Table of Contents
1. The Sit-ins
2. The Freedom Rides
3. The March on Washington
4. The Black Panther Party
5. Watts Riots
5.1 What happened
5.2 Responses to Watts
1. The Sit-ins
In March 1958, a pacifistic group named “The Fellowship of Reconciliation” that had provided most of CORE’s early leaders sent James Lawson to Nashville to lead a workshop in non-violence for African-American activists. A year later, as a divinity student at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, Lawson drew a small but morally charged number of young men and women from the black colleges to his regular training sessions in non-violent protest. In the fall of 1959, this Nashville student group stages test sit-ins at segregated city restaurants and lunch counters. Staying just long enough to draw refusal of service, they failed either to change management policy or to draw others into the protest. Lawson had outrun the zeitgeist by a few months. With the Greensboro sit-ins of February 1960, though, the Nashville group acquired a prophetic luster. Soon Lawson was directing hundreds of students who volunteered in disciplined protests against segregation in downtown stores.
On March 15, 1960, two hundred students simultaneously marched in Atlanta at precisely 11:00am on the different eating places. The focus was on public sites, including bus and train stations, the state capitol, the Federal Building, and other government-owned property. Many students were arrested that day and had to be bailed out by their parents much later that night. But not every governor hastened to strip the sit-ins of all respectability. A conspicuous exception was Leroy Collins of Florida, who on March 20, 1960, appointed a biracial commission to promote racial harmony and later appealed to city officials throughout the state to so the same. Collins also decried the inconsistency of excluding blacks from certain area in stored that welcomed their patronage in all other departments.
The spring of 1960 witnessed the first concessions from local merchants, for whom the virtues of tolerance often became clear after a period of economic coercion. A widely noted breakthrough came in Nashville, though it took the specter of rising disorder as well as falling profits to bring merchants to the bargaining table. In late April an explosion demolished the home of a seventy-two-year-old black attorney and instead of cowing Nashville’s Negro community, the bombing brought two thousand angry marchers to the steps of City Hall. Mayor Ben West, who had previously shown a rare talent for being out of town during periods of racial crisis, this time made no effort to avoid the demonstrators. Rather, he pondered the twin dangers of growing lawlessness and prospective loss of black electoral support and vowed to help end the conflict. The mayor hastily formed a biracial committee, which obliged him by recommending a plan to desegregate downtown stores in stages. Store owners, by this point less in need of private suasion than of public sanction to end discrimination, embraced the plan. On May 10 four theatres and six lunch counters opened their doors to blacks. When neither violence nor retaliatory white boycotts developed, other stores followed suit. But there were also other communities lodging farther south, in Birmingham, Alabama, Orangeburg, South Carolina, that brutalized protesters into quiescence. Mobs in these cities preserved segregation for several more years with the use of knives, chains and attack dogs. In Montgomery, Alabama, a city fast regressing from its brief era of racial peace in the late fifties, white vigilantes roamed the streets and beat Negroes with impunity. A majority of the police force reportedly belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, while the city’s chief law enforcement officer was a popular speaker at rallies of the White Citizens’ Council. By the summer of 1960 repeated violence, several hundred arrests, and the united opposition of white spokesmen had ended Montgomery’s sit-in campaigns.
Yet even in the Deep South changes occurred wherever businessmen and politicians forcefully asserted their preference for thriving commerce and racial peace. Galveston and Houston were among the first Southern cities to desegregate lunch counters, without incurring violence. The sit-ins reached Dallas only in 1961, but white leaders adjusted with astonishing rapidity of goodwill, desegregating forty stored and major hotels with minimal resistance
In all, by the summer of 1960, over thirty Southern cities, including twelve in Florida, set up some kind of communication organization to conciliate local Negroes. Most settlements occurred in boarder-state communities, many of them emulating the precedent of phased desegregation implemented in Nashville, Tennessee.
By fall the outlines of an enduring student movement were clearly visible. Soon the acronym SNCC became synonymous with dating civil rights workers at a tome when authority figures seemed to exist mainly to test youthful courage. By the end of 1960 the student campaigns had swept through every southern and border state, plus Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio. Some seventy thousand black and white supporters participated in sit-ins, picketing, marches, and rallies, with thousands more offering financial and moral support. In addition to lunch counters the demonstrations also focused on parks, swimming pools, theatres, restaurants, churches, interstate transportation, libraries, museums, art galleries, Laundromats, beaches, and courtrooms. Students further demanded an end to employment discrimination and began voter registration projects as part of a growing interest in grass-roots political organizing. No longer just a series of limited campaigns the student protests had evolved into a long-term movement for social changes. Newspapers had at first ignored the campaigns or treated them as isolated curiosities. Media interest heightened somewhat when established civil rights figures headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the protest new respectability. The tenacity of the students, their growing numbers, and also their ability to win concessions drew media attention. By the end of 1960 the UPI counted the sit-ins among the year’s ten most significant events, though the protests were tanked only eighth, just behind the execution of a convicted murderer and just ahead of Hurricane Donna. Sandwiched between these two violent events the non-violent student protest seemed one more, somewhat enigmatic source of turbulence in a year of upheavals.
2. The Freedom Rides
James Farmer, CORE’s executive director, outlined plans for a series of interracial “freedom rides” on public buses throughout the Deep South in the spring of 1961. Their stated mission was to test compliance with court orders to desegregate interstate transportation terminals. An underlying object was to spur the federal government to protect Negro rights more vigorously by precipitating acts of racial violence in the heartland of Jim Crow. Though committed to non-violence, Farmer also believed in the tonic value of confrontation in advancing civil tights. He explained the premise behind the freedom rides: “We put on pressure and create a crisis and then they react.”
Seven black and six white volunteers left Washington in early May 1961 on two buses bound for Alabama and then Mississippi for the first freedom ride. All were veterans of social movements, most of the blacks having participated in sit-ins and the whites coming from a background of socialist or pacifistic activism. Yet they knew that the risks of this trip were of an order beyond anything they had experienced. The people on this freedom ride and on others which followed were facing aggressive mobs of whites and an absence of police protection for the riders as eyewitness Genevieve Hughes says: “As we reached the terminal, the bus circled around the building and pilled up in what looked to be an alley. There was some space to the left of the bus, but none to the right. The mob was out-about 30-50 shabby looking men. They walked by the side of the bus carrying stick and metal bars [….] There was a noise, sparks flew and a dense cloud of smoke immediately filled the bus.”
 Weisbrot, Robert: Freedom Bound. A history of America’s Civil Rights Movement, New York, London 1990, p. 160.
 Raines, Howell: My Soul is rested. Movement Days in the Deep South remembered, New York 1983, p.84.
 Atlanta constitution, Mar.11,1960, p.2.
 Oppenheimer, Martin: Genesis of the Southern Negro Student Movement. A contemporary Negro Protest, Philadelphia 1963, p.245-254.
 Weisbrot, Robert: Freedom Bound. A history of America’s Civil Rights Movement, New York, London 1990, p.39.
 Ibid, pp.56-57.