Origins of the Civil Rights Movement

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Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, New York: The Free Press, 1984. 354 p. ISBN 0-02-922130-7


The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, by Aldon D. Morris, is a study of the first decade of the civil rights movement from 1953-1963. The author’s purpose is to explain how the civil tights movement came into being and became a major force. Morris also seeks to analyze the role in the movement of black masses, showing their organization and interconnectedness, thus refuting the popular view of unrelated spontaneous actions by various groups. As Morris says, “Social scientists for too long have portrayed the masses as a flock of sheep reacting blindly to uncontrollable forces.” (p. vi) Instead, Morris describes an “organized and collective form of black protest,” constituting the “modern civil rights movement,” which he defines as “the black movement that emerged in the South during the 1950’s, when large masses of black people became directly involved in economic boycotts, street marches, mass meetings, going to jail by the thousands, and a whole range of disruptive tactics commonly referred to as nonviolent direct action.” (p. ix)

Morris describes the pervasive and oppressive system of segregation imposed on blacks in the South, which included personal, economic, and political oppression. Ironically, however, he finds that segregation did have positive consequences, saying, “It facilitated the development of black institutions and the building of close-knit communities.” He further states, “Segregation provided the constraining yet nurturing environment out of which a complex urban black society developed.” (p. 3) He finds that the black church was the dominant institution and center of black society and states, “The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement.” (p. 4) The urban black churches wielded considerable social power and provided an organized mass base. However, the social network connecting the churches in a mass movement was facilitated by alliances among the clergymen heading the various churches through informal associations and formal bodies such as the National Baptist Convention.

Prior to the start of the modern civil rights movement, the dominant black protest organization was the NAACP, founded in 1909-10 by black and white intellectuals to fight for equal rights for black Americans. Legal action was the main tactic of the NAACP as it attacked segregation through the courts. While it never developed a mass base, Morris says, “The NAACP set the stage from which most of the leadership of the modern civil rights movement would emerge.” (p. 16)

Morris traces the beginning of the civil rights movement to the mass boycott of segregated buses by the black community in Baton Rouge in June 1953. This effort required a high degree of planning and organization. As Morris finds, “The Baton Rouge mass bus boycott suggests that movements are the products of organizing efforts and preexisting institutions.” (p. 19) This movement was led by a charismatic black minister, Reverend T. J. Jemison, and was mobilized through local black churches, which formed the Urban Defense League, an umbrella organization. Morris states, “The boycott differed from past protests in Baton Rouge, which had been initiated by the NAACP and had attempted to work through the courts. The Baton Rouge boycott was a mass, church-based, direct-action movement guided by a new organization of organizations.” (p. 24)

The NAACP successfully prosecuted its case against school segregation, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954. White Southerners were appalled by this decision and began a coordinated attack on the NAACP. According to Morris, “This attack contributed greatly to the emergence of the modern civil rights movement.” (p. 26) With the NAACP under attack, local black ministers filled the leadership vacuum and began organizing church-based direct action organizations.

Beginning with Baton Rouge the new form of mass protest spread to other cities in the South as what Morris calls “local movement centers,” groups that “developed, an interrelated set of protest leaders, organizations, and followers who collectively define the common ends of the group, devise necessary tactics and strategies . . . and engage in actions designed to attain the goals of the group.” (p. 40) Such a movement developed in Montgomery, known as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The Montgomery bus boycott began on December 1, 1953, when Mrs. Rosa Parks defied local segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white man. Contrary to popular accounts, this was not a spontaneous action by an individual acting without forethought. Rosa Parks had been secretary for the local NAACP since 1943, and she had been ejected from a bus (by the very same driver) in a similar incident in the early 1940’s. The bus boycott, started after Rosa Park’s arrest, was a well planned and organized action, which Morris says, “was the watershed of the modern civil rights movement.” (p. 51) Martin Luther King, Jr. first demonstrated his charismatic qualities here, along with the concept of nonviolent direct action. Other movement centers developed in Tallahassee and Birmingham.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) emerged as “the force that developed the infrastructure of the civil rights movement and . . . functioned as the decentralized arm of the black church.” (p. 77) The SCLC supplied the new political dimension needed to mobilize church resources on a wide scale and pull the churches directly into the movement. It was a church-related protest organization of organizations. No individuals, but only churches or civic leagues, could be members. Martin Luther King headed the SCLC, holding ultimate power and charismatic authority. King introduced an activist social gospel in a refocused militant view of religion. Morris points out, “For the first half of the twentieth century most black churches taught that the meek would inherit the earth.” The religious message was essentially passive. Morris says, “It was a religion of containment, the opiate of the masses, a religion that soothed the pains of economic, political, and social exploitation.” (p. 97)

The SCLC launched a drive in the late 1950’s to obtain voting rights for blacks. However, massive white resistance using poll taxes, literacy tests, and other obstructive tactics, resulted in failure of the movement. The SCLC’s failure to effectively coordinate various groups contributed to the failure, and the problem was compounded by friction with the NAACP, which viewed the SCLC as a threat. Morris says, Finally, the SCLC’s strategy of nonviolent direct action by the masses was threatening to the NAACP’s legal approach because of its mass appeal and wider effectiveness. . . . The lack of a mass base has always been a problem for the NAACP.” (p. 123) The two organizations eventually resolved their differences, finding that a division of labor was needed in the movement, with the NAACP playing the legal role and the SCLC focusing on direct action at the community level.

Another organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) played a role in the movement. It was a Northern organization founded in 1942 by pacifist students at the University of Chicago, headed by James Farmer. In 1957 CORE moved to establish a base in the South. It was a secular organization with a paternalistic attitude, seeking to take blacks out of their ghettoes into integrated situations. It did carve out a niche for itself in the movement in alliance with the NAACP and the SCLC but did not reach their level of importance.

Morris describes the development of “halfway houses” to assist the emerging civil rights movement. According to Morris, “halfway houses assisted in disseminating the tactic of nonviolent direct action, developing mass education programs and publicizing local movements.” (p. 140) These were predominantly small white organizations with limited resources and relatively isolated from the larger society because of their social change goals. The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in the mountains of Tennessee to assist the oppressed by training potential leaders. In the early 1950’s black students came to Highlander. Rosa Parks visited there four months before the Montgomery bus boycott.

After the pioneering movements in Baton Rouge, Montgomery, Tallahassee, and Birmingham, other movements developed in Nashville, Petersburg, Virginia, and Shreveport, Louisiana. The tactic of sit-ins first occurred in Oklahoma in 1958. but it was in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, that the sit-in movement gained national attention. During the next two months students were involved in lunch counter sit-ins in approximately seventy Southern cities. Morris says, these actions “evolved into a mass protest that strengthened the civil rights movement and its organizational base; gave rise to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major student civil rights organization; and gave rise to the modern white student movement of the early 1960’s.” (p. 193) The sit-ins had immediate national impact, and students at Northern colleges mobilized in support. Morris states, “In effect, the 1960 sit-ins generated the activist stage of the modern white student movement.” (p. 222)

The next major civil rights confrontation occurred in 1961 when integrated groups boarded buses to attempt to desegregate buses and terminals in the South through Freedom Rides. They were attacked savagely in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They galvanized the black community for protest and assumed the character of a mass movement. In the fall of 1961, an ambitious movement was launched in Albany, Georgia, with the goal of ending all forms of racial domination in that city. Martin Luther King participated and mobilized the black community to protest and fill the jails. The white power structure defeated the movement through a devious strategy of making promises they never intended to keep, but the movement became a model for other black communities and showed the need for good organization.

Morris concludes his story with the notorious confrontation in Birmingham in 1963. Martin Luther King and the SCLC set out to desegregate lunch counters and public facilities in downtown department stores, establish fair hiring procedures in retail stores and city departments, obtain access to city parks, and establish a timetable for school desegregation. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, “Bull” Connor, led a violent reaction to the demonstrations, using dogs and fire hoses, that attracted national attention. The operation carefully planned by the SCLC was named Project C, with the “C” standing for confrontation. Hundreds of demonstrators went to jail,including Dr. King, who wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to ministers critical of his tactics. The city’s business leaders parted from the white power structure and forced a settlement to end the crisis. Morris says, “The 1963 Birmingham movement was the climax of political turbulence that had taken root in Baton Rouge in 1953.” (p. 274) The civil rights movement vividly demonstrated that economic and social change for blacks did not occur through traditional politics but through creative social protest and disruption.


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Aldon D. Morris does an excellent job of making his case that the modern civil rights movement was a well planned, organized, and coordinated series of confrontations by blacks against the white power structure in the South. He refutes the myth that the widespread demonstrations were uncoordinated, spontaneous actions of local groups with local grievances. The NAACP pursued a legal strategy of forcing change through court decisions, but this was a slow process that did not satisfy blacks looking for more immediate relief from the oppression of segregation.

Morris shows how black churches provided organization and leadership to the movement. He says, “In the case of the civil rights struggle, the preexisting black church provided the early movement with the social resources that made it a dynamic force, in particular leadership, institutionalized charisma, finances, an organized following, and an ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action.” (p. 77) The churches grew more activist as they refocused black religion from passivity to aggressive collective action.

Morris’s discussion of the school desegregation decision in 1954 and its aftermath is instructive. The Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools but neglected to say how integration would be accomplished or when. Subsequent decisions provided little guidance to authorities and required only that appropriate actions be taken “with all deliberate speed” and left implementation in the hands of local school boards who had little inclination to do anything other than obstruct any desegregation efforts. The Eisenhower administration refused to invoke federal power and instead called for state and local action. (p. 28) The Kennedy administration was no help either. Kennedy’s electoral strategy included “a desperate effort to satisfy Southern whites as best he could.” (p. 235) Robert Kennedy attempted to shift the civil rights movement onto the safer ground of voting rights, but the plan backfired as blacks kept up the pressure for equality in all areas. Meanwhile, President Kennedy "continued appointing Southern racist federal judges, who used their power to impede the movement.” (p. 236)

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