The Civil Rights Movement And Violence Of The 60’s

Like the Arab-Israeli conflict, or that of Northern Ireland, or most social movements for that matter, it is difficult and risky to try to put a specific date to the origin of the Civil Rights movement and the violence of the 60’s.

As an academic exercise, a good starting point, I have chosen the Baton Rouge bus boycott of June 1953. This represented a turning point in the Civil Rights struggle in America in that authorities were forced to make legislative concessions to the demands of the black masses.

But historically speaking, organized protests and violence have always been one of the cornerstones of the black experience since the days of slavery, marked by hundreds of slave revolts. In analyzing the post-slavery period three different phases of protests are noted:

* First, there is the communal or ecological phase marked by countless riots and violence initiated by both sides as blacks, wary of the oppressive social conditions, institutional tri-partite control of blacks by economic, political and personal domination, began to openly challenge white institutions and encroach on their ecological boundaries. Violence in the early years was essentially incidents in which blacks were more often the victims of white aggression.
*Second, during WW II communal violence began to give way to large-scale outbursts within the black community. Except for certain episodes of non-violent protests, this phase was marked by a collective behavior against the agents and symbols of the larger society, or best described as commodity riots because of the extensive property destruction and looting.

* he third period began in the sixties, reaching a high point between 1964-67 when the commodity riots began to take on a more selective, terrorist nature with political overtones.

Are civil rights and violence mutually connected?
It must be noted that violence and the Civil Rights Movement, though closely related, have not been entirely mutually connected. They are somewhat exclusive events.

*There seems to be little connection between the two in the third phase of commodity, terrorist-type violence. In the violence we see today such as the Rodney King riots, the Crown Heights and Cincinnati riots, the demands are only remotely related, if any at all, to civil rights. Besides, the damage done far exceeds the flimsy demands of the rioters.

* Besides, ever since the Civil War, several non-violent legislative attempts have been made to bestow upon African Americans certain rights and freedoms through the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 871 and 1875.

*NAACP was formed 1909 in the North mainly by white philanthropists with the objective of working by non-violent means within the institutionalized system, through legal action and persuasion and education of whites (who prevailingly believed that blacks were genetically inferior to them), to bring about some measure of equality to blacks.

* However, no other federal legislation was passed until 1957 by which time blacks had started their mass organized non-violent protests for civil rights. The Garvey movement, the March on Washington movement led by A. Phillip Randolph in 1941, the Baton Rouge boycott of 1953, and similar boycotts in Montgomery, Tallahassee and Birmingham 1955, 1956 were mostly non-violent protests that resulted in the federal legislation of 1957.

*Although the most comprehensive civil rights acts were passed in 1964 and 1965, violence continued unabated and reached a peak in the summer of 1968. It seems therefore that the violence was not directly related to a call for civil rights legislation, but for the implementation and enforcement of the legislation. The violence of and after the sixties is actually a “pay-back” or retaliation type of violence.

Core elements of the CRM
Prior to Baton Rough, however, the Garvey movement and the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), the latter led by A. Phillip Randolph in 1941, were two most important forerunners of the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. MOWM led to the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942 whose leaders were convinced that the non-violent methods used by Gandhi could be adopted in the US. According to Aldon Morris, an Afro-American Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, this was the first time in American history that blacks had adopted non-violent tactics as a mass technique for bringing about social change. The Garvey Movement and MOWM provided the three main elements of the modern CRM:

(1) Leadership and a high degree of organization and mobilization of the masses
(2) Significant use of religion to accomplish political goals.
(3) The introduction of non-violence as a force for social and political change in America.

A few words about NAACP
Although NAACP quickly reached the South, and its membership surpassed that of the North in 8 years, it never achieved mass membership in the South (at most only 2% of Blacks) – membership in the South consisting mainly of Black academics and clergymen.
In the South, NAACP was overshadowed by the Garvey and MOWM for four main reasons:

(1) NAACP was a bureaucratic organization, not firmly rooted in the masses,
(2) It lacked ability to mobilize the masses,
(3) Its legal actions on behalf of individuals were not benefiting the masses,
(4) Change and results from its actions were too slow.

What Baton Rouge was all about
The 1953 Baton Rouge (capital of Louisiana) bus boycott targeted the Jim Crow system which strictly segregated blacks and whites in the public buses. While static segregation was strictly enforced in the society, with designated areas for blacks, which was accepted with some degree of docility by blacks, the Jim Crow segregation presented a more dynamic and painfully humiliating form of segregation for the blacks in at least five ways:

(1) The segregation occurred under one roof, in full view of and witnessed by each other. It was open and direct.
(2) The boundary line separating blacks and whites kept changing subject to the number of white ridership.
(3) Two-thirds of the revenue of the bus company were derived from black ridership
(4) The segregation was often supplemented by victimization, discrimination, intimidation, molestation and endangerment of black riders.
(5) It was the unavoidable daily experience of the masses of the blacks.

The boycott lasted only seven days but resulted in a compromise favorable to the blacks.

Direct and Indirect Impact of Baton Rouge
The seven days of Baton Rouge presented two great revelations:

(1) It was cathartic and spiritually fulfilling for blacks; it restored the eroded pride of a people demoralized by the daily experiences on the buses. Even the drunks felt they were participating in a part of history; and
(2) It showed how effectively they could destabilize the economic status quo. The boycott had been costing the Jim Crow Bus Company $1600 per day in lost revenue, and after six days of boycott they were forced to the negotiating table.

The successful boycott triggered off further accomplishments in that:

*The (100%) triumph of the Baton Rouge (1953) further led to similar boycotts in Montgomery, Tallahassee and Birmingham in 1955 and 1956.
*The boycott was particularly noted for its maximum utilization the three elements introduced by Garvey and MOWM – high degree of leadership, religion involvement, use of non-violence.
*The impact was however national and it influenced the 1954 Kansas school desegregation decision (NOTE: it was NAACP which had been questioning the constitutionality of school segregation since 1950, and had filed five law suits to this effect in South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware and the Washington DC. It was the Kansas suit that resulted in the famous desegregation decision by the Supreme Court in 1954.)

Baton Rouge also provided a model of leadership, organization, financing, and execution that was carefully studied and applied to the infamous Montgomery bus boycott which lasted over a year. As a result of the Montgomery boycott such names as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy became embellished in the annals of history.

It influenced the formation of (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) SNCC (under the leadership of Stokley Carmichael), which organized massive and extensive sit-ins all over the country. By 1960 there were sit-ins in 100 cities with 50,000 people participating. Sit-ins led to sleep-ins, kneel-ins at churches, and wade-ins at segregated beaches.

Led by Martin Luther King Jr., then President of MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association), about 250,000 people joined in a March on Washington DC, where King delivered his famous "I have a Dream" speech.

The civil-rights movement, led especially by King Jr., in the late 50's and 60's to the passage of the most comprehensive civil-rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimi nation for any reason of color, race, sex, religion or national origin. The Act also prohibited segregation in public schools, although another branch of government, the Supreme Court, had ruled on the unconstitutionality of public segregation in 1954 and 1955. Passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Congress, removed literacy tests and other requirements that restricted blacks from voting. This led to a massive campaign to register black voters. In 1968 a Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in housing and real estate financing.

As an aside, it must be noted that the June 1953 Baton Rouge boycott could have been avoided. In March 1953 black leaders had successfully petitioned the City Council to desegregate the buses, but it was the (all white) bus drivers who refused to comply, and went on a strike, resulting in the Attorney General ruling that the desegregation ordinance introduced by the City Council was illegal because it conflicted with the State’s segregation laws. The boycott followed soon after. WHY couldn’t the city ordinance be enforced? Why could the AG so easily declare the ordinance illegal, instead of introducing State legislation (against segregation) to strengthen the City Ordinance? Did the legislative system fail the blacks? The legislative system did not fail. The Ordinance could not be enforced because the subjective conditions (to use a Marxist phraseology) were not ripe. That is, the people were not fully educated and ready to accept the change.

Influence of the Rural-Urban Drift
During and following WW I, violence was mostly communal, mainly in the North and border cities as blacks sought to alter their position of subordination. This rural to urban drift was also a phenomenal event during and after WW II as black soldiers in the army and in the wars experienced the ideological irony whereby they fought for freedom and democracy for other peoples, but in their own enclaves they experienced segregation and lack of freedom.

There were two predisposing elements to these riots: first, relatively large numbers of new migrants, both black and white, were living in segregated enclaves in urban centers under conditions that supported only the previous population of whites, thus creating a situation where the marginal populations of both black and white competed violently for the same resources. And secondly, the police and law enforcement agencies had a limited capacity for dealing with sudden outbreaks of mass violence. Very frequently police, deficient in their duties, all too readily accepted the assistance of white rioters in subduing blacks. To blacks, law enforcement authorities could not be trusted.

According to Stanley Lieberson and Arnold R. Silverman who studied 76 race riots, they found no support for the contention that rapid population change accompanied race riots, but rather encroachment of blacks on white occupational world tended to increase chances of riots.

The Role of the Church
In the black community the church served more as an instrument for social change than one of evangelism. It provided the CRM with the emotional motivation, scholarship, leadership, oratory and enthusiasm for action. It was hub or nucleus of black activity. It was the most powerful of all black institutions. It organized and controlled the recreational, educational, social and political life of the blacks. Black membership and ownership of churches were perhaps the highest in the world. By 1930 blacks in Atlanta constituted 33 percent of the population, but owned 58 percent of the churches. Studies found similar trends existing in Birmingham, New Orleans, Richmond, Charleston, and Memphis. My first Brooklyn observation in arriving in Brooklyn was the predominance of black churches. There was a church at almost every block. Some blocks had more than one. According to Gunnar Myrdal, 1944, "potentially, the Negro church is undoubtedly a power institution." All the leaders of the CRM originated from the church. The involvement of the church in the CRM was therefore a natural inevitability.

Why violence when non-violence was apparently succeeding?
As the CR momentum increased, so did the resistance to it. As in physics, when two equal and opposing forces clash, there is going to be friction. In the social context, this friction is translated as violence. Desegregation in schools was perhaps the sorest part of the Civil Rights Acts, and whites were determined to prevent black and white children mixing in the same schools.

There were hundreds of skirmishes, many turning out to be violent – beating, bombing, firing from jobs, and shooting.

A number of white organizations mushroomed – including the NAAWP and a revival of the KKK.

During 1956-59 NAACP was charged for being communistic. Its members were victimized all over the South. Several injunctions against its operation were filed in several states, and several legislation passed, restricting its membership and operation. It was even outlawed in Alabama.

According to Graham and Gurr, the non-violent techniques used by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers with considerable success over a period of years ultimately failed, not so much because it could not produce results, but because many leaders believed results could be achieved by adopting the standard American technique of collective violence. Violence has always been an intrinsic part of the American culture, and more so in the Black pre and post slavery experience, as previously mentioned. All major concessions in the US have been won by protests, violence and wars. Brutality has been part of American life since the first settlers arrived, and continues to be so even today.

I would contend, therefore, that non-violence did not really fail, it was abandoned or exchanged for the more familiar weapon, particularly following the assassination of its most charismatic leader, Martin Luther King Jr. in April 68.

One must understand that wars are usually fought with the tools and implements and the power (physical or political) that are available. Thus, non-violence was the effective and available weapon at that dialectical stage of the game. The proponents of non-violence had seen how effective and successful Gandhi had used it as a political weapon in South Africa and India, and were eager to give it a try.

However, non-violence, as previously mentioned by Afro-American Professor, Aldon Morris, was not a familiar weapon of blacks. From the very inception violence had been on the agenda of the CR struggles. Black organizations and leaders have always advocated violence as a means of social change, even by NAACP’s founder Dubois as early as 1909, and Phillip Randolph, editor of a militant socialist monthly, The Messenger, and later, leader of the first MOWM in 1941. It must be observed, however, that the call for violence came mostly from the North and also from non-religious sources. However, both Dubois and Randolph were sensible enough to put violence on the back burner until blacks could consolidate some political, economic and organizational mileage that would help to balance the equation of force.

The pattern of racial violence underwent a fundamental transformation in the twentieth century. One will see its dialectical development from victims to passive resistance to organized violence to one now resembling terrorism. In the early twentieth century they were primarily the victims of white oppression. They responded through non-violent protests. In the sixties, blacks, having achieved some power through the non-violent protests of the fifties, became the aggressors. Their violence against whites, however, had fewer deaths because blacks concentrated their violence more against white institutions (business places, law enforcement agencies) rather than on white civilians. Violence was more directed on property through arson and looting. Black commodity violence in the sixties was more retaliatory in nature. They felt it was pay back time for the over 5,000 blacks lynched between 1865 and 1960, not including many more who were lynched by white mobs and kangaroo courts, and the over 500 killed in race riots.

By the summer of 1968 another dialectical transformation took place. Black retaliatory violence became more selective and terroristic and carried out by small organized groups with crude ideological motives. For example, Robert F. Williams, former NAACP president of the Monroe, North Carolina Branch, who was exiled in Cuba following a false charge of kidnapping a white couple, was a staunch believer and preacher of retaliatory violence. He articulated a revolutionary synthesis of nationalism and Marxism in a monthly newspaper he published called The Crusader, and openly called for massive organized violence against white institutions with the use of Molotov cocktails, lye, acid and bombs. Although exiled in Cuba, Williams was so influential on young black academics in the US that he was made president in exile of the group, Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). Other groups and individuals that sprouted with violence on their agenda included Black Muslims, Black Panthers, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and others. Many of these reactionaries preached that the church was a white man's institution that perpetuated oppression of black people by preaching passive resistance. The role of the Christian church in the CRM began a decline as a result, with a concomitant increase in the Black Muslim faith.

Another factor contributing to the tension of the decade was the resistance to the Vietnam War. Many blacks, Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Mohammed Ali) included, were reluctant to go to Vietnam to fight a war against people they “had no business fighting.” It was also believed that the most active and aggressive of black protesters were the ones shipped to Vietnam.

The Paradox of Violence and Social Reforms
Black violence peaked between 67 and 68 in scores of cities, with massive destruction in Cincinnati, Newark and Detroit. The property damage in these three cities alone amounted to over $56 million. To many, the obvious cause of black violence in the 60’s was the low social and economic conditions under which they were forced to live.

However, according to James P. Commer, statistics show that between 60 and 68 black Americans have enjoyed more rapid and substantial economic gains than any other period of American history. According to the Social Security Administration, the number of blacks living under the poverty line fell from 10.9 million in 1964 to 8.3 million in 1967. Black unemployment rate fell from 12.4 percent to 6.8 over the same period. There was a 47 percent increase in the better job categories for blacks compared to 16 percent for whites; an 80 percent increase in black professional and technical workers compared to 30 percent increase by whites; a 77 percent increase in black clerical workers compared to 23 percent increase for whites. There are many other statistics a general improvement of social, economic and political conditions of blacks prior to 1968 when the riot peaked. The statistics therefore are paradoxical to the hypothesis that the primary determinant of black violence is their existing social and economic conditions.

One observation, however, is that as whites or any other race in other countries of the world become more sensitive to the plight of the blacks, and more receptive to their demands, blacks keep raising their expectations and demands markedly. (Today some not only demand an apology for slavery committed hundreds of years ago, but also claim reparation. Others are claiming birthrights and national patrimony.)

Another marked observation of commodity violence of the sixties was that it lacked the charismatic leadership and organization it once had. Whatever leadership existed, it came from mainly from politicians. The emphasis at this point began to shift from civil rights and social reforms to that of political power for blacks. This characteristic continues in riots today. The political rationale is that the economic uplifting of blacks was a function of political power, that is, political power was a necessary prerequisite to economic uplifting. However, they failed to present any plans on how to transform political power to economic power, or even how to harness the financial and other resources in the black community into economic power. (NOTE: The Jews in Eastern Europe, the Indians in Uganda, and arguably to a certain extent in Kenya, South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname have shown that economic power was not necessarily a function of political power.) All things being equal, the whole theory is apolitical and unscientific, as it is generally accepted that the political, social and cultural infrastructures are founded upon the economic sub-structure of society, and not the other way round.

Likewise, the motivation for contemporary riots and looting does not arise from desperate needs as were in the past, or for survival, say like the food riots in India during times of famine, but the riots are conducted with a carnival, happy-day spirit, with a deliberate intent to destroy. For this reason the credibility of contemporary black leadership has become suspect, and lacked the full blessing and support of the black church. Some black clergymen, however, actually support or advocate violence, but generally they have been noted to have tainted integrity.

Allen Grimshaw, studying race riots of the sixties, concluded that there was no direct relation between the level of social tension and the eruption of social violence. Like modern terrorism, therefore, the extent of the damage far exceeds the political demands. Recent race riots in California, Crown Heights and Cincinnati have also proven this.

In most incidents of commodity violence, regardless of how much sympathy and interest they aroused among middle-class blacks, the riots were mainly "violent lower-class outburst."

Whereas communal violence prior to the sixties involved a confrontation between black and white communities, commodity riots, especially as it entered the third and destructive stage, represents a confrontation between the black community and law enforcement authorities.

What lessons are there in the violence of the sixties for us to learn in 2003 and especially in this supra-nuclear age? For sure, if we have learned anything from history, it is that violence breeds more violence and leads to deep and lasting hatred. Have we learned anything from the assassinations of Gandhi and King? The creed these men lived by was, “ We must be the change we wish to see.” These are the men who left lasting footprints on the sands of time. Those who preach, “by whatever means necessary”, “our steel is sharper”, “slow fire, more fire” are doomed to the garbage heap of history.

Selected Reading
Graham, Hugh Davis & Gurr, Ted Robert: The History of Violence in America. Bantam Books, June 1969.

Morris, Aldon D.: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Press, 1984.

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