On February 1, 1960, the first sit-in began in the segregated South. In Greensboro, North Carolina, four African American students sat in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. The company had happily taken their money when they made a purchase off the shelf. Now they wanted a cup of coffee. They sat there all day without receiving service.
The next day 30 students returned. They sat for two hours and departed after saying some prayers. The next day fifty came, including the first contingent of white student support. By the end of the week the sit-in had grown to hundreds, mostly students from black campuses.
Copies of the Bible and Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience were common among the protesters. One reflected traditional religious sources opposing injustice, the other the growing influence of higher education. Thoreau had written his famous essay in protest the Mexican American War, but his reasoning was timeless.
Sit-ins spread rapidly throughout the South, and in other areas where segregation had established its poisonous presence. For example, four hundred ministers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania asked their congregations not to patronize businesses that refused to hire Black Americans. By 1961, around 70,000 Americans were participating in anti-segregation protests in 13 states.
Southern elites retaliated. A society rooted in domination by race threw away its veil of courtly gentility. Over 3,600 non-violent demonstrators were arrested on various charges during the first year of protest. Some white Southerners felt arrests were not enough, and responded with violence and terrorism, such as throwing acid in the face of a demonstrator, flogging others, and sometimes shooting them. The police were often their allies, agents of terrorism rather than bulwarks against it. After racist Whites in Biloxi, Mississippi shot eight people for seeking to integrate public beaches, local police arrested Blacks for “disturbing the peace.”
White and Black northerners began joining their Black, and some White Southern brethren in demonstrating against segregation. In response White racist Southern violence escalated. Many demonstrators were beaten, maimed, and even denied treatment by White hospital workers. Sometimes civil rights workers were victims of organized alliances of Southern police and White vigilantes, as when Birmingham, Alabama’s police chief had freedom riders escorted to Montgomery, Alabama. As soon as the bus stopped, the police disappeared and 300 Whites attacked 21 freedom riders along with some accompanying newsmen.
Many civil rights workers were killed, along with small children. When segregationists dynamited Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church they murdered four little girls attending Sunday school. It was the twenty-first bombing against African Americans in Birmingham in eight years, no cases having ever been solved. Many others also died, as when White racists in Selma clubbed Boston minister James Reeb, crushing his skull.
Alabama was not alone. In Mississippi in 1964 White and Black volunteers helping Black Americans register to vote were killed, at least 80 were beaten, and 30 Black homes and businesses and 37 Black churches were bombed or burned. In the town of McComb there were 17 bombings in three months. Between the Greensboro sit-in and the Selma march in 1965 at least 26 civil rights activists were murdered, and only one killer was sentenced. While Southern police were ‘unable’ to solve these crimes, they did manage to arrest over 1000 civil rights workers on various trumped up charges.
This time the Southern elite’s century old strategy of violent repression and terror no longer worked. In language any decent person could understand, Black students proclaimed, “Every normal human being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions placed upon him because of race or color.” In actions any decent person would abhor they were met with beatings and worse. When civil rights marchers sought to allow Black Americans to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, 200 state troopers attacked them with tear gas, clubs, and bull whips. “Southern gentlemen” beat five women unconscious.
But Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” was shown on television. Images of violence against peaceful marchers exposed the realities behind the claim that White southerners just wanted to preserve their “way of life.” It was shown to be a way of life depending upon repressing and sometimes killing innocent people, an iron fist concealed within the white gloves of courtly gentility. Southern violence and national revulsion finally forced the national government to begin enforcing the law.
Historian Terry H. Anderson writes “The sixties became the first televised decade, and the first show was civil rights.” As the printing press facilitated the Reformation, so television facilitated ending long established Southern brutality.
In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed. Before this bill’s passage Black voter registration was often around 2%. The next summer over half of southern adult Blacks had registered to vote. With passage of the Voting Rights Act taxation without representation, an abuse that had helped ignite the American Revolution, finally came to an end in the South.
The Student Movement
As student support grew for the civil rights movement they ran into many administrators’ opposing vision for the universities they managed. University administrators wanted functionaries, not citizens. Universities were to be places where administrators ruled, and students were processed in and out with all the efficiency and passivity of Fords on an assembly line. Administrators dictated course choices, campus speakers, what could or could not be an intramural sport, and the content of student newspapers, always for the students’ “own good.”
Often the people they sought to control had risked their lives the previous summer while assisting Black Americans in civil rights efforts in the South. Upon returning to school in the fall, they were treated with condescending authoritarianism by those who had not. The breaking point came in 1964, in the fall, at the University of California, Berkeley, the state’s flagship campus.
1964 was an election year, with Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaigns in high gear. Vietnam was just beginning to rise as a political issue, and civil rights was at the forefront of many of the most aware students’ political concerns. When students set up political tables on campus, Clark Kerr, the university’s president, suspended them. Later, when students handed out flyers on campus, they were arrested at the administration’s request. For some students this was the last straw, and many sat down around a police car and its prisoner, Mario Savio. Thus the Free Speech Movement began.
After students held an over night sit-in, Kerr agreed to negotiate with them. But in November he broke his word, using the excuse given by nearly every American of the time (and most since) when abusing power: the students were dupes of the left. In this case supposedly of Castro and Mao.
Kerr’s dishonesty triggered demonstrations large enough to stop the university. California Governor Pat Brown sent in the police, arresting 770 students, the largest arrest in the state’s history. Seven thousand students remained on the plaza, and the faculty voted to support them. Finally Kerr backed down and free speech came to the University of California. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was the first large student campus protest over the authoritarian powers and attitudes of administrators, but it was far from the last. As a result, college students came to enjoy the same basic rights as any other American citizen.
In the falsified version of the 60s purveyed by the radical right and corporate media today, the motivations underlying the student movements were rooted in anti-American communist and socialist thought. This was not true. The “New Left” student rebels were averse to impersonality and bigness, and critical of what bureaucracy might accomplish. They were closer to Barry Goldwater’s rhetoric than to Lenin’s or Mao’s, or the New Deal managerial liberals such as Clark Kerr, whom they opposed. Tom Hayden and other early leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the major organization of 60’s radicalism, had studied C. Wright Mills’ White Collar and Power Elite, and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, not Das Kapital. These home-grown American critics of techno-managerial liberalism attacked bureaucracy, centralization and technocrats in government and the economy alike. SDS’s 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, praised ”participatory democracy,” a governing philosophy it described as an alternative to corporatism and bureaucracy. People should have a say in decisions made by the powerful that affected them. John Locke James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would have agreed. Castro and Mao? Not so much.