Sunday, February 2, 2014

Black History Month: The Civil Rights Movement in America

by Sunnyjane

The dignity of the victim.*

More than three-quarters of today's Americans -- both black and white -- have no recollection of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  Those who believe they know its history are under the misconception that it began with Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955, or that it began with Dr. Martin Luther King's involvement. 

During my long and involuntary hiatus from all-things-computer last fall, I reread two books stuffed into my overflowing and totally disorganized office bookcase.  Once again, I was struck by the depth and quality of the authors' research, and the wealth of unbiased information contained between the covers.

There Goes My Everything

An ordinary sight in southern states, c. 1940
While most everything written on the Civil Rights Movement is told from the African-American perspective, Jason Sokol's excellent book, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, meticulously recounts how whites in the southern states faced the upheaval to their way of life that integration would bring.   They were terrified by the whole concept of equality for their fantasy world of our happy Negroes.  After all, colored people were inferior; everyone knew that!  Everyone knew it, of course, because they had been raised to believe it.

For me, the most powerful fifteen words in Sokol's book were these: The differences between "blackness" and "whiteness" are socially constructed, with no basis whatsoever in biology.  I say powerful because equality-for-all proponents have tried for years to find words to counter the racist argument that the Negro is somehow substandard to the Caucasian.  This social construction began, of course, when wealthy plantation owners saw their indentured servants earn their freedom and were no longer obligated to work for free.  The solution to this problem of labor turnover was solved by the Colonists ability to obtain -- as legal property -- kidnapped Africans.  Because no gentleman of good breeding could ever enslave an equal, the (by European standards) un-Christian, uncultured, uneducated, and uncivilized Negroes were the solution.  Clearly, these were inferior people who were only suitable for back-breaking labor that plantations required.  The women were useful has house-help and breeding, much like livestock, to provide a continual source of slaves.  The white economy of the south required it.

As if imbedded in their individual DNA, successive generations of white southerners perpetuated the myth that Blacks were a lesser race, and were unfit to mingle with the pallid class. 

When civil rights protests began across the south, whites were at first perplexed, then indignant, and then rebellious.  The mere idea of having their way of life disrupted and threatened by those inferiors was, in most cases, more than they could endure.

It was an immensely challenging period for the South and its collective psyche.  Most whites ultimately adapted to the new world, albeit reluctantly.  And some of course, never gave up their favorite illusion that The Old South Will Rise Again.  (Spoiler: It didn't.)

The Race Beat: The Press and the Civil Rights Movement

It took a long time for the national press to get involved in the struggle for equality.  Few people outside Alabama, for instance, knew that a colored seamstress named Rosa Parks had sparked a successful boycott of the Montgomery public transit system.  And prior to reading Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's great book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, I was unaware that there had been a vibrant Negro press for years before the historic effort for civil rights began.

There are reasons Americans were uninformed, of course.  Few people outside of big cities read national newspapers, preferring the local daillies or weeklies for their news; the TV networks focused on Washington politics in their limited news time-slots; and, of course, there was no Internet.  There was also an unspoken agreement between southern print media that there would be limited or no coverage of these silly little protests because they actually did not want the attention from outside that giving the issue publicity would bring.  The northern print media considered the whole matter a local problem, and of no concern to their readers.

Peaceful demonstrations against school segregation across the South
While northern media did report on the some school segregation demonstrations and protests, and ultimate integration of several school systems, after the drama was over the journalists went home.

The authors report on a black woman who, in 1956, was accepted at the University of Alabama.  Her first day on campus went smoothly; the next three days did not.  She was pushed, shoved, cursed at, screamed at, threatened and spit on by white students.  For her own safety, university authorities suspended her.  Her poise during these verbal and physical attacks moved one reporter to write, *What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unhappy country that it breeds such dignity in its victims?

A demonstrator is drenched by a fire hose with a water pressure strong enough to strip bark off a tree.

A college demonstrator is attacked by police dogs while taking part in a peaceful march.
Black and White college students injured during a peaceful protest.

White segregationists attack Black protesters at a public beach.
When the violence against protesters began, the southern states got exactly what they didn't want: national exposure.  It was no longer a local problem; by then the large print media -- and television -- were reporting the movement on a daily basis, and America was horrified and outraged.  It was the beginning of the end of segregation.

Many civil rights heroes would never become icons of the movement; that would be left to the well known names of the era.  But they deserve our recognition and our appreciation.  Without their sacrifices, a certain man born during this movement would never have had an opportunity to become President of the United States.

End Note



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