Printer Friendly

The movement - a 25-year retrospective.

Twenty-five years ago, on February 1, 1960, four black male students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College went into the F. W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro, N.C., and sat down at the lunchcounter to wait for service. There was no service that day, and next day they returned with a few friends. A day later they were joined by women from (black, Methodist) Bennett College. "The Movement" had begun.

Within ten days there were sit-ins at lunchcounters in Durham, Charlotte, and Raleigh; within two weeks they had spread to High Point, and to Hampton, Concord, and Portsmouth, Va., to Rock Hill and Sumter, S.C., to Nashville, and to Tallahassee.

Within 60 days nonviolent sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent direct action had taken place in locations as far removed as Xenia, Ohio, and Sarasota, Fla. Northern college campuses seemingly mired in the apathy of the 1950s were suddenly galvanized into creating hundreds of support groups. Black communities, working both through churches and through the NAACP, mobilized to support the southern black students. "Five-and-Ten" chain store outlets in dozens of northern cities were picketed (on Saturday shopping days) week after week in the spring of 1960.

Results were almost immediate. Some facilities in six upper and middle southern communities were integrated even within the first two months of the sit-ins. By August 1960, 27 southern cities and countries had opened some hitherto segregated facilities to customers regardless of race--plus a number of northern communities, including Las Vegas, Baltimore, Kansas City, Mo., and Oklahoma City. In March 1961, the congress of Racial Equality, pioneer in developing nonviolent tactics in the field of civil rights and leading national organization in training students in nonviolent methods, announced that 138 communities had integrated some facilities since February 1, 1960. A host of local private and governmental bi-racial commissions had been formed to deal with "human relations" problems, past, present, and future.

In the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, the nonviolent student movement and its community allies were met with massive repression, both private and state. Protest incidents were at first limited by a realistic appreciation of the odds. Where nonviolent demonstrations were bravely mounted despite a virtual police state atmosphere, they were crushed. The Southern Regional Council reported in September 1961 that about 3,600 students and their supporters had been arrested since February 1, 1960. In Orangeburg S.C., 388 people were arrested, put into a stockade, and sprayed with water in freezing weather. Hundreds of students were gassed, attacked by police dogs, had burning cigars or ammonia thrown on them at lunch counters, or were beaten. At least 45 students were expelled from colleges, mostly "Negro" state-supported institutions, and at least ten professors were fired. The American Association of University Professors reported in 1962 that half of its current case load of "academic freedom" violation complaints came from the South; a majority of its "censure" institutions were in the South that year, most in the aftermath of anti-movement reprisals.

Some 50,000 U.S. students, North and South, participated in the sit-in movement directly or indirectly. There had not been such a political awakening of the campus since the anti-war movement of the mid-1930s. But this movement was to persist, although not in its form, nor even with its original, predominantly black, make-up.

The civil rights issue, brought to national attention by the sist-ins, was probably decisive in the election of President Kennedy in November 1960. On October 19, 1960, 51 sit-in demonstrators, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were arrested in Atlanta, Ga. King at this time was under suspended sentence for a traffic infraction; the judge set it aside and sentenced King to four months. King found himself, on the eve of the election, in Georgia state prison, Sen. John F. Kennedy then contacted Atlanta's mayor, who got the sit-in demonstrators released. Rev. King's father, Rev. Martin King, Sr., publicly stated he would vote for Kennedy. A member of Kennedy's family, probably Robert, interceded with the judge in the King case, and King was released on October 26. Mr. Nixon remained silent on the issue.

In several states, including Illinois, Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the black vote turned out to be a crucial factor in Kennedy's election. Kennedy carried Illinois by only 8,000 votes. There, hundreds of thousands of leaflets on Kennedy's action, and Nixon's silence, were distributed. Out of 62 million votes cast, 400,000 made the difference for Kennedy.

Other phases of the civil rights movement soon displaced the sit-ins, which had been successful, by and large, in the upper South, but had been substantially defeated in the heart of Dixie. The Freedom Rides in 1961, also destined to burn out (literally, in Anniston, Alabama, under the eyes of the KKK and the FBI), opened the way to voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Mississippi Summer, 1964, with its three martyrs, and the abortive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party continued the development of "the movement," a term which by now encompassed the rejuvenated Students for a Democratic Society, the organization of the white student left that quickly became the center for campus opposition to the war in Vietnam.

By 1965 civil rights activists, trained in the religious fervor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent campaigns and applauded by white liberals, began to founder on the twin reefs of Deep South resistance and the real problems of the black community in northern cities--problems that could not so quickly be resolved by nonviolent demonstrations. The black movement split. The Congress of Racial Equality, symbolically, became a black power organization. There were "riots" in the North, and talk of "urban guerrillas." Liberals were no longer enchanted. After the Democratic Convention of 1968 the student movement, too, split. SDS was destroyed by a factional dispute and a sectarian raid in 1969, and a section of it disappeared into the underground. By the end of the McGovern campaign of 1972, virtually nothing remained--at least on the surface--of those glorious days of the "We Shall Overcome" movement that had been inaugurated on February 1, 1960.

And glorious days they had been, for masses of blacks empowered for the first time in their lives with a tactic, nonviolence, which gave each of them a lever to make changes in their lives. But glorious days, too, for the bedraggled veterans of the "middle left," too young to have experienced the struggles of the 1930s, unaccustomed to anything but a vicarious participation in "mass action." There had been no real mass movement in the United States since the Depression. The labor unrest of the immediate post-war period had been contained. The Henry Wallace Progressive Party flashed for but a brief moment in the sky and died, to be followed by the deep winter of McCarthyism, Loyalty Oaths, the Korean war, and the Rosenbergs. The populace, according to sociologists, was contented and docile, basking in a suburbanized standard of living. The "end of ideology" was announced. The poor were still invisible, and the traditional radical parties had disappeared from public view. A handful of newspapers and periodicals, such as the National Guardian, In Fact, Dissent, and Monthly Review, constituted the independent left's tenuous connection with world reality. The middle left generation was small in number, theoretically undernourished, and pessimistic.

The year 1960 did not, of course, arrive unheralded, as if Martin Luther King had been sent by a miracle, though the hand of God was indeed suggested by some. The South had been rising for some time, but not in any way the Klan might have foreseen. The industrial development of the South as an integral component of U.S. capitalism (and not, as some radical observers believed even into the 1960s, as a neo-colony or branch-plant economy like Canada) had been under full steam since the Second World War, and with it, urbanization, and with that, the urbanization (proletarianization) of the black population. In the South Atlantic states, 18.7 percent of the black population lived in urban areas in 1900; by 1950 it was 48 percent. The "Black Belt" of Deep South planation counties in which blacks constituted 60 percent and more of the (disenfranchised) population was shrinking, and the concentration of blacks into urban areas was progressing rapidly.

The urbanization of the Southern black had several social and political consequences without any one of which subsequent developments would hae been far more difficult. First, segregated black working-class communities grew up alongside, and strengthened, institutions that were petty bourgeois in nature: merchants, clergy, media entrepreneurs. This differentiated class structure generated economic reserves enabling a minority of blacks to enter universities and become professionals, a process predating the abolition of slavery, but by the 1950s in full swing. The "Negro" colleges, supported by segregationist state governments aor white philanathropists to "uplift" the race (and/or keep it out of the mainstream of profssional and intellectual life) became breeding grounds for intellectual ferment and, potentially, protest. Second, the urbanized black working class came into contact with unions--sometimes radical unions, and in the case of the Sleeping Car Porters a socialist-led union. Third, the ambitions of the black bourgeoisie and the material needs of the black community combined to promote increased voting (on the traditional pattern of urban ethnic machines) in a number of cities, even in the Deep South. In Alabama there were 6,000 black registered voters in 1947, and 70,000 in 1958; in Louisiana, 10,000 in 1947 and 131,000 in 1958; in eleven Southern states, 595,000 in 1947 and 1,304,000 a decade later.

Inevitably, urbanization promotes a sense of identity on a series of levels--radical, class, political. It promotes communication through institutions such as churches, unions, and newspapers. In a modern society, the urbanized citizen eventually travels (perhaps as a conscript) and returns with new ideas.

Longstanding political campaigns, in the context of increasing political strength, ultimately bring some results. A campaign spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters finally succeeded in obtaining integration of the armed forces during the Korean war. In 1948, 1950, 1954, and 1955, Court decisions ordered the abolition of segregated educational facilities. A few black began attending "better" schools. In turn, whites resisted. In 1956 the (white) Citizens Councils were organized, which in turn promoted more black solidarity.

In December 1955 the Montgomery Bus Boycott began with the arrest of Rosa Parks. It was this campaign which catapulted King, and the tactic of nonviolence, to fame. What is not so well known is that King had been influenced by A. J. Muste, former labor organizer, socialist, and pacifist, and that a member of Randolph's Sleeping Car Porters, E. D. Nixon, has posted bond for Rosa Parks, and had mimeographed the flyer urging the boycott. A year later, a court decision more or less favoring the boycotters was handed down, and soon the tactic was being tried in other communities. A "Prayer Pilgrimage" for integrated schools took place in Washington in May 1957 with only minimal support; there were two more marches, in 1958 and 1959, with about 25,000 youth at the last. Meanwhile, in 1957 the first Civil Rights Act since 1875 had been passed (under President Eisenhower). It was this act which created the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which proceeded to hold hearings and issue reports helping to "enlighten" many liberals who had not chosen to hear about discrimination before.

It was about this time that the sit-in tactic became the subject of more widespread attention, stimulated by the Montgomery Boycott (and an comic book which illustrated and discussed nonviolence in the Montgomery context). The civil rights sist-in was not a new device. It had been used by the Congress of Racial Equality in Chicago restaurants in 1942, and other sit-ins or stand-ins for service took place sporadically over the years. In 1958 there was an NAACP Youth Council sit-in in Oklahoma City. There were other sit-ins in a few other border cities, but they did not "catch on." There was little press coverage, and the students of the "real" South did not feel that the tactic was appropriate for them.

Greensboro, in February 1960, was the perfect locale for the trigger event, with a population of 123,000 (only 25 percent black, hence no major threat), five colleges, including two black and one Quaker (white), in a part of the state historically opposed to the political domination of the plantation counties of Eastern North Carolina, an NAACP leadership not adverse to calling in a competing organization, CORE, for help, and a relatively enlightened city government willing to set up a biradical committee to mediate. Still, 45 students were arrested in April, and Greensboro was only the 14th sit-in city to achieve integrated facilities (July 25, 1960). This was the sit-in that "caught on," but not without a vast panoply of allies and auxiliaries. CORE, the NAACP, and Rev. King's relatively new Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived--in Greensboro, CORE organizers arrived within three days to run workshops, in the case of other organizations, not much later, and perhaps in part to keep the troops from leaving the generals behind. Except for CORE, the other organizations were viewed with some suspicion, and on April 15, the sit-in movement created its own organizational structure in Raleigh, N.C.: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The founding conference adopted a straightforward Gandhian commitment to nonviolence, which was reaffirmed the following October in Atlanta--even though, as one observer noted, some of the delegates at that same time belonged to segregated ROTC units in their ("Negro") colleges.

It seemed, by mid-February 1960, that a great thaw in U.S. politics was at last truly underway. Hungary had demonstrated the vulnerability of the other Empire, Suez had illustrated the corruption of our allies, Cuba the possibility of overcoming our own masters abroad--and Montgomery the first crack in the Empire at home. Now the forces seemed to be gathering for the first grand movement for change, and who could tell where that movement might ultimately go? Twenty-five years later we know that the movements of the 1960s, triggered by the sit-ins, went a good distance, though not nearly far enough. Apathy is said once again to characterize the campus, and people talk of a new "Eisenhower-era" climate. The civil rights movement of the early 1960s was a glorious time for many of us, an innocent time. Still, there will inevitably be another thaw, and mass movements for change will follow, perhaps sooner than we, in our lost innocence, think.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Oppenheimer, Martin
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Feb 1, 1985
Previous Article:Reflections on the present state of economics.
Next Article:Shenfan: the continuing revolution in a Chinese village.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters