The History Cat Classroom
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta in 1929, to a world that most of us cannot begin to fathom, because, thanks to people like Dr. King, that world no longer exists. Since the end of Reconstruction, white supremacists had put a lot of thought into keeping black people separate and inferior. Jim-Crow laws segregated drinking fountains, schools, parks, jail cells, restaurants, churches, buses, library books, the list goes on… But often the worst part of segregation for black people wasn’t what was written in the books. Every black person in the South had been warned by their parents on how to interact with the strange white world that could turn ugly and violent if you said or did the wrong thing. Keep your eyes down when talking to a white person, always say “yes, sir”, never argue with a white person, get off the sidewalk if a white person was walking passed you... Walking this tightrope was exhausting and humiliating but defying it could get you arrested or killed. Every southern black person had that moment when they were forced to look into the ugly face of racism. King’s moment happened when he was on a bus returning from a school oratorical contest. Some white passengers boarded the crowded bus and King and his teacher were forced to stand in the aisle for the rest of their two-hour ride to Atlanta. The bus driver even cursed them, calling them “black sons of bitches” for not moving fast enough. King never forgot that anger that burned inside him on that day.
Civil Disobedience: Fighting Hate with Love
In 1957, King helped to create the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) with longtime friend Ralph Abernathy. Its purpose was to bring the fight against segregation throughout the south. Unlike the NAACP who fought segregation in the courts, the SCLC was dedicated to civil disobedience, openly defying local laws that conflicted with federal laws and the US Constitution.
While most of us try to avoid being arrested, King saw it as a powerful tool of civil disobedience. Time and again, King and his followers met violence with willpower. King had been inspired by Mohandas Gandhi who had led India to independence in a 30-year fight against the British Empire– by using non-violent resistance. Like Gandhi, King and his followers used prison to their advantage. King was arrested no less than 25 times, almost always for trumped-up charges like ‘disturbing the peace’ or ‘trespassing’. King refused to pay the fines and instead chose to do his time in jail. The plan worked for King but backfired on his jailers. When newspapers ran photos of police officers roughly arresting King on clearly bogus charges this only served to gain sympathy for the movement. The power of civil disobedience was in forcing the white bigots to react with violence which of course would be broadcast to newspapers around the world.
In the 1960s the South remained a deeply segregated and hostile place for African-Americans. Segregationists were more defiant than ever to keep their racist system alive. Before Jim Crow was killed by Congress the warriors for civil rights had to take their fight to every segregated lunch counter, swimming pool, bus depot, movie theater, and public library. With each win for the civil rights movement, the white supremacists dug in deeper becoming more violent and hostile. Blood would have to be spilled before Congress finally got around to passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Sit Down Strikes and Freedom Rides
Civil Disobedience demands action while at the same time restraining from violence. It’s a careful balance that only a saint could pull off. And the fact that the Civil Rights movement didn’t descend into chaos and civil war is a miracle. Imagine the kind of inner strength and courage it must have taken not to punch out the guy who had just spat in your face.
In 1960, four North Carolina college students took up the torch of civil disobedience and sparked a firestorm that would sweep throughout the South. Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Joseph McNeil got dressed up in their finest clothes, walked into Woolworth’s lunch counter and ordered a cup of coffee. The waitress refused to serve them saying: “we don’t serve colored here”. That was it. Just four guys who decided ‘we aren’t going to take this anymore’. The simple act of sitting on a ‘whites-only’ stool was a dangerous move. The Greensboro Four knew that other sit-ins in places like Kansas and Oklahoma had failed and ended in the arrest and beating of protesters. And jail for a black man accused of attacking white supremacy was a dangerous place. But for McCain, the risk was worth it “fifteen seconds after… I had the most wonderful feeling, I had a feeling of liberation, of restored manhood…”
The movement was full of irony. On the first day of the Greensboro protesters, it was a black customer who called the men “foolish” and “ignorant”. Franklin McCain recalled an older white woman who sat at the counter while the four were staging their silent protest. McCain recalled her walking up to them and putting her hand s on their shoulders saying “Boys, I am so proud of you…” McCain said that from this experience he “learned…don’t ever, ever stereotype anybody in this life”. The Greensboro Four didn’t get upset, they didn’t raise their voice or make demands. In fact, the more agitated the waitress got, the more polite the men became. These men were no zen masters but they were motivated by the message of civil disobedience being preached by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their strategy was powerfully simple— fight hatred with love.
The Sit-In Movement was more than just black customers asking for a cup of joe. It was about locking eyes with your oppressor and refusing to blink. Sit-In training programs sprung up that run like military boot camps. Would-be protesters had to be toughened up before they were allowed to get abused in the real world. The training centers were held on college campuses and in private homes. Using role-play instructors took on the role of hostile whites who taught the protesters to not react as they were spat on, called racial slurs, pushed, hit, had drinks poured over their heads, and roughed up in mock arrests. This might seem cruel, but the training sessions were far more gentle than the real abuse that were going suffer at the hands of people who actually wanted to do them harm. If the protesters managed to keep their cool the police would have no just cause for arresting them.
The next day twenty-seven students showed up at Woolworth’s and did the same thing. They also got refused service. The day after that three hundred students showed up politely asking to be served. Like a wildfire, the Sit-In Movement began spreading throughout the South. It is estimated that 70,000 people participated in sit-ins of everything from libraries and parks to swimming pools and public beaches. Integrating these last two really fueled the rage of the white supremacists. The thought of whites and blacks sharing the same pool water was enough to drive the owner of the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida to pour a bucket of hydrochloric acid into the water as African-American protesters staged a swim-in.
The Sit-In Movement had broken through the color barrier, sometimes in strange ways. White college students joined their black peers in protesting segregated facilities. Sometimes some of the biggest opposition came from other African-Americans who were scared of the backlash that might come in the form of a Klan attack.
Inspired by the Sit-Ins seven black and six white riders boarded two buses in Washington D.C. May 4, 1961, to fight bring the fight to the next level. Their destination: the deeply segregated city of New Orleans. Like Mahatma Gandhi had done in India, these “Freedom Riders” were about to embark on their own March to the Sea. The thirteen riders had been training for weeks in defense tactics— like how to take a beating while protecting your face. The Riders expected violence. If they were lucky, in the thinking of organizer James Farmer, they would be beaten and arrested to expose the ugly face of racism. They even brought along a few journalists to broadcast the violence to the world. The white supremacists didn’t disappoint.
Aside from a run-in with the Klan in South Carolina, the first leg of the journey into Atlanta was surprisingly calm. The Freedom Riders had violated the interstate segregation laws by having blacks and whites sit next to one another on the buses. At the stations, blacks and whites used restrooms that were off limits to their race, and blacks ordered from segregated counters in the whites-only waiting room.
In Atlanta, the riders were greeted with a hero’s welcome. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned one of the reporters that they would never make it out of Alabama. Like a psychic, King’s prediction was dead on. One of the buses— the Greyhound – was the first to reach Anniston, Alabama. There they were met by a mob of angry white supremacists who attacked the bus with bats, metal pipes, and clubs.
The mob slashed the tires, smashed windows with rocks and brass knuckles. Under a police escort (that was none too quick to show up in the first place) the bus took off, making it only a few miles down the road before a flat tire forced them to pull over. There, the police escort suddenly disappeared and a white mob materialized. The riders barricaded themselves in the bus until someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the bus –causing the gas tank to explode. The riders were trapped inside a burning vehicle while the crowd screamed: “burn them alive” and “fry the goddamn n$#@&”. As the riders ran from the burning bus, the crowd mercilessly beat them with their fists, baseball bats, and clubs. It took an undercover highway patrolman who was on board to protect the riders. The second bus arrived in Anniston an hour after the Greyhound had been attacked. This time the bus was hijacked by Klansmen who forcibly segregated the bus. One white rider was beaten so severely that he suffered a stroke and was paralyzed for the remainder of his life.
When the second bus arrived in Birmingham, Alabama another crowd was there to greet the Freedom Riders. More blood flowed as every member of the bus was severely beaten, including the journalists. The police didn’t show up for a full ten minutes to give the Klan enough time to do its work. Bull Connor--the police commissioner who had turned fire hoses on black school children a few years before-- made some lame excuse about it being Mother’s Day.
Six months later, Ralph Fetig— a white Freedom Rider—addressed a crowd from the steps of Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary. Like several of his fellow Freedom Riders, he had been released from six months of what only can be described as pure hell. Every one of his ribs had been broken in the Klan beating. He had been abused by guards, slept on the floor of his cell after his mattress had been taken for singing freedom songs. With tears streaming down his face he looked at the African-Americans in the crowd and asked: “how do you keep from hating white folks?” Every person onboard that second Freedom Bus had been given a beating as severe as the first. Some members had their teeth kicked in, one had flammable liquid poured over him and was lit on fire, some were beaten unconscious.
The first Freedom Ride had been a national embarrassment forcing President Kennedy and his brother, Secretary of State, Bobby to take action. After all, the Soviet Union— which was known for its own terrible human rights record— was calling the United States a hypocrite for calling itself the guardian of democracy and freedom while millions of Americans lived as second-class citizens. On September 22, 1961, President Kennedy gave the order for the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate highway facilities. The “WHITE ONLY” and “COLORED ONLY” signs came down. In 1964, after dozens more marches and protests, Congress finally defied their southern colleagues and passed the Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination on the basis of color, nationality, and creed. This was the most sweeping action in promoting equality since Reconstruction. The Sit-Ins, the Freedom Rides, the marches into Birmingham, the jailings, the beatings, and even murder is what brought down Jim Crow. Like in India and South Africa, civil disobedience proved that peaceful protest could stand up to the most vicious act of violence— and win.
March on Birmingham
The year 1963 became a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement as people began putting civil disobedience into action on a scale never before seen in American history. All across the South, segregation was under attack. Organizations were springing up all over the place using King as their inspiration. Buses, schools, and lunch counters were being desegregated. It was only a matter of time before Jim Crow finally took his last vile breath. Like a wounded cat backed into a corner, segregationists went on the defensive and 1963 became one of the most violent years of the movement as segregationists struck back with everything they had in order to turn back the tide.
In April, King brought the fight to the city of Birmingham, Alabama one of the most segregated and racist cities in America. The city of Birmingham --nicknamed 'Bombingham' because of how many black homes and churches that had been firebombed-- was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The city leaders were so racist in fact that the KKK tried to ban a children's book because it contained pictures of white and black rabbits playing together! It has been estimated that one-third of the city leaders and police were either Klan members themselves or at least sympathetic to the group. Into this hate-filled atmosphere, the civil rights movement planned it's next march.
King's SCLC trained volunteers in the methods of nonviolent protest. In small groups, they entered “whites only” areas and each time were arrested. The SCLC would bail them out and the protesters would soon be back out on the streets until they were arrested again. 95% of the 1000 marchers were arrested. To add insult to injury the students were expelled for truancy (skipping school), it took a federal court order to get them back into school. As the lead agitator, King was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement. It took a call from President Kennedy himself, to get King released. However, the flood of volunteers had slowed to a trickle. Then the unexpected happened. Students, some of them just children, stepped forwarded and volunteered to march. Reluctantly, King agreed to let them march. using school children. Malcolm X spoke out against putting children into such a dangerous situation. But 1,100 students were eagerly waiting to do their part.
On May 2, more than 1,000 black youth marched. Many were arrested but the next day, even more, took their place. This time a line of the fireman with high-pressure hoses was waiting to repulse them. As the marchers reached Ingram Park they were ordered to turn back. Some onlookers began throwing bottles and rocks at the police. The police ordered the fire department to use high-pressure hoses to push them back. Then the police commissioner, Bull Connor, gave the order to unleash snarling German shepherds saying “Look at those N$%*@ run!” The march had turned into chaos but the national media was there capturing every second. Segregation had been unmasked for the whole world to see.
I Have a Dream Speech
King’s defining moment came as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of 250,000 people and delivered his famous “I Have Dream Speech”. On August 28, 1963, a quarter million Americans, black and white, gathered at the Washington Monument and made their way eight blocks to the Lincoln Memorial. King was the last speaker of the all-day event. He started out by reading his prepared speech but it’s the last bit that has become the stuff that every grade school kid has to memorize. King began by reminding the crowd that the black people of America had come to “cash a check”.
King spoke of how the government had defaulted on its promises of the equality and freedom in the Declaration of Independence. Towards the end of his prepared speech gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd “tell ‘em about the dream”. King’s most famous speech was mostly improvised on the spot. King drew from similar speeches that he had given many times before. But like a good plate of nachos, all the ingredients came together that afternoon to create a masterpiece. King spoke about his dream of one day living in a country that could set aside its difference on race and work together as brothers and sisters. He envisioned a future America where people would be judged on the basis of their character, not their skin color and called on everyone listening to make that happen. The crowd, stretching back for a mile to the east, was electrified. Grown men cried and the cheer of the crowd rose to a roar.
"The Most Dangerous Negro in America"
As leader of the movement to end racial injustice in America, King naturally made enemies. Not surprisingly, the Kings faced a constant barrage of death threats from white supremacists and Klan leaders. The work he did was thankless and frustrating. Trying to change people’s attitudes is often like that. However, not all of the threats that King faced came from the Klan. The FBI and CIA began monitoring King’s activities closely after the 1963 “March on Washington”. These were the days of the “Red Scare” when communist plots were everywhere. Or at least that’s what many in the government believed. The government bugged his hotel rooms and offices, sent in undercover operatives to spy on SCLC activities. An FBI memo called King “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." Of course, when the feds couldn’t find any concrete proof of “Un-American activities” they turned to blackmail using wiretaps to capture King’s private conversations. King received an anonymous letter that was later linked to the FBI. In the letter, it exposes an affair that King was having with another woman and calls King “evil” and a ”fraud”. It then concluded by hinting that King should commit suicide.
Freedom Summer: Winning Back the Vote
Mississippi was one of the most violent and segregated states in the nation. The state had the dubious honor of leading the nation in the number of lynchings. Even though they made up half the population only 6% of African-American population could vote. This is why Mississippi was chosen as the target of the Mississippi Freedom Project in 1964. Since Reconstruction many states had gotten around the Fifteenth Amendment by passing literacy tests, poll taxes, and voucher systems that stole the vote away from black citizens. Literacy tests were designed to be confusing and complicated demanding that applicants answer all kinds of obscure questions about state law and history. Questions like: “Does enumeration affect the income tax levied on citizens in various states?” were so specific that they almost impossible to answer Other questions were intentionally confusing such as “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.” The final decision of whether or not you passed was up to the white registrar. Some counties used voucher systems to keep blacks from voting by requiring that they find a registered voter to vouch for them before they could themselves apply. But if by some miracle you became a registered voter there was always fear and terrorism to keep you away from the polls. The names of registered voters were often published in the local newspapers which made you an instant target of the Klan who would show up at your door in the dead of night and beat you into giving up your right to vote. The key to killing Jim Crow once and for all was through the vote. And that so the Civil Rights Movement brought the fight to Mississippi in the summer of 1964.
Civil Rights organizations including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Council on Racial Equality (CORE) began preparing for a massive get-out-the-vote campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi. The Freedom Summer project brought thousands of black Mississippians together with out of state volunteers, mostly wealthy white college students eager to make a difference. Before heading down to Mississippi volunteers were warned to expect violence and even death. Volunteers who had come to “save the negro” were turned away. Freedom Summer was about helping black people help themselves. During orientation white volunteers were told that they would have to follow the instructions of blacks down in Mississippi. They would be living with black families and their lives depended on not rushing in and believing that they could save the place. Mississippi was such a violent place that many parents felt that their kids were going off to a war zone. And that is exactly where they were headed.
The first busload of three hundred volunteers arrived on June 15, 1964. The very next day two white students, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney a local black student were sent to Neshoba County to investigate the recent burning Mount Zion Methodist Church. On their return, they were arrested for “speeding”. The arrest had given the sheriff enough time to organize a lynch mob. Later that night the two men were released and before they had gone a few miles were ambushed and murdered. Their station wagon and bodies had disappeared bringing the FBI in to investigate. Controversy raged over the disappearance. Many white Mississippians insisted that it was a prank to make Mississippi look bad. Their bodies were found on a local farm 41 days later. The murders had brought in federal intervention and made national headlines and it was probably for this reason alone that seven klansmen were found guilty of murder and sentenced to 3-7 years in prison. This was the first time since Reconstruction that white men had been convicted of violating civil rights in Mississippi.
Freedom Summer volunteers went door-to-door to convince African-Americans to register to vote. Mississippi’s terrorist state was so powerful that most blacks flat out refused to vote. Blacks who attempted to register became instant targets of white anger. Most who tried to register were fired from their jobs, beaten, harassed, or if they refused to back down would probably be murdered. That summer thousands were arrested and eighty volunteers were beaten, some critically. 37 churches were firebombed and Mississippi turned into a war zone that many people had predicted. But for black Mississippians, this was the first time that whites and blacks had come together to fight for racial equality. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which prohibited racial discrimination in voting bringing an end to a century of literacy tests and poll taxes. But the real teeth of the law allowed the federal government to go into the South and oversee elections to ensure that men in white hoods weren’t standing outside the polling booths. Democracy had finally come to all Americans.
The Assassination of King
Martin Luther King Jr. once had told his wife Coretta that he didn’t expect to live to see his 40th birthday. Lately, King had become obsessed, according to his friends, about his own death. It’s not hard to see why. America in the 1960s was wracked by violence. President Kennedy had been killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1963. Church bombings, police beatings, and riots were becoming a common feature in the news headlines. Dr. King didn’t know it, but when he arrived in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968, he had less than 24 hours before his prediction was to come true. He was 39 years old.
King was in Memphis, Tennessee in his latest campaign to make poverty a national issue. Leaders of the black community in Memphis appealed to King to come and lead the city sanitation workers, who had just gone on strike to protest their low pay and lack of benefits, on a march. King was already busy with planning the Poor People’s Campaign, but just couldn’t say no to the plight of downtrodden workers, and so, King dropped everything and flew up from Atlanta. That night he gave his ‘Mountaintop speech’ to a small crowd of 2,000 people who had braved the bad weather to hear the famous orator speak. It would be his last public address.
As King looked out at the faces of his supporters and told them that he hoped to live a long life but it was all up to God’s will. The next evening King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray who fired his sniper rifle from the window of a rundown boarding house across the street. Ironically, the murder of the leader of the American non-violent movement sparked race riots from Los Angeles to New York that left more than 2600 people injured.
Dr. Martin Luther King explains his reasons for using non-violence.
Greyhound Bus torched outside of Anniston, Alabama
Can You Pass the Louisiana literacy test?