In the early 1940s, a public opinion survey revealed that the vast majority of white Americans believed blacks were content with their social and economic conditions. They were quite wrong. Although the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 brought an end to the institution of slavery in the United States, black Americans had learned again and again, year after year, that the definition of "freedom" depended upon many things: the goals of those in political power, the national economy, international pressures, the mood of the nation, and the strength of the black masses and their leaders to influence all of the above. Since Radical Reconstruction, the nation's first great experiment in interracial democracy, African-Americans discovered that federal commitment to black suffrage, employment, land ownership, and civil rights was fleeting. Blacks also found that the former Confederacy sought to limit their confidence, intellectual development, and economic success.
By the turn of the century, little had changed. In the South, where nearly 90% of the nation's black population lived, Jim Crow laws limited interaction between the races in parks, libraries, billiard halls, schools, restaurants, bathrooms, bus stations, markets, theaters, bars, hotels, pools, and, even, brothels. White supremacy in the region still depended largely upon the suppression of black ambition, and white southerners used economic reprisals, terror, and ritual lynching to prevent blacks from voting, owning property, and expressing any desire to challenge the tradition of segregation. In the North, blacks also confronted discrimination in employment and housing, police harassment, and a judicial system that favored whites.
Labor demands created by World War I opened up new well-paid positions for blacks in northern industry. In the greatest single population shift in the nation's history, nearly 2 million black migrants left the South for northern urban centers in the years during and following the war. But despite black commitment to the war effort, the nation's atmosphere of racial intolerance remained stifling as whites in both the North and the South feared black competition for economic and educational opportunities. Between 1918 and 1927, more than 400 blacks were lynched, at least 42 of them burned alive.5
By 1940, African-Americans had more access to rights considered essential to the American experience—political, material, and civil—but they were by no means equal under the law. Although black leaders during World War I had implored their people to set aside grievances for the sake of national unity, black leadership during the Second World War declared a battle on two fronts, a "Double V" campaign—"victory over our enemies at home and victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad."6 Organizers such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin personified this new way of thinking and rallied black citizens to demand greater rights, equal privileges, and federal protections against violence.
At the same time, World War II did much to destroy the legitimacy of racism as a respectable ideology of civilized society. The central pillar of Adolf Hitler's worldview had been the absolute racial supremacy of the "Aryan" German people, and the Nazi regime's maniacal pursuit of racial "purity" ended in modern history's worst genocide—the Holocaust, in which Hitler's minions orchestrated the murder of six million European Jews. Before World War II, both anti-Semitism in particular and racism in general had been widely accepted, "normal" features of life in most Western nations, including the United States. But the manifest evil of the Nazis' crimes against humanity generated worldwide horror and disgust, forcing people everywhere to confront the nightmarish consequences of aggressive ideologies of white superiority. Hitler gave anti-Semitism (and racism more broadly) a bad name.
The world that entered World War II was, in many ways, not the same world that emerged from it. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, nationalist struggles in Africa and Asia—in India, Vietnam, Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya, among others—led to the decline of several European empires. One by one, nearly all colonized nations in Africa gained their independence. For African-Americans, the liberation struggles of black people abroad were both inspiring and galling, in light of continued oppression at home. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee explains, "They were getting their freedom, and we still didn't have ours in what we believed was a free country. We couldn't even get a hamburger and a Coke at the soda fountain."
The United States, too, had transformed after World War II. The nation entered into a Cold War with the Soviet Union and the federal government found that to secure allies it needed to commit itself to progress in race relations, or at least to the illusion of progress. Even the United States Supreme Court took foreign concerns into consideration when deciding cases involving racial inequalities. In its monumental ruling in 1954 against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court agreed with the NAACP lawyers who argued that each and every decision regarding the lives of African-Americans could have great repercussions in the Cold War world. "Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills," the Court wrote, "and it raises doubt even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith."7 The nation's reputation was at stake, and anyone who cared about national security could no longer ignore racial injustice or think of it simply as a regional problem or a personal inconvenience.
But for many, racial justice was not about winning the Cold War or protecting America's international reputation. "There comes a time," young clergyman Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, "that people get tired... tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression."8 For thousands upon thousands of regular people, the struggle for civil rights meant the chance to increase their earning potential, register to vote, attend quality schools, and ultimately improve their communities and create a more promising future for themselves.
In December 1955, these goals motivated some 50,000 working men and women to boycott the Montgomery city buses for more than a year. For a total of 381 days, the black community of Montgomery, along with sympathetic white citizens, organized carpools, rode in taxis, and walked miles to and from their destinations to protest bus segregation laws, which required black passengers to sit in rows in the rear of the vehicle, or to stand if white passengers needed seats. Boycott leaders Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and the charismatic Kingconvinced black southerners to put their jobs and their lives on the line all for the hope of just one citywide victory. As these leaders would promise, one successful, brilliantly organized campaign to force a single southern city to reform its Jim Crow laws would be only the beginning of a massive nonviolent movement to finish what Radical Reconstruction had begun nearly a century before.
Not long after the bus boycott, a younger generation of blacks became determined to get involved in the civil rights struggle. Young adults like Anne Moody, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil who had come of age in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, the Montgomery boycott, and the vicious murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, were anxious to tap their own courage to tackle white supremacy. It wouldn't be easy. Diane Nash, a student who led one of the first sit-in protests to desegregate lunch counters in the South, reveals, "With what we were doing, trying to abolish segregation, we were coming up against governors of seven states, judges, politicians, businessmen."9 Black and white students conducted sit-ins at restaurants, play-ins at parks, swim-ins at public pools and beaches, bowl-ins at bowling alleys, and read-ins at libraries. They were often met with harassment and violence from angry whites, but they chose to remain nonviolent and didn't strike back. By the end of 1960, tens of thousands of young people all across the country had participated in protest demonstrations against racial discrimination ushering in a decade of fierce political activism.
In January of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC convened to discuss the tremendous success of the nonviolent strategies used by working people in Birmingham and by students throughout the nation, and decided to launch a similar campaign to desegregate businesses in downtown Birmingham. By May, more than 2,000 demonstrators had been jailed, and images of resolute protesters—young and old—being attacked by police dogs, beaten with nightsticks, and blasted with fire hoses appeared in national newspapers, magazines, and television news broadcasts. These dramatic confrontations, coupled with the loss of customers, forced the businesses to agree to desegregate their stores and hire black workers—a profound victory for the movement.
Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement refused to allow Kennedy's promise to go unfulfilled. On 28 August 1963, a quarter of a million black and white Americans traveled to the nation's capital to call for the passage of the civil rights bill, as well as a plan to reduce unemployment, and an increase in the national minimum wage. Among the sea of protesters, picket signs read, "Jobs and Freedom for Every American," "NO U.S. Dough to Help Jim Crow," "We March for First Class Citizenship NOW," and "Seek the Freedom in 1963 Promised in 1863." From the Lincoln Memorial, dozens of civil rights, labor, and church leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the crowd, chanted freedom slogans, led people in song, and called for cooperation in the struggle against oppression. A. Philip Randolph, as the chief organizer of the march, would, at last, witness a demonstration for economic and racial justice just like the one he had conceived of over two decades before.
But, as the years following the summer of 1963 would reveal, the movement had its limitations, and tensions brewed within. Plus, as economic disparities between blacks and whites replaced desegregation as the key issue in the movement, goals had to be rethought, strategies reassessed, and alliances reconsidered. The movement for civil rights would transform itself in the mid-1960s into something quite different from what it had been before the famous March on Washington.