Gospel Singers and Gunslingers; Riots and Radicals by steve mccrossan by steve mccrossan - Read Online

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Gospel Singers and Gunslingers; Riots and Radicals - steve mccrossan

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America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked 'insufficient' funds...So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The struggle that has become known as the American Civil Rights Movement was ignited by countless sparks, spanning decades. The movement and the ideals born within it are too prolific to have begun with one person, place or date. For the sake of this book, I will focus on post-World War Two America as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Post-War America found itself entering an era of unprecedented wealth and affluence. Its infrastructure was intact and the middle class, the suburbs, and the economy were all swelling. Defense expenditures were high and technological innovation seemed to be all-encompassing. These prosperous years led to a baby boom, which would prove to be a key factor in the overwhelming prevalence of youth in all of the 1960's movements. These factors, combined with the success of American style capitalism led many to dub it the American Century.

It might have been better described as the White American Century. Black soldiers were returning home from fighting against racist dictatorships in Europe and Japan only to be greeted with Jim Crow in the South and pervasive poverty and discrimination in the North. Even while fighting for freedom and democracy half way around the world, they were forced into segregated units. The Red Cross even segregated their blood supply. This is not to say that blacks didn't benefit in some ways from the post war boom, though. They did, immensely. This boom was, in effect, an incubator for the civil rights movement.

World War II initiated and accelerated structural changes that provided critical groundwork for future activism. The post war boom years provided jobs for thousands of blacks and, as a result, strengthened African American communities. With increased resources came stronger and larger churches, colleges, newspapers and political organizations.

The civil rights movement and its successes must also be viewed through the lens of the Cold War. The hypocrisy of American race relations in contrast to its democratic rhetoric provided a constant source of embarrassment, both at home, and abroad. In the context of the Cold War, the 1946 Truman Commission called segregation, an international embarrassment and propaganda tool. This notion was echoed in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. Reversing its earlier decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the Court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional and that separation of children generates a feeling of inferiority ...that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be done.

Dudziak points out that the Brown case was not necessarily the beginning of the American justice system catching up with its rhetoric, but rather, it was a Cold War weapon. The U.S. Justice Department had filed an amicus brief stating that racial segregation was a constant source of embarrassment, harmed U.S. foreign relations, furnished the grist for the communist propaganda mills and called into question our devotion to the democratic faith. Dudziak further contends that the history of the civil rights struggle is not a straightforward struggle for justice, but a complex story that includes self-interest and limited commitments. In the context of post-war America and in a Cold War world, a perfect storm of conditions was brewing to hurl in a drastic change.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP sought to use litigation to win rights for black Americans. Brown was a 10-year-struggle for the NAACP and a culmination of several different court cases. It is widely considered to be the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. The Brown case however was a pyrrhic victory for black America. Brown not only failed to integrate southern schools but it also triggered a wave of massive white resistance. Several states outlawed the NAACP, White Citizens Councils were formed and NAACP offices became the target of terroristic attacks. The organization was labeled radical, red baited and put under surveillance by the FBI. Southern states took advantage of the Supreme Court's ambiguous deadline of all deliberate speed to avoid desegregation. Ten years after Brown, seventy-five percent of all southern schools in the South were still segregated.

The next spark came in Montgomery, Alabama in late 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man. Parks' action has often been interpreted as the actions of a tired old woman rather than those of a strong and determined activist. She had actually been ejected from buses several times for refusing to give up her seat. She had also been the first Secretary of the Alabama NAACP. The story of Rosa Parks is representative of a history that has neglected, downplayed, or ignored the role of women. How many women's names can Americans cite from the civil rights struggle besides Parks and Coretta Scott King?

In response to Park's arrest, local leaders called a mass meeting, voted for a boycott of the city's bus lines, and called for an end to segregation on them. The local Woman's Political Council printed 35,000 flyers, urging the black community to stay off the buses. Car pools were organized to transport 17,000 people to work each day with an astounding ninety-five percent of local blacks participating in the boycott for over a year. Various local groups coalesced under an umbrella organization known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. They selected the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as their president.

King skillfully fused Gandhian nonviolence with Christian theology and called for nonviolent direct action. The participation of King and other Clergy members effectively anchored the movement within the church, the heart of the black community. Local churches already had effective fundraising capabilities and tight networks with other churches throughout the South. Morgan writes, The black church embodied the affective, moral, and spiritual ties of the community. Powerful spiritual exhortation, direct personal testimony, uplifting music, and strong interpersonal relationships fused together a determined community. This fusion gave the movement a strong grassroots appeal, a distinct difference from the NAACP's patient litigation strategy. Rather than paying dues to a far off national organization, blacks could now actively participate in the struggle, albeit under rigid leadership and tactics.

Montgomery would mark the first of many radical shifts that developed and evolved during the civil rights movement. These tactics often evolved and escalated in the face of defiant segregationists, racist terror, white apathy, a complacent federal government and increased black expectations. While the boycott may not seem radical now, it was certainly considered so then. Previous to King and the SCLC, the NAACP had been considered militant, radical and communist. The Justice Department went as far as to label them, seditious and enemy, inspired. Haines further added that When white resistance (to Brown) prevented the kinds of sweeping changes that many blacks expected the Supreme Court ruling to produce, the movement changed. So did the characteristics of what was called militancy.

The city of Montgomery responded to the boycott by arresting black leaders, and segregationists responded with shootings and the bombing of several churches and homes, including Kings. Despite this, the boycott continued. King urged people to walk with god and called for a commitment to love and nonviolence. He further added,

"If we arrested