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Civil rights movement

Becoming full Citizens

Many African Americans had mixed views on JFK. As President he had championed the cause of civil rights, but before he was elected in 1960 he was less vocal. Some put this down to his own electoral calculus – the Democrats being largely the party of Southern whites – while many prominent African Americans were vocal Republican supporters.

As years have gone by, some younger African Americans have become more critical of Kennedy’s record, but at the time of his death many of the older generation had revered him.

“You always saw pictures of Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King,” says Charles Booth, a pastor who grew up in Baltimore. “You could go in an average home and see a picture of JFK on the wall. In the minds of most Black people at the time, he was a friend to the African-American community.”

His replacement as President was Lyndon Johnson, a former defender of segregation who was viewed nervously by many African Americans. They were to be pleasantly surprised, however: Johnson’s immediate response to Kennedy’s assassination was to see through Kennedy’s civil rights advances, despite fierce opposition in Congress from Southern Democrats.

Jack Valenti, a top aide to Johnson, later recalled what happened on the night of John Kennedy's assassination.

“That night he ruminated about the days that lay ahead, sketching out what he planned to do, in the almost five hours that we sat there with him. Though none of us who listened realized it at the time, he was revealing the design of the Great Society. He had not yet given it a name, but he knew with stunning precision the mountaintop to which he was going to summon the people.”

The new Civil Rights Act

Five days later Johnson laid out the case for civil rights reform to lawmakers.

"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

Then, in a clear rebuke for opponents within his own party he added:

"We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

The bill in front of Congress banned all segregation on the grounds of race, religion or national origin at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theatres, sports arenas and hotels. African Americans and other minorities could no longer be denied service simply based on the colour of their skin. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created with the power to file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved workers and it prevented the use of federal funds for any discriminatory programme.

Johnson knew that he required help in order to overcome opposition within his own party. Two days later he met with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, to solicit support for the civil rights bill. He also reached out to Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican who was minority leader of the Senate.

With the bill stuck in the House Rules Committee, where Judge Smith would not give it a hearing, Johnson reached out next to Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, to enlist her editors in pressuring Representatives. Articles criticising Judge Smith and imploring Representatives to support the bill soon began to appear in the paper. Buoyed by this growing pressure, an odd coalition of liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans and one Conservative Republican emerged on the House Committee which forced through the bill.

Meanwhile, religious leaders begun to add their own pressure to pass the bill, with the National Council of Churches spending $400,000 in its lobbying efforts alone. Historian Robert Mann wrote:

"During the House debate, the gallery sometimes seems to overflow with ministers, priests, and rabbis – most of them voluntary watchdogs, or 'gallery watchers,' who tracked the votes and other activities of House members.”

Smith tried one final manoeuvre to sink the bill, when he introduced an amendment on the floor on the House inserting that not only should discrimination in employment based on race, creed, colour, and national origin be illegal, but distinctions based on sex as well.

If Smith hoped that forcing an overwhelmingly male legislature their views on women would torpedo the bill he was mistaken. The momentum for change was now so overwhelming that the amendment was accepted and on 10 February 1964 the bill was passed by 290 to 130 votes.

The bill then passed to the Senate, where there was further resistance from Southern Democrats, including a 75-day filibuster attempt, one of the longest in U.S. history. West Virginia Senator, Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan member, spoke for over 14 consecutive hours. Eventually, supporters of the bill broke the filibuster and the Senate passed it by 73 votes to 27, and on 2 July 1964 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was euphoric at the outcome, claiming the Civil Rights Act was nothing less than a “second emancipation.”

The euphoria of success was tempered with a political realisation of the consequence. On the same day that Johnson signed the bill he remarked to an aide: “It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Freedom Summer

The advancement in civil rights was not replicated when it came to voting. African Americans faced poll taxes, literacy tests, violence and intimidation across much of the South when they attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Without this democratic right, real political change at state level was limited.

As a consequence, voting rights became the main focus of the Civil Rights Movement in the summer of 1964, and Mississippi, where only 7% of eligible African Americans were registered to vote, was the chosen battleground for the Freedom Summer project.

Over 700, mostly white, volunteers joined African Americans in Mississippi to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls with a view to massively increasing Black registration.

Organised by the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and run by the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the volunteers were met with violent resistance from the KKK and the police. However, images of beatings, false arrests and even murder drew international attention to their cause and forced national politicians to act.

Bloody Sunday

In 1963 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists Colia L. Clark and Bernard Lafayette had moved to Selma, Alabama to support local voter registration drives. They soon linked up with two local activists, Amelia and Samuel Boyntons, from Dallas County, to run Citizenship School classes focused on the literacy test required for voter registration and canvassing door-to-door, encouraging African Americans to try to register to vote.

According to a 1961 Civil Rights Commission report, only 130 out of 15,115 eligible Dallas County Blacks were registered to vote. The situation was even worse in neighbouring Wilcox and Lowndes counties. There were virtually no Blacks on the voting rolls in these rural counties that were roughly 80% Black. It was slow and methodical work, often in the face over opposition and violence from the authorities.

Much of the opposition was led by local Sheriff, Jim Clark, a violent racist, and the Alabama chapter of the (white) Citizens' Councils, and between them they were initially successful in preventing African Americans from attending meetings and protests. With cattle prods stuck into their groins and on the torn feet of young protesters, it was hardly surprising that civil rights activists had to operate under the cover of darkness.

In October 1963 the SNCC organised a Freedom Day on Monday, 7 October, to register people to vote and encourage a sense of solidarity. Over 350 African Americans stood in line to register, but the registrar processed only 40 applications and police officers refused to allow people to leave the line and return. Police also arrested three SNCC workers who stood on federal property holding signs promoting voter registration. When other SNCC activists arrived with bottles of water and sandwiches, they too were arrested.

Their efforts were soon complimented by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which in late 1964 was looking for somewhere to run a high profile voter registration campaign. Selma was the perfect choice. Not only did it have a well-organised civil rights group, but in Sheriff Clark it had a vicious police boss who was likely to use violence which could be successfully exploited by the SCLC on a national stage.

The arrival of the SCLC was not without its critics, especially from those inside the organisation who took a more bottom-up approach to community organising. While the SCLC’s approach garnered most of the attention and was credited with forcing federal intervention, it probably would not have been successful if it had not been for the hard work and sacrifices of local activists who had moved the African American community considerably over the previous 18 months.

The work was hard going. More than 3,000 people were arrested during protests in the first five weeks of 1965 and fewer than 100 African Americans were registered to voter. Furthermore, hundreds of people were injured or blacklisted by employers due to their participation in the campaign.

On 18 February, a march on a courthouse in Marion led to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by state trooper James Bonard Fowler, as he tried to prevent his mother from being beaten. Other policemen shot out the street lights and attacked the news media in a bid to obscure this attack on peaceful marchers.

With emotions running high, SCLC activists proposed taking Jackson’s body to Governor George Wallace in Montgomery to emphasise his culpability in the violence. On 7 March, 600 civil rights marchers, led by the SNCC’s John Lewis (later Senator Lewis) and the SCLC’s Reverend Hosea Williams, walked out of Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by a wall of state troopers. Further down the road were even more police officers, mainly made up of local men who had been deputised earlier that morning under the orders of Sheriff Jim Clark.

Commanding officer John Cloud, brushing aside all protests, told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with sticks. Other troopers fired tear gas and mounted troopers charged the crowd.

Images of this brutal attack were beamed into living rooms across the nation  and further afield, only increasing anger at the racist system and broadening sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement. President Johnson issued a statement "deploring the brutality” the world had seen and promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress.

The NAACP demanded federal troops be deployed to protect the rights of African Americans. Union leader Walter Reuther sent a telegram to President Johnson, demanding:

“I join in urging you to take immediate and appropriate steps including the use of Federal marshals and troops if necessary, so that the full exercise of constitutional rights including free assembly and free speech be fully protected.”

The SNCC and SCLC put aside their tactical differences and announced plans for a second march the following Tuesday. The SCLC went to court to obtain an order preventing the police from stopping them, but the judge ended up issuing them an order not to march. It was decided to continue with the march, but behind the scenes King and President Johnson negotiated a deal whereby King would lead a symbolic march but turn around when they got to Edmund Pettus Bridge – if Sheriff Clark promised not to attack the protesters.

This is what happened, much to the annoyance of many of the marchers, who were oblivious to the secret deal. Tempers were further frayed when, later that evening, three white Unitarian Universalist ministers who were in Selma for the march were attacked by KKK supporters wielding clubs. One, James Reeb, was to die from his injuries.

As the civil rights activists in Selma  contemplated their next move, President Johnson convened a joint session of Congress on 15 March to set out his plans for a new voting rights bill. In a speech that was entitled The American Promise, Johnson made a passionate plea to dismantle racist voting laws and other impediments that made it hard for African Americans to vote.

He called Selma "a turning point in man's unending search for freedom,” similar to the Battle of Appomattox in the American Civil War. His bill was introduced two days later.

A week after James Reeb’s death, a judge finally ruled in favour of the right of protesters to march from Selma to Montgomery, but only after getting a firm commitment from the President to ensure enforcement: even if it meant pitting federal troops against state police – something the President had been desperate to avoid. Four days later, as many as 8,000 people gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to start the walk to Montgomery.

The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson's political skills stimulated Congress to pass the voting rights bill on 5 August 1965.

“It is intended to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which provides in Section 1:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices which were commonplace in many Southern states, and was the most significant statutory change in the relationship between the federal and state governments in the area of voting since the Reconstruction period.

While the Act was swiftly challenged, the Supreme Court issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices outlined in the legislation.

The Voting Rights Act proved to be one of the most significant civil rights victories of the period. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new African American citizens had been registered to vote, and within a year only four out of the 13 Southern states had fewer than 50% of African Americans registered to vote.