While the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was perhaps the most important single Supreme Court ruling of the Civil Rights era, it was not as specific as to lay out a route map for change or how desegregation was to be achieved.
A second opinion in the case was made a year later, in May 1955, which placed the responsibility of proceeding desegregation cases to lower federal courts and directed district courts and school boards to proceed with desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”
Perhaps well intentioned, this ruling effectively opened the door to local judicial and political evasion of desegregation. While Kansas and some other states acted in accordance with the verdict, many others did not.
Murder of Emmett Till
If the Supreme Court decision ignited a wave of civil rights activism, it was the murder of Emmett Till that provoked the real anger that drove the movement forward.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was murdered while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in August 1955, after it was alleged that he had flirted with a white woman four days earlier. Carolyn Bryant, a white married shop keeper, claimed that Till grabbed her, made lewd advances and wolf-whistled at her as he sauntered out.
Historian Timothy Tyson later said that Bryant claimed to him in a book interview that she had fabricated part of the testimony regarding her interaction with Till, specifically the portion where she accused Till of grabbing her waist and uttering obscenities.
Bryant’s husband and brother abducted the teenage Till from his great-uncle’s house and forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan, a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. They then beat him close to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.
It was three days before his body was discovered, and it was so disfigured that Till’s aunt could only identify him by an initialled ring.
The authorities tried to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother demanded that it be returned to Chicago, where she decided to have an open-cast funeral so the world could see what the murderers had done to her son.
Tens of thousands of people trooped past Emmett as he lay in state for four days afterwards, dignified in a dark suit in defiance of the racist violence of his death. The horrifying photograph of his disfigured face was published in Jet magazine and quickly circulated around the world.
Maria Margaronis, from The Nation, later wrote:
“The image was a deliberate reversal of the white supremacist tradition of lynching photographs – gruesome images of Black men hanging from trees while white families looked on – printed and sold as postcards in the segregation-era South.”
Protests erupted around the world. Dancer Josephine Baker led one in Paris, and letters demanding justice for Till were sent to the White House from Norway and Russia, to name but a few. Demonstrations and rallies were held across America.
The perpetrators were put on trial for murder but an all-white jury took less than an hour to find them not-guilty, explaining that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body.
While Till was not to be the first African American person murdered by racists in America, his death and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers, had a galvanising effect.
Medgar Evers, then an NAACP field officer in Jackson, Mississippi, called on the NAACP national leadership to get take up the case.
Physician and civil rights leader Dr. T. R. M. Howard of Mound Bayou was already known in Mississippi for his activism and as a consequence had armed bodyguards to protect him and his family after repeatedly being threatened. During the trial, Howard extended this protection to the African American witnesses and to Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley. After they testified, Howard, Medgar Evers and other NAACP officials helped the witnesses slip out of town.
After the murderers were acquitted, Howard boldly and publicly chastised FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover:
“It's getting to be a strange thing that the FBI can never seem to work out who is responsible for the killings of Negroes in the South.”
In November 1955 Howard spoke about Till at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama at the request of the young 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King. In the audience was a 42-year old seamstress, Rosa Parks. Four days later, Parks boarded a bus and refused to give up her sit for a white man.
“I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back,” she would recall years later.
The bus boycott
Rosa Parks was a committed civil rights activist long before she boarded a segregated bus on 1 December 1955, having become the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943.
In fact, she had even had a run-in with the same bus driver, James Blake, a dozen years previously, when she boarded a bus but then refused to disembark and re-board it through the back door. It was only when Blake flew into a rage, pulling at her arm and shouting at her, that Parks got off the bus rather than comply.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” Parks would later write in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
The second time, in 1955, two police officers approached the halted bus and arrested Parks .
Word of her arrest quickly spread and, in discussions with the local NAACP leader E. D. Nixon, it was decided to use her case to challenge the segregation laws, both in the courts and out on the streets. On the day of her trial, four days later, the African American population of Montgomery was called on to boycott the buses for the day as a symbol of protest.
The response of the local community was beyond even the NAACP’s most optimistic expectations, and discussions soon began about continuing and expanding the protest. Nixon, together with a number of ministers from local churches, formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to manage an on-going boycott. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as the MIA’s president.
While the public focus of the MIA was on dismantling the bus segregation laws, its real objective was, as King was later to recall, advancing “the general status of Montgomery, to improve race relations, and to uplift the general tenor of the community.”
The MIA’s demands were simple: courteous treatment by bus operators, first-come, first-served seating, and the employment of African American bus drivers.
Carpools were organised to transport people to and from work and school, meetings and sermons took place in churches and halls and funding was provided by the NAACP.
The backlash was quick and harsh, however. Nixon and King had their houses firebombed and in the spring of 1956 they, along with 87 other boycott leaders, were indicted for violating Alabama’s 1921 anti-boycott law. King was the only one brought to trial and convicted.
In November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal district court ruling in the Browder v. Gayle case, putting an end to segregated seating on public buses. As Alabama charged its rules, the MIA called off the year-long boycott.
Reflecting on the boycott, King said:
“I will never forget Montgomery, for how can one forget a group of people who took their passionate yearnings and deep aspirations and filtered them into their own souls and fashioned them into a creative protest, which gave meaning to people and gave inspiration to individuals all over the nation and all over the world.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott put Martin Luther King on the national map, but perhaps just as importantly it solidified the notion of non-violent direct action.
Bayard Rustin, who had been one of the organisers of the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, wrote several papers exploring the possibility of expanding the bus boycotts to other states, posing the question whether a national organisation was required.
King called together influential Southern African American ministers to the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration in Atlanta. The meeting concluded with the release of a manifesto calling on white Southerners to “realize that the treatment of Negroes is a basic spiritual problem”, while to African Americans the encouragement was “to seek justice and reject all injustice.”
The manifesto ended with a commitment to the principle of nonviolence “no matter how great the provocation”.
Realising that the group’s name was too long, a new title of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was decided upon. It was also agreed to broaden out the work beyond buses and to address segregation.
The SCLC was an umbrella group, bringing together individuals and organisations through an affiliate structure. “The life-blood of SCLC movements is in the masses of people who are involved,” noted one of its early pamphlets.
The coalition’s first campaign was the Crusade for Citizenship, which began in late 1957, triggered by the Civil Rights Bill that was before Congress. The aim of the campaign was to register thousands of disenfranchised voters ahead of the 1958 mid-terms and 1960 Presidential elections.
“The goal of the Crusade for Citizenship is to double the number of qualified Negro voters in the South, by developing a program of education and action,” read a member issued by the SCLC leadership.
Twenty meetings were simultaneously held in different cities at the same time to maximise impact, with the aim of highlighting the importance of a sustained voter registration drive and to send out a message to Southern states that they planned to make use of the new provisions outlined in the Civil Rights Bill.
Voter education clinics were established throughout the South, linking their right to vote with “their chances for improvement” (the voter registration drives continued into the early 1960s).
The Crusade for Citizenship’s voter registration drive was built on provisions drawn up in the Civil Rights Bill that was before Congress, which is widely seen as the precursor to the more substantial legislative programme undertaken in the 1960s.
President Eisenhower introduced the Bill as a reaction to events, especially Little Rock, Arkansas (where Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers to protect nine Black teenagers integrating into a public school) rather than a passionate desire to lead. In fact, he never publicly endorsed the Civil Rights Movement, believing that it was wrong to force people to change their beliefs, but rather devising the conditions where people made genuine changes.
The 1957 Civil Rights Act was perhaps an exception. While some detractors have claimed the legislation was a crude attempt to win new voters, given that at that time only 20% of African Americans were registered to vote, others believed that he was driven by a desire to right a wrong.
The Act aimed to ensure that all African Americans could exercise their right to vote, and sought to create a new division within the federal Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses.
Most of the opposition to the passage of the Bill into law came from within the Democratic Party, which at that stage was heavily reliant on the Southern white voter. So hostile were many Southern Democrats that Senate leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson, feared the issue would split his party.
The result was a much-watered down Act, which has divided opinion on its effectiveness. Some African American leaders dismissed it as “a sham” and said that no law at all would have been preferable to what was eventually passed. Others, however, took a more long-term view, accepting that this was the first Civil Rights Act to get passed in 82 years and, as such, paved the way for further incremental improvements over time. Among those arguing that it was important because of its symbolism was Bayard Rustin, by now a leading figure in CORE.
Decade ends with a pilgrimage
In February 1959 Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by his wife Coretta Scott-King and MIA veteran Lawrence Reddick, flew to India for a five week trip. Heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s theory of change through non-violence, King was excited about the trip.
“To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim,” he announced at the airport.
He met and discussed strategies with Gandhi’s associates, visited temples and monuments and reflected upon the struggle back in the United States and around the world. “We have come a long, long way,” King said, “but we have a long, long way to go.”
The decade closed with some real achievements made, but some of the toughest struggles still lay ahead.