‘Tell Them About the Dream’: US Civil Rights Campaign

September 13, 2013 11:28 am

“If you’re black, you better not show up on the street, ‘less you wanna draw the heat” (Bob Dylan, ‘Hurricane’) And sometimes you might ‘draw the heat’ using public transport, as Rosa Parks found out on a cold winter’s evening in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1955.

Alabama, like all the other former Confederate, ex-slave states in the Deep South, still enacted racial segregation laws that discriminated against black Americans in public services, schools, retail, jobs and transport. It was almost as if the Civil War (1861-1865) had never happened, the most murderous conflict that saw the United States torn apart; where two diametrically opposed economic systems fought to the death – an industrial economy (the Northern states) versus the slave-based plantation economy of the Southern states.

History records that the North won.

Rosa parksThe then American President, Abraham Lincoln, had pushed through the ‘Proclamation of Emancipation’ at the height of the war. For long, he had fudged the question of ending slavery, preferring to possibly use it as a bargaining chip at some point. But, with the war in the balance, he issued the law with an eye on mass recruitment of much needed manpower for the Union forces, and with an eye on the damage such a move would effect on the economy of the South and so its ability to wage war.

Yet, within ten years of the end of hostilities, Southern politicians introduced laws of segregation that impeded the development of the black community. They were deprived of voting rights and millions of black people, though nominally ‘free’, remained in abject poverty.

Rosa Parks, on that night in 1955, made a decision not to give up her seat on the bus home to a white passenger, which was required by law. The bus driver called the police and she was arrested.

She wasn’t tired from a long day at work, she said later: ‘I was just tired of giving in.’


The next day, her bail was paid by Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and leader of the railroad company Pullman’s Porters Union, and friend Clifford Durr. Rosa was already an activist of the NAACP that had campaigned for civil rights since its founding in 1909, but little of substance had changed.

Nixon joined with Jo Ann Robinson, professor at Alabama State College and leader of the Women’s Political Council. Robinson decided on a proactive response and, overnight, produced 35,000 handbills calling for a Montgomery-wide bus boycott the following Monday. Rallies were held across the black community churches and it was agreed not to use the buses until the bus seats were available to all, black drivers should also be hired and that black people should be treated respectfully.

The boycott received a resounding response. More than 40,000 people refused to use the buses. They either used carpools, sympathetic taxis that charged the same fare, in solidarity, or walked. Organisers discussed their next move at the Mount Zion church. A formal organisation was needed to lead the campaign. They decided on a name – ‘Montgomery Improvement Association’ (MIA). A young newcomer was elected as its president. He was minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. His name: Martin Luther King.

The boycott was maintained for 381 days until Alabama state lawmakers, under pressure from bus company bosses feeling the pinch, were forced to repeal segregation on public transport.

Raised expectations

By 1960, nothing much had fundamentally changed under the Eisenhower presidency.

Blacks people in Birmingham, Alabama still experienced discrimination and worse. A young black man was knocked off his bicycle and castrated by a gang of men. Another who brushed against a policeman was pistol-whipped to the ground. Birmingham was named ‘Bombingham’, due to the amount of homes of black people and black community churches that were dynamited.

However, with the election of John F. Kennedy (JFK), the promise of reform raised expectations. By then, the civil rights movement had mushroomed. There were more grassroots organisations campaigning for change. Besides the NAACP, there was the Congress for Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. In 1957, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He continued to campaign, not only in his home state of Alabama, but also, less successfully in Georgia. With the coming of JFK to power with his promised ‘New Frontier’, the civil rights movement received a boost.

martin luther kingFollowing a trip to India, King’s admiration for Gandhi inspired him to emphasis that the campaign for civil rights should be one of non-violence. By 1962, with the Kennedy administration appearing to stall on their promises of reform, King, and those gathered around him, decided to organise a mass march on Washington to coincide with the centenary of Lincoln’s ‘Proclamation of Emancipation’ of 1863.

King told those around him that, in order to push for the civil rights legislation the Kennedy election campaign had promised, ‘we have to be prepared to put our lives on the line’.

Activist Bayard Rustin was brought in to manage King’s campaign team. He was noted for his labour movement links. He was a former member of the American Communist Youth and openly gay, three strikes against him as far as the establishment was concerned – he was black, Red and gay. As the campaign for the ‘March on Washington’ grew, the Kennedy administration was nervous.

In a June meeting with the president, King’s team told him of their intention to march on the capitol. Kennedy feared violence would kill his promised Civil Rights bill and tried his best to talk them out of it. After the meeting, in the White House’s rose garden, Kennedy informed King the FBI had told him his movement was infiltrated by communists.

What he didn’t tell King was that J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, had instigated wire taps on King’s and the other the leaders phone lines with his blessing. But no evidence was found. King only distanced himself from Jack O’Dell, a former member of the Communist Party who had given up his membership to work for the SCLC. But O’Dell remained in the background as an adviser and influenced King’s later move towards the Left.

Towards the Left

On August 28, the historic ‘March on Washington’ drew more than 250,000, both black and white supporters from across the country. They were prevented from rallying outside the Houses of Congress, instead they gathered at Lincoln’s Memorial. It was a day of speeches and protest music. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang, Peter Paul and Mary, the Freedom Singers and Mahalia Jackson too. There was a contingent of famous faces from Hollywood – Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jnr., Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston, Rita Moreno, Tony Curtis and James Garner.

John Lewis, chair of the SCLC, fervent campaigner and veteran of many sit-in campaigns, had been arrested 24 times. He was one of the main speakers, though he had been pressurised to alter the text for fear of offending the Kennedys. The offending text that was excluded demanded of the politicians: ‘Which side is the federal government on?’

But, of course, the main speech belonged to Martin Luther King, which was televised live on national TV in its entirety.

He called for the Civil Rights legislation to be enacted. Behind him, on the Memorial steps, singer Mahalia Jackson called to him: ‘Tell ’em about the dream…’

That was when King improvised from many speeches he had given and produced his memorable ‘I Have a Dream…’ speech that has gone down in history.

kennedy assasinationFollowing the end of the massive rally, King’s group met with JFK at the White House where he congratulated them. It was all the encouragement the president needed to see the legislation through. Within weeks, JFK was assassinated in Dallas. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), within twelve months of the march, pushed through the Civil Rights Act followed by the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Despite King receiving the Nobel Prize in October, 1964, he still kept up the pace. The next year, the SCLC organised mass marches to Montgomery and took his campaign north to Chicago. By this time, LBJ had stepped up American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was one thing to enact Civil Rights laws, quite different to put them into practice. Poverty was still rife in the black community and there was a a disproprtionate representation of black people both in prison and serving in the increasingly bloody Vietnam conflict.

King’s aims broadened to address these issues. He called for $30bn to be pumped into the poorest areas, a house-building programme, a campaign for full employment. He criticised the war in Vietnam that squandered lives and treasure. In reality, Martin Luther King was moving to the Left and was on the verge of drawing socialist conclusions. His ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ was basically a call for a redistribution of wealth for black AND white people.

‘Something is wrong with capitalism,’ he said, in one speech. ‘There must be a better distribution of wealth. Maybe America should move towards democratic socialism.’

In his 1967 ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech, which was to alienate many of his liberal supporters, the press and LBJ himself, he said: ‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’

Enemy action?

The following year, 1968, King called for another mass march on Washington. The Civil Rights movement was working hand in hand with the anti-war campaign. He wanted to build a multiracial ‘army of the poor’ to wage a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience.

He arrived in Memphis, Tennessee in support of black and white sanitary workers on March 29. On the balcony of his hotel room, on April 3, Martin Luther King was shot to death by, allegedly, James Earl Ray, a convicted thief and burglar.

There has been almost as many ‘conspiracy theories’ around King’s assassination as there were around JFK or Robert Kennedy’s assassination that same year. The younger Kennedy was also campaigning against Vietnam and was a supporter of King. All three assassinations have the ingredients, the uncertainties, the inconclusive evidence, that feed conspiracy theories.

Believe what you may. To paraphrase Ian Fleming’s ‘Goldfinger’ character in the book of the same name:  to lose one reforming, charismatic political figure is happenstance maybe; to lose two is perhaps coincidence; but to lose three, I fear, may very well be ‘enemy action’. You decide.

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