How the Civil Rights Movement Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: We love getting listener feedback, especially when it's complimentary. But we also like it when you guys ask very deep and probing questions, or someone makes requests of us. And we have one such request from Mike, who unfortunately did not include his last name. But Mike, if you hear this email and know it's you, write us back and we'll say your full name on your next podcast. So Mike writes, "I really enjoy listening to this podcast. I'd like to hear more topics about American history, however. Why not try how reconstruction worked, or how slavery worked? These topics might be more contentious, but I think the discussions would be interesting to listen to." Well, Mike, we love American history, too. And we try to spread the love between all different continents, eras, and civilizations as long as we mention Thomas Jefferson in every podcast. But we are going to talk about civil rights today, and the civil rights movement in particular. Because, as most of you know, this was a burgeoning movement beginning when people started noticing the inherent evil in slavery. But it took a very long time for things to come full scale, and for blacks to be given their full civil rights. So it's a very complicated history and we're going to do our best to cover most of it.

Jane McGrath: And we're going to start with the Jim Crow laws. During reconstruction, the southern states instituted rules that prevented blacks from taking advantage of the freedom that they had just got. And so they made rules that separated blacks and whites in restaurants, parks, and theaters - you name it, basically. This was later legitimized by a Supreme Court case called Plessy v. Ferguson back in 1896. And it said separate but equal is constitutional. It's fine. You can make laws about it. And that's sad.

Candace Gibson: And it's also scary, too. The constitution added the 14th Amendment, which made clear that citizenship was to be bestowed on freed slaves, which was -

Jane McGrath: And full and equal - and that's where they get the nit-picky, "Oh, it's equal."

Candace Gibson: But the problem with the 14th Amendment is that it was never ratified by most of the southern states. And during the reconstruction, the south actually had military members who came in to oversee that they were upholding universal male suffrage. And they weren't. And the problem with the Jim Crow laws that Jane was alluding to earlier, is that they made things inherently difficult for freed black men. Sure, they were supposed to be enfranchised. But they couldn't vote, because when they got to the voting booth they were hit with poll taxes or literacy tests, or all these other tricks that white southerners had up their sleeves to keep them from participating in society.

Jane McGrath: And obviously, these blacks were at a disadvantage because they were deprived of the education that it took to have literacy at that time. So the southerners knew exactly what they were doing and -

Candace Gibson: They did.

Jane McGrath: - it was completely unfair rules.

Candace Gibson: And it wasn't just about voting. They also banned interracial marriages and they segregated public places, like schools, parks, and different modes of transportation. And I'm sure you're all incredibly familiar with the Rosa Parks story, and we'll get to that in a little bit. But another example of that, like buses and vehicles people would take to get to these locales, when they arrived they would find were separate but not equal. And we know that lynching was a constant threat. The Ku Klux Klan was alive and well. And the problem with these lynch mobs and other violent members of white society was that, when they were called to court, they were reviewed by all white juries who typically found them innocent. So it was just a constant cycle of wrong and wrong.

Jane McGrath: And a lot of this violence stemmed from just the strict rules in their society that they formed. If a black person looked at a white person the wrong way, it could instigate violence that would later be acquitted by an all-white jury.

Candace Gibson: So I want to go back to what Jane was saying earlier about Plessy v. Ferguson, because this is such an important precedent to the whole civil rights movement. And that happened back in 1890. Louisiana law had forced blacks to ride in segregated rail cars. And under the 14th Amendment, that didn't make a lot of sense because blacks were supposed to have access to all the civil rights and civil liberties that the whites had, too. So Plessy tested this, boarding a car that was intended for white people. Plessy was just one-eighth black.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. That's very interesting, the fact that he's only one-eighth.

Candace Gibson: One-eighth, but was still arrested. And a local judge declared him guilty. And the U.S. Supreme Court, wildly enough, upheld that decision and they were the ones who said that separate but equal accommodations did not infringe upon 14th Amendment rights. And how many times have we heard that refrain throughout civil rights history - separate but equal, separate but equal. That was ultimately this thing that set all the wheels in motion for the whole movements.

Jane McGrath: And that was not overturned until 1954. I'm sure you've all heard of the Brown v. Board and Education case. And that finally put the nail in the coffin to Plessy, saying that separate is inherently unequal, so it violated the 14th Amendment.

Candace Gibson: And the thing about these historic cases is really the people behind them. And again, Brown v. Board of Education is probably a court name you've heard tossed around. But to really know the back-story, and 8-year-old girl named Linda Brown had to ride a school bus five miles to a segregated school in her hometown of Topeka. Meanwhile, a school for white children was just a few blocks away from her house. It was better staffed, had better equipment, and better books. So her father, the Reverend Oliver Brown, decided he was going to try to enroll her at that school. It just made sense overall. And he was denied. So he went to the NAACP, and they essentially kept taking the case a little bit further and a little bit further.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and they got other families involved, too, to help with the case.

Candace Gibson: They did. And again, this was ruled on the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson - separate not being equal. And here was a very stark example of how it's not. You could look at these two schools side-by-side - the staff that was there, what the children were entitled to, the type of education they were getting - and it couldn't be more obvious.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it delivered a final blow against Plessy, because there were court cases beforehand that started to chip away at Plessy and - I'll give you an example. There was a case in '46 where they banned segregation on interstate bus travel. That's going to come into play later, but it wasn't quite the nail in the coffin that Brown v. Board was.

Candace Gibson: So when Brown and the NAACP appealed the local judge's decision that upheld Plessy v. Ferguson, they went to the Supreme Court. And like Jane said, in May 1954, that was when they said that separate but equal was unconstitutional. And thus began the desegregation of schools.

Jane McGrath: And obviously this was a major step in the civil rights movement, but it didn't immediately make things better. If anything, it made hostilities worse in the south, at least, between blacks and whites. And to give you an example, if you've heard of the Emmett Till case, it's an extremely sad case. It happened just a few months after the decision was released about Brown v. Board of Education. It had to do with a 14-year-old African American boy who lived in Chicago at the time. But he was visiting the south in Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. He was there for a few days hanging out with his friends and teasing them. He was showing a picture of this white girl and saying, "Oh, that's my girlfriend." They didn't believe him and said, "Why don't go flirt with the white girl inside the store there." And so he did, and this caused a lot of problems.

Candace Gibson: It really did. Because, just a couple of nights later he was kidnapped from the house where he was staying. He disappeared until his body was found drowned in a river, and there was barbed wire around his neck, a bullet hole in his skull. He had been so badly mutilated and tortured that his body was unrecognizable except for a ring he was wearing. And that's how they identified him.

Jane McGrath: And it was very obvious who, and why this murder happened. Somebody was knocking on the door in the middle of the night asking to see the boy, and the uncle - the person he was visiting - couldn't resist them. And it was the husband of the girl that Emmitt had been flirting with. He had come back from a trip and found out what happened, found out the story, and immediately went over and took the boy, and put him in the car and drove away.

Candace Gibson: And this man, Roy Bryant, was working in conjunction with the owner of this store where the incident took place. And that was J.W. Milam. And to be specific, from what we know, exactly what Emmitt said to the woman was, "Bye-bye, baby," when he turned to leave. So again, not exactly damning words. But in this case, they really were for him. And again, this is another instance of an all white jury not finding the guilty parties guilty. And if you look at pictures from Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in court, I think Roy Bryant is sitting there looking completely nonchalant, smoking his cigarette, as though he hasn't a care in the world. He knew that he would be acquitted. And Emmitt Till's mother, one can assume she must've just been heartbroken. But she very valiantly turned this into an opportunity to advance the civil rights movement. And at the boy's funeral, she insisted upon an open casket. And remember, his body was so mutilated when they found it they couldn't recognize it. He had been in the river for a couple of days. It must've been a horrific sight to see. And I think that that is what stirred younger generations of black Americans to say, "This is wrong. We knew it was wrong all along, but there's a big difference between a schoolgirl being denied entrance to a school and this very violent atrocity that's occurring under our watch."

Jane McGrath: I think it awakened the whole nation, really. I remember reading that the image of his mutilated body was printed in a magazine at the time. So not even just the people who went and saw his body in person, but all around the country people who bought that magazine could see how disgusting this was. And it's also interesting to compare. Emmitt Till, himself growing up in Chicago, was not used to the ways of the south and the unspoken rules that were going on there. So it illustrated for everyone very clearly the difference, and how not even a teenage boy is safe from the violence.

Candace Gibson: But the south - we're southerners and we live in the south today. How Stuff Works is in Atlanta, so we're aware of southern culture and attitudes. We don't mean to be constantly pointing fingers at the south, but this is where all the activity was brewing. It's important to note, too, that it was a very stalwart section of the country. Even though these laws were being passed, even though desegregation in schools was made mandatory, like you saw or heard when Jane and I podcasted about the Emancipation Proclamation, it takes a long time for these things to seep into the collective mindset. And even if people know it's the law in black and white, trying to get people to embrace something with their minds and attitudes takes a long time. And especially when you have general unrest among populations, that boils up into a mob situation. That's why, very famously, back in September 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,000 paratroopers to oversee nine black students entering Little Rock High School in Arkansas. He knew. He knew what would happen.

Jane McGrath: And this was again a very dramatic scene on the television and everything for the whole nation to see how bad things were.

Candace Gibson: Yes. And so we see this sort of violence being committed against the black community. And how did they respond? Well, with civil disobedience. And this was perhaps one of the wisest maneuvers, I think, any group of people has made. Because to fight back with violence with non-violence is a very shocking and brave thing to do.

Jane McGrath: They inherited the ideas of Gandhi, very popular at that time. And one of the examples of civil disobedience that was very popular and effective were these things called sit-ins where black youths, usually, would go into all white establishments - or at least establishments that had all white sections, such as a counter that only whites could sit at. And they would ask to be served. And they had a code of nonviolence. Even if they were being hit or whatever, they could not respond with any violence and they couldn't insult anyone else, etcetera.

Candace Gibson: One of the most famous cases of civil disobedience is Rosa Parks. This happened in Montgomery, Alabama. It was December 1, 1955, after a day of work. She sat down on the bus and when enough whites boarded that she was being forced by code to give up her seat, she refused. And I think a lot of people think that she did this on the spur of the moment.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it was no sudden flight of stubbornness.

Candace Gibson: No, it wasn't. And thinking that she very resolutely give up her seat, I think, paints her as a larger than life figure. And while she certainly was a heroic figure in the movement, she had gone to courses on civil disobedience.

Jane McGrath: I don't know. I think that raises her estimation in my eyes. This was planned out and she had the guts to do this. It wasn't just that she was having a bad day.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So from that perspective, she's even larger than life. And this was actually part of a bus boycott movement.

Jane McGrath: Well, this started it. Activists in Montgomery, they started a Montgomery Improvement Association. And this started a boycott. And this lasted for over a year until the courts finally made the city desegregate. And it was a huge success. It was one of the first big successes for the civil rights movement, especially the civil disobedience movement as well. And this is when a famous figure, Martin Luther King, Jr., came into play as well. He was a pastor in a church in Montgomery during the time of the boycott. During the boycott he was faced with a lot of danger as well. His home was actually bombed that year, when he wasn't there, I believe. And once the boycott was finally successful, he was elected the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. And this focused on peaceful protest and became a major force in the movement.

Candace Gibson: And King didn't stay in Montgomery. He ended up moving to Atlanta for a while. And then we know that eventually he went over to Birmingham. But while he was starting and there was this burgeoning effort of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we really see this rolling effort with bus boycotts, nationwide protests, and sit-ins to gently buck the Supreme Court's rulings and decisions, and to draw attention to what was happening in the south - and to point out, "We're the ones who have these rights that are being taken away from us. They're not being honored, and we're not fighting back like the white community. We're doing this very gently."

Jane McGrath: That's true. And he faced a lot of criticism from both sides. What was surprising to me was the fact that fellow pastors in Birmingham were attacking him for being too extremist. And he wrote - at one point, he was in the Birmingham Jail and he wrote the infamous letter from Birmingham Jail to his fellow pastors who were criticizing him. And one of my favorite lines from that famous document is, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." And I think that's very inspiring, personally, and one of my favorite lines.

Candace Gibson: My favorite line is, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Jane McGrath: That's a great one, too.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And I think it speaks to King's perspective on the movement. So while we have King and civil disobedience going on, and all the followers that are following him, we should also mention another group, the Freedom Riders. On May 4, 1961, this was a group of people from several different races, and they were going to make a cross-South statement.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And they were testing some rules that were recently instituted. I mentioned before that as early as 1946, there was a ban on segregation on interstate bus travel. Well, in 1960, there was another decision related to this where they extended the rule to bus terminals. So the terminals themselves had to be desegregated as well. And so this group of Freedom Riders that Candace was just talking about, whites and blacks, banded together to test this ruling. And they knew what they were doing. They knew that the south was not ready for this.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. They knew what they were getting into. And they rode from Washington DC to New Orleans, and along the way they were beaten, their buses were stoned, their tires were slashed, 300 of them were arrested. And the bus never finished the trip.

Jane McGrath: It sounded like such a scary thing, to go on this crusade that they went on, because they were beaten and their bus was fire bombed. I can't even imagine how scary it was to be there.

Candace Gibson: But the bright side is that their efforts caught the attention of the Kennedy Administration. So after Kennedy started turning an eye to what was going on, he decided that he was going to take a more active role. As we know, the Supreme Court hadn't been exactly up to snuff, so Kennedy comes into play. And he proposes the Civil Rights Bill. And to show support for this bill, 250,000 people of all races participated in the March on Washington. And that is when King made the famous I Have A Dream speech.

Jane McGrath: And actually, JFK was assassinated before the bill could finally go through, but luckily his successor LBJ helped push it along, because he knew it was important. And not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the Voting Rights Act a year later. The first one forbid discrimination in public accommodations. Like we said before, this happened with Supreme Court cases, but it was up to the executive branch to enforce it, so these were important. And also, they threatened to hold Federal funds from communities where they persisted in segregation. And that was a real key in getting things moving.

Candace Gibson: So as all of this is happening, Jane mentioned before the media coverage. And I think it's important to mention that that was such a valuable tool in the civil rights movement, having those pictures flashed across the front pages of newspapers, having them on TV, being able to see all of those people in Washington there to support the bill. And as we know, the graphic images of Emmitt Till helped, the images of Martin Luther King, the images of the arrests and protests. And people's minds began to change about the black community and the bills that were coming across to support them. And something else that really helped out were the children's protests that took place. And it came to a point at which there just wasn't enough time and manpower to have adults constantly protesting. After all, these are parents and workers with homes and bills to pay. So they asked children to participate in the protests. And even children were arrested, if you can believe that. And at one point, the city came in with fire hoses and tried hosing them down to -

Jane McGrath: That's terrible.

Candace Gibson: - get them off the grounds. And the force from the fire hoses was so strong, so much water pressure, that children were swept off their feet. They were knocked down. And people saw these images and were just outraged. So when the time came that the bills were passed by Johnson, I think people were more ready to accept that, "It is time for this because you're committing atrocities not only toward grown people, but young children as well."

Jane McGrath: Another interesting story that had to do with young black children, has to do with a church that was bombed in Birmingham. This happened in '63, a year before the civil rights act. But in Birmingham, there's this major church. And it was a target because it was a meeting place for a lot of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King. And members of the KKK actually threw bombs inside. It only killed four people, but those four people happened to be young girls, 11 and 14, I believe. And it was also a terrible image, a very startling image to see.

Candace Gibson: And so I think that there was a time when the black community was trying to uphold Martin Luther King's standards of civil disobedience and nonviolence. But after awhile, after these atrocities continued to pummel their efforts and tried to break away their morale and their cause, there came a point where people said, "This might not be working for us anymore." And keep in mind, this isn't the entire community, but we're talking about a subset of the community.

Jane McGrath: Like I said before, King actually faced criticism from both sides. Some people thought he was too extremist. Some people thought he wasn't extremist enough.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, that he was a passivist.

Jane McGrath: Right. Exactly. And Malcolm X was one such person, representing the more radical side of the movement. He actually called some of King's tactics criminal. He said it was criminal for King to teach nonviolence in the face of violence. And you can see his point, that it seems to ineffective. And you can look at the progress and you can say, "Oh, look at these acts that were passed. But look at all the violence that's happening, too. And we need to do more."

Candace Gibson: And I think there came a point where violence was met with violence. We think of the Watts Riots that occurred in LA. So we have these two, almost competing, legacies. If you look at the Malcolm X legacy and the Martin Luther King legacy and compare them side-by-side, it's violence versus nonviolence. And we know that, even though these bills were passed in the late '60s, or the mid-'60s even, that wasn't the end of the civil rights movement.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and there's still injustice going on. And going back to your favorite line from King, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied," to a lot of people all of this violence going on was justice delayed. They felt that we needed to do more, and that's an understandable sentiment to have.

Candace Gibson: And I don't think you can ever wrap up any discussion about the civil rights movement, because I think there's still plenty of arguments that exist that it's still a movement that is going on today. I think that when Obama was elected President of the United States, that really clinched in a lot of people's minds, "Maybe we are moving toward the end of the civil rights movement. Maybe this is an endcap to a struggle for true equality." So I think it will be interesting to watch how our nation continues to embrace other races and evolve together. I certainly don't want to project any of my beliefs onto this. It's up to our listeners ultimately to decide how they feel about how history has ended, just begun, or is still evolving. History is a very organic and living thing, and maybe the civil rights movement isn't over. Maybe the timeline is only in the middle.

Jane McGrath: As long as we're not going backwards. I think that's important.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. But obviously, there's so much more to learn about civil rights, Martin Luther King, and other famous historical figures like Malcolm X. So you can read much more about them at howstuffworks.com.

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