim the Movement’s defeat was because their campaign was not focused around a specific objective. The younger leadership saw it differently, blaming King and the national leadership of moderation and wanting respectability.


The Albany Movement was considered by many to be a failure but important lessons were learnt for the next major campaign, which was in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights was leading a campaign against the city’s segregation policies. The focus of their action was the boycotting of shops during Easter 1963.

Like Albany, the campaign saw a wide range of tactics being used, from non-violent direct action, sit-ins, mass rallies and a boycott of shops. There were kneel-ins in churches, sit-ins at the library, and even a march to promote voter registration.

The city authorities obtained a court order to ban the protests, but this was ignored by the Movement’s leaders. King decided that he had to be arrested, and on 12 April, two days after the authorities had obtained their court order, he was duly taken into custody and put in solitary confinement.

Not everyone was impressed with his actions, and eight Birmingham clergy issued a statement to the local paper attacking the Birmingham campaign and King’s tactics. King shot back with a 6,000 word response, written in the margins of a newspaper and smuggled out of jail.

Concerned about the toll on existing supporters, the campaign organisers turned to young people who did not have family or job pressures.

On 2 May 1963 over 1,000 African American students attempted to march on the city centre. They were stopped by police and hundreds were arrested. The images of children being clubbed, hosed down and attacked by police dogs caused international outrage.

The bad publicity, coupled with the economic impact of the boycott, was weakening the resolve of many business leaders. So when Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent his chief civil rights aide down to Birmingham to facilitate negotiations, many were only too happy to oblige.

As was all too often the case, a compromise was reached whereby the protests would be halted but the main issues would be settled through future negotiations. King backed this deal, much to the anger of Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham group’s founder, who had not been consulted.

“Go ahead and call it off,” he told King from hospital, a consequence of being hit with the full force of a water hose. “When I see it on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street. And your name’ll be Mud.”

A chastised King publicly called off the protests anyway, but noted that they might resume if negotiations failed.

There were no need for further protests as just a week later the negotiations had been concluded to everyone’s satisfaction. The Birmingham Truce Agreement saw the removal of ‘White Only’ and ‘Black Only’ signs in restrooms and drinking fountains, an agreement to desegregate lunch counters, improve Black employment, the release of protesters and the establishment of a committee to monitor progress.

White racists reacted to the agreement with fury, setting off a bomb near the hotel room where King and other SCLC leaders had been staying, while King’s brother’s home was firebombed. While order was restored after 3,000 federal troops were sent to the area, resentment lingered on. Four months later, on 15 September 1963, KKK activists firebombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.

Racist backlash

Racist violence was happening across the South, with one of the worst incidents being the murder of Medgar Evers, the secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi and the state’s most high profile civil rights activists.

Evers and his family had been subjected to threats and violence over the years, including the firebombing of the family home in May 1963. A month later his luck ran out, as he was shot in the back in his driveway.

The murder suspect was quickly identified as Byron De La Beckwith but he escaped justice twice, when two all-white juries failed to reach a decision. Beckwith was even supported in one of the trials by the-then Govenor Ross Barnett, who shook hands with the defendant in full view of the jury.

Fortunately, Evers’s family and friends never gave up the quest for justice, and 31 years later, after new witnesses had been found, Beckwith was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The March

The clamour for racial justice was growing ever stronger and increasingly turning to the national stage.

While local campaigns sought to challenge state-level segregation and discrimination, many in the Civil Rights Movement realised that real change could only be achieved at a federal level.

In early June 1963, President Kennedy proposed a bill to Congress, seeking legislation that would provide “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.”

He went on:

“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes….

“We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves to talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all our daily lives.”

Opposition was, unsurprisingly, strong from the Southern states and the bill was blocked in Committee. On the same day as Kennedy made his speech, Georgia’s Governor, George Wallace, delivered a blistering attack on federal incursion into a state’s affairs. While Wallace was spurred into action by attempts by federal authorities to dismantle segregation at the University of Alabama, his words resonated far beyond the boundaries of his state.

It was clear that external pressure was required to help see the bill through, so A. Philip Randolph, the union leader and a long-time civil rights activist, called for a massive march on Washington as a show of strength and to focus minds. Before long, all the major civil rights organisations were backing the call, often putting aside their own tactical and personality differences.

In late August, in beautiful sunshine, over a quarter of a million people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to rally for “jobs and freedom.”

Addressing the crowd were civil rights leaders, actors and singers. King had originally prepared a short speech recalling the sufferings of African Americans seeking their freedom in a society amidst the discrimination they faced. He was about to sit down when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out: “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

Encouraged by Jackson and others, King gathered his thoughts, drew on much of his earlier speeches, and told the audience about his dream.

It proved to be the best-remembered speech of the entire Civil Rights Movement, as it encapsulated a world where people of all races and backgrounds lived together in freedom and democracy.