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About this book

An established introductory textbook that provides students with a compelling overview of the growth of the mass movement from its origins after the Second World War to the destruction of segregated society, before charting the movement’s path through the twentieth century up to the present day.

This is an ideal core text for modules on Civil Rights History or American History since 1945 - or a supplementary text for broader modules on American History, African-American History or Modern US Politics - which may be offered at the upper levels of an undergraduate History, Politics or American Studies degree. In addition it is a crucial resource for students who may be studying the Civil Rights Movement for the first time as part of a taught postgraduate degree in American History, US Politics or American Studies.

Table of Contents

1. The Transformation of Politics: 1945–1960

The postwar migration of African Americans from the rural South continued, forced out by virulent racism and poverty accentuated by the mechanisation of cotton farming and the dangerous clouds of new fertilisers (Daniel, 2000). Many moved into the urbanising South but many more flocked into industrial cities of the North where they had full citizenship, forcing politicians, especially Democrats heavily dependent on the white working class in the North, to face the challenge of the ‘New Negro’. The migrants outside the South in 1940 constituted 17 percent of the residents of New York City and Detroit. Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were home to 30 percent of African Americans living in the North and West (Issel, 1985). The unskilled located into growing urban ghettos, and some joined trade unions. But not all northern cities saw similar increases; for example, Milwaukee had few unskilled workers from the South but had a small number of long-term black residents many of whom were middle class (Jones, 2009).
William Riches

2. Grass-Roots Struggle in the South: 1954–1959

It was on Thursday, 1 December 1955 that the 42-year-old Mrs Rosa Parks, who inspired the young Melba Pattillo, was arrested. Returning home from her day’s work as tailor’s assistant in a Montgomery, Alabama department store, she took her seat on the bus and a white man was left standing. The driver ordered her to move because a city ordinance did not allow a black person to sit parallel with a white passenger. Mrs Parks refused. Three times she was ordered to move and she said ‘No’. Warned that she would be arrested, she told him to go ahead. He called the police and she was taken to jail. These events sparked the Montgomery bus boycott (Garrow, 1988) and no one involved realised that this was the first step in the massive struggle of African Americans to overthrow the so-called ‘southern way of life’. Mrs Parks has often been portrayed as a woman who acted because of her tiredness and sore feet but as Angela Davis observes: ‘Now of course, this particular way in which history is remembered represents the woman as passive participant – as someone without agency’ (Davis, 1994). Rosa Parks has pointed out that at 42 she did not think she was old and although tired her refusal to move was because she was tired of giving in.
William Riches

3. The Struggle Intensifies: JFK and a New Frontier? 1960–1963

Despite the sit-ins and boycotts of the late 1950s, which sought to capitalise on the success of the Montgomery boycott, it was not clear as the new decade began whether the African American community would be singing We Shall Overcome at the end of the decade. Martin Luther King Jr had joined his strong-willed father in Atlanta. As King started his new career, southern Democrats were pleased that a young senator from Massachusetts, whom they had promoted for the vice presidency in 1956 because he had opposed the Civil Rights Act, was organising his campaign for the presidency. While John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was readying his assault for the White House, King dreamed of winning control over the National Baptist Convention and it seemed that the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses was the end of the struggle and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Apparently JFK was not interested and it seemed King did not want to continue the fight. But whatever reluctance Kennedy showed for civil rights in his desire to keep southern Democrats on side, the younger generation of African Americans were not prepared to walk away.
William Riches

4. Triumphs and Tragedies: LBJ, the Great Society and the Limits of Liberalism 1963–1968

As Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took the oath of office on Air Force One shortly after the announcement of the president’s death, Jacqueline Kennedy stood near him in her pink bloodstained suit. The Texan had fought her husband for the 1960 Democratic nomination and had stunned political pundits when he agreed to be the vice-presidential candidate. The scene of a grieving wife whose husband had been assassinated was something that Movement people knew well, like the death of Medgar Evers whose killer, Byron De La Beck, was convicted only in 1994. His would not be the last death of those in the Movement. There are parallels with 1945 following FDR’s death. Truman was little known and distrusted. Although his achievements for African Americans were limited, he was the first president to openly attack the evils of discrimination. Many remembered the uncertainty after FDR’s death. Now they must cope not with the sudden death of the president but with a president’s assassination. The next five years would see important triumphs and tragedies but at that moment African Americans worried about the accidental president. Would he be true to his region or their supporter? For some in the Movement the 1963 union of black activists with white liberalism had its dangers. ‘The central dilemma of the first stage of the black freedom movement emerged: the existence and sustenance of the civil rights movement neither needed nor required white aid and allies, yet its success required white liberal support in the Democratic Party, Congress and the White House’ (West, 1993).
William Riches

5. The New Right and Civil Rights: 1968–1989

For those caught up in the Movement, 1968 seemed to be the year that the old elite’s rule was ending. In Northern Ireland, France, Germany and Japan students believed they were the vanguard of a revolution that would sweep away both liberal and conservative establishments. Had they not forced LBJ not to run for re-election? And they were determined to fight LBJ’s chosen candidate, a long-time supporter of civil rights, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He had betrayed them at the 1964 Atlantic City Convention and supported the war in Vietnam. Humphrey relied on Johnson and Chicago boss Daley. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war Democrat, continued his campaign and his popularity rose but he failed to win over Kennedy supporters. He behaved like a spectator rather than someone trying to expound clear policies and many anti-war delegates supported Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. At the Chicago Democratic Party convention, millions of TV viewers saw ruthless attacks by Daley’s lieutenants on anti-war delegates and the media in the convention hall. CBC news anchorman Walter Cronkite deplored what he called ‘fascist’ tactics. Democrat Senator Ribicoff said Daley’s tactics reminded him of the Gestapo. The police riot continued outside. Daley claimed he was upholding law and order against violent hippies and the majority agreed with LBJ who, using his favourite phrase, said he wanted ‘to get them by the balls’.
William Riches

6. Transformation: A New South?

LBJ had always wanted consensus politics but by 1967 he faced massive opposition from the left who wanted the Vietnam war ended and from black power advocates who wanted nothing more to do with liberalism and who dismissed the Great Society as a sham. The Vietnam War meant disproportionate deaths of black men (Nitty Gritty, 1 September vol. 2, no. 2, Civil Rights, SMDL). Conservatives claimed LBJ was not doing enough to win the war and wasting money on unpatriotic welfare scroungers. He admitted: ‘There were deep divisions in the country, perhaps deeper than we had experienced since the Civil War. They were divisions that could destroy us if they were not attended to and ultimately healed.’ On his return to Texas he walked beside the Pedernales River and reflected that as president: ‘I had given it everything that was in me’ (Johnson, 1971). However, LBJ had shattered the broad alliance which had brought him so many legislative successes. Knowing that the Voting Rights Act would destroy the solid Democratic South it was essential that the Supreme Court protected his Great Society. When Earl Warren said he would retire, LBJ chose liberal Tennessean Abe Fortas to replace him. Fortas would have been the first Jewish head of the Court. Illinois Senator Dirksen (Republican) and Mississippi Senator James Eastland (Democrat) blocked the appointment by two votes. Dirksen feared he would lose his position as minority leader of the Senate and Eastland was furious that Fortas had urged Jews to support the Movement that, according to Johnson, Eastland interpreted as a conspiracy of Jews and African Americans to take over the country (Johnson, 1971). Eastland personified the old South.
William Riches

7. Willie Horton and the Southern Strategy: George H. W. Bush 1989–1993

Angry, white blue-collar voters flocked into groups such as Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) and the Republicans were eager to win them over from the Democratic Party. The goal was to unravel the gains made by disadvantaged people including women since FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Although some Christian Coalition supporters might have been politically pragmatic (Watson, 1999), most fundamentalists in the Moral Majority and the Catholic Church wanted abortion abolished. They linked this with opposition to other concerns such as their concerns feminism, abortion, affirmative action, prohibition of prayer in schools, desegregation in any form and the growing demand by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people that their human and civil rights should be protected. The Ultras believed there was a communist plot to destroy America. Fuelling this backlash was the growing awareness and dread that white people were gradually becoming the minority: this was exploited during the presidential campaigns in 2008, 2012 and 2016. A civil rights and anti-war activist historian contends that this national mood had begun in 1980 by the calculated use of bussing black children into working class and poor white neighbourhoods (Zinn, 1980). Bussing was exploited earlier, but it is correct that George H. W. Bush, a former congressman, head of the CIA and Reagan’s vice president, heightened polarisation along racial lines.
William Riches

8. A Third Way from Hope? Bill Clinton 1993–2001

George H. W. Bush, most of the media and many in both parties underestimated the campaign skills of the Arkansas governor William Clinton. He had early political ambition reinforced as a teenager when he met JFK at the White House. After graduating from Yale Law School, he spent a short time teaching at the University of Arkansas. Despite joining anti-war demonstrations in London when a visiting student at Oxford University, he was confident on his return to Arkansas that he could defeat a conservative Republican incumbent congressman in the 1974 election. He lost. However, his challenge was almost successful and he was elected state attorney general. He was a populist especially in his efforts to defend consumers against the giant utility companies. In 1978, aged 32, he became the youngest governor in the country but in his first term populism, in a time of mounting conservatism, resulted in defeat in 1982. He decided if he were to succeed he had to moderate his views. In 1982 he was re-elected governor and advocated a ‘Third Way’. This meant adopting many ideas from the conservative agenda, first advanced by Charles Murray in his book Losing Ground, which maintained that welfare programmes undermined the poor and unemployment should be replaced by so-called ‘workfare’ (Mayer, 2016). In 1991, as chair of the Democratic Leadership Conference, Clinton persuaded them to reject ‘quotas’ and when challenged said he supported affirmative action and civil rights (Klinkner and Smith, 1999; Clinton, 2004). Criticism of private enterprise and its abuses was toned down, if not entirely abandoned. Another central theme of his ‘New Democracy’ was the need for retribution against criminals who undermined social stability.
William Riches

9. 1876 and All That: George W. Bush 2001–2009

Why 1876? Because the November 2000 presidential election ended in much the same way as the earlier one. Both elections resulted in a furore over fraud. In 1876 Democrat Samuel Tilden needed one more Electoral College vote to defeat Republican Rutherford Hayes. Both parties claimed victory in the states of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, where both had been involved in vote rigging, and terrorist groups had intimidated and murdered black and white Republican officeholders and voters. As in 1876, Florida was crucial in deciding the 2000 election. In the compromise of 1877, Hayes was pronounced the winner and agreed to withdraw the last federal troops from the South. The Republicans abandoned the southern African Americans, especially those who had had the vote, and the long march of the Party away from the black community had begun. By 2000 many black citizens had regained their vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Most white southerners, Democrats since the Civil War, aligned with the Republicans who chose to be a virtually all-white party and later even attracted ex-Nazis such as David Duke. It became a familiar refrain, especially among Clinton admirers, the press and network television, that Gore lost the election because he did not allow the former president to campaign for him. Most Americans forget that Gore won the election. Allegedly, he showed ‘almost a pathological need to prove he could stand on his own outside the shadows of the political master [Clinton] – and perhaps outside his father’s shadow, as well’. Clinton was ‘frustrated’ by Gore’s ‘mortal clunkiness as a campaigner’ (Klein, 2002). He ignores Gore’s role as a valuable and effective vice president and his support for Clinton’s ‘Third Way’. Gore’s loyalty cost him votes.
William Riches

10. ‘Post-Racial’ America? Barack Obama 2008–2017

African Americans, Hispanics, liberals, women, LGBT people, unions and even some Republicans were certain 2008 would be the Democrat’s year. For his loyalists, however, George Bush had defeated terrorism and won the ‘crusade for democracy’ in Iraq. Even though the mastermind of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, was free and there was a ‘Great Recession’, a Republican could win the election. Bush says he ‘laid the foundations for recovery’ (Bush, 2010). But he had ignored the plight of the low-income working and middle classes, especially African Americans, and for many the last months of his presidency were a rerun of Hurricane Katrina when African Americans and low-income white people had been left to drown. He floundered during the 2008 financial crisis caused by banks selling low-income mortgages to African American and poor families wanting to live in suburbia. Time magazine’s assessment of Bush was: ‘He was less than a President and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one’ (12 January 2009).
William Riches
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