AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 14

 - From Sit-Ins to Civil Rights


Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement have become embodied in each other. But in this lecture, Professor Holloway asks: what of the other activists in the struggle? What of the other organizations involved in the struggle? And what of the history of the struggle before King reluctantly emerged on the scene? By uncovering the histories of the Montgomery bus boycott, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the death of Emmett Till, the Greensboro student sit-ins, and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one finds differing responses to violence and multiple approaches to attacking racial bias and discrimination. Professor Holloway also draws attention to the gender dynamics of the civil rights movement by considering the inner-workings of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, Alabama, the original motivating force behind the 1955 bus boycott, and the great importance of respectability to the movement. This lecture reveals that there was no single civil rights movement, that there were many activists working in a variety of different ways and with varying degrees of success, and that King was a complicated figure, both inspiring and stifling activism.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 14 - From Sit-Ins to Civil Rights

Chapter 1. Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement: Rosa Parks [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  A piece of course business. Just a reminder that the 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee’s documentary about the, the, the, the murder of four girls in Birmingham, is going to be screened tonight at eight o’clock in WLH–

Student:  One-nineteen.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Thank you, one-nineteen. Tonight and tomorrow night. It is quite a powerful documentary until about the last five or six minutes, and then the wheels fall off, but that’s like Spike Lee’s films in general. The—But, in any event, you’ll, you’ll know what I’m talking about when it actually happens. The documentary itself is rather stunning. Now, okay, today’s lecture, if you look at the online guide, is supposed to be about Martin Luther King, the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I’m going to do my absolute best to get us to that moment. We should be able to do it. But because of the lost lecture due to the midterm, this is sort of my last attempt to get us back on schedule. So I want to canvass a slightly larger period.

Today I plan on discussing some critical aspects of the Montgomery bus boycott and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, events from fifty-four, excuse me, fifty-five, fifty-five, fifty-seven. By doing so, it allows me to talk about a very important aspect of the movement that I’ve made an allusion to already once or twice in the course, but you’ll certainly see it coming up again–time and again over the next few weeks of the course, and that is the issue of respectability. Just as we can look at the late nineteenth century’s–century and issues of, of being civilized, of having proper sort of normed middle class behaviors is very important to at least the black leadership elite class, being respectable, being the right kind of person is fundamental to understanding a lot of the civil rights struggles. Now let’s look at the Montgomery bus boycott. And I’m going to presume that in the history of the Montgomery bus boycott and the desegregation of Central High School, this is now American History 101 that you should have had the gloss of it when you were in high school. And I’m sure you didn’t get much more than the gloss, and I’m sure the gloss was wrong. [students laugh]  But what I want to do is actually give you–you know the mythic narrative of these things, which is there for a reason, and I want to give you some background details that are important to consider.

So as far as the boycott is concerned, Montgomery bus boycott, there’s a standard history that has become mythic. Rose Parks, the tired seamstress, refuses to give up the seat, her seat, on the bus in Montgomery and she gets arrested. Martin Luther King comes swooping in to her rescue and then rises to the national scene with his leadership of the yearlong boycott, thirteen-month boycott, that would, that would ensue shortly thereafter. I was looking at the syllabus last night and realized I dropped a reading for you. And I want to encourage you to go back and look at it now. I’m referencing it right now. I believe it’s pages three fifty-two to three sixty-one in the Manning Marable anthology. It just, I just, it just slipped out of the syllabus by accident. And in those pages, you’ll see Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a prominent black woman in Montgomery, explain her version of the events around the bus boycott. Just even knowing about Jo Ann Gibson Robinson changes the story of the bus boycott. Robinson was part of a cadre of, of middle-class African American women, sort of think of the club women from the early, late-nineteenth century that I talked about a few weeks ago, who had already organized into a force, the Women’s Political Council. These were women who were well-educated, college educated, some of them teaching at a local college. These were sort of the elite. Although they didn’t ness–they weren’t rolling in money, these were the elite in, in black Montgomery.

The Women’s Political Council with Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s leadership, she’s one of the key figures in it, has already gone to the black ministers in town and the city government in town about their frustration over the way that blacks were treated on the buses and the way they were treated in stores downtown. “Economic boycott” are the words they’re floating around. They wanted to try to develop the courage in the black community to get a boycott organized. The Women’s Political Council keeps running into dead ends in various places. They might get a meeting, but the meeting, frankly, where men were in a leadership position, would be rather condescending to the women: “That’s very sweet of you to come in, but , you know, we’ll take care of things now.”  Nothing would happen.

Now the Women’s Political Council actually tries to organize boycotts of the buses around issues of crisis, and this is when other people get arrested for refusing to give up their seat. Now if you look at the selection in the Marable reading and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s recounting of the bus boycott and Rosa Parks arrest, you might find something striking. When I was actually going back and looking at it tonight, like, “God, how did I forget to include this?”  If you scan it, as I did several times, for Martin Luther King’s role, you will only see King’s name mentioned once and, quite literally, in the second to last line, I believe, of this reading. Now this is an excerpt, granted. Things might have been dropped out. But if nothing else, metaphorically, it’s actually a very important point. King was not there, not engaged in the organizing moment, early organizing moments of the bus boycott, what would turn into the bus boycott.

Now why bother telling this story?  Just because it’s inserting a new cast of characters?  Well, maybe that’s part of it. Maybe because it was pointing to the role that women played in the movement, had always played in the movement. That’s certainly part of it as well. But another part of it’s important to know, is that the bus boycott was, its success was incumbent upon many different factors. It wasn’t just King’s charisma, although we cannot ever discount King’s charisma. Part of it was dealing with an already established and organized, politically organized, black middle-class, as basically the organizing is done through their women. There’s already then a network of activists in place, upon which King’s charisma could be displayed, or through which. I don’t know what the right descriptor is. It basically starts to muddy up the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, this, this amazing moment of the movement. But there’s more to the story, always, more complicating factors.

Rosa Parks was arrested, there’s not doubt about that, but it wasn’t as spontaneous as history makes it out to be. Now Parks is refer–referred to as the mother of the movement, partly because of her indisputable character. She was as proper as one could imagine. She was hardworking, she was civil, she was law-abiding. She’s the perfect person to become a “victim,” of it were, of an insane system. If you can’t treat this person properly, there’s something fundamentally wrong with your system. We know that about Rosa Parks. But what we don’t know is that she’d been trained at a civil rights institute the summer before she decides to get arrested, the Highlander School in Tennessee. Parks was reluctant to go, but she had friends who were already committed to the movement in very public ways, convinced her to come along. And while there, she’s meeting with white radicals, labor activists, Communist Party members, other black activists from around the country, and learning about nonviolent civil disobedience, learning about different strategies in which to create a crisis for the sake of the greater good. So Rosa Parks, now she’s not a fire breathing radical. She’s not at the vanguard, but she is trained and she’s prepared for that moment when it actually happens. That’s dropped out of the history.

Another thing that’s dropped out of the history is, she was not the first woman–or person, but in this case, woman– to be arrested for, you know, violating etiquette on the buses, certainly not in Montgomery, certainly not in other places. In fact, a few weeks before Parks was arrested, a young woman named Claudette Colvin was arrested in a similar situation. The boycott almost emerged, organized by the Women’s Political Council, and the boycott almost emerged revolving around Colvin’s arrest. She was a straight A student; she seemed to be of impeccable character. If you’re treating a child like this, how could you treat any–I mean how could you claim to be humane?  It turns out though, that very quickly discovered that they couldn’t use her, Colvin, as a vehicle for their boycott, because this straight A student of unimpeachable character, unmarried of course, also happened to be pregnant. She was not showing at the moment. People in Montgomery, black activists, realized right away there’s no case. That they, they cannot make a case around her because of Southern traditions that would say that she was immoral for her, quote, “condition.”  And that would have been the word that would have been used. And they knew that they could not make a convincing case if they have someone with such failed standards, such immorality in her system, that she’d be the worst example for these women activists. The activists understood that being respectable in a very narrow band of what that means was absolutely critical.

Respectability is so important to the movement, because anything that transgressed a line of being respectable could be used to justify a denial of some sort, whether it’s legal, “You can’t come to this school,” whether it’s psychological, “I can, I can limit your entire existence in terms of possibilities,” or whether it’s physical, “I can kill you.”  Let’s just go back to Brown v. Board and the reactions to it. I already told you about Melba Beals’ experience as she’s about to be raped when she’s twelve years old, but we can see in reactions in other places in the South, systemic reactions, the extent or the ways in which there was a logic that blacks had to behave just right because the stakes were so high. In the wake of Brown v. Board, in July of Fifty-Four, the White Citizens Council is formed. I’m simplifying a lot, but think of it as the upper crust Ku Klux Klan. Business leaders, white males, prominent figures in these Southern towns that organized, Southern cities, organized themselves, fund Klan activities, making sure in a variety of ways that there would not be an integration or destruction of their social order.

Chapter 2. Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement: Emmett Till [00:10:57]

Economic warfare happens across the South with, with city leaders, white coun–white citizens councils battling it out with radicals, the most proper radicals, like Jo–Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Governments start responding. This arcane little caveat in, in–excuse me, loss of words here–in how governments interact, the doctrine of interposition. It’s a weird phrase. The doctrine of interposition is invoked by Southerners, saying that the federal government had no power to interfere in states. This goes back to 1832 or something like that. Completely ignored little tidbit attached on some bill somewhere. Southern governors and governments start invoking the doctrine of interposition, saying the federal government had no power to interfere, interfere in states. Federal officials from the South, members of the House of Representatives and Senate, gather together and all through the Southern manifesto, saying that Brown was a clear abuse of judicial power. Only one member from a federal delegation in the South refused to participate, and that’s Al Gore, Sr. from Tennessee. Wait, I might be blanking on that. I think–

Student:  Kefauver

Professor Jonathan Holloway: Kefauver, yeah, thank you.

Student: and Linden Johnson.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Was it three?

Student:  It was three.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Well, there you go, it was three. Well done. Where’d you learn this history?   Did you take this class last year?

Student:  No, I just wrote a paper on postwar America.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Excellent. Well done. You were trained by somebody well. Anyway, but thank you. There was–All but three of I think maybe a hundred people.

Student:  No, there were representatives who didn’t do it, including Rayburn

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Oh, well hell, apparently I don’t know the history at all.

Student:  There were other representatives.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  This is why it’s so dangerous to talk to students at Yale. The fact is massive–the Southern Manifesto is a declaration that Brown doesn’t carry weight. There’s going to be a negative response of, of, of resistance, and the phrase becomes known as massive resistance; that the South is going to refuse to proceed forward with the logic coming down from the Supreme Court. People start becoming targeted. NAACP as an organization becomes targeted by Southern legislatures, saying the NAACP had to reveal its membership list in order to stay in business as a, as a, an organization, had to reveal who was in its membership. This is basically a death warrant to the organization in some states, and to people who were, and to people who were members. If you were known to be a member of the NAACP and worked in Mississippi, well, you know, the boss might decide you don’t have your job any longer, for some other trumped up reason. And it might actually get you killed. Violence takes on gothic proportions in Mississippi more than any other place. In fifty-five, several black leaders urging blacks to vote were murdered, one on the local courthouse lawn. The president of a local NAACP chapter was shot down when he ignored the order to remove his name from the voting register.

And then of course there was Emmett Till, fourteen year old, fourteen-year old boy, sent from Chicago to stay with his family in Mississippi. There are many different versions of what happens. The allegation is that he whistled one day, hanging out with his cousins, that he whistled at the–a white storekeeper’s wife when she walked past. Others have countered saying he had a, he had a stutter, and, you know, he would often lisp as a result. What actually happened at that moment is really inconsequential. What happens later is of great consequence. That night he’s abducted. He’s beaten. One of his eyes is gouged out. He’s wrapped in barbed wire and tied to farm equipment before being thrown over a bridge. When they find him, his body is sent surreptitiously up to Chicago. His mother insists on having an open casket at the Chicago funeral and the images shock the country. There’s a clip here, that opens up with Mose Wright, who was Emmett Till’s uncle, who makes a very famous declaration going into court. And he points out the people who came to get Emmett Till from him, which meant he could no longer live in Mississippi. He vacated right away in order that he might live to see another day.

[Mose Wright:] When the sheriff came and told me they had found a body at Pillow… [indecipherable] and wanted me to go and identify the body, which I did. And we found the body, which it didn’t have on any clothes at all. The body was so badly damaged that we couldn’t hardly just tell who he was, but he happened to have on a ring with his initials, and that cleared it up.

[Narrator:] The body was shipped home, back north to Chicago where Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open casket funeral, “So all the world can see,” she said, “what they did to my boy.”


[Narrator:] Jet magazine showed Till’s corpse, beaten, mutilated, shot through the head. A generation of black people would remember the horror of that photo.

[Mamie Till Bradley:] I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me, and that the death of my son can mean something to the other unfortunate people all over the world. Then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  When you heard the narrator, Julian Bond, talking about a generation would never forget this murder and the image that appeared in Jet magazine, he wasn’t exaggerating. One of my former colleagues, her father’s family from, was from Louisiana, from a rural part of Louisiana, and I was–he was visiting. We were having lunch together, dinner together, and Emmett Till came up. I can’t remember why. But he said he was fourteen or fifteen years old when Emmett Till was murdered, and he knew then that he had to leave the South as soon as he could, and in fact, he never went back. And he said he has never forgotten, and he knew there was no hope for, as he put it, “a black man in the deep South.”  Now there was a court case. It was an all-white, all male jury. The jury deliberates for sixty-seven minutes. One juror said later, it wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t stopped to get a soda. And the jury defines–finds the defendants not guilty, although everybody knew who did it.

January Fifty-Six, one month after Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Look magazine publishes an interview of the Till defendants in which they state for the record that they had in fact killed him. Now this is the most spectacular and perhaps egregious case of violence gone unpunished, but there were other episodes, and some of them happened as a direct result of Brown. I already again related to you, the attempted rape of Melba Beals, but violence is endemic. In fact, this is one of the great stories of the nonviolent civil rights movement, is that it was horribly violent and it’s rather shocking that it did not become more violent at any given moment.

Chapter 3. Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement: The Little Rock Nine [00:20:09]

Now thinking of violence and respectability and narratives of the Civil Rights Movement leads us to the Little Rock Nine. And I have to gloss over the history very quickly for the sake of time. Melba Beals goes on–the person who was twelve years old when someone loses his mind and tries to attack her–goes on to come–become one of nine teenagers who are eventually selected by NAACP activists to integrate Little Rock Central High School.

They are focusing on Arkansas because it seemed to be one of the most progressive states in the South on these issues. Other parts–other school systems in Arkansas had actually already integrated, but Central was the most important, most visible high school in the state. The nine who were selected were amazing students, academically gifted, coming from the right families who comported themselves in the right way. Otherwise they would never have been selected. Without going over too much of the famous integration of Central High, I’ll point out a few things that are, that one needs to remember. The students are selected to integrate in fifty-seven. There’s fierce local resistance. The governor, Orval Faubus, calls in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration. President Eisenhower, very unhappy about the whole scene, sends in the one hundred and first Airborne to force the issue, and he does it not because he believed in integration, but because he believed in the federal government’s right to assert itself. This is a states’ rights versus federal rights issue for Eisenhower.

The troops ushered in the students after they had already tried to integrate the school before, but were harassed by mobs outside of the building. The students—the, the troops could go with the students up to the, the door of the classroom, but in the classroom, or in the bathroom, or in the cafeteria, all hell broke loose. One student had lye thrown in her face, almost permanently blinded. Students would talk like being in the bathroom, and then going to the bathroom, and then paper towels lit on fire being thrown overhead when they were helpless. They were attacked, books were thrown down, food poured on them, but they could not respond. The one student who did respond got kicked out, at which point they said, “One nigger down; eight more to go,” trying to get these students out of the school. Houses were bombed, people were shot–shot at, folks lost their jobs. Now think about all this. What is it that’s being asked of these children? And they are children.

Going back to Melba Beals, there’s a few items from her diary entry, New Year’s Day in 1958, that allow us to ask some pretty important questions. Four different items, selected from a longer list is, one, “to behave in a way that pleases Mother and Grandma,” two people who were very central in her life. “To keep faith and understand more of how Gandhi behaved when his life was really hard; to pray daily for the strength not to fight back.”  And the entry that, the resolution that she, that she put as number one, was to “do my best to stay alive until May twenty-nineth,” the end of the school year. I mean, think about it: NAACP activists, grown women and men, are making sure the children stay–are to stay in school, despite the violence being vet–being visited upon them. And it’s very fair to ask, is it appropriate for sixteen year olds to feel the need to write in their diaries that the most important New Year’s resolution is to “do my best to stay alive” until the end of the school year?   What are the adults asking the children to do for the sake of the movement?  It’s a case–it’s a question that would come up quite angrily in 1963 in the Birmingham crisis.

Now one final note about the school year and Little Rock. What we don’t often hear about, what we basically never hear about Central High School history, is that the govern–I mean, because it’s a triumphant moment, right?  So the governor was so upset about the public relations disaster that accompanied the school’s integration, that he decided to shut down Little Rock public schools the following year. The integration of the school, this great moment of civil rights victory of American exceptionalism, lasted one year, and the public schools were shut down. Why don’t we know this part of the history?  You know, there’s something really maybe too tantalizing about these nice narratives of our past. We can be ashamed of the shortcomings of our predecessors, but by keeping the story clean and simple, we can also be proud that our predecessors ultimately made the right decision and did the right things. In short, the Civil Rights Movement has been sanitized, because it ultimately casts a great light on the American character; that, you know, the American character can take its lumps, learn from its mistakes and then do great things. The Civil Rights Movement has been cast as a great moment of American exceptionalism when we all summoned the courage to do the right things, regardless of our political positions, where we are in the country, etcetera. Well, that’s just one big fat lie. Only a minority of folks rose to the challenge, and accepted it, and pursued it.

Chapter 4. Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr [00:26:09]

Martin Luther–Martin Luther King’s history is a case in point as far as rising to a challenge, and as far as what happens when a history is sanitized profoundly. King is raised in a tradition of ministers. His father and grandfather run the most elite black church in Atlanta. King has a rather raucous adolescence and college years. He and his buddy go around trying to run competitions about, you know, who could “deflower the most girls” in the language of the day. He does receive a religious–religious calling, however, goes off to seminary and then gets a PhD at Boston University, a PhD which scholars discovered, much to their great disappointment, about two decades ago, that he had plagiarized parts of it. King, though, these things aren’t widely known at this moment in time, fifty-five, is seen as a real future star, and he gets a job in Montgomery, heading the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which is, much in the tradition of his father and grandfather, the most elite, sort of upstanding and politically conservative, quiescent church, in that particular city. He’s relatively newly married. He and his wife Coretta have a newborn. He wants to settle into a nice, quiet pulpit and do nice, quiet work.

Well, there’s already things shifting around on the ground, with the Women’s Political Council agitating for an economic boycott, trying to find a test case to boycott the buses. And the group of black ministers in town are very important people, and a group called the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. A ton of syllables there. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance is feeling pressure from Women’s Political Council to do something. King as a minister is automatically in that group. And then as things start heating up towards what will become Rosa Parks’s moment, King is thrust into the limelight in a way he never wanted. Parks gets arrested. King is sent as an emissary or sacrificial lamb–really more of the latter. The Montgomery Improvement Association is formed. This is going to be the group that’s going to organize the boycotts. King does not want to lead it. The other ministers, who are deeply skeptical this thing will actually work, figure, “King just got here. He’s young; he’ll rebound when this thing blows apart. We’ll put him out front.”  King couldn’t say no. He fought, fought, fought, but he couldn’t say no. He’d already resisted the invitation to head the local NAACP for the sake of his children’s, his child’s safety.

Anyway, on December fifth, the night before the boycott’s set to begin, King is still resisting the urging of the ministers, and finally relents, and writes out some notes on a piece of paper. Goes to the pulpit with about ten, fifteen minutes to prepare and says, in part, the following. Now the audio is, is not great, and I’ll tell you what he says, but I want you to hear the energy of the moment during the closing moments of his, of his speech.

[Martin Luther King, Jr.:]  And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  [music starts playing] Oops! “If we are wrong,” he says–

“And, and we are not wrong in what we are doing. We are not wrong. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth is, was mer–merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

You can tell, the audience is going crazy, energized by this young man who’s come out of nowhere. But think about what he’s saying here. He invokes God and Jesus. It’s what, what one would expect of course, but he invokes in the first part of this quote the Supreme Court and the Constitution. He’s evoking law. King is not invoking anything radical, as a matter of fact. He’s invoking the Supreme Court and the Constitution. He’s invoking those very things that made citizens citizens in the United States after all, and perhaps that is the thing that made him so radical. Anyway, the movement takes off and the boycott holds together. It’s a, it’s a remarkable history, although it wasn’t the first boycott, bus boycott. The movement holds together for thirteen months before the Supreme Court forces the integration of the, of the buses. These are the same thirteen months when massive resistance is rising up throughout the South, the same thirteen months when Emmett Till is murdered, and the same thirteen months when the strategy for Little Rock becomes articulated and starts to gain traction. A period of astonishing change.

Now King rises to prominence. He’s traveling all around the country constantly raising money during the bus boycott. They need resources and money to pay for gasoline and cars that are all shipped down to Montgomery to make this thing work. But he’s not doing it by himself. He’s aided by two people who are rather important. One is Bayard Rustin, who I’ve already mentioned before. Earlier part in his life, member of the Young Communist League, a draft resistor, someone who was arrested on morals charges for being caught in the back seat of a car with another man. He’s gay. Often recognized as one of the great organizing minds of the freedom struggles and labor struggles of the twentieth century, but because of the politics of the day, hampered by his sexuality and, and by his communist past. But Bayard Rustin is in King’s corner, you know, telling him, “Do this, do that. You know, follow this particular path.”  King is also aided by Ella Baker. And by the way, Rustin and Baker are finally getting the attention that they deserve from, from amazing histories that have been written about five or six years ago. Ella Baker, a long time activist who worked for unemployment councils in the Great Depression. Certainly was affiliating with folks who were communist. Older woman who becomes hailed by a younger generation of activists who are just about to become known for being one of the most important leaders in the movement. Baker starts to work with King and advising him as well. I’ll come back to them in a moment.

As the boycott nears success, we see violence quite clearly. King’s house is bombed. Other people are being shot at. It’s a bloody mess. But Rustin sees in the success and the violence as a catalytic, catalytic moment of possibility, and that the question becomes not so much, “How great was this moment?” but, “What can we do to capitalize upon it?  What can we do to sustain this organizing energy?  There needs to be an organization.”  And he calls on King to bring together other leaders, and, and essentially religious leaders, to gather together to think of the next steps. And out of that comes the Southern Leadership Conference, is what the plan is at least. The Southern Leadership Conference, bringing together, you know, the great leaders in the South, African American, to become organized to have sustained change. Well, King makes a decision that infuriates Rustin, and they have a very tense relationship in general, Rustin recognizing King’s astonishing gifts as a speaker and King recognizing Rustin’s astonishing gifts as an organizer and political thinker.

King never likes the fact that Rustin is gay and talks condescendingly to Rustin about it. Rustin always underestimates, in King’s opinion, the role of religion in this movement. So Rustin calls it the Southern Leadership Conference, and King changes its name under, with sort of fiat, to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becomes one of the most important civil rights organizations for the next, really for the next twenty, thirty years. King’s popularity skyrockets with the success of the bus boycott. He’s increasingly drawn away from the pulpit as he travels about trying to raise consciousness and funds. And by January of 1960, having barely been in the pulpit at Dexter over the previous few years, he leaves. He’s not ministering to that church. The SCLC, what he now heads–[student sneezes and he coughs] excuse me, bless you–the SCLC is now focusing on leadership training and citizenship education.

Now as the SC–SCLC emerges out of King’s success, wrapped up in his charisma, it creates stress in the, in “the system.”  You see stress often embodied in intergroup squabbling, something you’ll see a lot throughout the 1960s. An established organization like the NAACP is not too thrilled about the SCLC arriving on the scene, because they’re competing for the same people and the same dollars, scant dollars. In fact, Medgar Evers, who’s the head of the Mississippi NAACP, who joins the SCLC, this new group, was told he had to choose. You either pick with SCLC or you pick the NAACP. He stays with the NAACP. Now the NAACP is already under stress. I talked about the fact that its rolls are being opened up by Southern legislatures, but there’s also stress internally through people like Robert Williams, military vet from North Carolina, who becomes fed up with events in his town where he’s the head of the local NAACP chapter, and calls for retaliatory violence. He’s kicked out of the NAACP by the end of the 1950s. So the NAACP is struggling with rising, percolating spots of militancy, people leaving the, leaving, leaving the message behind at the NAACP. And now this new group appears on the scene that might pull away other supporters.

The important thing to know I guess from that, I suppose, is that neither the SCLC nor the NAACP had control over the movement. No single organization could claim they were the group that was running the movement. And while King is the most electrifying speaker of this great narrative, he hardly had any control over it. If you look to the events of February first of 1960, you can see the way in which there was a sort of wildcat mentality about many things happening in the movement. On that day, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four men, students of North Carolina A and T, black school, head to downtown Greensboro, not far away. They decide that they’re gonna–sick and tired of the treatment they’re receiving at the Woolworth’s, the local five and dime, let me think, drugstore, convenience store. It’s funny, when I began this course, I mean when I began teaching years ago, Woolworth’s were still around. Ain’t so much still around anymore, but the, but the history still is.

So the men go to the lunch counter and insist on being served. They could buy things other places in the store, but they couldn’t be served at the lunch counter. The waitress says, ” I can’t, you know, I can’t help you out.” And they sit there, and they sit, and they sit, and they sit, taking up four seats at the lunch counter. It’s a wildcat sit-in. It’s not the first by any stretch. The March on Washington Movement had been organizing them for decades. Labor movements have been organizing them for decades. But this time it takes off. You have just the right mix of electricity, of anticipation, of possibility and frustration certainly. And you see across the country sit-ins by people your age, all across the South. Sixty cities become sites of sit-ins, and all of these sit-ins, the young men and women are well dressed and impeccably mannered. To do anything else would invite potential death.

Ella Baker, the person who’s essentially running the SCLC–King’s the head of it, but Ella Baker’s running it, ministering it–taps into this energy and organizes a youth conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April. She’s expecting sort of a modest turnout. Overwhelming turnout, and overwhelming energy. “We, the college age students of the day, need to do something. We are ready.”  And out of that organization grows the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as SNCC. I said Southern, I’m sorry. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as SNCC. SNCC would never become the biggest of the great civil rights organizations, but more than any, any other organization, it becomes the barometer of an evolution, of the evolution of 1960s’ ideology. And SNCC will be part of, of the narrative that I lay out over the next two and a half weeks of the course, because through them, you can actually see the changes, and really quite radical changes, in movement ideology during the 1960s.

But at its founding moment in April in 1960, SNCC is a group of college age individuals who espoused nonviolent ideology, who are absolutely interracial, and who wanted to be organized through a non-hierarchical system. They are, from the beginning, seen as a temporary organization, literally given a corner space in the offices of the SCLC headquarters. So it was operating under SCLC’s umbrella, SCLC thinking, “This is a great way to get more youth involved in our movement.”  You could even look back to the founding moment and see there’s already some fissures in the relationship, if only because SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is committed to a non-hierarchical organ–organizing logic. They, like Ella Baker, are a little bit nervous in the fact that SCLC is embodied in King, a magnificent man, but a far from perfect man, but only one man, and they wanted an organization that had many leaders. Now that’s April 1960.

Heading into the fall, in October, King was arrested in Atlanta for violating, violating probation, on trumped up charges, and he’s sentenced to four–I mean, I think it was a traffic violation. He’s sentenced to four months hard labor. John F. Kennedy, who is campaigning for the presidency, calls Coretta Scott King and says that he will protect King. He actually had no way of protecting King, but in orchestrated phone calls, “I will do everything I can to protect your husband.”  And with that, black support for Kennedy mushrooms. Kennedy goes on to win by a hundred and twenty thousand votes–still debates whether those votes actually existed or not–but he won by a hundred and twenty thousand votes, and it’s clear that it’s African American support, support that swung the election his direction. Blacks have in JFK the kind of leader at a symbolic and cultural level they have not had since FDR started making these gestures towards recognizing blacks’ needs some twenty-five, thirty years earlier.

In 1961–I’m skipping a ton of details. I’m trying to get up to a moment of the most famous crisis–in 1961, CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, as I mentioned in the last lecture, organizes a, a new round of freedom rides, getting on buses, integrated riders, and crossing state lines. Members of SNCC are on the bus as well. Students from Yale, from other places in Connecticut, jump on these buses and head on South. Once they cross into the deep South, the buses are attacked by smoke bombs, tires are slashed. As people run out of the buses to get away from the smoke, they’re met by mobs who beat them with their fists, with metal poles. The buses are torched. Other buses are sent down. Eventually, the buses arrive down in Birmingham, Alabama, where Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, knows they’re coming, knows there’s a mob waiting for them at the bus station, and does not offer police protection, and lets the students, the riders, get beaten senseless for fifteen minutes before letting the police come, before releasing the police. And people said, “Well, why did you do such a thing?”  He goes, “It was Mother’s Day. You can’t take a man away from his mother. You know, they needed to have time spent with their mother. You know, they would get there in time.” 

There’s a dawning at this moment, with this kind of violence and recalcitrance, of a militancy within SNCC and the beginnings of a move away from respectability. You start seeing different agendas being articulated within different organizations. The movement is going in fits and starts. Federations form and break apart. There’s all kinds of infighting, and things seemed on the verge of collapse in Albany, Georgia, when they go to invoke another crisis. And in Albany, Georgia, where you have a confederation of different civil rights organizations coming together, to try to change that town, they’re outsmarted by the white police. As the students try to start filling up the jails to create a crisis of overcrowding and, and get national sympathy, with the jail, no bail strategy “We’ll let ourselves be in jail. We won’t accept bail. They’ll have to force us out. We won’t have paid any bail. This will be great.”  The police chief says, “We’re going to keep our heads and start shuttling people out of jails to other jails.” He doesn’t react, essentially. Nothing happens. Everything fizzles, and there’s a fear that this movement that began, quote, “began,” in quotes, with Brown v. Board and has these violent reactions as you see it with Rosa Parks, and you see it with Emmett Till, and you see it in Central High School, the beginning of a new sort of vibrant youth organization, it feels like it’s all going to collapse in Albany, Georgia, because the white officers realized, “If we don’t react, this thing will go away.”  Well, thank god for Bull Connor. I’ll let the film tell you much of that story, but suffice it to say that Connor did more, through his brutality, to help win converts to the Civil Rights Movement, more than anybody else could have practically done. I’ll pick up on that moment, on that fact, at the next lecture. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]