Saturday, April 01, 2006

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 Memphis, a charming and surprisingly cosmopolitan town, and took in three museums: Graceland, STAX records, and the Civil Rights museum located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The latter is an impressive display of exhibits and videos and set me thinking once again about the misunderstood 1950s and 1960s and the sad fate of one of the greatest social movements in American history.

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 Washington in 1963--but I did not see a single reference to Walter White. The Museum is presumably the work of my own generation, those who came of age in the 1960s, and by then many believed that the NAACP's time was passed. (During my army service from 1970 to 1976 I once heard two black soldiers call it a "white man's organization.")

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 Mississippi in 1964. Those campaigns originally disturbed the Kennedy Administration, which had been elected with considerable southern support, but as Robert Kennedy explained privately in his oral history interviews in 1964-5, by 1963 they had left him and his brother with no choice but to introduce a broad civil rights bill including access to public accommodations. The demonstrations, he said, were going to continue at great personal risk to the demonstrators, and since the federal government lacked the resources to protect them, they had to remove their cause. On the night that President Kennedy asked for the Civil Rights bill in June 1963, Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated.

The movement began to founder for various reasons in the late 1960s. King himself brought it to the north in Chicago in 1966, encountered white ethnic prejudice, and got nowhere. The Vietnam war, which King courageously opposed, destroyed the liberal consensus on which the civil rights movement had depended. Urban riots created a northern white backlash, and in 1968 and 1972 Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern received only about 2/3 or the votes that Lyndon Johnson had gotten in 1964. John Kennedy remains, amazingly, the last northern Democrat ever elected President. Meanwhile, the country lost interest in moral crusades.

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 Mississippi schools in 1954 (although a new Hispanic population has been added), since local whites attend various religious and other private academies. All through the deep South public education has been strangled by white politicians and voters who will not devote necessary resources to integrated (or, in practice, black) schools. The deep south economy has been hit once again by de-industrialization and by Hurricane Katrina. And lastly, the No Child Left Behind movement is providing a purely vocational education, of the type promoted more than 100 years ago by Booker T. Washington and derided by W. E. B. Dubois. Last year my son discovered that his students, while moderately capable in reading and math, did not know a state from a capital or a river from an ocean--because those questions weren't on the test. He instituted a social studies program and soon had students identifying each of the 50 states and naming all the presidents, but this year he had to drop it to free up more time for reading and math. Just last Sunday the New York Times identified that as a nationwide trend.

The United States evidently does need a crisis every 80 years or so to revive its values. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Second World War all led to gains for black Americans, and although some were temporary, things never returned to where they had been before. The great campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s secured legal equality and more opportunity for the black middle class. We need, however, a new commitment to the economic welfare of all Americans in which minorities can share. And we also need a rebirth of the organizational spirit, the patience, and the dedication which are needed to produce lasting, rather than merely rhetorical, achievements.

P.S. I added some material to last week's post--new data about Iraq, marked in bold.


Anonymous said...

interesting to read and so sad that people, regardless of who they are, or where they are from, are not dealt with on an equal basis, and I guess you can add gender in there as well.
sad to think we've come all this way, to seemingly be going backwards, thanks to those in poer at the moment.
enjoy reading what you have to say, Thanks & Cheers!
M @ Envelopes Of Sound

Anonymous said...

meant to say:"those in power"
guess I went too fast ; (