The African American Struggle for Equality

Although people had been campaigning for equal rights for a long time, it wasn’t until the mid 1950’s that the civil rights movement began to gain popularity and support. Rosa Parks was a 42-year-old black protestor who had organised a kind of experiment on the 1st December in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks was on her way home from work on the bus. When the bus became full, she was asked to give up her seat, for a white man, and to stand up at the rear of the bus, as the law stated. Rosa refused to move. She was arrested and fined $10.
After this, the black civil rights campaigners and her family and friends organised a 24 bus boycott, which was so successful they decided to carry on boycotting the bus companies until they agreed to seat all passengers on a ‘first-come’ basis. Since 75% of the bus’ business came from black passengers, the buses eventually gave in, but not without resistance. The victory over the bus companies was mainly due to a campaign with the slogan “Don’t ride it for freedom”. It was this protest that saw the emergence of one of the most influential figures in the black civil rights campaign, Martin Luther King.
He helped to lead this campaign. Dr Martin Luther King was a black minister who believed that mass non-violent protest was the best way to resist injustice. He took examples of direct action from Mahatma Gandhi, who fought against the British troops in India using, what he called “non-violent non-co-operation” campaigns. King was a pacifist, so did not believe that violence was the right way to get what they wanted but he knew that going through the courts to change the law would also not have been very successful, as all the people involved in the legal system and courts were usually white and some were members of the KKK.


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In 1957, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with other clergy from Southern States to fight against racial segregation. They organised non-violent protests such as sit-ins, Freedom rides and marches. In 1960, four black students asked to be served at a Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, reserved for white customers only. The black waitress refused to serve them so they staged a sit-in demonstration. Two days later, 85 civil rights campaigners staged another sit-in protest. 70,000 people in the next 18 months took part in similar sit-ins across the South.
During these sit-ins, people poured drinks and sauces over them and even sprayed them with paint. 3,000 civil rights workers were arrested. All this attracted the media and drew attention other injustices endured by black people. The freedom rides tool place on interstate travel buses. The Supreme Court had ordered that these and the waiting stations for the buses should be desegregated in 1960. In 1961, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) decided to put these ignored laws to the test. Thy found that although the coaches were desegregated, the services in the bus stations were not.
They organised a group of civil rights campaigners to travel on the buses and, at the stations, use opposite facilities to those they were supposed to (black campaigners used the white facilities and white campaigners used the black facilities, including toilets and waiting areas. ). Many freedom rides were organised to try and force the coach companies to abide by the law and desegregate their stations. Unfortunately, anti civil rights, such as the KKK, got involved and violence broke out at many of the freedom rides.
Bombs were even planted on some of the buses. One example of a protest that ended with violence took place in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1963. Alabama had the highest amount of members in the KKK and the Governor and police department were both against desegregation. Martin Luther King was arrested before the demonstration began. When the demonstration starts, it is led by children. Bill Connor, head of the police department, arrested protestors, including the children, some of them as young as six.
On the second day, the police used fire hoses, horses and dogs to attack the protestors, again, including the young children at the front of the demonstration. After that, Martin Luther King began to doubt whether or not the demonstration was a good idea because of the violence created. Soon, a deal was struck with the state authorities that all the public facilities would be desegregated within 90 days if the protestors called off the demonstration. Again, this caused a backlash from the KKK, who started riots fires and bombings.
The demonstration got a lot of attention from the national media and pictures of young children being mauled by dogs set on them by the police caused outrage in the rest of America. But King knew that the police and public would use violence against demonstrators and that this would attract the media. He also knew that it would attract more attention if the children were at the front of the demonstration and therefore the first to be caught up in the violence. This caused some followers to doubt Martin Luther King’s methods.
Others began to think that the non-violent protesting was not getting them very far. In the mid 60’s, the civil rights movement began to split. Different groups began to gain popularity. The emergence of the Black Power movement began, which were groups who were against working with white people and expelled white people from their campaigner groups. They encouraged blacks to set up their own business so they depended on white people as little as possible. Only the NAACP and SCLC continued to support the ideas of non-violent direct action and co-operation with whites.
One of the groups associated with ‘Black Power’ was the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims. Their most well known leader was Malcolm X. He, with the Nation of Islam, believed that getting racial equality in white society was impossible because whites were racist and would never change. They campaigned for a black state inside the US that would be ruled by black people, for black people, without white people. They also rejected the civil rights movement, as they didn’t want to have any part in white society and believed that Blacks should use violence to protect themselves, if necessary.
But even the Nation of Islam had disagreements among its members about the best way to get what they wanted. In 1964, Malcolm X began to change his mind about the civil rights movement and began to accept that white people could play a useful role in helping black people achieve justice. The Nation of Islam split and Malcolm X led a breakaway group. In 1965, he was assassinated by 3 members of the Nation of Islam. In 1975, the leader of the Nation of Islam died and his son changed the policy on the organisation on accepting white Muslims as members.
This caused another split in the Nation of Islam. Another group associated with ‘Black Power’ were the Black Panthers. They were quite a small group but attracted a lot of attention because of the way they looked their revolutionary ideas and their use of armed violence. They had the most violent reputation and used armed patrols in the black areas to protect black communities from ‘police terrorism’. Although the blacks may have disagreed with policies to gain civil rights, most would recognise the effects of Martin Luther king as the most powerful influence over civil rights.

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