The American Civil Rights movement is perhaps mostly associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963. However few people are aware that the speech was the climax of a movement that had begun as early as the late ’30s. The movement was mainly formed by black people who agitated against racial discrimination and segregation that was rampant in the U.S at that time. It was the quest for equal rights for all American citizens regardless of color, race, or origin.
The 1940”s March on Washington
The Civil Rights Movement can trace its roots back to the 1940’s March on Washington Movement that was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, a civil rights activist, scholar, and actor. The main aims of the march were to put pressure on the government to end segregation in the armed forces and ensure better working opportunities for African Americans. The movement also harbored some anti-war sentiment arguing that Nazism was no different from the racism practiced in the U.S at that time. Many African Americans refused to be drafted as soldiers in the Second World War basing their arguments on the same logic.
In the early 40”s, the country was undergoing a turnaround in economic fortunes. The post-depression economic boom meant better working conditions and better pay for American workers. However, most of the African American workers did not get to experience these benefits due to discriminatory laws and work policies. Many qualified and experienced black workers were locked out when opportunities for promotions and further training arose.
Randolph was one of the most notable organizers of the march. He used the experience he had gained while organizing grassroots labor unions for the defense of African American workers’ rights. He insisted that if the movement was to be any different from its predecessors, including the NAACP, it had to be totally independent. This had the implication that the union would in no way rely on any external funding. He defended his rejection of white donor funding thus- “if it costs money to finance a March on Washington let Negroes pay for it. If any sacrifices are to made for Negro rights in national defense, let Negroes make them” 1.
By avoiding external white funding Randolph hoped to make the movement more independent and free from interferences. He argued that financial independence would make the movement more authentic and credible. The movement raised funds mainly through its feminine arm, The Women’s Auxiliary. This was a group of the female relatives of the members of the brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They raised funds mainly by organizing community events in the African American residential areas. In the course of its work the Women’s Auxiliary raised awareness on feminine respectability, black consciousness and class consciousness. However, there were unproved allegations of the movement harboring communist elements.
Randolph used every possible tactic including making it a blacks only movement. This reduced chances of infiltration by communists since few black Americans were known to be communists.
The movement began pressing for equal treatment of all races in the armed forces. They began by sending to the white house to meet President Roosevelt. During the first meeting Randolph was accompanied by other activists namely, Walter White (NAACP) and T. Arnold Hill of The National Urban League. The activists met President Roosevelt to present their grievances on 27th September, 1940.
Their efforts were met with resistance and the armed forces remained segregated. This made the movement members to consider changing their mode of operation since it was clear that traditional methods such as lobbying would not yield much. As a result, Phillip Randall officially called for a March on Washington to bring the issue to global attention on 25th January, 1941. The march was scheduled for 1st July that year. The movements organizers had managed to mobilize an estimated 100,000 protesters for the march.
When President Roosevelt realized the gravity of the movement’s demands, he retreated and issued the Executive Order 8802. The order paved way for the formation a Fair Employ Practices Committee. The President sent New York’s Mayor, La Guardia to inform the movement’s leadership of his decision. The Movement demanded that the act be modified to include all Government employment and not just the armed forces as the president had proposed. The Government conceded and Randolph called off the intended March on Washington but retained the movement as way of keeping the Fair Employment Practices Committee on its toes.
The movement continued, organizing rallies and dubbed “civil disobedience” which did not go down well with some of its more moderate affiliates such as the NAACP. Following a series of minor disagreements the NAACP started to gradually dissociate itself from the movement. The movement kept active but low key.
One of its major achievements after that was when President Truman declared the Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the armed forces. The hibernation of the movement from 1947 did not mean its death. On the contrary it regained momentum in the early 60”s and reclaimed its place in the national limelight. Randolph became the de facto voice of African Americans in their quest for equality 2. He notably opposed the unrestricted immigration of laborers claiming that they increased the competition for menial jobs which were already underpaying. He argued that immigrant laborers encouraged employers to lower their wages.
The 60”s March for Washington for Freedom and Jobs
Randolph relaxed his blacks only stance in the 1960”s as he organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom together with Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King , Jr. this time round he accepted the integration of sympathetic whites into the movement. Various organizations such the Workmen’s Circle came together under the leadership of MOWM to mobilize the African American workers.
Despite the achievements of the first phase of the movement, African Americans still faced discrimination in several. White democrats had imposed segregation by law. Violence against blacks in the form of lynching was common. The post reconstruction period was characterized by the Jim Crow System that legalized racial segregation in Government services.
Public schools were divided into white and colored sections with the colored section usually being under funded and poorly run.
The movement also aimed to end the disenfranchisement of black voters. Southern states had created constitutions that made it impossible for African Americans to vote. They created conditions such as literacy tests that made impossible most blacks and poor whites to vote.
Exploitation and economic oppression of blacks had become rampant. Minority races were denied economic opportunities and faced widespread employment discrimination. Conditions for African Americans were especially worse in the Southern states. In 1954 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a legal battle in the Supreme Court that saw the end of racial segregation in Government schools. The case most popularly known as “Brown v. Board of Education (1954)” overruled an earlier decision, “Plessy v. Ferguson” that had the “separate but equal” doctrine.
However, the ruling had no immediate practical effect which made the African American population to loose faith in legalistic approaches to end discrimination. They resulted to a change of tactics and adopted a strategy of direct action, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. This initiated the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). The movement preferred “direct action” as their mode of action. The methods used in the second phase included boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and rallies.
A particularly successful event during the movement was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was inspired Rosa Park’s act of defiance when she refused to surrender her seat to white passengers. During the boycott which lasted one year 90% of Montgomery’s black residents ignored public transport and walked to school or work. As a result a federal court ordered that all Montgomery’s buses be desegregated in November 1956.
In 1960 students started organizing sit-ins in restaurants to protest against segregation. The students dressed smartly, behaved in a civil manner and sat quietly in the white sections of restaurants. In 1961 the protest culture concerning transport changed to freedom rides. These were meant to encourage the implementation the supreme courts decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960) 364 U.S that ended the separation of passengers on racial basis at interstate level. The freedom rides and sit-ins met resistance and violence from supporters of racial segregation. The Ku Klux Klan in particular was allegedly responsible for beating protestors and bombing the freedom rides. The violence aroused sympathy for the black demonstrators all over the world which led to the formation the Interstate Commerce Commission. The commission was charged with the task of desegregating the public transport system. Amenities such as drinking fountains, restrooms, lunch counters and bus terminal were also desegregated that year.
The next item on the movement’s agenda was ensuring that African Americans had equal rights to vote with everyone else. The Mississippi constitution contained clauses that made it hard for black citizens to qualify as voters. These conditions included literacy tests and residency requirements.
The movement united together with all other Black Freedom associations and coordinated their efforts to enable more African Americans to vote. These efforts were also met with opposition ranging from acts of arson, evictions by landlords, losses of jobs, arrests, imprisonment, beatings and even murder. Success came in the form of passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The movement supported many other activities that were aimed at ensuring black freedom. The struggle for integration of Mississippi Universities in particular was a long was a long but eventually successful battle. Clyde Kennard, Korean War veteran, became the University of Southern Mississippi’s first African American student. Before achieving this feat he was twice arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for his activism. He was paroled half-way through his jail term by the then Mississippi governor, Ross Barnett. Kennard and James Meredith eventually gained admittance into the university but had to attend classes under the heavy protection of U.S Marshals.
The actual March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on 28th August, 1963. The protestors marched from The Washington Monument to The Lincoln Memorial.
Philip Randolph called off the intended 1941 march after the government issued the Executive Order.8802, barring racial discrimination. However a lot more still needed to be done. Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized a second march which they intended to take place in1962. The piled pressure on them to call it off but they went ahead to hold it in 1963.Unlike in the first March where Randolph rejected external support, in the second march was more of a collaborative effort. It included support from the Labor Movement and other like-minded organizations. Randolph was however very keen to avoid any communist elements that could have tainted the movements image or hijacked it.
The second phase of the movement included more goals in its agenda. These were ensuring the enactment of meaningful civil rights laws and reforming the federal works program to accommodate more members of minority races in jobs. The movement also aimed at ensuring descent housing, restoration of voting rights and adequate, quality education for blacks and other minority groups. It also campaigned for desegregation of all public facilities and fair practices in employment.
Randolph A. Philip, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
- Randolph A. Philip, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Louisiana: Louisiana, 1990), 204.
- Randolph A. Philip, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Louisiana: Louisiana, 1990), 82.
- Randolph A. Philip, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Louisiana: Louisiana, 1990), 97.