(It got a lot of attention in the 1960s, but given it will last over 2,000 years, there’s reason to think the changes that came about were only the beginning.)
The KKK had its glory days in the 1920s—not just in the South, but across much of America—but by the 1950s things finally began to change, imperceptibly at first, but then gaining momentum. You’ve probably heard of the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education. The court found that legally mandated segregation of public schools was unconstitutional—that separate couldn’t be equal (despite what the Court had cobbled together back in 1896 to justify the Jim Crow Laws)—and the ramifications spelled the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. The same court that back in my day, and I’m thinking mostly of the Dred Scott Decision of 1856, declared that blacks didn’t even have the right to be citizens, was beginning to see the light.
The next watershed event came in 1955, when Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy visiting his relatives in Mississippi, was brutally murdered for having supposedly whistled at a white woman. This, of course, harks back to what I said earlier about white Southerners’ fixation on protecting the purity of white women from the rampant lust of black men, no matter how irrational it might be. Emmett was beaten, mutilated, shot in the back of the head, and dumped in a nearby river. Per-usual, the defendants were speedily acquitted by an all-white jury, but in the meantime, his mother brought his body home to Chicago in an open casket, and, for the first time, all of America saw the horror of white supremacy.
Not long afterward, in December of that same year, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. I’d be willing to bet that most of you can’t imagine a time when black people had to sit at the back of the bus. Ms. Parks later said she was thinking of Emmett’s disfigured face when she refused to move. Her action not only spawned a boycott that ended in desegregation of the city’s privately run buses, but her courage became an important symbol for the movement.
In the summer of 1964, nearly 1,000 activists—mostly white college students—came to Mississippi to help local black activists register voters, teach in schools, and organize what was called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Not surprisingly, many of the state’s white residents were enraged by this encroachment by outsiders trying to change their society. State and local governments, law enforcement, something called the White Citizen’s Council and, of course, the Klan, used every intimidating, harassing, and violent means possible, including outright murder, to thwart the activists.
In late June, three civil rights workers disappeared, a black Mississippian and two whites from New York City, all of whom were found weeks later having been murdered by the Klan, some of whom were members of the local sheriff’s department. Nationwide news coverage of this occurrence outraged the public and led to the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI, the latter of which had pretty much avoided dealing with issues of segregation and persecution of blacks, becoming involved. Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, but it nevertheless had a significant effect on the course of the civil rights movement. In July, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in schools, workplaces, and public accommodations, as well as bias in employment practices based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Finally, the unprovoked attack in spring of 1965 by county and state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Alabama resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended legally sanctioned barriers to voting for all federal, state and local elections, and ordered federal oversight of elections in areas with a historic under-representation of minorities—which, trust me, was just about anywhere in the old Confederacy. Think of it—for almost a century, African Americans in the South hadn’t been able to elect anyone to represent them, either locally or nationally in Congress. And for two-hundred years before that they’d been held in bondage!
A day after delivering a sermon entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he challenged America to live up to its ideals, Dr. King was assassinated. That was April 4,1968, and in the days that followed, riots broke out in black neighborhoods in more than 100 cities across the country, including Washington, DC, where fires and destruction came within blocks of the White House.
After having been filibustered in Congress for months, on April 10th the House passed legislation that came to be known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Also known as the Fair Housing Act, it prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, and national origin, and made it a federal crime to use force or threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone based on their race, color, religion or national origin. Although some members of Congress said they wouldn’t be intimidated into rushing through legislation of that sort, as one senator put it, “the news coverage of the riots and the underlying disparities in income, jobs, housing and education between white and black Americans helped educate citizens and Congress about the stark reality of an enormous social problem. Members of Congress knew they had to redress these imbalances in American life to fulfill the dream that King had so eloquently preached.”
Whenever I hear the term “assassination” I think of President Lincoln, how his life was cut short only days after General Lee surrendered in April of 1865. We’ll never know how history would have unfolded if Lincoln had lived to guide the peace, whether the nation’s healing and the next 100 years would have been any different. But as it was, it’s as if 100 years were swallowed up and taken away by Jim Crow. Think of all the people whose lives were as good as lost because they were never given the chance to reach their full potential! It’s far more people than died in the war, and we all need to make sure they didn’t die in vain either.
But Dr. King’s philosophy of peaceful protest wasn’t all that was going on in the 1960s. There were organizations, the most prominent being the Nation of Islam, which advocated for Black nationalism and Black separatism in direct opposition to the goals of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little and died el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a name this Southern white boy is still learning to pronounce) was a prominent, outspoken member the Nation of Islam who gained great notoriety prior to his own assassination in 1965.
While the civil rights movement fought segregation, Malcolm not only thought it should be maintained, but similar to the colonization movement of the early 19th Century, advocated that blacks should return to Africa. He and the Nation promoted Black supremacy, the very opposite of white supremacy, if you will, and rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of non-violence. In contrast to “I Have a Dream,” Malcolm’s most famous speech was entitled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in which he blatantly threatened white America: “There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets.”
In early 1964, however, Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam and offered to collaborate with any civil rights organization that agreed with the notion of African American’s right to self-defense and the Black Nationalist philosophy, what he defined as self-determination of the African American community. Despite previously calling Dr. King a “chump” and an “Uncle Tom,” and accusing him of betraying Black militancy in order to appease the white power structure, in early 1964 the two men had a conciliatory meeting. There is also evidence that, just prior to his death, Malcolm had changed his mind about racism and regretted much of what he had professed in his days with the Nation of Islam. But regardless of any reversals of thought Malcolm may have experienced at the end, his assassination spawned the beginnings of the Black power movement and the combative opposition to white supremacy. (Please note that, lest you think I’m a dumb ignorant Southern white boy, I’m aware that it was Stokely Carmichael who popularized the term Black power.)
This brings me to something else I’m unable to reconcile for myself. When I was alive and flesh and blood on this earth I was in love with a mixed-race girl, what was called a mulatto back then, so it’s my tendency to think that mixing the races is where America wants to go. But I still feel the anger of Willis and Newton, those two “bucks” who became my surrogate brothers (if also my body servants during the war), and I’m hard pressed to deny their anger’s legitimacy, maybe even its holy purpose. I still remember when I beat my brother William’s face in, almost killed him in fact, for turning the lash on those two boys. I hope you won’t think me flippant or disrespectful when I say he scarcely looked much better than Emmett Till in his coffin. So whatever my diplomatic skills or my admiration for the “great compromisers” like my Cousin Henry, there’s undeniably a good deal of Malcolm in me.
And this ain’t the end for either of us.