UNITED STATES HISTORY
*In the early 1960s, Mississippi was the poorest state in the
nation. 86% of all non-white families lived below the national
poverty line. In addition, the state had a terrible record
of black voting rights violations. In the 1950s, Mississippi was
45% black, but only 5% of voting age blacks were registered to
vote. Some counties did not have a single registered black
voter. In 1960, the NAACP and SNCC began to work to register
black voters in Mississippi and to teach them non-violent methods
of protest (such as the sit-in). Other activists were
organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
*More and more civil rights workers began to go into rural
Mississippi as the 1960s progressed. As the movement became
popular, young, socially conscious white northerners began to go
South, too, especially college students on their summer
*In May, 1961, CORE began a Freedom Ride through the South, in
which 13 young people, 6 white and 7 black, set off from
Washington, D.C. on two busses through the South, stopping to defy
Jim Crow Laws (using white restrooms and water fountains, for
example). In Alabama, the busses were attacked—one was even
firebombed, and some riders prepared to go home. However,
more civil rights activists, led by SNCC members and other college
students from Nashville, went to continue the freedom ride. In
Mississippi many of the riders were arrested. When photographs of
the bombed-out bus and stories about the mass arrests appeared in
newspapers, President Kennedy desegregated interstate travel,
although Mississippi was allowed to imprison the freedom riders
for disturbing the peace. In subsequent summers, SNCC
organised more freedom rides, many of which had white college
students participating as well.
*In 1962, James Meredith, an African-American Air Force veteran
won the right to enrol in the University of Mississippi, and was
given protection by Federal marshals. Governor Ross Barnett
and many white protesters tried to prevent him from attending, and
riots began that killed 2 people and injured 160. After
Kennedy addressed the nation saying that Americans could disagree
with the law but not disobey it, Meredith began attending classes,
graduated in August the next year, and went to law school.
However, Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker who had helped
Meredith get into Ole Miss, was shot and killed in June, 1963.
*In April, 1963, President Kennedy ordered the Army to enforce the
integration of the University of Alabama, which was opposed by the
governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Wallace stood in the
schoolhouse door to block two Black students from registering for
classes. Kennedy then federalised the Alabama National
Guard, and their commander ordered Wallace to stand aside, which
*In 1963, Martin Luther King, junior, other members of the SCLC,
and other activists began sponsoring more protest marches,
particularly targeting Birmingham, Alabama. Children even
joined the marches. Birmingham’s commissioner of public
safety, Bull Conner, responded by turning police dogs loose on the
peaceful marchers and blasting them with fire hoses. After
this appeared on television, President Kennedy and his brother,
Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, asked Congress for a major
civil rights bill.
*To put pressure on Congress, King and the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and
the NAACP organised a March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington in
August, 1963. 200,000 people took part (twice the number
hoped for), but they were peaceful. On the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial, King gave his famous speech describing his dream
that white and black children could live in brotherhood.
*In January, 1964, the states ratified the XXIV Amendment, making
it illegal to use payment of the poll tax as a basis for voting in
state or national elections.
*Not long afterwards, President Johnson and Congress passed the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned all public segregation and
workplace segregation based on race, sex, or national
origin. It also allowed the Justice Department to enforce
*1964 was Freedom Summer, as thousands of civil rights workers
organised by SNCC streamed into the Deep South in a massive voter
registration drive during the presidential election year. It
was fairly successful: within five years, 66.5% of blacks in
Mississippi would be registered to vote (higher than the national
average). Blacks and their white friends formed the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sent four delegates to
the Democratic national convention, two of whom were seated as
delegates-at-large as part of a compromise with the white
Democrats. However, in the short run, it was a hard and
*In June 1964, three civil rights workers--two white and one
black--went to investigate a firebombing at a black church.
They were arrested for traffic violations, and shortly afterwards
vanished. Their bodies were found six weeks later under a
dam. The white workers had been shot through the chest; the
Negro had been beaten to death.
*The FBI arrested 21 local whites, including the sheriff, but none
were convicted by juries of their peers.
*In 1965, there was a major voter registration drive in Alabama,
where blacks made up 50% of the state population but only 1% of
the state’s voters. In a series of marches, Blacks and white
supporters led by Martin Luther King marched 50 miles from Selma
to Montgomery. On the way, they were attacked by police
dogs, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, beaten by mounted
police with nightsticks, whipped, attacked with tear gas, and
hundreds were arrested--they did not even make it to Montgomery
until the third time they tried to march. Besides southern
Blacks, a Unitarian minister from Boston was killed during the
march, and a Klansmen later killed a white woman from Detroit who
was involved in the march.
*In response, LBJ pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress,
and signed it into law on 6 August 1965. It outlawed the
literacy test and sent Federal registrars into the South to make
sure everyone had a chance to register to vote. It also
declared that in a number of counties, mostly (but not entirely)
in the South, as well as several Southern states in their
entirety, not only had to change their current voter registration
laws to conform to the Voting Rights Act, but they could not
change their voting regulations in the future without first
getting permission from the Federal Government. The
preclearance requirement was overturned by the US Supreme Court in
2012 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, and a number
of states soon began tightening up their voter registration
*Johnson City was desegregated by court order in 1965, and
Langston High School was shut down (along with most other coloured
schools) because no white parent was willing to let their child go
to a black school. In 1956, ETSU had admitted its first
black student, Eugene Caruthers, a graduate student in music, who
went on to direct the band at Langston High for its last few years
*Not all blacks were satisfied with the slow pace of non-violent
protest, and a few opposed working with white people at all.
In fact, the non-violent period of the Civil Rights Movement ended
in 1965. In 1965, a few days after the Voting Rights Act was
passed, riots broke out in Watts, Los Angeles, and blacks looted
and burned their way through their own neighbourhoods. The
new slogan was ‘Black Power,’ but when riots began in 1967 in
Detroit (leading to 48 deaths) and Newark (with 25 deaths), the
rioters chanted ‘burn, baby, burn.’
*Some younger black leaders mocked King, saying he was too
conciliatory. Malcolm X was a black nationalist in the
Nation of Islam. Although Born Malcolm Little, he changed
his last name to X to reject his ‘slave name.’ Nation of
Islam is an extremist Black Nationalist group with teachings based
on Islam, but not regarded as truly Islamic by most other
Moslems. Among other things, the Nation of Islam believes
that non-Black people are actually demons and that there have been
prophets since Muhammad.
*Eventually Malcolm X would again rename himself (to El Haj Malik
El-Shabazz) and move away from extreme Black Nationalism.
Shortly afterwards, in 1965, he was shot by men from the Nation of
Islam, perhaps at the behest of Louis Farrakhan.
*Even SNCC moved away from its non-violent roots, taking up the
Black Power slogan. Stokely Carmichael had been a member of
SNCC since 1960, had worked on the Freedom Rides since 1961, and
in 1966 became chairman of SNCC. He promised that Black
Power would ‘smash everything western civilization has created,’
and promoted the notion that ‘black is beautiful,’ glorifying
unique clothing and hairstyles (like the Afro), and eventually
becoming ‘honorary prime minister’ of the Black Panthers. He
did vow to continue voter registration drives in Mississippi after
James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black
student, was shot while leading a protest march in 1966.
Although Meredith was badly wounded, he survived. Still, men
like Carmichael frightened whites and some blacks, while other
black people saw this as a rebirth of Marcus Garvey’s separatism.
*The Black Panthers were formed in 1966 to protect blacks from
white violence. They created a military-style organization,
carried weapons, and even marched into the California statehouse
with shotguns to protest restrictions on Blacks’ right to bear
arms. They often fought with police, sometimes committed
robberies and other crimes (keeping a cut of the proceeds to fund
the Black Panther Party), and frightened many whites.
However, the Black Panther Party was also involved in many
community projects as part of their organization. These projects
included community outreach, such as free breakfast programs that
supposedly fed 20,000 children in one year alone, educational
programs, and health programs, at least until many of their
leaders were arrested or killed by law enforcement.
*In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis began to strike for better
wages. They soon turned it into a civil rights issue as
well, for almost all of them were black. The NAACP came to
support them, and in March, Martin Luther King came to town, and
urged a one-day general strike for all black workers.
*King led a group of 5,000 peaceful demonstrators on a march
through town, but a small group of Black Power advocates called
the Invaders were there, too, and began looting and rioting.
King was criticised across the nation, because it was obvious he
did not have control of the situation. He planned another
march to prove himself, but on 4 April 1968, he was shot by an
assassin and died. Blacks across the country rioted.
*Shortly afterwards the mayor of Memphis agreed to give the black
sanitation workers a slight raise and recognition of their labour
union, and the strike ended.
*Also in 1968, Congress passed another Civil Rights Act, also
known as the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in
housing, including 'steering' (encouraging members of particular
races or ethnic groups to move into particularly neighbourhoods)
and 'redlining' (refusing to give loans to people seeking to buy
property in certain areas, often based on race or average income).
*Just as blacks were winning legal victories, they were alienating
many of their former allies through the actions of a few violent
radicals--the riots that broke out in Memphis were a sad memorial
for a man who preached non-violence. Despite the turmoil,
some African-Americans were quietly succeeding, finding better
jobs and being elected as mayors, governors, and members of
Congress, and by 1972 almost half of Southern classrooms were
integrated (although sometimes through the controversial practice
of bussing students long distances to mix students from
predominantly Black neighbourhoods into predominantly white
schools). Many of the problems of the past had been solved,
or at least addressed, but many had not, as well.
This page last updated 13 May, 2021.