Split in the Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States formed in the middle of the 1950s. The terrible legacy of slavery – the inferior position of African Americans – demanded an immediate reconsideration and structural changes. However, it turned out difficult to change the country’s mentality. While some part of the white population supported the Movement, there were many people who did not want to change the established order of things. What is more important, the authorities were in no haste to introduce changes to legislation. Taking into consideration that there were cases of violence against African Americans, it would have been natural for them to respond in a similar way. However, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement chose the strategy of civil disobedience with a wide range of nonviolent actions such as sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. Seeing that nonviolent resistance led them nowhere, some African Americans began to question the strategy and, as a result, a series of new movements appeared. The most prominent was the Black Panthers headed by Malcolm X who believed that African Americans should take what belongs to them, namely freedom and equal rights. Nonviolent resistance became the major stumbling block for the Civil Rights Movement and, in contrast to considerate and peaceful appeals of Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers had their strategy – aggressive tactics of the people who wanted real and fast results.
One of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement was Martin Luther King, who was an avid supporter of civil disobedience. As a Protestant preacher, King expected that the Biblical tactics of “turning the other cheek” would work and the white America would see its injustice and unfairness of the treatment of a large part of its citizens. King appealed to the sense of justice and morality and hoped that sooner or later the humble condition of African Americans would convince white Americans of their unfair treatment of their brothers and sisters with different skin color. However, such pleas were ignored and even though there were a significant number of white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans did not achieve equality in an economic level and residential and working opportunities.
Meanwhile, a new generation of young people saw such a humble attitude as ineffective. In 1963, segregation was the least of a range of inequalities African Americans had experienced and even it had a hard time in being abolished. Opening all public facilities for all groups of people disregarding their skin color did not require any funds or efforts. King wrote: “Even the more significant changes involved in voter registration required neither large monetary nor psychological sacrifice;” however, he continued, “turbulent events that dramatized the demand created an erroneous impression that a heavy burden was involved” (as cited in Litwack, 2009, p. 8). If it was so difficult for some white people to learn new ways, what could be said about new economic realities and providing African Americans with equal opportunities that required considerable funds? Obviously, some African Americans were aware that sit-ins and peaceful marches were not enough.
In 1963, seeing that the problem of segregation and racial inequality was still not solved, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement arranged the March on Washington in Washington, D.C. Its aim was to raise the awareness of the problem and attract the attention of the authorities. The March was attended by a large number of people and was broadcast on TV. The leaders needed such a wide audience so they could exercise their rhetorical power to involve as many white supporters as possible. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech had a huge impact. Until the broadcast, King had been known among the African American community and Civil Rights supporters; however, after the speech, his fame reached the national level. To suggest a framework and persuade the listeners in the legitimacy of African American’s demands, King referred to the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence. If “all men” were promised “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” they included “black men as well as white men” (King, 1963, para. 4). Recalling how African Americans were brutalized and treated unfairly, King, however, reminded his audience that it was not the reason to change their line of behavior. On the contrary, he stated, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence” (King, 1963, para. 8). Nevertheless, many African Americans did not see any point in continuing the strategy that did not yield any results they needed.
In 1963, the Civil Rights Movement’s accomplishments were insignificant. Segregation and other instances of economic and social inequality were still in place. African Americans saw that their cause was moving slowly, and even if they were able to make some laws and practices change, it was not that easy to change the white population’s attitudes and habits to command black people’s lives. Whites were not ready to share their economic prosperity and reside side by side with black people. Therefore, even after anti-segregation laws had been enacted, white Americans simply attempted to arrange their lives elsewhere. Aptly calling it “white flight,” Litwack (2009) mentions how whites left downtowns and public schools and moved to the suburbs.
The stalemate revealed that probably the Civil Rights Movement’s strategy should be changed. A new generation of young African Americans did not have such reverence to the ruling class and were ready to demand, instead of politely asking for their rights to be respected. It resulted in civil disturbances and upheavals which “revealed the depths of frustration and despair” (Litwack, 2009, p. 12). For African Americans, their struggle was not about a nominal observance of civility but about physical survival. One Civil Rights Movement supporter said, “Civil rights, drinking water from a public fountain, eating in restaurant, going to bathrooms – all that is secondary to survival” (as cited in Litwack, 2009, p. 7). The black population still largely depended on whites economically (Litwack, 2009, p. 7).
Coming home from the Vietnam War, African American males were surprised to see that nothing had changed and they had to engage in another war – the war for equality. This is where their military preparation was useful and ex-soldiers became valuable members of the Black Panther (Litwack, 2009, p. 14). It became unbearable for African Americans to see that their nonviolent actions did not yield any results.
Malcolm X directed his severe critique at Martin Luther King’s approach. In his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X inquired, “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate” (as cited in Litwack, 2009, p. 9). While African Americans were as much American citizens as the white population, they were not included in the distribution of American wealth and resources. An even better explanation of the way African Americans felt at the moment is a comparison of whites and blacks racing at the track. While saying that their conditions are equal, a black person is being held at the starting line and then released with wishes to win the race (Litwack, 2009, p. 11). Even though Malcolm X was also a believer like King, he rejected the idea of false humiliation. Instead of the Civil Rights Movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” belligerently oriented black youth offered to sing “We Shall Overrun” (Litwack, 2009, p. 10).
In his 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, Malcolm X mocked King for believing white people and agreeing to their conditions. After a year with no significant changes in the lives of ordinary African Americans, Malcolm X had the reasons to say, “[The white man] made you think you were going somewhere and you end up going nowhere but between Lincoln and Washington” (Malcolm X, 1964, para. 27). He also referred to the Civil War to show that without violence and physical feedback, America would have gained nothing from England. Therefore, Malcolm X simply repeated that same idea, “liberty or death,” that liberated whites from the burden of the British Empire (Malcolm X, 1964, para. 30).
In his speech, Malcolm X said that a hard, unresponsive system could be cured only by a revolution. Revolutions happened in France, Russia, and China, and it was about to happen in America. Revolutions were usually bloody, but for America, it could be without bloodshed because it was easy to meet African Americans’ demands. He said, “All she’s got to do is give the black man in this country everything that’s due him – everything” (Malcolm X, 1964, para. 49).
Whether with a united front or splintered, the Civil Rights Movement had moderate successes. Even though the 1964 Civil Rights Acts eliminated segregation and any kinds of discrimination, it was more on paper than in real life. Indeed, there were some improvements. For instance, Black middle class increased and African Americans were in Parliament and other branches of power. However, considering everything, the white population was still more privileged that African Americans. There still were issues of predominantly black schools, black ghettos, and cases of structural discrimination in housing, job application, and health care, among others. Therefore, the Civil Rights Movement laid the foundation for a significant struggle, but the battle is not over even till the present.
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