Black Freedom Movement

The series of black protests that began with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 became during the following decade the most significant southern social movement of the 20th century. Although subsequent studies of this black movement usually stressed its civil rights goals and national leadership, the movement generated its own local institutions and leadership seeking economic and political reforms that went beyond the legislation sought by the major preexisting civil rights organizations. Indeed, black participants often called their movement a freedom struggle in order to express its broad range of goals. Rather than simply continuing long-term civil rights efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other national reform organizations, the southern black freedom movement can best be seen as a tactical and, ultimately, an ideological departure from those efforts. The southern movement was characterized by unconventional and increasingly militant tactics, locally initiated protest activity, decentralized control, and an increasing sense of racial consciousness among participants.

The first major phase of the modem black freedom struggle was the Montgomery bus boycott. Although blacks had protested against racial oppression throughout American history, the Montgomery boycott signaled the beginning of a period during which widely shared racial discontent was expressed through mass movements. Existing civil rights organizations did not initiate the movement, although Rosa Parks, whose arrest prompted the boycott, had been secretary of the local NAACP chapter. Parks's unplanned refusal on I December 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white man was both an outgrowth of the gradual rise of black political influence in the city and a stimulus for further mobilization of black community resources. On 5 December a group of local leaders established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to coordinate the boycott and chose as its leader the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to the city in 1954. King, who had received his divinity doctorate from Boston University, was one of the many new leaders who would reflect the increasing confidence and militancy of the movement, and his inspired oratory, filled with references to Christian and Gandhian concepts of nonviolent resistance, attracted widespread, favorable publicity. Despite the bombing of King's house and other acts of intimidation, the boycott continued until December 1956, when Montgomery officials reluctantly obeyed a Supreme Court order to desegregate the bus system.

The Montgomery bus boycott served as a model for black protest movements in other cities, for it demonstrated the ability of black communities to unite and struggle collectively for change. In 1957 King and his supporters founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to provide an institutional framework that would allow blacks to go beyond the NAACP'S strategy of litigation and lobbying. As SCLC'S leader, King moved cautiously, however, and did not initiate any major protest movements during the next five years. Nevertheless, King's presence in a community often increased black enthusiasm and attracted publicity. In addition, ministers and staff members associated with S C L C played crucial roles in many local movements.

The second major phase of the southern black struggle began on I February ig6o, when four black college students in Greensboro, N.C., sat at a lunch counter reserved for whites. The students had been affiliated with NAACP youth chapters, but they initiated their protest without consulting adult leaders. Other students in Greensboro and elsewhere soon followed their "ample, finding that the sit-in tactic offered an appealing way for young blacks without special skills and resources to display their discontent. There had been previous sit-ins, but the Greensboro protest ignited a social movement because it was well publicized and occurred in a region containing many black students. Thousands of students in at least 6o communities, mostly in the Upper South, joined the sit-in movement during the winter and spring of ig6o. In a few instances, violent clashes between protesters and white onlookers occurred, but student-led local protest organizations usually succeeded in maintaining nonviolent discipline while also displaying greater militance than the more cautious adult-led organizations. Despite efforts of the NAACP, SCLC, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to impose some control over the sit-in movement, the student protest leaders typically insisted on maintaining their independence. Even when student leaders formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to coordinate the movement, the new civil rights organization was not given authority to set policy for its constituent groups. SNCC would remain the most decentralized, antiauthoritarian, and militant of the major civil rights organizations.

The third phase of the southern struggle, involving the Freedom Rides of ig6i, was initiated by a civil rights organization-CORE-but this new form of protest activity did not become a social movement until CORE abandoned its initial campaign. In May 1960 CORE sent 13 riders through the southern states on a bus trip that was designed to expose the extent of segregation in bus terminals. After white mobs viciously attacked the riders near Anniston and at the Birmingham bus station, C OR E leaders decided to discontinue their effort. At this point, however, student activists, many of whom had participated in the sit-ins, announced their determination to continue the rides. After encountering further mob violence in Montgomery, a group of riders went to Jackson, Miss., where they were promptly arrested after ignoring Jim Crow rules. Despite Attorney General Robert Kennedy's plea for a "cooling-off " period, other young activists also came to Jackson to join the students already in jail. In addition, the rides into Mississippi encouraged students elsewhere in the South to stage similar protests against segregated transportation facilities during the remaining months of ig6i. Participation in the Freedom Rides allowed young students to display their militancy in places distant from their homes and campuses and to form a community of militant activists who saw themselves as the spearhead of the southern movement. This was particularly the case among the several hundred students who spent part of the summer of 1961 in Mississippi jails.

Some of the veterans of the Freedom Rides played important roles in the fourth phase of the southern struggle that began in the fall of 1961. Unlike the previous phases, this one was consciously initiated by civil rights activists who entered communities in order to begin social movements. These activists sought to mobilize poor and working-class-blacks who had rarely been involved in previous protests, and during the following two years they were able to increase dramatically the size of the southern struggle. "Freedom songs," often based on traditional religious music, and feelings of racial solidarity that were strengthened through common experiences became the basis of a distinctive movement culture. In the urban and Upper South, activists organized massive demonstrations to achieve desegregation of public facilities, better housing and job opportunities for blacks, and the elimination of discriminatory governmental policies. First in Albany, Ga., during late 1961 and 1962, and then in many other urban areas, marches and rallies were held to demonstrate black resolve and to prod the federal government to intervene on behalf of blacks. Learning from the largely unsuccessful Albany movement, King and other SCLC leaders initiated, during the spring of 1963, a tumultuous protest movement in Birmingham that led President John Kennedy to introduce legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The protests of 1963 culminated in August with a march on Washington that attracted over 200,000 participants.

While media attention was focused on the urban demonstrations, the voter registration campaign in the Deep South achieved more gradual gains. Although only a small proportion of eligible black voters had been registered by the end of 1963, local residents had begun to work with a group of full-time civil rights workers (mostly affiliated with SNCC). To coordinate the work of the various national civil rights groups and independent local organizations, Mississippi blacks created the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), directed by Bob Moses. In 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party was formed as an alternative to the all-white regular Democratic party. During the summer of 1964 hundreds of northern white volunteers assisted the black organizers and local leaders in the state. Although the MFDP failed in its attempt to unseat the regular delegation at the 1964 national Democratic convention, the summer project and the series of protests the following year in Selma, Ala., publicized the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South and prompted President Lyndon Johnson to introduce voter rights legislation that was enacted during the summer of 1965.

The Selma to Montgomery march was one of the last major demonstrations of the southern struggle. The passage of voting rights legislation, the decline of white support for the black struggle, and the related upsurge in northern urban racial violence made southern blacks more likely to see conventional political tactics rather than mass protest as the most effective way to achieve their goals. Furthermore, the militant racial consciousness of black activists made some of them less interested in working for civil rights reforms and more determined to achieve political power through building autonomous, black-controlled institutions, such as the Black Panther party in Alabama. Ideological conflict between proponents of "black power," such as S N CC chairman Stokely Carmichael, and more conventional civil rights leaders such as King came into public view during the Mississippi march held in June 1966 after the shooting of James Meredith.

The era of mass demonstrations came to an end in 1965, but the long-term gains of the southern black freedom struggle can be seen in the subsequent rapid growth in the number of black elected officials, the disappearance of humiliating Jim Crow practices, and the increased sense of racial pride and potency felt by many southern blacks. Although most scholarly studies of the southern movement continue to interpret it as an outgrowth of the inexorable trend toward the entry of blacks into the American mainstream, the movement was also a product of Afro-American culture and institutional development and its distinctive emergent ideas have continued to influence black thought and political life.

Clayborne Carson

In Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,
edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

SOURCES: Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960ís (1981); William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (1980); Charles W. Eagles, ed., The Civil Rights Movement in America (1986); James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account (1972); David L. Lewis, King: A Critical Biography (1970); Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977).