AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
AFAM 162 - Lecture 15 - From Sit-Ins to Civil Rights (continued)
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: The song that, I imagine, for many of you needs no introduction, but for a few of you who may not be familiar with it, that’s one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.” You’re actually lucky, I’m a–in past years I’ve had the TAs get up and sing it with me, I’ve had the class get up and sing it. For some reason, I’m a–I’m, I’m absolving all of us of that kind of performance. I play it here for reasons that will become much more clear later on in the lecture, but this is–this piece of music, “We Shall Overcome,” is one of sort of the anthems of familiarity, of memory, about the movement, and for very good reasons. But as part of my larger project of trying to help us understand a different notion of what the movement was really all about, I want to throw the song out to your senses, leave it dangling there for a while, and come back and sort of reinterpret it as this lecture goes forward, as much as I’m reinterpreting the movement in many ways itself. Let me, with that caveat out there, that introduction, reading Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s quite important, quite famous book, I thought I would really begin the lecture with a couple of quotes from James Baldwin, from this really fantastic documentary film on James Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket. I’d encourage you all to see it at some point. It’s quite astonishing. Baldwin says during this documentary–he’s, it’s a, it’s archival footage. He’s talking to, it looks like to me, to be something like an Oxford round table, or, or, or here like the Yale Political Union, something to that effect, clearly college-age students. And he declares to these students,
Gary Cooper, for those who don’t know, it’s a different generation, great cinematic hero, often played the good guy, you know cowboys and Indians. And he realizes, James Baldwin, as a little child, as he’s rooting for Gary Cooper to kill all the Indians, he actually is the Indian. Later on in the same documentary, Baldwin talking to a studio audience, being interviewed by one of these talk shows. It’s poetic. He really was poetic. He says,
Chapter 2. Martin Luther King: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” [00:03:22]
Much of the 1960s is about people coming to terms with the fact of who they are in the American pantheon, the cowboys or the Indians, and also coming to terms with what the price of that ticket is going to be. Now I ended the last lecture talking about the potential failure of the movement in Albany, Georgia, when the white authorities outsmart the activists by not reacting. And then I mentioned, along comes Bull Connor, who as King would say later on, was the most important person for the success of the movement, because of the severity of his actions. Bull Connor’s the Commissioner of Public Safety. I mean, I’ll be skirting along this very quickly, since you watched the documentary, 4 Little Girls, and you know a lot of this, this history and saw some of the images as well. He’s the Commissioner of Public Safety and he’s running for mayor. The election becomes, I’ll just say, fraught with complication. There’s already incredible tensions in, in Birmingham over issues that were similar to Montgomery in terms of who could shop in what stores, and in fact, on the ground in Birmingham, store owners were very willing at this point, because of the threat of economic warfare with the, with the black buying population, very willing to integrate the stores, but Bull Connor says no. And Connor is essentially running, running the city. So things are brought to a head.
King, who’s not in Birmingham, is asked to come by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who is the head of a civil rights–sort of organizing civil rights activism in Birmingham, through a group called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. It is essentially the NAACP. I mentioned in the last lecture that NAACP’s books would be opened up by, by state governments, which would be essentially a threat to lose jobs and to, and to be harassed, to even be killed. Other organization–organizations spring up to replace the NAACP. In this case, it’s the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Shuttlesworth calls King to Birmingham, knowing that King more than anybody else has the ability to electrify a population, and frankly to antagonize a population as well. Birmingham had already been the witness or home to all kinds of violence. Between fifty-seven and sixty-three, it had earned its nickname of “Bombingham.” There were eighteen unsolved bombings in the city in, in black neighborhoods, excuse me. City parks had been closed in 1962. Playgrounds, and pools, and golf courses had gone private. All these actions to prevent the gathering of people, activists, black people, and also to prevent an attempt to force the integration of public spaces. So playgrounds, golf courses, and pools go private. City on edge.
King comes to Birmingham and willfully gets arrested. He knows he’s going to get arrested. He’s trying to brew up crisis. But unlike the police in Albany, Georgia, who just, you know, relaxed and let things go and stayed in touch with everybody, Birmingham has not evolved that way in the police force. They throw King into solitary. There’s no word coming from him. This is actually terrifying. This is an era when people would disappear, and King being such a high profile person was not protected from disappearing. Coretta Scott King is frantic, wanting to at least get reassurances that her husband’s alive, not just safe but alive. [coughs] Excuse me. John F. Kennedy is currently the President, been elected, and he gets involved, much like he did when he was the candidate for the presidency, and seeks guarantees of King’s safety and that he’s treated well. While King is in jail, a number of clergy in Birmingham, white clergy, moderates, are basically upset that King is coming in from out of town, out of the blue, and is antagonizing the situation, stirring up trouble, and essentially is telling–publish–they publish a newspaper ad and basically telling King to slow things down, to calm down, to, to lower the temperature.
King responds by writing one of the great protest documents and letters, and that’s the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Now the Letter from Birmingham Jail is not in your reader but, you know, it’s online. I hope you’ve actually already looked at it. It’s not in your reader because the King estate is rather protective of King’s legacy and how much people are going to pay to have his words published. I’m being extremely politic in saying this. But the document is one of the most important documents in American protest history. One of the most frequently quoted passages is one I shall now quote as well. It brings together King’s passion, of course, his eloquence, but also humanizes this in a way that connected with many people. This was an, an immediate sensation. King is responding to these, these ministers and says,
Years later, James Baldwin, in the same documentary I mentioned, is interviewed by somebody in the early seventies, saying, you know, “You’re so angry, you’re so impatient. These changes you’re talking about take time.” He shoots back,
What is the pace of change? It’s going too fast for white moderates. Not going nearly fast enough for African Americans and white activists. So King writes the Letter from Birmingham Jail over Easter weekend in 1963. Meanwhile, marches are being organized in Birmingham, organized from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, to try to call attention to the general plight that African Americans face in Birmingham, the injustice, injustice of the situation. And Bull Connor responds, quite famously, “I want to see the dogs work,” and then, “Look at those niggers run.” As marches are organized, he would release the dogs, order his deputies to release the dogs. You’ve seen the images, of course. Open up the fire cannons. They actually had a tank, a police tank, that was brought out to terrorize the citizens. A decision is made by King and his circle to raise the stakes. And by raising the stakes, that means using children.
By the end of the first day, children marching in defiance of orders, leaving school, a thousand children aged between six, six and eighteen are thrown in jail. By the next day, the number doubles. Robert F. Kennedy, he was leading a civil rights agenda for his brother, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy is beside himself. He could not believe that King would risk these children’s lives, as he put it, for the sake of more media coverage, more negative press. This is what he was doing, there’s no doubt about it, that King is trying to antagonize the situation and horrify the nation by revealing what Bull Connor would actually do, and Bull Connor took the bait. He doesn’t care. Birmingham becomes a media circus, as people from around the country are horrified at what they bear witness to. With all the media around, a truce is negotiated. Lunch counters open to blacks, they become integrated. Promises are made that blacks are going to begin–going to get hired in clerical and sales positions, thus avoiding economic boycotts.
But that doesn’t mean there’s peace. Martin Luther King’s brother’s house is bombed. The hotel that was a staging ground for a lot of the organizers, who were coming in from out of town, the hotel was bombed. Federal troops, Robert F. Kennedy convinces his brother, “You’ve got to bring federal troops if you want to have stability.” So federal troops come and occupy Birmingham to keep the peace. While all of this is going on, to speak of the sort of the heightened tension around various hotspots in the South and local and states’ rights versus federal rights, James Meredith, a few months earlier, inspired by Kennedy’s election and inauguration, applies for and is accepted at Old Miss, the flagship school in Mississippi, where Mississippi’s elite get trained. James Meredith, a black man of course, integrates the school, but only with federal protection, but the federal protection didn’t matter, since there were riots on campus surrounding Meredith’s arrival. His likeness is hung in effigy and federal marshals are killed.
Chapter 3. John Kennedy Pushes for a Civil Rights Bill [00:16:45]
George Wallace, governor of Alabama, who you saw in an advanced stage of his life in the documentary, who when he was running for election earlier in his career and lost, when he was a moderate Democrat, lost to a race a, you know, a, a race-wielding demagogue, declared earlier that he would never be “out-niggered” again, and becomes this creature, spewing racism and populism at every turn. Wallace, at his inauguration, declares, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In June of Sixty-Three, after the riots in Birmingham, Wallace participates in a staged act of resistance. He knows he’s going to lose it already, but he goes through this performance, and he refuses to let the University of Alabama be integrated. And he literally stands at the doorway of the, I think, the registrar’s offices, he’s outside of the building, refusing to let these two black students integrate University of Alabama. JFK knew about it. He’d already dispatched people to negotiate a situation, and the federal government, embodied in I think is Nick Katzenbach, essentially gets the students in the school. So the federal government is now intervening in state affairs in ways that, that could lead to, without exaggeration, another kind of sectional crisis.
That night, the same night that Wallace is moved aside and the University of Alabama is integrated, John F. Kennedy appears on national TV. And he asks, [clears throat] excuse me, he asks for Congress to give him legislation that would give everyone the right to be served in facilities that are open to the public. He declares–essentially asking for a civil rights bill. He declares, and I quote here, “We are confronted, excuse me, we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and yet as clear as the American Constitution,” linking the battle that he wants to fight, asking Congress to give him the tools to fight, a battle that is one, bound up in the Constitution, but is also bound up with fundamental morality and an ethical sense of life. Astonishing for a President to step out like that, so astonishing that a man named Byron de la Beckwith, a white guy down in Mississippi, snaps. And hours after Kennedy–this is broadcast nationally on the news–hours after Kennedy makes this declaration, Byron de la Beckwith is hiding behind some bushes across the street from Medgar Evers’s house, Medgar Evers being the, the head of NAACP in Mississippi. He wanted to be also involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but they made him pick and choose, so he chose the NAACP. Byron de la Beckwith shoots Medgar Evers from a high-powered rifle, kills him, the driveway of his home.
Beckwith is not sentenced for thirty-five years. It’s part of a whole other conversation we might have at the end of the course about what some might call a generation in the South trying to find racial healing, decades after the events that these atrocities happen. So JFK goes on TV and says the federal government needs to respond to this moral failing in our country. Medgar Evers is murdered. In due course, a civil rights bill is introduced that would outlaw segregation in all interstate public accommodations. It would allow the attorney general to initiate suits for school integration. And, very importantly, it would give the attorney general power, the power to stop funding for any federal program where discrimination is found to have occurred. It’s a bill that’s mostly about enforcement, saying the federal government can get involved via the attorney general enforcing substantive and real change, along the lines of civil rights.
Chapter 4. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [00:21:50]
King, as the head of SCLC, leaders of CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, NAACP, SNCC, the National Urban League, come together. It’s a group that squabbles quite a bit, but they come together and they are committed to seeing this bill actually pass. And they declare, much like A. Philip Randolph–well exactly like A. Philip Randolph declared some twenty-two years earlier, they call for a March on Washington. Kennedy went apoplectic. He goes, “This kind of agitating is going to kill any chance that the civil rights bill is going to pass. You have to be calm and quiet, you know. It’s not so much a go slow mentality, but just be calm. Don’t agitate. Don’t stir up the water.” Kennedy is simply horrified. But the civil rights leaders have no intention of backing down. The march happens at the very end of August 1963, August twenty-eighth. Just over a month before the march, Kennedy relents and actually endorses it. So Kennedy’s trying for a solid month, month and a half, to get the march canceled quietly, you know, working with these civil rights leaders. It’s now quite customary for the President to be talking with civil rights leaders, something that was revolutionary in 1941. You know, they’re now called into the White House with regularity, or they’re just talking to him on the phone.
Kennedy realizes they’re not going to back down; he decides to endorse the march. But he endorses it on a couple of terms: that the federal government will have control over it, in the sense of, if things get out of line, we’ll kill the sound system. We reserve the right to look at all the speeches before they’re actually given. You know, they, they’re saying from a peace and safety standpoint that it’s really about trying to control this march so it doesn’t get out of hand in the federal government’s terms. Now it’s important to think of the march–we know a lot about it from our, you know, our civics classes in high school, and certainly it’s part of our sort of national rhetoric of exceptionalism, but there’s a lot of things we don’t know about the march, that they don’t talk about.
First of all, just the name itself, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs was a major part of the March on Washington. It’s not just King standing up there talking about a dream he’s having. It’s labor movements, religious organizations, civil rights organizations, working together, calling for the passage of the civil rights bill, calling for a two dollar minimum wage, calling for the immediate desegregation of schools, calling for a federal public works program, along the lines of New Deal works program I talked about a couple of weeks ago, calling for, calling for real federal action to ban discrimination in employment, not just press conferences like the FEPC used to do, but real action. So the goals of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, passage of civil rights bill, minimum wage, desegregated schools, public works program, and real federal action to ban discrimination in employment.
The march is remembered, of course, as a benevolent, benevolent and transcendent moment, but if you’ve already done your reading in, in the Marable and Mullings book, you’ll know that the story’s a little more complicated than that. John Lewis, currently representative of Congress, then the new head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis has a chance to go to the microphone, he prepares a speech, the original version of which is in your text. It is not a speech about love and joy, rainbows and unicorns, and all that kind of lovely stuff. It’s a speech that called out on the Kennedy–blamed the Kennedy government for its moral failings. It attacked the very hand that, in a sense, “allowed” the march to go forward. And in many people’s opinions, even if they agreed with Lewis, they’re saying, “There’s no way that you can actually say this, cause you will antagonize to the point, we will, this will kill the civil rights bill.” And Lewis goes, “I’m going to say what I’m going to say.”
As word of that gets leaked out to people who are about to go on up to the podium, one of the religious leaders, Cardinal, Cardinal–whose name, last name I’m blanking on. I’m thinking of other cardinals in the news for other reasons, the last few years–a, a cardinal says, “I’ll leave the podium if you say this.” Walter Reuther says, “If you say this, I’m gone.” Basically, at the moment at–just before the, the speakers go live, there’s a real chance the whole thing is going to fall apart. Lewis finally agrees to give an edited version of the speech, and that’s the speech that he gives. And the people out in the audience have no idea about what’s happened behind stage. They also don’t know, mainly because of what Lewis is threatening to do, that the administration had positioned agents by the loudspeakers, control panels, to kill the entire sound system, to silence the march. And who knows what would have happened, had that actually gone forward.
Chapter 5. Martin Luther King, Jr: “I Have a Dream” [00:27:49]
So the narrative behind the march itself, and, the, the, the how you get to the march actually happening and what’s actually said there, is, is different than what people normally have been taught to consume. What they’ve been taught to consume is this:
Professor Jonathan Holloway: You all know these, this passage. Whether you know it by heart or not is a different issue. In a couple of weeks, when we, the course resumes, when we’re getting into the 1980s and nineties and such, we’ll come back to this last part of this. I wanted to play this main section here, because the last part is actually used for different, quite different purposes, as we get into the 1990s, in a new era of, sort of race politics, a confusing era all the same. But in this moment, this is, I mean it’s gorgeous. This beautiful passage about a person having a reverie about possibility, thinking about a day in which the color of their skin is not going to determine their life chances. I have no quarrel with celebrating this part of the speech, certainly. But what of other parts of the speech? How come we don’t know a part, very early on, five paragraphs into his speech, when he says:
That’s a very–I mean imagine if that was the message that we grew up in our elementary schools listening to in black history month, as we all know, it’s been trotted out during that particular month. That’s a very different message to walk away from with the March on Washington: America has failed on its promise to provide equality for all its citizens, and it’s couched in the terms of capital. Significantly different speech if you just excerpt that part. Or, what if you excerpted this part?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Now that’s in the middle of his speech, as he’s preparing for the crescendo that would turn into the “I Have a Dream” sort of call and response, in a sense. So you have a King in the earliest part of this speech talking about the failures of the American republic to abide by its own Declaration of Independence and its own Constitution. The message hasn’t changed from the night before the March on–excuse me, the Montgomery bus boycott, when King says, “If we’re wrong in all of what we’re doing, the Supreme Court is wrong and the Constitution is wrong.” He’s calling for the country to live up to its legal mandates and, of course, its ethical mandates as well. And he’s also, although he certainly abides by the philosophy of turning the other cheek, it should not be allowed to be mistaken for sort of the positive and hopeful reverie of the “I Have a Dream moment.” He is saying we cannot be satisfied, we cannot stop, harkening back, I think, to Du Bois who–W. E. B. Du Bois, who died the day before the March on Washington. Talk about, sort of, theatrical timing, not to make light of it. It’s rather astonishing though. He died an expatriate in Ghana, having essentially been kicked out of–well kicked himself out of the country, after the country took his passport for a while, for his alleged communist sympathizing.
But Du Bois was talking about “returning, returning from fighting, returning fighting” and King is saying the same thing, “We can never be satisfied,” as long as you can’t vote in Mississippi and as long as there’s no reason to vote in New York. And he’s harkening, by the way, at that moment, to the fact that–you know, I’ve been talking about the South a lot, and I will be talking about the South some more. But as we’ll see later in a couple of weeks, this is a national problem. It’s just articulated in different ways. So what would the narrative of the “I Have a Dream” speech be, if the title was: “We Can Never Be Satisfied”? Or if the title were: “Insufficient Funds”? That’s a different kind of speech. And we need to think about the consequences of these naming conventions, of these excerpting conventions, of these ways that we learn about individuals like King who become mythic for every good reason, I don’t want to dismiss it, but become something other than what they might have been, if you just looked at their rhetoric, looked at their approach in a slightly different angle.
Chapter 6. Final Thoughts [00:36:25]
All that said, there’s no denying the fact that right after the march, there was this sort of giddy feeling of hope, of benevolence, of transcendence. I can’t rewrite history that way. There’s a sense of real change in the air, the change that is shattered or, excuse me, a sense that is shattered two weeks later when those four little girls are blown to bits in Birmingham. Now the King you hear in “I Have a Dream” or–speech or Montgomery bus boycott speech, is a King who is buoyant, hopeful, angry perhaps, concerned, but with a, a narrative power that suggests possibility in a positive way. Let me play a clip of a different King.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: King giving the eulogy at the funeral honoring the four young girls who were blown, blown, blown up. This is a King you don’t hear much about, a King who’s despairing, who’s exhausted, and feels hopeless. It’s important to know that King ran through the whole vector of human emotion, certainly, and was on more than one occasion pushed to the limits. Other people, of course, pushed to the limits, acting out in different kinds of ways. I began today’s lecture playing a clip from We Shall Overcome, a song talking about–I mean doesn’t take much to read into it–overcoming those moments when you are taxed beyond belief. It’s an anthem of the movement; it’s a very important song. We know it. Even if you don’t know the words, you can fake sing through it. You know, people next to you can sing a little louder, cover up the fact you don’t know what the next line is. But you know how the tune goes, right? But we don’t hear about other artists offering different interpretations of this moment. After the four young women are blown up, Nina Simone, a famous jazz artist, produces a protest song. It becomes one of her signature pieces, much like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. It’s a very long song. I’m going to play, you know, a portion of it. The lyrics should be clear enough, but I’ll actually show them up here as well. It’s called “Mississippi Goddam.”
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Now it’s a genius song, and since it, you know, it’s played to the tune of a bouncy show tune and she was known for doing, you know, jazz standards and her own songs, playing the American songbook. And then she’s telling her largely white audiences to go to hell. And they ate it up. That, you know, she’s calling the people who expected civil rights activists to be respectable, wash behind their ears, to hell with that as well. And the beloved country that King is talking about, that can go to hell as well. In fact, it is going to hell, because they just blew up four children and no one’s going to pay the consequences for it. This is an important narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. You need to understand it. And you also need to understand the fact that it’s dropped out, and that’s really the, the significance of it all, is that we know certain things about the movement and not others, and we need to ask the question why. That brings to close my lecture. The TAs are going to fan out a little separately over here to distribute your papers and your midterm exams. And even though I know you have other classes to go to, I wish you a lovely spring break. Thanks.
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