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Marches, protests predate 1964 March on Washington

Freddie Allen | 7/28/2014, 12:14 p.m.
Although many are nostalgically reflecting on 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, ...
Black students wait in vain for food service at this F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, April 20, 1960. Greensboro News & Record

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Although many are nostalgically reflecting on 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, there was no universal agreement on what tactics to deploy in the fight for equality, according to a report on the movement by the Economic Policy Institute.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, both based in Atlanta, were born during the movement and favored direct-action over lawsuits, commonly used by the older National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by Roy Wilkins.

“There were differences in philosophies and tactics. Eventually younger, more militant protestors, many of them associated with SNCC, broke with the nonviolent creed and tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC and embraced ‘Black Power,’” stated the report titled, Looking Back on the Fight for Equal Access to Public Accommodations.

The path to the 1964 landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s has been a long, tortuous one.

In fact, there were strong laws on the books more than 100 years before passage of the 1964 law. There were Civil Rights Act of 1866, which supported Black citizenship, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that guaranteed all American citizens access to public accommodations. However, Southern states largely ignored them.

The United States Supreme Court also played a pivotal role in racial segregation.

In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In 1896, the Supreme Court backed government-sanctioned segregation when it upheld Louisiana’s “separate but equal” rail travel policies in Plessy v. Ferguson, and “set the course of Southern race relations for the next 58 years.”

The report focused on about a dozen cities and towns across the South that faced significant direct-action protests: Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; St. Augustine, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Atlanta and Albany, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Danville, Virginia; Orangeburg, South Carolina; Cambridge, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi.

In 1960, four college students launched the “sit-in movement” in Greensboro, North Carolina, that quickly spread to Nashville and across the South. That protest was followed by Freedom Riders who desegregated intrastate buses traveling through the South and efforts to desegregate restaurants, theaters, libraries and other public facilities.

The report chronicled the Atlanta student movement, one of the longest in the nation.

“First, it used modern technology, including two-way radios, to assign and move demonstrators. Second, the masses of black Atlantans broke with their more timid older leaders and supported the students in a very effective boycott of downtown merchants,” the report stated. “And third, it produced a ‘poster boy’ of the movement, Julian Bond.”

Adult civil rights leaders in the Black community urged caution, as college students initiated a “sit-in blitz in downtown Atlanta,” blanketing lunch counters, restaurants, government buildings, train stations and downtown department stores.

Despite the increased pressure from outside forces, Atlanta’s lawmakers failed to desegregate lunch counters and restaurants, and agreed to limited desegregation in other public spaces at a snail’s pace. Lunch counters and restaurants remained segregated until September 1961.