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U.S. civil rights activists campaign for federal government action, 1957-63
In 1957 A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin initiated a campaign to pressure the U.S. government to intervene for the civil rights of African Americans.
Randolph, 68, was the acknowledged “elder” among civil rights leaders, with a base in the labor movement. Rustin, 57, was a veteran civil rights and peace activist who had coached Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
They believed that mass nonviolent struggle was essential for black freedom and economic justice, and should be led by an alliance of blacks and organized labor. Few shared that view in 1957.
In the late 1940s and ‘50s the U.S. anti-Communist movement had shut down most middle class activism, purged the labor movement of much of its progressive leadership, and promoted widespread conformity, especially in white America.
Of the civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was preeminent: credible, well resourced, and the only one with a mass membership base. It, however, disdained nonviolent action in favor of lobbying and court suits. The labor movement, which had immense practical experience with nonviolent struggle, was inhibited by white racism within its membership and the loss of progressive organizers.
In what at first seemed a major victory for civil rights, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 ruled that racial segregation in schools is illegal. The segregationist South disagreed, and the executive branch of the federal government declined to enforce the Court’s ruling. Nevertheless, the Court’s decision opened a crack in the wall of racism and the NAACP and others worked to widen it through widespread petitioning in local school districts.
From Randolph and Rustin’s point of view, a breakthrough came in 1955-56 with the bus boycott in Montgomery, in highly segregationist Alabama. (See, African Americans boycott buses for integration in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., 1955-1956 50,000 blacks waged a campaign for over a year, won, and catapulted into international prominence their young leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rustin personally went to Montgomery to assist, then returned to his New York base and, with Ella Baker and others, raised money to support direct action in the South. Other bus boycotts in the South followed, as well as protests to integrate public accommodations. (See, Tallahassee black community boycotts buses for desegregation, 1956-57 and African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, protest segregation, 1956-1958)
Now that black people were on the move regionally, Randolph and Rustin wanted to add direct action on the national level. In 1941 Randolph had prepared a March on Washington because some war industries refused to hire or promote blacks even though their profits came from federal contracts. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt avoided the confrontation by issuing an executive order related to discrimination (see, African Americans threaten march on Washington, 1941). Rustin was also active in the 1941 effort. They knew that U.S. presidents did not like masses of black people coming to town.
At the same time, they placed direct action in a movement-building context, a chance to get organizations that were often competitive with each other to work together. In Washington in 1957 there was a voting rights bill before Congress with an unsure chance of passage although it had President Dwight Eisenhower’s support. To march on Washington focusing on voting rights could be an opening for organizations’ cooperation, even with the NAACP. Randolph and Rustin reduced the abrasive appearance of the march by framing it as a religious witness. After getting Dr. King on board they won other partners and even the NAACP.
An estimated 25,000 joined the Prayer Pilgrimage on May 17, 1957, perhaps the largest march in Washington up until that time.
After silently marching through the streets of Washington the assembly gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear prayer and scripture, singing and poetry, and a rousing speech by Dr. King. The event transitioned King from a Southern leader to a national leader, another objective of Rustin. President Eisenhower softened his refusal to meet with civil rights leaders and opened his Administration’s door to Dr. King. A watered-down voting rights bill passed Congress. Although compromised and woefully inadequate from the point of view of civil rights groups, it was the first civil rights bill to gain passage since Reconstruction. Like the Supreme Court decision in 1954, it was another crack in the edifice of racism.
White segregationist mobilization intensified and became more violent. In 1958 in Little Rock, Arkansas, white violence over school integration forced President Eisenhower to send federal troops. Reluctantly, he found himself enforcing school desegregation.
The intensity and scale of the segregationist push threatened to put the civil rights movement on the defensive. To avoid that, Randolph and Rustin renewed their initiative on the national level. They turned to a strategic asset: new Northern allies who were horrified by the televised violence coming from Southern segregationists. By now, 1958, young people might be ready to shake off the anti-Communist freeze that had chilled America. Rustin hoped that 1,000 students might participate in a march.
The first Youth March for Integrated Schools was held October 25, 1958. People came from as far away as California, in delegations from colleges, unions, and religious organizations. It was again sponsored by civil rights organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Organization (led by Dr. King) and a reluctant Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, who felt he had to go along.
It was the largest youth march that Washington had ever seen – an estimated 10,000. The concluding event, again at the Lincoln Memorial, featured baseball player Jackie Robinson and singer Harry Belefonte. Dr. King was recovering from an almost-fatal stabbing and his wife, Coretta Scott King, spoke for him. She hailed the crowd as challenging the prevailing assumption that named the era’s youth as “the silent generation.”
The Youth March stimulated campus organizing against racism and activism in general among young people. Because the March was so inspiring, only the NAACP initially objected to Rustin’s proposal that the March be repeated in the spring. The sponsors of the October 25 march agreed to a youth march in April.
With an eye toward movement-building, Rustin extended the organizing to new networks including the National Student Association (400 campuses), and got financial support from labor unions. He used petitions as a way of extending outreach, and marchers brought the signed petitions along.
On April 18, 1959, the second Youth March for Integrated Schools attracted 25,000, from as far away as Los Angeles, the Deep South, and the Pacific Northwest. They marched down the National Mall carrying petitions with names representing ten times their number. Randolph, Wilkins, and King gave speeches at the Sylvan Theater.
The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins worried that the momentum of these two youth marches provided an opportunity for Rustin to build a new organizational base. A new organization could catalyze a nonviolent national youth movement, threatening the NAACP’s own youth section. Wilkins made clear to Randolph that this was unacceptable, squelching the possibility of a new organization.
While A. Philip Randolph agreed not to promote a new organization, he did go on to plan with Rustin a new action initiative: to picket the political party conventions of 1960. After considerable organizing was done, Wilkins de-railed the plan through back-door maneuvering that included Congressional Representative Adam Clayton Powell threatening to go public with the charge that Rustin, a gay man, was lovers with Dr. King. Although this was untrue, the U.S. culture of that time meant that, if the charge were made by a credible source, the results would be devastating.
Not until 1963 could Randolph and Rustin again unite the major forces, including Wilkins’ NAACP, to use nonviolent action to pressure Washington.
In the meantime the local struggles held the stage. Students who had come to Washington for the youth marches went home to organize sit-ins. Eager recruits became available for Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. There were mass campaigns in a number of cities. Local NAACP activists often participated in and even led campaigns. (See, Community members campaign for integration of Girard College in Philadelphia, PA, USA, 1965-68)
The U.S. continued to polarize. Membership in the National Rifle Association skyrocketed, and white violence increased. Civil rights for blacks was the dominant issue in the U.S., and movement leaders complained that the federal government was Missing in Action.
Descriptions of the August 28, 1963, March on Washingtonare easily available, an event perhaps best known today for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The gathering of 250,000 was resisted by President John F. Kennedy. However, it focused national frustration with federal governmental inaction at the same time as it transformed that frustration through a pageant of dignity, hope, and determination.
Randolph and Rustin, who usually did their work in the background, were pictured on the front cover of Life Magazine. The widest coalition they had built yet boasted strong labor participation.
The 1963 March on Washington widened the crack in racism sufficiently so that federal action could be forced that same year, through the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign. When President Kennedy refused Dr. King’s request that he act for civil rights, King joined the Southern Christian Leadership Council affiliate in Birmingham led by Fred Shuttlesworth to escalate the struggle there. The result was globally televised images of white police and dogs and water hoses terrorizing black nonviolent demonstrators. Four young children were killed when a black church was bombed. The industrial city of Birmingham was, to use Rustin’s phrase, in a state of social dislocation. (See, African Americans campaign for equal accommodations, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 1963)
In the midst of crisis, Kennedy reportedly worked the phones with key industrial leaders and won agreement that a civil rights bill was needed. Lyndon Johnson managed the bill. The result was meaningful systemic intervention by the federal government: the Civil Rights Act of 1963. As Randolph and Rustin predicted, mass nonviolent struggle could force federal action, and would do so again two years later when the Selma campaign precipitated a U.S. Voting Rights Act (see, African Americans campaign for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, USA, 1965)