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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

Birmingham, Alabama, was known as “Bombingham” because the homes of civil rights leaders were dynamited, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the SCLC. In 1962, Black students at Miles College launched a boycott of restaurants and shops in downtown Birmingham and reached an agreement with some of the store owners to desegregate their businesses on a limited basis, but Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor trumped up building code violations, intimidating the business owners who eventually abandoned their efforts to desegregate the lunch counters and drinking fountains, according to the report.

During the spring of 1962, children were infused into the Birmingham protests.

“On May 2, children ranging in age from six to 18 left the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, adjacent to downtown, and marched into the streets of Birmingham. Bull Connor, policemen, and firemen greeted them with snarling, biting police dogs and high-pressure water hoses,” the report stated. “The youngsters as well as adults in the march were knocked to the ground, killing und and against buildings and trees by the force of the water. Several were also struck by police billy clubs. Hundreds were arrested, adding to those already incarcerated. As the jails overflowed, some protesters were imprisoned at the city’s state fairground.”

Following the May 2 protests, King negotiated a deal with White businessmen in Birmingham to desegregate “lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains in large downtown department and variety stores, as well as the hiring of an unspecified number of Black sales clerks.”

But schools, theatres, hotels, restaurants remained segregated, the report said, and White violence continued.

On Sunday, Sept. 12, 1963, Birmingham’s most famous bomb detonated at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Black girls attending Sunday School: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

The EPI report said that brutality and oppression in Birmingham “viewed nightly on television around the world,” combined with pressure from Black leaders, ultimately forced President John F. Kennedy to act, first in helping get King out of jail and later when he nationalized the Alabama National Guard to protect two Black students who desegregated the University of Alabama in June of 1963.

The Civil Rights Act of 1963 was introduced in Congress, but Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans worked together to block the bill. It was only after Kennedy’s assassination and the violence and racial tension cooled long enough for the nation to mourn the fallen commander-in-chief that President Lyndon Johnson was able to use his political prowess to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress and signed into law.

Although the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is often credited with proving the impetus for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EPI report noted that it was the accumulation of much smaller grassroots movements that started the groundswell of support.

Today, there is ample evidence that neither the law nor the march were sufficient to eradicate the stain of racism.

“Still, more than 50 years after the March on Washington, the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, have not been fully achieved,” the report stated.

A disproportionate number of Blacks continue to live in poor, segregated neighborhoods, lack access to high-quality education and suffer unemployment rates double the national rate.

The report stated, “As we continue to press for achievement of these goals as well, there are important lessons to be learned from places such as Greensboro, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama, about how individuals and communities can leverage their collective power to set new standards and effect change.”