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American street signs for Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X

Civil Rights Movement

Image Credit: | Above: American street signs for Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X

There comes a time when people get tired...tired of being segregated and humiliated.

Martin Luther King

In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a department store worker, refused to move to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. She was not the first person to disobey segregation but the subsequent black boycott of the buses brought to prominence Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. Inspired by Ghandi, the Indian leader who had beaten the British Empire through non-violent resistance, King and his supporters endured shootings and bombings. In November 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on local bus lines and Rosa Parks was able to sit where she liked.

It was in the courts that organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), staffed by whites as well as blacks, secured legislative victory such as the ending of school segregation. (And economically, the Southern States had found the 'separate but equal' approach, with one school created for whites and one for blacks, financially unfeasible.) But behind these approaches there was the real and present threat of people like Malcolm X. A militant Muslim minister, Malcolm advocated 'any means necessary', implicitly including violence, in the defence of African Americans.

The blacks had discovered the three weapons with which…they were to achieve such striking victories; the imaginative use of political and economic pressure; the appeal to the courts and the Constitution; violence

Hugh Brogan: A Penguin History of the United States

In 1965, the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles erupted leaving 34 dead. In 1967, America saw the greatest race riots in its history. There were eight major uprisings. But blacks were no longer willing to sign up to the Vietnam war effort as they did in the Second World War. Half of those who were eligible for the draft who failed to register were black. In April 1967, Muhammad Ali, the World Heavyweight boxer, refused to take up arms in the 'white man's war.' The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The black vote, especially in Northern cities, was helping elect Presidents, from John F Kennedy in 1960 to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Did you know?

Woolworths was racist. In February 1960, Frankie McCain walked into Woolworths in the US with three other African-Americans and asked for service at the white only counter. They were refused and so they refused to move. By the second week, 121 cities were subject to these sit ins. McCain endured police intimidation and white supremacists. Two spat twice in his face, but when his only reaction was to say 'I love you because you are my brother' the racists thought him a 'nut' and unnerved, they left. Five months later the Woolworths chain ended segregation. BBC Witness: The Greensboro Four, The FBI tapped the private phone conversations of Martin Luther King and threatened him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. This was just part of a wider campaign that had seen the FBI carry out a massive counter intelligence programme against black groups in general from 1956 to 1971. Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States