The Civil Rights Movement: Unity in Disunity

This is an essay written by my 16 year old daughter, Sheherzad Raza Preisler. I am posting it today in honor of Black History Month:

John_F Taking its lead from the 1957 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1960s in America was a major stride towards civil rights. Initially, the 1960s may appear to be a time of great cohesive progression towards equality. After close analysis, however, one sees the prevalence of different factions and changing strategies in the midst of resistance. The first half of the decade was characterized by legislation and nonviolent protests, however, as tensions grew, approaches that embraced violence became more popular, but the goal remained the same: equality for all. These different strategies, rather than being an impediment to success, were in fact necessary, because they combated different forms of resistance.

Early articulations of major groups and leaders promoted two major, overlapping ideal goals and strategies: to achieve total equality, through nonviolence and legislative action. In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee declared the necessity of nonviolence, arguing that it agreed with effective Judaic-Christian practices of unconditional love, even in the wake of oppression. In the following years, the Committee held numerous nonviolent sit-ins, many of which resulted in cruelty against the protesters, who never fought back. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most segregated cities, in 1963. Policemen such as Bull Connor met the protesters with vicious dogs and fire hoses. Dr. King was jailed, and in his April 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, he explained that his intention was to bring Christ’s gospel of freedom throughout America through nonviolent gathering. Dr. King also refuted the idea that the protest intruded in Alabama state affairs, because every city in the United States was interconnected, and it was therefore his duty to promote equality everywhere. This vision of interconnectivity was also present in a June 1963 address to the American people made by President John F. Kennedy. In his address, Kennedy stated that compromising one’s freedom, compromises everyone’s lives.

RobertFKennedy_MartinLutherKingJr Dr. King and Kennedy’s idealistic approaches, however, were met with harsh violence. Protesters were of course met with much cruelty, but the violence spread to the uninvolved. Shortly after a 1963 protest, the Sixteenth Baptist Church was bombed, killing four innocent girls. In November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in Dallas, Texas. It may be inferred that he was killed due to his progressive ideals. In January of 1956, while Dr. King was away, his house was also bombed, but his wife and child survived. As white reporters attempted to enter the house for pictures and interviews, an army of enraged African Americans held knives and guns, ready to defend. In June 1968, Dr. King was assassinated, causing major unrest in the African American community. Just two months later, Robert F. Kennedy, a new candidate for the presidential election, was also murdered, perhaps for his stance in the civil rights movement. In the wake of increased oppression, the goals and strategies of certain leaders of the civil rights movement shifted. Stokely Carmichael, in a 1966 essay entitled “What We Want,” expressed a new vision: a desire not only for black equality, but also for a concept of black power that can be read as separatist because it fought for community building and economic independence within the black ghettos. The mood of the sixties continued to darken as resistance towards protesters intensified. In May 1967, the Black Panther Party’s minister of defense expressed intolerance for further oppression. He explained that no matter how much African Americans prayed, protested, and even begged, they were met with increasing deceit, repression, and violence. The Black Panther Party then decided to arm itself in preparation for further violence, as a means of self-defense, now embracing an overtly violent strategy.

Black-panthers-led8oct06a These multiple different strategies, rather than leaving the civil rights movement in disarray, led to several important victories. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson became president. He fought fervently for economic reform and African American rights. He passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation in public places. The following year, Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the 24th Amendment, which banished the poll tax, literacy tests, and enabled federal regulation of voter registration. By 1968, 62% of African Americans living in the South were registered to vote, while only 29.1% were registered in 1960. The various Acts proved that there was increased civil rights support within the Congress.

In the 1968 presidential election, Republican Richard M. Nixon, an avid civil rights supporter, won by a large majority, even within Southern states. Independent candidate George C. Wallace, who opposed civil rights, still had many supporters in the South, however. The ability for African Americans to vote for Nixon also proved to be a major shift in support, because the driving forces of the movement were finally able to formally vote for what they believed in and valiantly fought for.

When looking at the civil rights movement of the sixties, one can see a major paradox: disunity in a major unifying movement. All factions worked for the same goal of equality for African Americans, but in different ways: presidents with legislature, Dr. King with nonviolence, and the Black Panthers with violence along with separation. Change, therefore, can be produced by a culmination of various progressions and approaches