The Black church and its players

Dick Gregory joined as well as led protest demonstrations
Dick Gregory joined as well as led protest demonstrations

The Black church and its players

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     The significant gains of the Civil Rights Movement were won by people, not processes. Against incredible odds—and often at great risk—the thousands of activists in the modern freedom struggle won victories that touched their own lives as well as those of their neighbors and future generations. Here are highlights about some of the groups and individuals involved in the unfolding human drama:

    Southern resistance Re-sistance to racial equality in the Deep South came not only from extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and white “citizens’ councils.” It occurred at all levels of government and society—from federal judges to state governors to county sheriffs to local citizens serving on juries.

    Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration, and Govs. Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways. E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state representative, stalked and killed a Black farmer for attending voter registration classes.

    Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Ga.’s police chief, thwarted student efforts to integrate public places in the city. Birmingham’s public safety commissioner Eugene T. “Bull” Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators.

    Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Ala., loosed his deputies on Bloody Sunday marchers and personally menaced other protestors. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. All-white juries in several states acquitted known killers of local African Americans.

    Black churches The leadership role of Black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the Black church served not only as a place of worship but also as a community “bulletin board,” a credit union, a “people’s court” to solve disputes, a support group, and a center of political activism. These and other functions enhanced the importance of the minister. The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. Time magazine’s 1964 ‘Man of the Year’ was a man of the people. He joined as well as led protest demonstrations, and as comedian Dick Gregory put it, “he gave as many fingerprints as autographs.” King’s powerful oratory and persistent call for racial justice inspired share-croppers and intellectuals alike. His tireless personal commitment to and strong leadership role in the Black freedom struggle won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Other notable minister-activists included Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest associate; Bernard Lee, veteran demonstrator and frequent travel companion of King; Fred Shuttlesworth, who defied Bull Connor and who created a safe path for a colleague through a white mob in Montgomery by commanding “Out of the way!”; and C.T. Vivian, who debated Sheriff Clark on his conduct and the Constitution.

    Students Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement—from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom rides to social movements. The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, the single-minded activist who “kept on” despite many beatings and harassments; Jim Lawson, the revered “guru” of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Bob Moses, pioneer of voting registration in the most rural—and most dangerous—part of the South; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer and facilitator. Other prominent student activists included Charles McDew, Ber-nard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond (associated with Atlanta University), Hosea Williams (associated with Brown Chapel), and Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Toure.

    Institutional frameworks Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of Black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the “jail-no-bail” strategy. SNCC’s role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. Bob Moses of SNCC created the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to coordinate the work of the SCLC, SNCC, and various other national and in-dependent civil rights groups. These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its Director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE’s leader James Forman later became executive secretary of SNCC. The National Urban League, founded in 1911 and headed by Whitney M. Young, Jr., helped open up job opportunities for African Americans. Labor was represented by A. Philip Randolph, vice-president of the American Federation of Labor, and his chief assistant and organizer, Bayard Rustin.

    Federal involvement All branches of the federal government impacted the civil rights movement. President John Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than 50 lawsuits in four states to secure Black Americans’ right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson was personally committed to achieving civil rights goals. Congress passed and President Johnson signed the century’s two most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson advocated civil rights even though he knew it would cost the Democratic Party the South in the next presidential election, and for the foreseeable future.       FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible Communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to Martin Luther King, Jr., used the FBI to investigate King and other civil rights leaders. U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. John-son, Jr., ruled against segregation and voting rights discrimination in Alabama and made the Selma-to-Montgomery March possible.


About Carma Henry 18147 Articles
Carma Lynn Henry Westside Gazette Newspaper 545 N.W. 7th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311 Office: (954) 525-1489 Fax: (954) 525-1861

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