[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Here's a special offer for you. Today's author Jon Else was the series producer and cinematographer for the classic TV documentary on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize . His book, True South has just been published. The New York Times calls it "warm and intelligent" and Adam Hochschild has hailed it as a "moving account of perhaps the greatest American documentary series ever made," a story told "with the compassion and eloquence it deserves." I've read it with fascination. As it happens, for a contribution to this website of $100 ($125 if you live outside the USA), you, too, can have it in your hands, signed and personalized by Else himself. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]
It was one of the worst moments of the Vietnam War era in America. U.S. troops had just invaded Cambodia and the nation's campuses erupted in a spasm of angry and frustrated protest. At Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen had killed four students. In Washington that day in May 1970, the first of what would be vast crowds of protesters were beginning to gather in the pre-dawn hours when a restless President Richard Nixon with his valet Manolo Sanchez in tow had himself driven to the Lincoln Memorial. There, at 4:40 a.m., he met, shook some hands, and engaged in "a rambling dialogue" with some startled young demonstrators. ("I said, 'I know you, probably most of you think I'm an SOB, but, ah, I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.'")
The protesters were not exactly impressed. ("'I hope it was because he was tired but most of what he was saying was absurd,' one of the Syracuse students told the press afterward. 'Here we had come from a university that's completely uptight, on strike, and when we told him where we were from, he talked about the football team.'") But in that bizarre meeting in that embattled moment, you could still see the last dregs of a relationship between presidents of the United States and vast, mobilized movements, the first of which, as Jon Else explains today, was the civil rights movement. Nixon, who perfected "the southern strategy" of using implicit racial appeals to bring the previously Democratic white southern vote into the Republican fold, even alluded to that in his own odd fashion. ("I pointed out that I knew that on their campus, their campuses, a major subject of concern was the Negro problem. I said this was altogether as it should be, because the degradation of slavery had been imposed upon the Negroes, and it was, it would be impossible for us to do everything that we should do to right that wrong.")
Almost half a century later, don't expect President Trump to pay any pre-dawn visits to those arriving in Washington to protest his policies, no less consider their positions, or respond to them. As Else points out today, the ability of protesters to appeal successfully to Washington, vibrant in the civil rights era, dying in the Vietnam years, is now dead on arrival and protest, as it sweeps the country, will have to find other ways to make itself felt and effective. Else, whose new book, True South: Henry Hampton and "Eyes on the Prize," the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement, is a moving look at the civil rights movement through one man's life, frames our present grim moment in the context of that remarkable history. It's a past worth remembering as the protest movement of the twenty-first century finds its way in a grim world. Tom
Not Your Grandma's Civil Rights Strategy
Whose Streets? (Then and Now)
By Jon Else
On a glorious afternoon in August 1963, after the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom wrapped up on the national mall, President John F. Kennedy, prodded by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, welcomed John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and other march organizers to the White House for a discussion of proposed civil rights legislation. Fifty-four years later, on an afternoon in January 2017, when the even more massive Women's March on Washington wrapped up, President Donald Trump responded with a sarcastic tweet. Just the day before, Trump's team had removed the "civil rights" page from the issues section of the WhiteHouse.gov website and replaced it with a new entry entitled "Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community." The page is still missing.- Advertisement -
Today, with the three branches of government controlled by men intolerant of dissent and hounded by their own dark vision of pluralism, few human rights advocates of any stripe can reasonably expect a hearing in Washington. Our long-running, ongoing, unfinished American civil rights struggle that so often focused on pressing the federal government toward justice, is suddenly in uncharted territory. The legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King has slammed up against the legacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace, whose snarling campaign for president in 1968 has come home to roost in the presidency of Donald Trump. Where civil rights leaders, warriors, and foot soldiers found support in high places they will now find a void.
Partners With Power
Amid discussion of renewed civil rights activism, you may well ask whether we'll need to fight those fights all over again. Will black people once more have to claim their humanity? For perspective on this moment, let's consider why the strategies of the southern liberation struggle worked as well as they did back in the day.
The classic civil rights movement (1954-1965) was sparked, organized, and driven by local people and leaders (maids, teachers, farmers, cooks, janitors, students, ministers) in a hundred southern towns who, with ferocious courage, stood up and said "No more!" Their victories -- some temporary, some lasting -- regularly depended on their ability as citizens to reach beyond local and state segregationists to faraway presidents, congressional representatives, federal circuit court judges, and Supreme Court justices in Washington, appealing to them to respond with regulations, executive orders, laws, and even armed force.
Dogged organizing by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), together with the NAACP's decades-long legal campaigns, Martin Luther King's rhetorical genius, and the massed moral crusade of black southerners first shamed and finally forced the latent hand of federal power. Alert to this leapfrog tactic, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others went a step further and tried unsuccessfully to appeal to the United Nations, as more recently have the parents of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Jordan Davis.
With its unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, the Supreme Court signaled to African Americans in the former Confederacy that they had a friend in Washington. In Brown, by the sheer weight of evidence, moral suasion, and reason, a handful of African American parents, children, and their lawyers had compelled nine aging white justices (including former Ku Klux Klansman Hugo Black) to agree that all citizens deserve equal education.- Advertisement -
In a similar manner over the next decade, one powerful judicial, congressional, and presidential ally after another would step up, willfully or grudgingly, to affirm simple justice, rights long promised but also long deferred. Their embrace of civil rights was sometimes a matter of conscience, sometimes a savvy calculation of their constituents' electoral mood. Those actions would, in the end, help open doors and extend legal rights to ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, workers, and most recently gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens.
Major legislation -- the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which established the Justice Department's civil rights division, the 1964 Act which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 -- and hundreds of decisions handed down by federal district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court all slowly expanded protections to African Americans and set precedents for all Americans. Unlike blacks within white-ruled South Africa who, at the time, were not citizens of their own nation and had little hope of federal protection, blacks across the deep South could succeed because they were citizens not only of their own states, but of the United States.
Few in the 1960s believed that marching, demonstrating, sitting in, agitating, witnessing, disrupting, or singing could ever change the minds, much less the policies, of a half-dozen southern governors, a hundred county sheriffs, or millions of white segregationists. The Montgomery bus boycott was successful in driving the bus company to the edge of bankruptcy, but legal bus segregation remained intact until the Supreme Court stepped in.