Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Civil Rights Environment in the Early 1960s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the harsh racial climate of the early 1960s.

In Mississippi, during the civil rights campaign of the 1950s and early 1960s, white people had a license to kill African Americans. In Liberty on September 25, 1961, a member of the all-white state legislature, E.H. Hurst, murdered an African-American man and former childhood friend, Herbert Lee, when the latter tried to register as a voter. In front of a cotton gin, Hurst shot Lee in the head as he sat in the cab of his truck. Lee fell out of the vehicle, and his body was left lying in an expanding pool of blood for two hours before a black undertaker picked up the body.

A farmer and father of nine, Lee had been active in the voter registration drive conducted in the black community by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He acted as a chauffeur for the group’s leader, Robert Paris Moses, a Harlem native who moved to the rural community to head the campaign. Even though Hurst murdered Lee outdoors in broad daylight in front of several witnesses, a coroner’s jury ruled the death a justifiable homicide. Hurst claimed that Lee owed him money and became threatening when the politician demanded payment. Hurst also told the jury he had accidentally pulled the trigger on his .38 pistol. One African-American witness, Louis Allen, had been threatened and out of fear testified before the jury that the five-foot-four Lee had tried to strike Hurst, who stood more than six feet, in the head with a tire iron.

By October, a federal grand jury had convened to consider indicting Hurst for violating Lee’s civil rights. Allen told Moses that he was willing to recant his earlier statements and would testify that Hurst killed Lee without provocation. Moses called the U.S. Department of Justice and tried to get protection for Allen, but the DOJ turned him down. Later, an FBI agent tipped off the local sheriff’s department that Allen was planning to testify against Hurst. Allen was attacked, the assailant breaking the witness’s jaw with a flashlight. Shortly thereafter, on January 31, 1964, an assassin killed Allen with three shotgun blasts. That killer also was never punished.


Even though the United States Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in the "Brown v. Board of Education" decision in 1954, by 1959 more than 99 percent of black and white students in the South still attended Jim Crow campuses. Across the former Confederacy, states denied African Americans the right to vote in spite of a 1957 civil rights law passed by Congress that reaffirmed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments guaranteed voting rights regardless of race or color. Throughout the South, blacks who asserted their constitutional rights to vote, or to sit near white people in movie theaters or on buses, faced getting fired or physical violence.

Tired of continued discrimination, four African-American students at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, N.C., Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, J.R. David Richmond, and white NAACP member Ralph Johns planned a direct blow against local segregation laws. After buying school supplies to establish that they were paying customers, the five staged a “sit-in” at the segregated lunch counter at the town’s F.W. Woolworth Company department store February 1, 1960. “We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part,” one of the students told a wire service reporter from United Press International. The demonstrators asked for coffee. A black dishwasher, fearful of losing her job, castigated them. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant,” she said. A white policeman closely watched the students and struck his billy club against the palm of his hand. C.L. Harris, the store manager, chose to ignore the five protestors. “They can just sit there. It’s nothing to me.” The five protestors sat at the lunch counter for hours as some white customers, assuming the men didn’t know any better, told them that they were at a ‘whites only’ counter.” Others cursed them while a small number patted them on the back and expressed support.

Protestors proved much harder to ignore the next day. Twenty-five participated in a second sit-in. On the third day, 85 showed up. The fourth straight day of sit-ins included white students from the University of North Carolina’s Women’s College in Greensboro. Soon, North Carolina students staged sit-ins at theaters, drugstores, and other businesses in a dozen towns across the state. Soon, sit-ins bedeviled Jim Crow businesses outside of the state, in Hampton, Virginia; and in Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee. In Little Rock, Arkansas, sit-in participants sported buttons that said, “I am wearing 1959 clothes with 1960 dignity.” On the seventh day of the campaign, civil rights demonstrators held 54 sit-ins in fifteen cities and nine states across the former Confederacy. Eventually 70,000 Americans would participate in the sit-in movement of 1960, and 3,000 would be arrested, with the demonstrations breaking out even as far away as Nevada.

If the first sit-ins were spontaneous, as the movement spread such demonstrations became more organized, with students receiving training in the non-violent techniques established by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and his allies in the 1950s. Over Easter weekend, 1960, Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a group led by King) presided over a meeting of sit-in protestors from across the country dubbed the “Sacrifice for Dignity” at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker urged the students to form their own civil rights organization, independent from older groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (better known as the SNCC or “Snick”) to direct the national sit-in campaign. In Nashville, protestors received a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”: “Do show yourself friendly on the counter at all times. Do sit straight and always face the counter. Don’t strike back or curse back if attacked. Don’t laugh out. Don’t hold conversations. Don’t block entrances.”

Stores resisting desegregation soon displayed signs that proclaimed “No Trespassing” and “We Reserve the Right to Service the Public as We See Fit.” The protests were now receiving national media attention. As the non-violent sit-ins spread, whites often responded with brutality. At Nashville lunch counters, angry local whites burned the backs of black women with lit cigarettes, while in Biloxi, Mississippi, whites shot and wounded ten African Americans gathered at a public beach. The sit-ins made for dramatic television as well-dressed non-violent black protestors suffered beatings and other abuse from enraged white mobs. As newspaper photographers snapped pictures and television cameras rolled, whites hit black students, poured ketchup and mustard on their heads and pulled them off of stools. Jerome Smith, sitting in at a lunch counter in McComb, Mississippi, later recalled, “A [white man] grabbed a cup of coffee and struck one of us, George Raymond, sharply at the base of his skull with the cup, spilling coffee over him . . . A white tough jumped at me and beat me with his fists, yelling over and over, ‘I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him!’ About a dozen whites pummeled our group. They pushed us around and over counters and tables and kicked us through the door.” Smith said that outside the eating establishment, the mob seized him and threw him several times in the air. They let him hit the pavement and then kicked him. Nevertheless, he said that he and the other students remained nonviolent.

Such scenes had a profound impact on newspaper and magazine readers and television viewers across the country, with African-American activists winning sympathy from white audiences in the North, Midwest, and the West Coast. Even white Southern elites cringed at the spectacle of crude hoodlums bullying the brave and dignified sit-in participants. Long portrayed as inferior and uncivilized, African Americans projected an intelligent and even saintly image as they endured the blows of uneducated thugs. “Here were the colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties, and one of them was reading Goethe and one was taking notes from a biology text,” wrote conservative and segregationist newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick of the "Richmond News Leader." “And here, on the sidewalk outside, was a gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slack-jawed, black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill, and some of them, God save the mark, were waving the proud and honored flag of the Southern States in the last war fought by gentlemen. Eheu. It gives one pause.”

President Dwight Eisenhower expressed sympathy for the black protestors, saying that he was, “deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the . . . equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.” In the North, blacks and whites organized boycotts of chain stores that practiced segregation in the South such as Walgreen’s, Woolworth’s and S.H. Kress stores. Yolanda Betzbeze Fox, a white former Miss America, protested at Woolworth’s stores in New York City, telling reporters, “I’m a Southern girl, but a thinking girl.” These sympathy boycotts put serious economic pressure on chain stores whose Dixie affiliates practiced segregation in the South, prompting a variety of reactions ranging from the closing of lunch counters to ending Jim Crow practices.

Change happened more rapidly in the border South. Four theaters and six lunch counters announced an end to segregation in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 10, 1960. Eager to avoid business disruptions and bad publicity, white business leaders and black political leaders worked out plans to quietly desegregate downtown department stores in Galveston and Houston. In Dallas, city leaders formed a Committee of 14 with seven whites and seven blacks. The black members of the committee were drawn from an older and relatively conservative generation of African-American leaders who had long pushed for incremental change. The committee convinced several stores such as Woolworth’s and Walgreen’s in the spring of 1960 to desegregate lunch counters. Nevertheless, sit-ins broke out all over Dallas, starting in October 1960. In the spring of 1961 a group of fifty-eight white and two black theology students from Southern Methodist University sat in at the lunch counter at the University Drug Store across the street from the college campus. When protestors refused to budge until the staff served them, owner C.R. Bright hired a fumigation service that pumped insecticide inside the store. Students began a sit-in at the Titche-Goettinger department store in downtown Dallas while 200 angry students returned to the University Drug Store for a five-hour protest that shut down business almost completely.

Even though Dallas television stations and newspapers refused to cover these incidents, by May 1961 the sit-ins tarnished Dallas’ national image as a city with a peaceful racial climate and threatened its economic bottom line. The Detroit Metropolitan Opera Company announced that it would no longer play to segregated audiences, specifically mentioning that Dallas had been notified of the new policy. Faced with possibly damaging business boycotts, the Committee of 14 achieved limited desegregation in downtown Dallas. On July 26, 1961, the Committee of 14 accompanied 159 black patrons to 49 downtown restaurants and lunch counters where they were served without incident. By then, the sit-in movement represented a passing of the civil rights leadership from an older generation to a young one. It also established a precedent for more “direct action” protests, which became the focus of the movement instead of the reliance on lawsuits that marked the NAACP strategy in the 1940s and 1950s.

According to 1960s chronicler Todd Gitlin, the sit-in movement in the first months of the new decade formed a sharp demarcation between the 1950s and the 1960s. “History rarely follows the decimal system as neatly as it did in 1960,” the sociology professor wrote in "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." “Suddenly the campus mood seemed to shift . . . What had been underground flowed to the surface. After all the prologues and precursors, an insurgency materialized, and the climate of opinion began to shift, the way spring announces itself with scents and a scatter of birdsong before the temperature climbs to stay.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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