The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)

by: History SparkNotes

Nonviolent Protest: 1960–1963

Kennedy dispatched hundreds of U.S. marshals to protect Meredith and forcibly integrate the university. Barnett continued to resist even after the marshals arrived, organizing several thousand whites to attack them. The riot left two people dead and hundreds wounded. Kennedy then ordered 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers to secure the university and escort Meredith to class. The president also used federal troops to integrate the University of Alabama the following year.

The Albany Movement

Hoping to continue the attention-getting campaign, SNCC and NAACP activists in the small town of Albany, Georgia, launched a massive boycott of and sit-in at local restaurants and department stores from 1961 to 1962. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC eventually joined the movement to make Albany the new focus of the civil rights cause. Local police, however, refused to let the Albany movement turn into a national fiasco, instead protecting protesters from angry white mobs and treating the activists with civility. Even King’s two arrests in Albany failed to garner national media attention, and the movement eventually collapsed. Paradoxically, Albany demonstrated the necessity for violent white reactions to civil rights protests in order to make the “love and nonviolence” philosophy work.

The Birmingham Campaign

The failure in Albany spurred the SCLC to redouble its efforts. In 1963, King and his fellow activists organized a massive rally in Birmingham, Alabama, arguably the most segregated city in America. Once again, the activists organized boycotts and sit-ins to goad white residents and city officials into reacting. In an unprecedented move, King organized hundreds of Birmingham high school students to protest segregation in a “children’s crusade, hoping that images of persecuted youngsters would horrify moderate Americans.

This time, the tactic worked. City commissioner “Bull” Connor ordered police and firemen to use attack dogs and water cannons to subdue the peaceful protesters. Unexpectedly, many of Birmingham’s black residents began to fight back, defending the activists by attacking police. Northerners were shocked as they watched the violence unfold on television. King himself was arrested again, and in jail he took the opportunity to write his influential “Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he explained the civil rights movement to his many critics. The letter was published and circulated throughout the country.

The violence in Birmingham prompted Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department to negotiate a settlement between the SCLC and city officials. The SCLC eventually agreed to end the boycotts and protests, but only after local merchants promised to hire more blacks and the city promised to enforce desegregation. Segregationists, however, protested the agreement and initiated a new wave of violence, forcing Kennedy to send 3,000 army troops to restore order in the city.

The events that took place in Birmingham and the resulting agreements changed the civil rights movement in two major ways. First, they mobilized the moderate majority of northern and southern whites against segregation. Second, the Birmingham campaign marked the first time poorer southern blacks began demanding equality alongside the lawyers, ministers, and students. The majority of blacks wanted immediate access to better jobs, housing, and education and wanted the country in general to be desegregated.

Kennedy’s Endorsement

The growing public support for King and his fellow protesters convinced President Kennedy to fully endorse the movement and push for more civil rights legislation, regardless of the political fallout from southern conservatives. International embarrassment and accusations of hypocrisy from the Soviet Union also contributed to his decision to support the movement. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy appeared on national television and personally asked Congress to help safeguard blacks’ rights. He argued that the United States could not effectively fight oppression abroad if so many Americans lacked basic freedoms at home. He specifically wanted Congress to ban segregation and protect blacks’ voting rights.

The March on Washington

Later that summer, the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, and CORE worked together to organize the largest political rally in American history to help convince Congress to pass the president’s new civil rights bill. On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 blacks and whites gathered peacefully in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. There, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, which with surging, sermonic declarations outlined the visions of the civil rights movement and called for racial equality.