“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”-Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776
The greatest failing in the formation of the United States of America was its tacit acceptance of slavery by not only keeping it legal in the Constitution, but creating the Three-Fifths Compromise that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census (and therefore the makeup of the House of Representatives when revised every ten years). This approval (intended partly to ensure that the Southern states where slavery was most common would join the union) sat like a festering sore for some 60 years before becoming a combative dispute in the 1850s, and then leading to the Civil War in the following decade.
After the North won the war, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution gave the many slaves in this country their freedom, citizenship, and for the men, the right to vote. As such, Reconstruction saw gains for the then-liberal Republican Party in the South (though not peaceful ones, as racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan emerged to oppress African Americans), but after the Compromise of 1877 (which handed Rutherford B. Hayes the Presidency), Reconstruction was allowed to end, and the brutal Jim Crow era began in the South while segregation was allowed to flourish in an equally pernicious fashion in the North. The key plank in this status quo was the Supreme Court’s absolutely vile decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 that declared that “separate but equal” was just.
If anything good came from Plessy, it was the formation of the Civil Rights Movement. The early days of the movement were not easy, what with the robber barons, two World Wars, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (thanks to D.W. Griffith’s technically pioneering but morally repugnant Birth of A Nation), and the Great Depression in the first half of the 20th Century. A big result of the difficulties faced towards African Americans was that millions ultimately left the South and migrated to Northern cities, where the racism, while still embarrassingly present, was far less overt than in the Jim Crow South.
The turning point for the Civil Rights Movement came in 1954 when Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned at long last in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case-but only in relation to education. Energized, and also dissatisfied with the incompleteness of the victory,groups like the NAACP began to engage in direct action. The first of these direct actions was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The action was first considered when Claudette Colvin was arrested for not moving from her seat for a white passenger on March 2nd, 1955, and formalized in December of that year when Rosa Parks, who was a secretary for the local NAACP chapter (and generally less of an unfair target for personal attack) was arrested and convicted for the same offense. The boycott lasted for a little more than a year, and was successful. Equally important, however, was the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest and most famous leader: the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King, originally from Atlanta, was chosen to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, which spearheaded the boycott, and preached for nonviolent protest and cooperation, using his faith as a basis for his arguments. He was also a staunch supporter of wage equality for all, family planning, and would become one of the fiercest opponents of the war in Vietnam in the ’60s. During the bus boycott, King’s home was firebombed. Soon, he would be subject to surveillance by the FBI and labelled a radical and a communist.
In 1957, two major events occurred. The first was the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which elected King as the organization’s President. The SCLC intended to involve churches directly in fostering the nonviolent activism that Dr. King and the MIA had successfully used in the bus boycott. Slow to gain traction out of fears of retaliation (many of those methods involving violence), the SCLC eventually became as important in the movement as the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality.
The second major event of 1957 was the integration of Little Rock Central High School by what became known as the Little Rock Nine. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, known for his strict belief in segregation, used the National Guard to bar entry to the nine black students who had sued for the right to attend the school. Eventually, President Eisenhower was forced to federalize the National Guard troops and deploy part of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. By all accounts, the Nine went through hell in trying to attend the school. They were abused by crowds when being escorted into the building, and then harassed by the other students inside. One of the Nine, Minnijean Brown, was ultimately expelled for taking a stand against her attackers. In the end, only Ernest Green would graduate from Central High School, and Little Rock would close the entire public school system at the end of the year, rather than continue to obey the Supreme Court. They would not be the only community to do so.
1958 brought the start of the sit-ins, designed to peacefully protest segregated businesses by simply sitting down. The first such sit-in was organized by the NAACP Youth Council at the lunch counter in a Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. Three weeks later, the store reversed its policy, and the entire chain of stores in the state quickly followed suit. The tactic spread like wildfire, with similar incidents throughout the South and even as far as Nevada (which, in no small part because of of the power of the mafia in Reno and Las Vegas, was almost as racist as the South). Eventually, Ella Baker of the SCLC organized a conference of sit-in leaders at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The meetings resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which along with CORE became known for a more militant outlook on the movement.
In 1961, CORE initiated the Freedom Rides as a test of the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which finally ordered transportation lines desegregated. This was the most dangerous protest yet, with buses being firebombed and Riders being brutally attacked, the most notorious incident occurring in Birmingham, Alabama when Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor decided to give the Klan 15 minutes to do as they wished before police intervention. The Riders were beaten badly, with James Peck (one of the many whites who fought for civil rights) requiring 50 stitches to his head. The tipping point was on May 24th, 1961, when Riders were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. By the end of the summer, more than 300 were arrested for taking part in Freedom Rides in Jackson, and they were regularly beaten, forced to work hard labor in the sweltering heat, and crammed into tiny cells (with the windows closed on the hottest of days), among other offenses. Public opinion soon shifted in favor of the Riders, and President Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue an order to integrate.
Birmingham became a hotbed for conflict in 1963 when the SCLC organized a campaign to desegregate the city, which was highly divided racially. Eugene Connor was at the forefront, and he ordered protestors to be sprayed with fire hoses, attacked by dogs, and beaten by police. Connor, whose grip on control of the city was diminishing (Public Safety Commissioner was the only elected office he held after running for multiple positions in the 1962 elections, including mayor), ignored the authority of the mayor with his actions, and with his political allies, went so far as to claim on a technicality that his term in office did not end until 1965, in effect leaving Birmingham with two active governments. The SCLC’s protests focused directly on businesses, however, and gained some traction before Connor managed to acquire an injunction against the protests on April 10th. Two days later, on Good Friday, Rev. King and 49 others were arrested. While incarcerated, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which responded to complaints from eight white clergymen who criticized the decision to protest before the incoming mayor could affect change. Meanwhile, profits began to nosedive for local businesses (including national chain stores in the area), causing executives to blink and demand that the President intervene. Dr. King was released on April 20th.
The dispute appeared to be ending on May 10th with the announcement of the Birmingham Truce Agreement, and King made preparations to leave (which he did the next day, departing for Atlanta). However, state officials were tipped off that the KKK was planning a bombing, and nothing was done to stop the National Guard from leaving on the 11th by order of George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama. While the Klan held a rally in nearby Bessemer, the Gaston Hotel (where King had stayed) received a bomb threat. Roughly two and a half hours later, the home of Rev. A.D. King (brother of Martin Luther King, Jr.) was bombed by the police. The Gaston was also bombed just before midnight. (A KKK informant, Gary Rowe, attempted to pin the bombing on the notoriously militant black separatist-oriented Black Muslims when reporting to his FBI contact. Rowe is also believed to be one of the men who took part in the bombing.) While some people began to march peacefully after the bombing at the Gaston (which was loud enough to be heard throughout the entire town), the situation turned ugly and rioting started,followed by the arrival of the state police, who took brutal action. In order to protect the Truce, President Kennedy was forced to send the Army to restore order.
In total, 100 cities saw riots that summer, as tensions boiled over. Even the Kennedy Administration was affected: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called a meeting with author James Baldwin and other cultural leaders, and the result was thoroughly antagonistic, but managed to convinced both Kennedy brothers (especially Robert) of the seriousness of the situation. On June 11th, after forcing Governor Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama, the President appeared on television asking America to support the Civil Rights Movement on a moral basis, and promised to introduce legislation to Congress.
On August 28th, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held in support of President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill, and fast became one of the most famous-and controversial-actions of the era. Some 300,000 people swarmed to the nation’s Capitol to march, and hear speeches by Rev. King and others. The most famous speech was King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech, which called for cooperation and togetherness in support of the President’s legislation. Most controversial, however, was the speech by John Lewis of the SNCC, which was deeply critical of Kennedy, and was nearly cancelled by the march’s organizers for being “too inflammatory”. Lewis conceded, removing some of the harsher words in the speech, but it underlined the growing criticisms that the Movement was being co-opted and watered down, most notoriously by Malcolm X, whose Message to the Grassroots speech lambasted the affair as a “picnic”.
Soon afterwards, however, Malcolm X began a transformation that turned an already powerful leader into one of the greatest of his time. After falling out with the Nation of Islam and leader Elijah Muhammed (who may have been engaging in the damning taboo of engaging in extramarital affairs), Malcom X converted to the Sunni branch of Islam and went on his Hajj to Mecca, where, when seeing Muslims of all colors worshipping, he had an epiphany about racism. He realized that his religion could be a means to overcome the issue of racism, and openly regretted many of his prior actions. This is not to say that Malcolm X had become soft; while he was suddenly more willing to work with more moderate leaders (including having a single meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. on positive terms), his push for black nationalism continued, and he started working with the Organization of Afro-American Unity and speaking at the Militant Labor Forum, held by the Socialist Workers Party. However, his feud with the Nation of Islam cost him his life: he was assassinated on February 21st, 1965 by three mean as he prepared to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan.
This brings us to the “present” in Star Trek Debriefed, and the Selma to Montgomery marches. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it was now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, getting out the vote in the South was still a severe challenge. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods targeted towards largely poor and disenfranchised African Americans were still in place. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was the boldest move to challenge this system, as the party was created in opposition to the state’s official party, and exposed the deep divide in the Democratic Party just as President Lyndon Johnson was trying to celebrate his party’s civil rights victories while trying to win his first elected term as President. The MFDP was ultimately unsuccessful, but on February 26th, 1965, the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson galvanized the voting rights movement in Alabama. Jackson, who was a deacon in Marion, was beaten and shot by police while marching on the 17th.
Rev. James Bevel, Director of the Selma Movement (and the man who had called for and initially planned the March on Washington), planned, along with Hosea Williams of the SCLC (and Martin Luther King’s field general) and John Lewis, to lead a March from Selma to the capitol of Alabama, Montgomery. On March 7th, 600 people began their march and made it a whopping six blocks before being beaten, gassed, and, for 17 people, hospitalized by the police. Lewis and Amelia Boynton (who had organized the march) were beaten unconscious. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday” after footage of the police brutality was broadcast nationally, and caused a major outrage. President Johnson, in a televised address, lambasted the brutality of the event and promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress. The SNCC, who had not officially supported the first march due to their differences with Dr. King and the SCLC, now fully on board, and organized sit-ins the next day, including in the office of Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach.
Seeking an injunction against the police, the march organizers instead received a restraining order against a further march until further hearings could be held. However, a march was still planned for March 9th-“Turnaround Tuesday”-as Dr. King made a nationwide call for clergy to come to Selma. Roughly 2,500 people marched to the Edmund Pettis Bridge before turning back after a prayer session. However, only the SCLC leadership was informed of this second march, creating confusion and resentment.
This was massively overshadowed by the events of that night. Three white Unitarian Universalist ministers who had heeded Dr. King’s call were attacked by members of the KKK, and James Reeb, from Boston, never woke up, dying two nights later. The rage was swift and widespread. President Johnson, who had not even acknowledged Jimmie Lee Jackson’s beating and death with a single phone call, made over 50 related to Reeb. Sadly, the life of a white man had made more of a difference to many, including the President, than the death of a black man.
The SNCC and students at Tuskegee Institute opened a “Second Front” of protests directly in Montgomery, and were again attacked, though protestors this time threw bricks at the police, who were mostly on horseback. Activists in solidarity with the Selma protestors had a sit-in in the East Wing of the White House. And on March 15th, President Johnson introduced the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a televised address.
On March 17th, the march was finally allowed to proceed, and on the 21st (a day after the Alabama Nation Guard was federalized by the President), the March began. On the 25th, a crowd 25,000 strong reached the capitol and listened to Dr. King deliver his How Long, Not Long speech, before he was barred from delivering a petition directly to Governor George Wallace. The crowd stayed peacefully until a secretary appeared to take the petition.
The successful third Selma march had a horrible postscript, however. Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife and mother of five from Detroit, was shuttling protestors back to their destinations with Leroy Morton, a 19-year old African American man when the two were chased by members of the KKK while driving back to Selma on a back road. Liuzzo was shot in the head twice and her car veered off the side of the road into a ditch. Morton, covered with Liuzzo’s blood, survived by playing dead when the Klan members inspected the shot-up wreck for survivors. One of the men in the car was FBI informant Gary Rowe, which led to Liuzzo being a victim of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO operation, as she was accused of being a communist, a drug addict, and of cheating on her husband in order to deflect any implication against the Bureau.
Next week: Discussing NBC’s surprising next step with regards to Star Trek.