The Civil Rights Museum
I spent last weekend visiting my son and his fiancee, who are finishing their second year with Teach For America working in elementary schools in the Mississippi Delta. We met in
The museum is arranged chronologically but focuses on the years 1945-68. The civil rights movement in its great period, it struck me, owed a great deal to the Second World War and to the organizational spirit that had carried the US through both the war and the Depression. The contradiction between the ideals of freedom, democracy and self-rule for which the war was fought and the actual status of black Americans was simply too glaring to ignore, most of all for those Americans themselves. And although black troops were largely kept out of combat and, a recent book argues, denied their fair share of the benefits of the GI bill, they returned home determined to challenge the status quo. Certainly it was no accident that Jackie Robinson, himself a veteran, signed his first contract with the Dodger organization during the winter of 1945-6.
The center of the struggle for equality was the NAACP, founded early in the twentieth century and identified for its first thirty years with the great historian and publicist W. E. B. Dubois, the first black leader to challenge Booker T. Washington's accommodations strategies. DuBois, born in 1868, made a name for himself as a spokesman for full Negro equality (as it was then called), but was becoming increasingly disillusioned with white America by the 1930s--a trend that led to his ultimate conversation to Communism in the last 15 or so years of his life. He also fell out with the next two NAACP Executive Secretaries, Walter White (born 1893) and Roy Wilkins (born 1901), although he admitted, in a taped interview available from the Smithsonian that he recorded around 1960, that White had done an extraordinary job of building up the organization. So he had--from about 90,000 members in the 1920s to half a million by 1945. (I presume the organization continued to grow for the next fifteen years but I have not found any subsequent figures.)
During this period the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall, had mounted a long-term campaign against segregation in education and on the effective disenfranchisement of black Americans through devices like the all-white primary. Beginning with challenges to segregated law schools, they won a series of victories culminating, of course, in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954. Meanwhile, standard political techniques of lobbying and an alliance with the Democratic Party had led President Truman to endorse civil rights and desegregate the armed forces--a critical step--in 1947-8. The NAACP, which continually had to fight accusations of Communist influence throughout the South well into the 1960s, also played a key role in the passage of civil rights bills in 1957, 1960, and most of all, of course, in 1964-5. Its work, like so much successful political work, was painstaking and unromantic, involving holding meetings, circulating literature, collecting dues and buttonholing politicians. It was also, in much of the country, dangerous, and sometimes fatal. It was the focus of several exhibits at the museum, but I did not feel it received the attention that it deserved. Roy Wilkins made a few pictures of various civil rights leaders--for instance, at the March on
But while the NAACP put civil rights on the map and won the greatest initial victories, others contributed at least as much. Martin Luther King managed to create an activist mass movement in the heart of the South--something the NAACP had note dared to do. The Montgomery bus boycott, the demonstrations for equality in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s, the sit-in movement in North Carolina (which was not originally an initiative of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, SNCC's Mississippi project in 1964, and the 1965 Selma march were, literally, campaigns in a war, one fought by non-violence. They involved thousands of people and lasted for years. (Everyone knows how Rosa Parks took the first step in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, but few remember that the boycott took an entire year to achieve the desegregation of the buses.) The museum included a list--and it was a very long one--of violent acts against the voter registration workers in
The movement began to founder for various reasons in the late 1960s. King himself brought it to the north in
My son's own experience is in many ways a sad commentary on what was and was not accomplished. The school in which he teaches is nearly as segregated as
P.S. I added some material to last week's post--new data about Iraq, marked in bold.