ADVANCED COURSE lesson 5
Civil rights in the USA
The BIRMINGHAM CAMPAIGN
Note that in the United States the letter ‘H’ in Birmingham is pronounced. The word is pronounced ”bir ming HAM.”
In 1963 the SCLC planned a new campaign in Birmingham. The campaign had a clear goal: the desegregation of shops. Some shops in the CBD would not let African-Americans in. CBD means the Central Business District.
The police chief of the town was Eugene Connor. He was known as ‘Bull’ Connor. He was an outspoken racist. He used fire hoses and dogs on peaceful protesters. Some demonstrators marched to the city hall in a mass effort to register to vote. All demos has been banned but they went in defiance of the ban.
Dr King was arrested in Birmingham. He sent out his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. He was released after a week.
Not that many were willing to be arrested. After a few hundred people had been imprisoned the campaign was running out of steam.
SCLC encouraged schoolchildren to participate. The racist mayor was giving a pro segregation speech at the city hall. Over 1000 children went to hear it. They were arrested because they were black. Most were set free the same day. The next day there was another such incident. This time Bull Connor used fire hoses and police dogs.
The scene was caught on camera. It was shown on TV. The reality of racism was beamed into northern homes.
President Kennedy intervened. He had the business community – which was white – negotiate with the SCLC. They agreed to desegregate lunch counters and to end discrimination in employment. Rev Shuttlesworth was one who disapproved of the agreement. He believed that the business community would not honour its word.
Many SCLC luminaries were staying at the Gaston Hotel. It was bombed but no one was killed. The bombers were presumably white supremacists. Dr King’s brother had his house bombed too.
The Alabama National Guard was under the command of the governor. President Kennedy considered taking it under federal control. In the end he felt the need did not arise.
On 15 September 1963 the KKK set off a bomb in a black church and killed four little girls.
A march was held in Washington to remember the children.
SUMMER OF 1963
There were many protests across the USA. Black people were protesting and their white supporters.
In Chicago African-Americans rioted because an unarmed black boy was shot dead by the police.
In construction projects black and white had been unofficially segregated sometimes even in the North. There was an attempt to end this segregation. Some racist whites opposed integration.
There were sit ins in North Carolina in a push for de-segregation. White supremacists physically attacked these anti-racist protesters.
There was rioting in Cambridge, Maryland. The Attorney General Robert Kennedy stepped in. He mediated an agreement and the town was desegregated. Robert Kennedy was the brother of the president.
President Kennedy had meetings with eminent African-Americans. He despised racism but felt that some of the most advanced advocates of anti-racism were too shrill and were damaging their cause. Some of the civil rights movement excoriated him for equivocating on the issue.
In June 1963 there was an attempt to desegregate the University of Alabama. President Kennedy sent soldiers to escort two black men to the university. Governor George Wallace was trying to prevent the black students enrolling. Wallace said he believed in ”segregation today, tomorrow and forever.”
Medgar Evers was one of the first black men to matriculate at the University of Alabama. He was murdered a few weeks later.
The president put forward a civil rights bill to Congress.
I HAVE A DREAM
In August 1963 a huge march took place in Washington DC. It was for jobs and racial justice. President Kennedy wondered whether the march would be an own goal for the movement that he supported.
Randolph Bustin was one of the organisers of the march. It was fronted by black organisations. Whites took part too. Its goals were anti-racist laws with teeth. The laws must ensure fair wages, good housing, more public works to create jobs, voting rights and end to segregated education.
The march was hugely covered by TV. At least 200 000 people were present. Dr King addressed the crowd at the Washington Monument. He said ”I have a dream that one people will be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He wanted an end to all discrimination. He called for reconciliation with the descendants of former slaveholders.
Kennedy was killed in November 1963. Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson then became president.
He was born in 1925 and named Malcolm Little. He later took the surname X on the basis that ‘Little’ was inherited from whites who had treated his ancestors like beasts. Malcolm X converted to Islam when he was in prison for burglary. He believed that Christianity was a white man’s faith which depicted satan as black. He joined a group called the Nation of Islam. This was for black Muslims only.
In the early 60s Malcolm X had felt contempt for Dr King. He believed that whites would never treat African-Americans decently. X argued that civil rights leaders were pathetically grateful for the tiniest concessions from whites. X wanted freedom for his people and said he would take it ‘by any means necessary’. He argued for black separatism. He wanted a separate homeland for African-Americans.
In March 1964 X left the Nation of Islam. He said he would co-operate with any civil rights leader who accepted the self-defence was permissible and approved of black nationalism. X no longer demanded a separate homeland in America.
Gloria Richardson was one of those who welcomed X’s support. Richardson was a prominent figure in SNCC. She had led protests in Cambridge, Maryland.
The Civil Rights Act was making its way through Congress. It was not a foregone conclusion that it would pass. Dr King meeting X made the passage of the bill harder. In the 1950s King had refused to work with X fearing that X was an absolutist and would wreck the movement. Back then Malcolm had called Dr King ‘an Uncle Tom’.
In 1964 King was considering X’s proposal to bring the United States to the United Nations on charges of depriving the black minority of freedom. In 1948 the Communist Party of the US had accused the United States of genocide against African-Americans.
In 1964 mainstream civil rights campaigners were starting to think they might need to use force.
In March 1964 there was a sit in at Jacksonville, Flordia. The police repressed it. Some black youths then threw Molotov cocktails at the police. X then told TV that it would be ”ballots or bullets” and whites had to decide.
In August 1964 the Democratic Party held its convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a group of anti-racist activists. They wanted to get into the convention. They were refused. Instead the ordinary Mississippi Democrats were let in – these people were mostly segregationists.
X was involved in the Selma campaign in 1965. He sent a message to the leader of the American Nazis that if African-Americans were killed they would strike back.
President Johnson voiced approval of the Selma campaign. A federal judge ordered the city to process at least 100 black voter applications per day.
In 1963 there was an effort to desegregate this Florida City. Whites responded violently.
Four black teenagers sat in a restaurant asking to be served. For this they were sentenced to six months in prison. The Governor of Florida pardoned them. The case had garnered a lot of media attention.
Dr Hayling was the local African American leader. When the KKK tried to kill him he fired back and they ran.
The SCLC got involved. Mrs Peabody was arrested for trying to eat with black people. She was 73 years old and her son was the Governor of Massachussetts. Arresting an rich old white woman tarnished the image of the racists. Dr King went down to court arrest too.
Several rabbis came to the town and protested. They too were arrested.
- What was the aim of the Birmingham Campaign?
- Which letter is silent in the British pronunciation of Birmingham?
- What was villainous about Bull Connor?
- Why did Rev Shuttlesworth disagree with compromise?
- Who was the attorney-general?
- Why did some African-Americans berate the president?
- What did Kennedy to do help the situation in Alabama?
- What happened to Medgar Evers?
- When and where did the I have a dream speech take place?
- What was King’s message?
- Who became president in 1963?
- How did Malcolm X’s views evolve? Five marks