The Struggle for Black Equality

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Harvard Sitkoff. The Struggle for Black Equality 1954 -1980 New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. 259 pages. $15.00.


The progress of blacks to full equality in America had been slow in the early twentieth century. A climactic moment was the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. As Wilkerson confirms, Southern Senators, like Harry Byrd, responded with a manifesto claiming the Court had no power to end segregation. Southern resistance ranged from requiring ‘schools faced with desegregation orders to cease operation’ (27) to ‘payments for private academy tuition.’ (28) Harvard Sitkoff describes the civil rights movement after 1954. The black community expanded their program from relying primarily on a legal approach to obtain equality under the leadership of ‘a Northern elite’ (65) to the nonviolent protest movement dominated by the Southern black church.

Many of the famous confrontations in the South during the years of the Civil Rights revolution were initiated by black leaders who were fully aware of the visibility, sympathy and support that national publicity brought to their activities. Rosa Parks had been a secretary for the NAACP in Montgomery. After the famous bus incident, the President of the Montgomery NAACP told Mrs. Parks, “This is the case we have been looking for.” (43) Mrs. Parks was ‘dignified, intelligent, respectable, married’, (43) and Montgomery black leaders recognized she would attract sympathy as the victim of prejudice. They organized a bus boycott, formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, and selected Martin Luther King Jr. as President.

Sitkoff describes the ‘pragmatic recognition that black violence in the Deep South’ would be self-defeating, even suicidal.’ (59) King, a Christian minister, was strongly influenced by Gandhi. Black congregations watched films of Gandhi’s movement and were taught how to react to resistance and prejudice. Non-violence ‘played on the whites’ growing feeling of guilt’ (61) and gained black and white support throughout the country. King extended the rationale for resistance. ‘He equated apathy, not protest against the existing racial order with sin.’ (61)

A characteristic of the civil rights movement was the involvement of college students. Sitkoff describes the 1960 sit-in at a Greensboro North Carolina lunch counter as a tactic that inspired sit-ins throughout the South. By April 1960, ‘some 2000 students had been arrested.’ (72) Students were trained in the principles and practices of non-violence (76) including how to react when attacked physically. The student movement revealed the impatience of black students with progress in desegregation and obtaining the vote. (83-84) Marion Barry, later Washington mayor, was active in the formation of the SNCC. (93) The sit-ins were generally successful, but in essence, they were symbolic. Two major issues had to be resolved; desegregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.

Another tactic used by Civil Rights leaders were freedom rides to test racial discrimination in interstate terminals which the Supreme Court had prohibited. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized white and black students. In the deep South, significant resistance was met. 300 persons were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. As Sitkoff notes, ‘By creating a crisis, the Riders forced the federal government to act.’ (110)--Mlinhart 15:04, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)


For white Southerners, keeping blacks away from the ballot box was crucial. Blacks were a large percent of the population and especially in the deep South, a black voting block could change the power structure. The vote was the key to official power and the perquisites of power. A Voter Education Project was begun in 1962 and met serious and even violent resistance. A black who tried to register in Mississippi was shot at by a white. One registrar drew a gun and ordered a black activist to leave. Several activists were beaten. Sitkoff says, ‘only a significant federal presence in the Deep South might have saved the voter registration program.’ (124) Blacks saw President Kennedy as a ‘temporizer and manipulator’ who would act only ‘when it suited his needs.’ (125)

Sitkoff shows the careful and thorough preparation of black leaders for many of the boycotts, marches, sit-ins and freedom rides. Leaders planned and instructed participants in proper action and in dealing with resistance, both official and non-official. They were fully aware of how their actions affected national politicians like Kennedy and Johnson. Sitkoff implies that Kennedy introduced ‘the most comprehensive civil rights law in history’ (158) in June 1963 in response to black activism. One of Kennedy’s motives was to ‘assist Farmer and King and Wilkins in securing their objectives lest the movement be taken over by extremists.’ (156) Voting rights was ‘not on Johnson’s agenda’ (186) after the 1964 election. In late 1964, King and the SCLC staff ‘plotted a strategy’ and ‘set as their goal a strong voting-rights law.’ (187) They deliberately chose Selma, Alabama as the ‘focal point of their campaign’ partly because the believed the county sheriff’s reaction would be ‘vicious and violent’ (188) and would ‘provide the notoriety and martyrdom necessary for the national attention and support that would result in voting rights legislation.’ (188) By mid-March, Johnson requested that Congress pass a voting rights bill.

Sitkoff describes the role of the leadership in the early years of southern civil rights activism but in the second half of the sixties, he claims that ‘most riots show no evidence of planning’ (206) although leftist black radicals described the riots as ‘calculated revolutionary violence to overthrow a reactionary, racist society.’ (204) Militants ‘concluded that the participation of white liberals had harmed the movement’ by forcing black leaders to ‘compromise and temporize.’ (210) They virtually gave up on non-violence. CORE and SNCC grew closer to the views of Malcolm X and even the ‘advocacy of violence as a legitimate tactic wherever feasible.’ (210). As Sitkoff observes, Black Power like the riots ‘bought psychological gains at the terrible cost of further disintegrating the movement, polarizing the races, sanctioning the cult of violence, and fueling the white backlash.’ (208)

Sitkoff sets the tone of his study of the Civil Rights movement with his wish for readers to ‘encounter the anguish and hope, the violence and passion, the joy and sorrow that the fighters for freedom experienced.’ (viii) He claims his ‘perspective derives from association and identification with the movement in the movement in the early 1960’s.’ (viii) His support for the movement is unquestionable. He has no sympathy for Southerners and makes no effort to explain their attitudes or explore the varieties of Southern viewpoints. He emphasizes the violent resistance of deep South racists and the courage of those who struggled for black equality.

The struggle for black equality was supported by individual whites and by the federal government. Like the labor struggle in Detroit described by Cohen, the struggle for black equality demonstrated the importance of cohesion in the community seeking improvement of their lot. Oddly enough, white communities of the deep South were also cohesive. In this incidence, the black community knew their cause was on the side of justice. They were able to obtain support for that reason and for their deft handling of resistance. It may take a long time, but moral suasion can succeed.

It is unlikely the American Secretary of State would be an African American woman if there had been no civil rights struggle in the middle of the twentieth century. The civil rights movement did not end injustice, inequality and discrimination, yet it did make significant advances in improving opportunity for black Americans. Under pressure from black Americans, there were legislative changes, judicial decision and changes in the mindsets of both whites and black citizens. --Mlinhart 15:04, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)

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