The story of the civil rights movement that most Americans celebrate today is incomplete. We appropriately honor the activists who bravely challenged the segregation regime in the South, but we understate the violent resistance to civil rights mounted by the majority of institutions and individuals who supported the white supremacist, segregationist power structure of the Jim Crow South.
For a century following the Civil War, a campaign of racial terrorism targeted African Americans with lynching and mass violence in order to maintain segregation in the South. This campaign of terror persisted during the civil rights movement, as private citizens and public officials subjected civil rights activists to threats, mass arrests, beatings, bombings, and murder. Law enforcement refused to protect activists or prosecute perpetrators, and often led the charge by attacking nonviolent protestors.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly faced violent resistance from those opposed to racial equality. Private citizens called his home with threats, physically attacked him at speaking events, burned crosses on his lawn, and even bombed his home while his wife and infant daughter were inside. Police and courts arrested, jailed, and fined Dr. King more than 25 times for participating in boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. And he was not alone.
Over 100 church leaders were indicted with Dr. King for “illegally” boycotting Montgomery’s segregated bus system in 1956. And 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned at Mississippi’s Parchman Farm Penitentiary in 1961 for protesting segregated interstate bus transportation. Southern politicians denounced activists as “criminals” and “law breakers” and wielded the criminal justice system as a weapon to resist racial equality.
On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, several hundred civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were met by an angry mob of state and local lawmen who brutally attacked the marchers and arrested more than 750 people. Months later, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student from Boston who had traveled to Alabama to help with black voter registration in Lowndes County, was murdered by a deputy sheriff. William L. Moore, a white member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was shot in the head in Alabama as he marched dozens of miles across the South to support integration, and when activists attempted to finish his march, they were beaten and arrested by Alabama State Troopers.
In 1955, Lamar Smith, a black farmer and World War I veteran, was shot and murdered on a crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi, for urging black people to vote. That same year, Reverend George Lee, a grocery store owner, was shot and murdered for organizing black voters in the Mississippi Delta. Voting rights activists Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi after encouraging black citizens to vote in the 1950s and 1960s.
On May 28, 1963, black students and a white professor from Tougaloo College were brutally attacked as they sat peacefully at the "whites only" lunch counter in the segregated Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. A mob of white men doused them with ketchup, kicked one student in the face until he lost consciousness, and clubbed the teacher to the floor and poured salt in his wounds. On July 7, 1964, nine black children were beaten by white men for ordering at a whites-only lunch counter in Bessemer, Alabama, just days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. When students at Alabama State College, a traditionally black college in Montgomery, Alabama, staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse on February 25, 1960, Alabama Governor John Patterson forced the college to expel them and warned that “someone [was] likely to be killed” if the protests continued.
Though the intensity of racial violence decreased following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this brutal and deadly resistance created a legacy that has deeply scarred many communities and allowed anti-equality attitudes to persist.
School desegregation faced severe public resistance, especially in the South, where some districts closed altogether rather than accept black students. Efforts to racially integrate Southern schools were met with violent resistance. In 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood found their pathway into the University of Alabama obstructed by Governor George Wallace. White mobs rioted at the University of Mississippi as James Meredith prepared to attend. And, in 1961, Charlayne Hunter’s dorm at the University of Georgia was attacked by an unrestrained mob that included members of the Ku Klux Klan.
When the school board of Mansfield, Texas, admitted 12 black students to all-white Mansfield High School, white residents took to the streets in protest. On August 30, 1956, the first day of school, mobs of white pro-segregationists patrolled the streets with guns and other weapons to prevent black children from registering. The mob hung an African American effigy at the top of the school’s flag pole and set it on fire. Signs attached to each pants leg read, “This Negro tried to enter a white school. This would be a terrible way to die,” and, “Stay away, niggers.”
Hundreds of white-only private schools sprang up throughout the South during this period, and most remain in existence today. What integration was achieved after decades of litigation was reversed when federal courts terminated federal desegregation orders. By 2000, American schools were more segregated than in the 1970s. Despite federal legislation, neighborhoods also remain defined by racial segregation.
Since President Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black head of state in 2008, the United States has experienced a rise in anti-civil rights rhetoric and activism. The United States Supreme Court’s 2013 majority opinion striking down Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder declared vestiges of Southern inequality eradicated and protective legislation no longer necessary. Many anti-civil rights activists seized the narrative that racial justice is no longer a legitimate social goal, and that efforts aimed at eliminating racial discrimination are actually anti-white measures that promote inequality.
Today, billboards and bumper stickers urge secession, refer to the sitting president using racial slurs, and define “antiracism” as an attack on white people. This campaign distorts the past and its legacy and avoids honest and necessary engagement with America’s history of racial injustice.
The need to confront America's history of racial inequality is more urgent than ever.
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