It’s Black History Month! At my annual King Thing, I had the honor of having a woman present who had been part of the Civil Rights Movement, who had had the experience of going to jail for protesting, who had heard Dr. King speak on several occasions. And I thought – HEY! Do I really know enough about what happened? We focus on Rosa Parks and Dr. King, but there was SO much more. All across the South, and in parts of the north, people were organizing. There were lawsuits, marches, boycotts, sit-ins. Laws were changed, but the South fought back. It was only with the televising of the most heinous acts that brought the injustices to the public eye and white people began to cry out over the drastic nature of how we were mistreated, enough to push for enforcement of laws already on the books.
I wanted to start with the question – when did it start, why did it start? Most historians say that it started in 1954-1955 with the successful Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education in which “separate but equal” in public schools was struck down and the fight to integrate schools across the South began. But in fact, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – founded by Charles Hamilton Houston in the 1930’s, and championed by Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, an impressive lawyer who went on to be the first black woman to be named a NY State Senator, a Manhattan Borough president, and eventually a federal judge – prepared a series of court cases, inching toward the final confrontation of Brown v. Board of Education. Others say it started with Rosa Parks’ arrest for not giving up her seat for a white woman on a street bus, which got 60% of its revenue from African-Americans, and the subsequent Montgomery boycott which lasted nearly 2 years. Yet Parks was the second woman arrested, and her arrest was planned by the local NAACP chapter. None of the events of 1954-55 happened spontaneously. We just don’t hear the backstory.
What is also said is that there was an overall discontent among African-American soldiers returning from the war, which was fought over tyranny and fascism, only to return to Jim Crow. To have the opportunity with the GI Bill to go to college, only to find meager job opportunities, well below their knowledge level. Or to see housing go up in suburbs across America, only to be denied access because of covenants designed to keep blacks out of the new housing, and stuck in overcrowded conditions in city ghettos.
So, there was a determination to fight back, to push for change, and to be willing to risk lives for it. And people definitely died. We read about Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and poor Emmett Till, but with every movement there was violent backlash, from dogs and hoses and arrests, to beatings, bombings, fires and killings.
I will be honest. Work is a bear right now, and I may not be able to put something out every day. But I am determined to try. Tomorrow, I hope to write about “the Brown strategy” and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Wish me luck!