How Far Was Peaceful Protest Responsible for the Success of the Civil Rights Movement in the Years 1955-1964? Essay

From 1955-1964 the civil rights movement organised a series of campaigns addressing transport, education and the segregation of public places. The civil rights movement rarely called themselves that but simply called themselves ‘the movement’ because it indicated that the goals of the movement were much bigger than civil rights’. Martin Luther King wanted not just the death of legal segregation; he wanted the birth of a ‘beloved community’ in which black and white people were an integral part of one another’s lives. The term implied a journey and a direction and unstoppable momentum.

The campaigns included the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, the Little Rock Campaign of 1957, the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Albany Movement of 1961-1962 and the James Meredith of the University of Mississippi case of 1962. The Montgomery bus boycott targeted the segregation on buses in the South. This meant that the front rows of the bus were reserved for white people which meant black people had to sit at the back, if the bus was full however, black people were forced to give up their seat for a white person.

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In 1955 Claudette Colvin demonstrated that there was wide spread support in Montgomery for challenging bus segregation. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) turned to Rosa Parks, a long-standing member in order to challenge segregation. On 1st December 1955, Parks refused to leave her seat and allow a white man to take her place and as result was fined $14 and was arrested. Parks’ arrest led to a two-prolonged attack on segregation laws in Alabama. First, the NAACP mounted a legal case to challenge the segregation laws.

Secondly, the black people of Montgomery began a campaign of direct action targeting local bus companies. As a result of this, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was established under the leadership of Martin Luther King in order to co-ordinate a boycott of the local buses until segregation was abolished. The MIA worked mainly through black churches and its Christian basis meant that it was committed to non-violent methods. King advocated civil disobedience and direct action, insisting that protest should always be peaceful.

The campaign lasted for over a year, during which time over 85% of Montgomery’s black community boycotted the buses. The boycott hit the bus companies hard and on 21st December 1956 the Montgomery Bus Company desegregated their buses, allowing black passengers to sit wherever they liked. By 1957, the de facto desegregation of education in the Southern states had made little progress. The 1957 Little Rock Campaign attempted to speed up school desegregation by enrolling nine black students into Little Rock’s all-white Central High School.

Local Governor Orval Faubus opposed the enrolment and ordered the National Guard to prevent the students entering the school. However, President Eisenhower ordered Governor Faubus to withdraw the National Guard. Faubus complied but the students were still prevented from enrolling due to the crowds of white racists. Because of this, President Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to protect the black students and as a result, on 25th September the students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School.

Faubus, however, did not admit defeat and backed by white racists in the Arkansas legislature he passed a law giving him the power to close local schools in order to avoid desegregation. As a result 4000 students, black and white, were forced to seek education elsewhere. The NAACP went to court in 1958 and as a result the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to prevent desegregation for any reason. In June 1959 the schools in Little Rock were reopened and had to accept black and white students.

The Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 shifted the focus of the civil rights movement towards public places such as restaurants, swimming pools and libraries. In February 1960, four local students entered a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat on ‘whites-only’ seats at the counter, refusing to leave until they were served. The protest escalated; 27 students came on the second day and 300 by the fourth. By the end of the week the store was temporarily in order to halt the sit-ins.

The sit-ins were hugely influential and within a week similar protests had occurred in six towns in North Carolina, within a month sit-ins were taking place in six more states. Activists stages ‘wade-ins’ at segregated swimming pools, ‘read-ins’ in segregated libraries and ‘kneel-ins’ at white-only churches. As the sit-in movement spread a new civil rights organisation was formed, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Freedom Rides of 1961 were designed to turn the de jure victories of Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia into de facto desegregation of interstate transport and interstate transport facilities.

The Freedom Rides set to test these rulings by travelling from Washington DC to New Orleans on interstate transport. The Freedom Rides campaign was organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). A group of seven black and six white activists from CORE and SNCC set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses on 4th May 1961. After the Freedom Riders were attacked by racists such as the Ku Klux Klan and were refused treatments by the police and medics, King, who had previously refused to be involved, gave a speech at a rally in support of the Freedom Riders.

The Freedom Riders achieved a significant victory by forcing Attorney General Robert Kennedy to enforce desegregation of the interstate bus services. Following the Freedom Rides, the SNCC targeted Albany, Georgia, and organised protests to end segregation. Local Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had studied the strategy of the protestors and adopted a new approach designed to deny them media attention. He ordered the local police to treat protestors with respect in public to prevent racist violence.

King was arrested during the campaign and there is evidence that Pritchett arranged to have him released in order to prevent his incarceration gaining publicity. Finally, Pritchett made general promises that conditions would improve which led to little concrete action. The Albany Movement was significant because it showed that peaceful protest did not always bring about change. It led to divisions within the civil rights movement and radicals in SNCC began to talk about using violence to challenge segregation as peaceful protest was less effective.

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