Non-Violence to Violence

“In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman hand-picked by the NAACP, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This staged act of civil disobedience was an important catalyst in the growth of the Civil Rights movement. Her famous action, and the demonstrations which it stimulated, led to a series of legislative and court decisions which contributed to undermining – and ultimately, destroying – the Jim Crow system.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott, following Parks’ action, it was not the first of its kind. Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation had occurred throughout the 1930s and 1940s. These early demonstrations achieved positive results and helped spark political activism. The Montgomery campaign lasted from December 1, 1955 – when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person – to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

Black activists had begun to build a case to challenge state bus segregation laws around the arrest of a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. On March 2, 1955, Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from a public bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. At the time, Colvin was an active member in the NAACP Youth Council, a group to which Rosa Parks served as an advisor.

Twelve years before her history-making arrest, Parks was stopped from boarding a city bus by driver James F. Blake, who ordered her to board at the back door and then drove off without her. Parks vowed never again to ride a bus driven by Blake. In 1955, Parks completed a course in “Race Relations” at the Highlander Folk School in Middle Tennessee, founded as an adult education center, it was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place and where non-violent civil disobedience had been discussed as a tactic.

On December 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the front-most row for black passengers. When a Caucasian man boarded the bus, the bus driver told everyone in her row to move back. At that moment, Parks realized that she was again on a bus driven by Blake. While all of the other black people in her row complied, Parks refused, and was arrested for failing to obey the driver’s seat assignments, as city ordinances did not explicitly mandate segregation but did give the bus driver authority to assign seats. Found guilty on December 5, Parks was fined $10 plus a court cost of $4, but she appealed.

Commenting on the event afterwards, Blake stated, “I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn’t move back. I had my orders.” On the night of Rosa Parks’ arrest, the Women’s Political Council printed and circulated a flyer throughout Montgomery’s black community that read as follows:

“Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.”

On Saturday, December 3, it was evident that the black community would support the boycott, and very few blacks rode the buses that day. On December 5, a mass meeting was held to determine if the protest would continue. Given twenty minutes’ notice, Martin Luther King gave a speech asking for a bus boycott and attendees enthusiastically agreed. The boycott proved extremely effective, with enough riders lost to the city transit system to cause serious economic distress.

Martin Luther King later wrote “[a] miracle had taken place.” Instead of riding buses, boycotters organized a system of carpools, with car owners [even white car owners] volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations. Some white housewives also drove their black domestic servants to work. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd’s of London, a company which once insured slave cargo ships.

Black taxi drivers charged ten cents per ride, a fare equal to the cost to ride the bus, in support of the boycott. When word of this reached city officials on December 8, the order went out to fine any cab driver who charged a rider less than 45 cents. In addition to using private motor vehicles, some people used non-motorized means to get around, such as cycling, walking, or even riding mules or driving horse-drawn buggies. Some people also hitchhiked. During rush hours, sidewalks were often crowded.

As the buses received few, if any, passengers, their officials asked the City Commission to allow stopping service to black communities. Across the nation, black churches raised money to support the boycott and collected new and slightly used shoes to replace the tattered footwear of Montgomery’s black citizens, many of whom walked everywhere rather than ride the buses and submit to Jim Crow laws. In response, opposing whites swelled the ranks of the White Citizens’ Council, the membership of which doubled during the course of the boycott. The councils sometimes resorted to violence: King’s and Ralph Abernathy’s houses were firebombed, as were four black Baptist churches. Boycotters were often physically attacked.

Pressure increased across the country. The related civil suit was heard in federal district court and on June 4, 1956, the court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. As the state appealed the decision, the boycott continued. The case moved on to the United States Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the district court’s ruling, issuing its decision in December, followed quickly by a court order to the State to desegregate the buses.

The boycott officially ended December 20, 1956, after 381 days. The city passed an ordinance authorizing black bus passengers to sit virtually anywhere they chose on buses. The Montgomery Bus Boycott resounded far beyond the desegregation of public buses. It stimulated activism and participation from the South in the national civil rights movement and gave King national attention as a rising leader.

White backlash against the court victory was quick, brutal, and, in the short-term, effective. Rosa Parks left Montgomery due to death threats and employment blacklisting. According to Charles Silberman, “…by 1963, most Negroes in Montgomery had returned to the old custom of riding in the back of the bus.”

The actual bus ridden by Rosa Parks that fateful day has been restored and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. The bus driver, James F. Blake, worked for the bus lines for another 19 years and died in 2002 at age 89.”

As the Civil Rights Movement matured, Nashville, TN – appropriately enough as the first state capital to be captured in the last state to secede from the Union and the first to return – became its intellectual center. The Nashville sit-ins, which lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960, were part of a nonviolent direct action campaign to end racial segregation at lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. The sit-in campaign, coordinated at Fisk University by the Nashville Student Movement and Nashville Christian Leadership Council, was notable for its early success and emphasis on disciplined non-violence.

“From March 26 – 28, 1958, the NCLC held the first of many workshops on using non-violent tactics to challenge segregation. These workshops were led by James Lawson, who had studied the principles of non-violent resistance while working as a missionary in India during the time when the Mahatma Ghandi was leading India to independence from Britain by preaching non-violent protest. The workshops were mainly attended by students from Fisk University, Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State University), American Baptist Theological Seminary (later American Baptist College), and Meharry Medical College. Among those attending Lawson’s sessions were students who would become significant leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, among them: Marion Barry, John Lewis and Diane Nash.

During these workshops it was decided that the first target for the group’s actions would be downtown lunch counters. At the time, African Americans could shop in downtown stores but were not allowed to eat in the stores’ restaurants. The group felt that the lunch counters were a good objective because they were highly visible, easily accessible, and provided a stark example of the injustices black Southerners faced every day.

In late 1959, James Lawson and other members of the NCLC’s projects committee met with department store owners Fred Harvey and John Sloan, and asked them to voluntarily serve African-Americans at their lunch counters. Both men declined, saying that they would lose more business than they would gain. The students then began doing reconnaissance for sit-in demonstrations. The first test took place at Harvey’s Department Store in downtown Nashville on November 28, followed by the Cain-Sloan store on December 5. During the first week of February 1960, a small sit-in demonstration in Greensboro, North Carolina grew into a significant protest with over eighty students participating by the third day. Although similar demonstrations had occurred previously in other cities, this was the first to attract substantial media attention and public notice.

The first large-scale organized sit-in was in Nashville on Saturday, February 13, 1960. At about 12:30 pm, 124 students, most of them black, walked into the downtown Woolworths, S. H. Kress, and McClellan stores and asked to be served at the lunch counters. After the staff refused to serve them, they sat in the stores for two hours and then left without incident.

Over the course of the campaign, sit-ins were staged at numerous stores in Nashville’s central business district. Sit-in participants, who consisted mainly of black college students, were often verbally or physically attacked by white onlookers. Despite their refusal to retaliate, over 150 students were eventually arrested for refusing to vacate store lunch counters when ordered to do so by police.

At trial, the students were represented by a group of 13 lawyers, headed by Z. Alexander Looby. On April 19, Looby’s home was bombed; however, neither he nor his wife was injured. More than 140 windows in a nearby college dormitory were broken by the blast. Later that day, nearly 4000 people marched to City Hall to confront Mayor Ben West about the escalating violence. When asked by Fisk University student Diane Nash if he believed the lunch counters in Nashville should be desegregated, West agreed that they should. [The dam had been breached.]

After subsequent negotiations between the store owners and protest leaders, an agreement was reached during the first week of May. On May 10, six downtown stores began serving black customers at their lunch counters for the first time. The day after the bombing Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Nashville to speak at Fisk University. During the speech, he praised the Nashville sit-in movement as “the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland.” He further stated that he came to Nashville “not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

The customers arrived in groups of two or three during the afternoon and were served without incident. At the same time, African-Americans ended their six-week-old boycott of the downtown stores. The plan continued successfully and the rest of the city’s lunch counters were integrated without any further incidents of violence. Nashville thus became the first major city in the South to begin desegregating its public facilities.

Although the initial campaign successfully desegregated downtown lunch counters, sit-ins, pickets, and protests against other segregated facilities continued in Nashville until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended overt, legally sanctioned segregation nationwide. Many of the organizers of the Nashville sit-ins went on to become important leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

In January 1964, Democrat President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders. On January 8, during his first State of the Union address, Johnson asked Congress to “let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” On June 21, 1964, young, white, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and African-American James Chaney disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where they were volunteering in the registration of African-American voters as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. The disappearance of the three activists captured national attention and the ensuing outrage was used by President Johnson and civil rights activists to build a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans and push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The most fervent opposition to the bill came from Democrats, especially Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC): “This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the President has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason. This is the worst civil-rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress.”

After 54 days of filibuster, Senators Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), and Mike Mansfield (D-MT) introduced a substitute bill that they hoped would attract enough Republican swing votes to end the Democrat filibuster. The compromise bill was weaker than the House version in regard to government power to regulate the conduct of private business, but it was not so weak as to cause the House to reconsider the legislation.

On the morning of June 10, 1964, former Ku Klux Klan organizer in his home State, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) completed a filibustering address that he had begun 14 hours and 13 minutes earlier opposing the legislation. Until then, the measure had occupied the Senate for 57 working days, including six Saturdays. A day earlier, Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the bill’s manager, concluded he had the 67 votes required at that time to end the debate and end the filibuster. With six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Senator Humphrey would be the Democrat candidate for President in 1968. Senator Mansfield would become the Majority Leader of the Senate and Senator Byrd would twice become the Democrat Senate Majority Leader.

Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. And only once in the 37 years since 1927 had it agreed to cloture for any measure. On June 19, the substitute (compromise) bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73–27, and quickly passed through the House-Senate conference committee, which adopted the Senate version of the bill. The conference bill was passed by both houses of Congress.

On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. It invoked the commerce clause to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations (in privately owned restaurants, hotels, and stores, and in private schools and workplaces). This use of the commerce clause was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964).

By 1965, efforts to break the grip of State voter disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had proved almost entirely ineffectual. The murder of the three voting-rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 and the State’s refusal to prosecute the murderers, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism against blacks, had gained national attention.

Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama en route to the state capitol in Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators’ resistance to effective voting rights enforcement legislation. President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings soon began on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended legally sanctioned State barriers to voting for all federal, State and local elections. It also provided for federal oversight and monitoring of counties with historically low minority voter turnout, as this was a sign of discriminatory barriers.

With the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legal status of African-Americans in the United States achieved parity with all other citizens. The African-American community had shown the entire world what intelligence, courage, discipline, passion and common-sense could do in a righteous cause. Working together, black and white, side-by-side, America had reached its cultural zenith.

The fulfillment of the declaration that “all men are created equal…” was at hand – all any citizen of this country had to do was to reach out and grab the opportunity finally guaranteed by the Constitution to all of “The People”. And what opportunity there was! In that same year, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the most liberal Congress of the 20th Century the “Great Society” legislation to support his “War on Poverty”.

The federal government now assumed financial responsibility for national education from elementary school through college with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, the National Defense Education Act and the Bilingual Education Act. Massive new spending on Medicare, Medicaid and welfare under the Social Security System were passed. The Urban Mass Transportation Act would provide subsidized transportation for the poor as well as the Demonstration Cities Act which would provide subsidized urban housing. The Public Works and Economic Development Act and the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act provided government supported jobs in rural areas and the Fair Labor Standards Act increased the minimum wage for tens of millions of workers.”

This was nirvana for progressive/liberals! All of their dreams for a society governed from Washington, DC had come true. Their plans and programs, developed by their best and brightest minds over decades of struggle, had been legislated into the law of the land. The land of milk and honey was in sight and “Happy Days Were Here Again”. Then the fatal flaw became apparent. There were no leaders in the PLDC to extol the masses to get up and get moving toward the new world of opportunity.

“Unfortunately, for all of the frenetic activity in Washington, victory over poverty didn’t happen. Concerned with the success in the Civil Rights Movement and the ascension of Dr. Martin Luther King – and his programs of non-violent confrontation, to national, if not international, stature – a number of ambitious, charismatic, cynical, opportunistic and self-styled African-American “leaders” turned their attention to their own agendas – personal fame and fortune at the expense of the black masses – and turned to morally questionable methods to achieve them after Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968.

Simultaneously, as noted African-American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author Thomas Sowell argues, “…the Great Society programs only contributed to the destruction of African-American families, saying ‘the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.’”

“The catalyst for the new confrontational approach to race relations in America were the spontaneous race riots that had occurred in major American cities beginning in the blistering hot summer of 1964 – fomented by the new, alleged, leaders of the civil rights movement.

In 1964, North Philadelphia was the city’s center of African-American culture, and home to 400,000 of the city’s 600,000 black residents. The Philadelphia Police Department had tried to improve its relationship with the city’s black community assigning police to patrol black neighborhoods in teams of one black and one white officer per squad car and having a civilian review board to handle cases of alleged police brutality.

Despite the improvement attempts of the Philadelphia Police Department, racial tensions had been high in Philadelphia over the issue of alleged police brutality. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s black-owned newspaper, ran several articles on alleged police brutality which often resulted in white policemen, who were, apparently inappropriately, brought up on charges of brutality, being acquitted. [Fast forward to Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD, circa 2015-16, to find the same false-premise “mob-rule” conditions being ignorantly repeated.]

The summer of 1964 however, was the peak of the civil rights movement, with legal victories bringing a new sense of power and entitlement – unfortunately resulting in riots breaking out in black areas of other northern cities such as New York, Rochester, Jersey City and Elizabeth, NJ caused by incidents relating to alleged and eventually unproven, police brutality against black citizens.

The unrest in Philadelphia began on the evening of August 28 after a black woman named Odessa Bradford got into an argument with two police officers, one black, Robert Wells, and the other white, John Hoff, after her car stalled at 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue. Because Bradford’s car had stalled, and she was unable to drive it, an argument between her and the two officers ensued. The officers then tried to physically remove Bradford from the car. As the argument went on, a large crowd assembled in the area. A man tried to come to Bradford’s aid by attacking the police officers at the scene, both he and Bradford were arrested.

Rumors then spread throughout North Philadelphia that a pregnant black woman had been beaten to death by white police officers. Bradford, of course, was neither pregnant, beaten nor dead. Later that evening, and throughout the next two days, angry black mobs looted and burned mostly white-owned businesses in North Philadelphia, mainly along Columbia Avenue. Outnumbered, the police response was to withdraw from the area rather than aggressively confront the rioters. Any logical or coherent connection between the false rumor – which could have been easily disproven by a responsible press – and the looting has escaped historical discovery and understanding.

Although no one was killed, 341 people were injured, 774 people were arrested and 225 stores were damaged or destroyed in the three days of rioting. Some of the tension was attributable to religion, with Nation of Islam Muslims and black nationalists pitted against Martin Luther King supporting Black Baptist ministers such as Cecil B Moore, who called for calm.

The problem was that Moore’s aggressive manner and confrontational tactics alienated many leaders, black and white, including many within the NAACP who preferred negotiation “behind closed doors” over direct action. Moore himself acknowledged how his military service shaped his grassroots activism:

“I was determined when I got back [from World War II combat] that what rights I didn’t have I was going to take, using every weapon in the arsenal of democracy. After nine years in the Marine Corps, I don’t intend to take another order from any son of a bitch that walk.”

Race relations, [nationally], continued to deteriorate over the next year [due, in great part, to intemperate and incompetent reporting by a clearly intimidated national press] and, in August 1965 tensions boiled over in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA. Growing tension between [militant] blacks and [threatened] whites, and between [undermanned] police and [uncomfortable] civilians added fuel to the fire. The final straw was when a white California Highway Patrol officer pulled over and arrested a black man for apparently driving while drunk, but the growing crowd of witnesses soon turned antagonistic.

The mob grew angry, and when the CHP officer wound up arresting the man’s brother (also in the car) and mother, full-flegded riots broke out in that section of town. Fires, violence, and looting were rampant for days, and the riots would be the biggest in L.A. history until those in 1992 which were ignited by the “Rodney King Affair”. The National Guard eventually was ordered in to help. At the end of the spree, 34 people were dead, more than 2,000 injured, and almost 4,000 arrested.

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