Academic performance was not the issue. in the early 1960s south, only the color of his skin kept James Meredith from enrolling in the University of Mississippi.
The Dixie state resisted the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Gov. Ross Barnett promised white citizens of Mississippi that as much as it was within his power, the state’s public schools would remain segregated. Racial segregation was the governor’s successful political platform.
When the federal government forced Ole Miss to admit Meredith, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent thousands of troops to ensure Meredith’s safe registration amidst riots. Two people were killed and dozens injured. But Meredith enrolled October 1, 1962, becoming the first black student to attend the university.
Five years earlier, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., to ensure the safe enrollment of nine black students now known as the “Little Rock Nine.” They were the first to test the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Like Barnett, Gov. Orval Faubus had resisted integrating public schools.
Many historians date the U.S. Civil Rights Movement from 1955 – 1968, officially beginning with the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott and ending with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Those who fought the struggle, a combination of the elderly and young, students, African-Americans, whites and Jews, rich and poor, subdued the giants of institutionalized racism, lynchings, legal injustice, and social and economic disenfranchisement.
TAKING A SEAT
Rosa Parks said she was simply tired, according to historical accounts. On December 1, 1955, the seamstress boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., sat down and broke the law by refusing to relinquish her seat to a white person. Her defiance and arrest spurred the 382-day Montgomery bus boycott, organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association led by 26-year-old King.
Two years later, ministers King, Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organizing a civil rights movement built on nonviolence and civil disobedience. Advances came with tribulation and violent deaths. Most crimes against blacks went unpunished.
In 1960, college students weighed in with sit-ins, nonviolent protests of “sitting in” at segregated lunch counters, risking arrest and beatings. F.W. Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., was the site of the first sit-in. Students also became “freedom riders,” taking organized bus trips through the South to test new laws prohibiting segregation in interstate travel facilities.
In June 1963, Medgar Evers, a Mississippi field representative for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was shot to death in his front yard. And it wasn’t until 1994 that Byron DeLa Beckwith was convicted of Evers’ murder and given a life sentence.
In September 1963, four young black girls, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, were killed at Sunday School when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed Birmingham’s Sixth Baptist Church, known for hosting civil rights meetings.
ROCKING THE VOTE
It was a get-out-the-vote effort unlike any other. Freedom Summer of 1964 included a massive effort to register blacks to vote in southern states. People like Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecroppers’ daughter, volunteered as one of the first to register in Mississippi and was arrested with 17 others.
That summer saw the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, pivotal legislation banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, and giving Congress the right to enforce these laws. It was the same summer that the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers, two white and one black, in Philadelphia, Miss. – James E. Chaney and Andrew Goodman, both 21, and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner.
When the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) killed white minister James Reeb in 1965, the murder drew significant support from whites on the occasion of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
Struggles to vote led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, providing federal law enforcement protection for those attempting to register. That didn’t stop the 1966 murder of civil rights worker Vernon F. Dahmer, who was registering blacks to vote in his small grocery store in Forrest County, Miss. KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was convicted in 1998 of orchestrating the murder.
Not all blacks adopted Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent principles. One of his harshest critics was Malcolm X, who broke with the Nation of Islam to form the Organization of African-American Unity. The Black Panther Party, organized by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, drew young blacks by encouraging black empowerment, a strong, positive self-image and gun possession. Race riots erupted in several northern cities. When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, the Nation of Islam was blamed.
King began a War on Poverty, working to help all poor people, no matter their race. He was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting garbage collectors on strike for higher wages when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He was just 39 years old. Nearly 20 years later, his birthday became a United States federal holiday.
Diana Chandler is a staff writer for Baptist Press in Nashville and a freelance writer for various Christian and secular publications. She holds a master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.