Intro to Afro-American Studies
Civil Rights and the Struggle for Democracy
Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies
|LOGIC OF CHANGE||Social Cohesion||Traditional Africa||-||Slavery||-||Rural Life||-||Urban Life|
|Social Disruption||-||Slave Trade||-||Emancipation||-||Migrations||-|
|UNITS OF ANALYSIS||Ideology||A1||B1||C1||D1||E1||F1||G1|
The fight for civil rights is a struggle for the democratic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Civil rights are politically defined freedoms, laws that stipulate what groups and individuals can do to fully participate in the society. The Civil Rights Movement is made up of individuals and groups who fight for just laws that in both principal and practice serve to maximize full participation for all people. The Civil Rights Movement thus focuses its attention on the government. It keys in on the contradiction between what the government says in theory (as put forth in documents like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, etc.) and what the government actually does in practice. The historical basis for the Civil Rights Movement should be understood in the context of the three main historical periods of Afro-American history - slavery, rural, and urban.
Historically, the U.S. government has played an important role in the oppression and exploitation of Afro-American people. For example, the statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" is found in the Declaration of Independence. But as has been pointed out (see Chapter 13), it was written by slaveowners in the midst of slavery. Furthermore, when the United States successfully fought a revolution to "free itself " from British colonialism, Black people were kept in bondage as slaves. The post-Civil War constitutional amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established the abstract legal conditions for Black citizens and, along with the Bill of Rights, they provided the legal basis for the Civil Rights Movement. The actual movement, however, did not develop until the 20th century, which saw the rise of monopoly capitalism, the migration of Blacks to the cities, and two world wars in which Blacks fought "to make the world safe for democracy."
During the 20th century, there was a material (economic) contradiction that provided the driving force for the Civil Rights Movement. The masses of Black people were split between two ways of life, between two different conditions of oppression - the rural agricultural experience and the urban industrial experience. In the urban industrial North there was some "civil rights freedom," while in the rural South, particularly in the Black Belt, the white minority used the fascist terror of the lynch mob to force Blacks into submission. The political difference between these two conditions was a matter of the extent to which they were oppressed.
The Civil Rights Movement emerged to confront the contradictions in the U.S. political system. The Civil Rights Movement has been a fight for consistent democracy - a fight against "second class citizenship," against the government's denying Black people the political and civil rights that were guaranteed to white citizens.
In assessing any movement, it is important to sum up the strategy and tactics of that movement. Strategy is the formulation of the main long-range goal that the movement should fight for at a particular stage of development to achieve its main objective. Tactics are the activities which the movement must undertake to respond to the day-to-day ups and downs of the struggle. Thus, for Black people, while the forms or tactics of struggle may change from day to day or year to year (e.g., mass demonstrations vs. petitions), the overall strategy of the movement - how it expects to achieve total Black liberation - will remain unchanged.
The strategy of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century is reformist and not revolutionary (though the struggle for civil rights was revolutionary during slavery). It seeks to solve the problems facing Black people under the existing system by using mechanisms which the system has deemed legitimate and acceptable. In essence, the Civil Rights Movement views the U.S. government as positive. "The reason that the government has historically acted against the interests of Black people," the argument goes, "is not because the whole system is rotten and racist, and is manipulated by the dominant economic interests which established it. Rather, racist policies result because good leaders have not been sensitive enough to the moral implications of the system's discrimination against Black people. We need only a few reforms or to elect better individual politicians." Thus, the Civil Rights Movement rules out the need for revolutionary change, a complete and total restructuring of the society which would end the dominant role played by the rich in the economy and government. This revolutionary change is not necessary to solve the problems faced by Black people, they argue.
The tactics of the Civil Rights Movement or any movement must be understood within the context of its strategy. The tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, its day-to-day activity, are reformist as defined by the reformist strategy of the movement. That is, its tactics operate within the confines of accepting the legitimacy of the existing political and economic system and using ways defined by the system in seeking to bring about and protect the civil rights of Black people. Its action has been to work both within the system (e.g., lawyers in courts) and "outside" (protest marches without permits) to mobilize elites (leaders) and the masses of people. It sometimes has engaged in spontaneous short run actions, and other times it has worked through bureaucratic organizations, plodding along in a protracted manner.
The tactics of the Civil Rights Movement have gone through three phases of development. All tactics have been used at all times, but the following order has been the main (chronological) trend: (1) legal action, like court challenges, was the main tactic during the first phase of the modern civil rights struggle, from the emergence of the NAACP through the 1950s; (2) mass action was the main tactic employed during the second phase, which began with the urbanization of Black people during World War II and reached a high point in the 1960s; and (3) electoral politics has been the main tactic which has emerged in the 1970s for the middle-class activists in the Civil Rights Movement.
The favorite method of struggle for civil rights has revolved around persuading or forcing the legal system (courts, legislature, etc.) to recognize and support the "inalienable rights" of Black people. Two main organizations developed during the almost forty years (1910-1945) when this legal action was the primary tactic of the Civil Rights Movement: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
The NAACP was formed in 1909 through the merger of two motions: the Niagara Movement and the National Negro Conference. The Niagara Movement was organized in 1905 by W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, Ida Wells Barnett, and other middle-class but militant Black intellectuals. It was a repudiation of the conservative and stifling leadership of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Machine, as can be seen in its founding resolutions:
During its four years, the
Niagara Movement carried out a militant program of protest and struggle
against all forms of racist discrimination, especially against lynching.
This group was not as militant as the Niagara Movement, but it spoke to liberal concerns and wanted to do something.
same year members from the National Negro Conference and the Niagara
Movement joined to formulate the following demands, which laid the basis
for the formation of the NAACP:
Many Black people, including William Trotter and Ida Wells Barnett, were strongly critical of the dominant role that whites played in the formation of the NAACP.
The NAACP has long been one of the major arms of the Black petty-bourgeois (middle-class) elites - as jobs for lawyers and social welfare professionals, as positions of status for others to speak for the entire Black population, and as a platform for fighting for the kind of "integration" that has expanded opportunities, especially for the middle class. In its early days it led many heroic and courageous struggles against many forms of brutal oppression against Black people. Its legal defense arm has saved many Black people from being legally lynched. The major national accomplishments of the NAACP have been in filing court briefs and lobbying for legislation. During the 1960s, this was the focus of these activities while almost everyone else was out in the streets mobilizing the masses. But in the 1950s the mass movement was just emerging, and the success of the NAACP in the 1954 Supreme Court School Desegregation Decision struck a responsive cord. It stirred the hopes and aspirations of the masses of Black people. By 1962, it had 471,000 members in the 1,500 branches in 48 states. Within the Civil Rights Movement, it is by far the largest organization, with the most resources and the best developed bureaucracy to ensure its ongoing work.The Urban League The other organization to emerge during this period was the National League of Urban Conditions Among Negroes in 1911, a coordinating council of three organizations: 1) the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York, formed in 1906 to address the economic handicaps Black workers faced because of both discrimination and the lack of industrial training; 2) the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, organized in 1906 to help Black women migrating from the South to northern cities and facing problems with housing and employment; and 3) the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, formed in 1910 to study the social and economic conditions of Black people in the cities, to train Black social workers, and to develop agencies to deal with their needs. This umbrella organization later become the National Urban League.
The National Urban League reflected the increased migration of Black people to the cities of the South and North. It also reflected a concern by members of the ruling class that the problems of these new migrants not get out of hand. The Urban League was composed of the same kinds of people as the NAACP - the Black middle class, white liberals, and key representatives of the ruling class. Its first chairperson was Ruth Standish Baldwin, the wife of a leading railroad capitalist who was one of the main financial supporters of Booker T. Washington. In fact, the Urban League was an obvious attempt to counter the militancy of the NAACP with the conservative political line of Booker T. Washington and his ruling-class supporters.
The Urban League carefully avoided the real political issues facing Black people - lynching, the straggle against disfranchisement, etc. Rather, it developed itself as a social service organization - finding jobs, training social workers, and advocating better schools, housing, hospitals, and other facilities for the Black Community. The Urban League did not have a program of struggle, and it failed to have mass appeal and to develop a following among large numbers of Black people. Because of its ruling-class connections, however, it was always one of the civil rights organizations called into consult during "crisis" (e.g., when Kennedy wanted to stop or coopt the 1963 March on Washington).
By World War II, Black people were firmly consolidated into the city and into the industrial work force. The mass protests during the Depression, and U.S. preparations to fight another war "to make the world safe for democracy," laid the basis for the second stage of major tactical development in the Civil Rights Movement: mass struggle.
of Racial Equality (CORE)
CORE has gone through three main stages of development. During its first stage, 1942-1960, CORE was an organization led by an interracial group of integrationists who fought discrimination using nonviolent direct action. Its nonviolent method was based on a certain set of assumptions, as articulated in its statement of purpose:
The early 1960s ushered in a new, stage for CORE, as it led the "Freedom Riders" in a campaign to protest segregated bus depots in the South. In May of 1961, white mobs burned a Freedom Rider bus and Klansmen beat Freedom Riders aboard their buses and in terminals in Alabama. Freedom Riders left Montgomery under the protection of the National Guard, but they were imprisoned immediately upon entering Jackson, Mississippi. These actions for the first time brought national attention to CORE's efforts in the South. After the 1963 March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, CORE shifted from a regional focus on de jure segregation in the South to a national effort confronting de facto segregation in the urban areas. During this period, its membership became predominantly Black and its leadership shifted to Black people who pursued a much more militant version of its previous nonviolent direct action campaigns.
In 1966, CORE entered its third stage. Its leadership remained Black and middle class, but it developed into a Black nationalist organization. Since the late 1960s, it has downplayed mass action and has concentrated on Black capitalism and government-sponsored community development programs. It was very close to and supportive of Richard Nixon. It has even tried to recruit Black mercenaries to fight against revolutionaries in Africa.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
On December 5, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested when she violated the bus segregation ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama. As she explained:
Following this successful boycott, the SCLC was formed in 1957 to "facilitate coordinated action of local community groups" in the campaigns of struggle that were spreading throughout the South. The SCLC was based in the most powerful social institution in the Black community - the church - and its main source of leadership was the Black preacher in the South. Led by Martin Luther King, SCLC followed the general strategy of all civil rights organizations: "achieving full citizenship rights, equality, and the integration of the Negro in all aspects of American life." To achieve this aim, SCLC adopted some of the tactics used by CORE: voter registration drives, nonviolent direct action, and civil disobedience. SCLC is perhaps best known for several campaigns it waged in cities like Albany, Birmingham, and Selma.
Over 700 people were arrested in a demonstration held in Albany, Georgia in December of l961 to protest the segregation of the city's public facilities. In July of 1962, King and three other Black leaders were convicted of failing to get a permit for that demonstration. Mass protests were held, and throughout that summer more demonstrations and arrests took place.
April of 1963, the SCLC launched protests of segregated lunch counters and
restrooms in Birmingham, Alabama. A Birmingham minister, Ed Gardner,
described the campaign:
The following month, the SCLC organized the "children's crusade" in Birmingham, which recruited elementary and high school students into the movement. Police retaliated with police dogs, fire hoses, and mass arrests. One SCLC recruit, Andrew Marrisett, recounted how he became involved in the movement:
The Birmingham demonstrations signaled a profound change in the direct-action campaigns in the South. As Bayard Rustin put it in 1963:
On the heels of Birmingham came the March on Washington in August of 1963, and it was there that Martin Luther King delivered his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech, a part of which is excerpted:
For Martin Luther King and many others (both Black and white) the March on Washington was a symbol of hope - that Blacks and whites could work together, using a nonviolent approach, to bring about change for Black people. The march had been designed to broaden the base of support, to bring in white moderates and white labor to address not only civil rights but also the problems of the working class - unemployment and poverty. King became the embodiment of that hope.
contrast to Martin Luther King and reformism was Malcolm X, who held the
revolutionary notions that the society needed to be
restructured and that the necessity of violence to transform it ought not
be ruled out. Not surprisingly, he had a different view of the March on
Washington, which he described in his auto-biography:
During the early 1960s, most of the SCLC campaigns focused on local governments that denied Black people access to public facilities, though some dealt with voting rights and voter registration in the South. In the late 1960s, the SCLC organized a massive march to Washington called the Poor People's Campaign, and later took up the fight against racism in northern cities like Chicago.
While SCLC was anchored in the church, it revolved around the charisma of Martin Luther King. Thus, rather than surviving as a major force after King's death in 1968, SCLC became split as King's lieutenants moved on down separate paths, competing with each other for the authority of King's leadership and legacy.
Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
SNCC was initially under the ideological and political leadership of King and SCLC. It advocated "the philosophical or religious ideal of non-violence" as the basis of its orientation and action and its goal was integration. The students were initially based on the campuses in the South. However, SNCC activists soon left college campuses and went into the Black Belt rural South. They directly confronted what remained of the lynching-mob terror by forming solid links with the rural masses and engaging in direct action.
SNCC went through three stages. From 1960 to 1963, SNCC was based in the South and developed militant campaigns to focus attention on the denial of democratic rights to Black people, especially in the rural areas. This was a period of petty-bourgeois, religiously inspired idealism. It was not the U.S. system but the rejection of Blacks by that system that SNCC fought against. SNCC activists believed in the American Dream.
The sit-ins they conducted hit the country like a bombshell and spread like a prairie fire. In a year's time, more than 50,000 students were involved in over 140 places. SNCC's sit-in tactics set the tone for all civil rights activity during this period. The sit-ins led to the freedom rides initiated by CORE, with SNCC joining in when they were confronted with mob violence.
After the sit-ins and freedom rides, students began to voluntarily leave school to work full-time for SNCC. They plunged deep into the South. One group focused on the struggle to desegregate public accommodations. The other stressed the need to register voters and to struggle for change through the ballot.
The second period of SNCC's development (1963 to 1964) was a time of transition. In these years, SNCC used the momentum of its successful sit-ins to seize a national platform and to pull the nation's attention to the deep South. A key participant in the 1963 March on Washington, SNCC was regarded as a brash, young militant organization (in fact, SNCC speaker John Lewis was forced to delete the most militant portions of his speech). SNCC had long since dropped its college appearance and had adopted the denim overalls of the Mississippi sharecropper as its uniform for struggle.
In February of 1964, SNCC sent out a call for Black and white students throughout the nation to come to work in Mississippi for the summer. Nearly 1,000 volunteers worked in Mississippi that summer. During those months, 6 people, were killed, 80 beaten, 35 churches burned, and 30 other buildings bombed. But the nation was forced to look at Mississippi, a state dripping with the venom of racism.
This period sparked a reconsideration of nonviolence. Bob Moses, a leading SNCC militant in Mississippi, captured the essence of the struggle within the organization when he said of Martin Luther King's philosophy:
The grass-roots MFDP delegates stood by SNCC, the youthful militants who had walked with them down the dusty roads to register to vote. The lesson they all learned was that the Democratic Party could not be relied upon to contribute to the liberation of Black people. As one militant put it: "The next logical stop is the call for Black power." It was a step that was facilitated by SNCC groups that had been emerging in northern cities. There they already had moved beyond simple support work for the southern struggle and had begun to fight against racism and oppression in the urban areas of the North.
The third period lasted from 1965 to 1967. A trip to Africa by several SNCC leaders, discussions with and about Malcolm X, and growing alienation between Blacks and whites inside SNCC was capped by the Watts riot in August, 1965. The following June, "Black Power" became SNCC's battle cry in a march led by James Meredith in Mississippi. The latent nationalism of Black people - who had childhood roots in the rural South, had relatives still living there, and had continued to experience national oppression in the North - surged forward.
By 1967, the Black liberation movement was at an all-time high. SNCC, however, still had not developed a scientific analysis of this society and did not have a systematic program. Consequently, it began to rely more on its leading personalities, the media, and its influence on other organizational forms. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown (as, heads of SNCC) became household names in the United States, but there was no coherent political plan to carry the movement forward.
During 1967, SNCC developed an anti-imperialist stand on many international issues. It also sent delegations to Europe, Japan, and the Third World to support "liberation groups struggling to free people from racism and exploitation." In condemning "expansionist Zionism backed by U.S. imperialism" after the June War in the Middle East, SNCC alienated itself once and for all from the liberal philanthropists who had financed the Civil Rights Movement. The leadership then turned to the Black Panther Party as a new organizational form, but their relationship was short-lived. SNCC continued, but the staff was tired, disillusioned, and demoralized by the lack of organization, strategy, and (most of all) a systematic, coherent political line.SNCC's major weakness was its consistent lack of a unified line and political education, which made it more difficult to move forward. This resulted in great gaps developing between the rank-and-file militants in local projects and its central leadership. Moreover, it made it difficult for SNCC to consolidate and make shifts of position when necessary. This was the basis for the other problems. First, because SNCC lacked a revolutionary strategy, each campaign raised ultimate hopes only to lead to great disappointments, disillusion, and anger. Second, SNCC depended more on key personalities rather than on organizational structure and process. Many SNCC leaders thus appeared larger than life, and their weaknesses became magnified liabilities for the entire organization. Third, SNCC's program was characterized by bowing to spontaneity, a process of seizing on the objective motion of people and calling that revolutionary. Moreover, sometimes a major campaign would start accidentally and be allowed to disrupt ongoing work. Finally, all of these problems were complicated by SNCC militants' not having the discipline of relating to each other in the most principled way, particularly in interpersonal relations.
These shortcomings were glaring not because SNCC was a total failure, for it had some measure of success. SNCC was committed to the masses of Black people, and had no hesitancy in sinking deep roots among them. It was a bold, fearless army of militant Black youth, who sought out the most dangerous area to show Black people that it was possible to fight oppression and win. It had an ability to develop slogans that were adopted by the masses, to use songs to mobilize and raise the spirit of the masses, to project symbols that fired the imagination of the Black masses, and generally to use records, still photography, films, and newspapers in carrying propaganda work deep among the masses. But SNCC did not survive. Its reliance upon personalities and its failure to develop correct strategy and tactics lead SNCC away from deepening its ties with the masses of Black people and building a mass base as the key to the Black liberation struggle.
Electoral politics as a tactical development of the Civil Rights Movement is a logical and expected outcome of the previous stages . Two factors laid the basis for this stage. First because of the reformist nature of the Civil Rights Movement - that is, operating within the existing political system - voting and voter registration were key tactics. The ruling class, through various foundations and private and public agencies, pumped millions of dollars into the voter-registration projects. Black registration in the South almost doubled to a total of about 2 million between 1962 and 1964. Second, the power of the Black vote was established. In 1960, for example, the election of Kennedy was determined by Black voters. Increasingly, Black people sought political office, especially in urban areas where the Black vote was concentrated. The result has been a significant increase in both Black elected politicians and appointed officials. White politicians of both parties now seek to influence and win over Black voters.
Thus, the leadership of the struggle for civil rights has increasingly shifted away from those advocating mass action and to those who have faith in electoral politics. Such organizations as the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Black Political Assembly, and the National Association of Black Local Elected Officials are manifestations of the new electoral tactic (see Chapter 13).
There is another aspect of the ruling-class strategy to diffuse the militancy of mass struggle among Black people. Many of those who were leaders in the Mass campaigns of the 1960s have been coopted into the system as legislators (Julian Bond of Georgia), mayors (Marion Barry of Washington, D.C.), and even ambassadors (Andy Young, United Nations). These leaders have adopted the view that Black people have passed the stage of mass protests and "being in the streets" is no longer the main tactic in the Black liberation movement.
The high points of this phase of the movement are the recent successful electoral campaigns of Harold Washington (first Black mayor of Chicago) and of Rev. Jesse Jackson (for president of the United States, placed third in the Democratic National Convention). These two elections sparked unprecedented mass involvement by Blacks in voter registration and turnout. Many political analysts believe that Blacks have become a permanent part of big city and national politics.
In summation, the main strength of the Civil Rights Movement during its phase of mass action in the 1950s and 1960s was its orientation toward struggle. Because the masses of Black people took their demands to the streets, they achieved many concrete gains. On the federal, state, and local level in all branches of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - laws and policies were adopted which brought the government's practice more in line with its promises regarding equality of treatment regardless of race.
This turn away from struggle is the real weakness of the current electoral politics phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The masses of Black people are now being told that "Blacks have outgrown the need for street demonstrations; we have become more sophisticated. Electing Black politicians and relying on them is the most effective path to achieving Civil Rights." This is not the first time that such a course of action has been advocated. In fact, it is this question of strategy - accepting a reformist approach to the struggle for the democratic rights of Black people - that has been the historical weakness of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
The futility of a reformist approach to the solution to Black people's problems can be seen in the 1980s struggle concerning the Civil Rights Commission. The Civil Rights Commission was a federal body consisting of commissioners who were appointed by the President and usually served until they voluntarily resigned or died. The Commission had no powers other than to inform the public about civil rights and recommend policy to Congress and the President. Since it was set up in 1957, the Commission had maintained an appearance of being bipartisan and independent.
President Reagan proved himself an opponent of this tradition when he began to dismiss commissioners and to appoint others who shared his ideological beliefs. Further, he made a move to dominate the Commission, first by appointing a new chairperson, and then by attempting to appoint a majority of the members. The major civil rights organizations made vigorous protests and convinced Congress to withhold support from the President. A compromise was worked but so that now the President gets to appoint half of the commissioners and Congress the other half. This is a dramatic story of how the President challenged the major agency in the federal government focusing on civil rights. Though the Civil Rights Movement influenced Congress to negotiate a compromise, it did not provide full and adequate defense since the Commission is now highly politicized and is likely to be challenged again in the future.
discussion of the fight for civil rights might well end here because it is
ending on the ambiguity of compromise. In this case, it is the compromise
of the civil rights forces with a conservative executive of the federal
government. It produced the net effect of moving to the right. In the
1980s, the fight for civil rights is no longer merely holding onto the
things that were won in the 1960s. We have entered the period of trying to regain the things that were
won in the 1930s. Further, it is this fight for democratic rights that
puts Black people at the heart of people's movements in the United States
because all types of interests get served by making socio-political life
1. Discuss the three phases in the historical development of the Civil Rights Movement. Identify and compare the strategy and main tactics used during each phase.
2. Discuss the origins and initial programs of the five major organizations to emerge during the modern Civil Rights Movement. What are their main similarities and differences relative to the strategy and tactics of the overall movement?
3. Compare and contrast the social composition, organizational development, political orientation, and program of action of the NAACP and SNCC.
4. Does the Civil Rights Movement lead to reform or revolution? Explain.
1. Clay Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
2. Langston Hughes, Fight for Freedom, the Story of the NAACP. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.
David levering Lewis, King: A Biography. 2d ed. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Doug McAdam, Political Process and the
Development of Black
Insurgency, 1930 - 1970. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1982.