The Strategy

Greensboro Lunchcounter The "Greensboro Four" waiting to be served at Woolworth's
Photograph by John G. Mobius, reprinted with permission of the News & Record, Greensboro, NC.
In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, "direct action" was the strategy--primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.

Locally initiated boycotts of segregated buses, especially the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, were designed to unite and mobilize black communities on a commonly-shared concern. Protestors refused to ride on the buses, opting instead to walk or carpool. The nearly one year-long boycott ended bus segregation in Montgomery and triggered other bus boycotts such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida boycott of 1956-1957.

Student-organized sit-ins like the February 1960 protest at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, offered young men and women with no special skills or resources an opportunity to display their discontent and raise white awareness. Protestors were encouraged to dress up, sit quietly, and occupy every other stool so potential white sympathizers could join in. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns all across the South. By the end of 1960 the sit-ins had spread to every southern and border state and even to Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio. Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places. When they were arrested, student demonstrators made "jail-no-bail" pledges to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest (putting the financial burden of jail space and food on the "jailors").

Non-violence "Albany Movement" members practicing nonviolent protests
Photograph courtesy of Mount Zion Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum

The 1961 Freedom Rides on public buses tested compliance with court orders to desegregate interstate transportation terminals. The trips enabled students from both the South and the North to protest away from campus and to form a tightly-knit community of activists, many of whom would participate in the last protest phase, which began in 1961. National civil rights leaders launched these efforts to involve poor blacks and other blacks who had been uninvolved until then. The movements included door-to-door voter education projects in rural Mississippi, "The Birmingham Campaign" to desegregate public accommodations in the city, and "Freedom Summer," to try to unseat the regular delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention and to publicize the disenfranchisement of southern blacks.

While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement advocated Black Power, black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence -- a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. The commitment to nonviolence gave the civil rights movement great moral authority. Using nonviolent strategies, civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention and the attention of Congress and the White House. In 1955, journalists covered the Mississippi trial of two men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago. The cover of Jet magazine featured a photo of the boy's mutilated face. A few years later, Americans watched the live footage of violent unrest at Little Rock High School as whites rioted to prevent nine black students from entering the school. Radio, television, and print journalism exhaustively covered such 1960s events as police dogs attacking children in Birmingham, former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hammer describing her jail beatings to delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and a mounted posse charging "Bloody Sunday" demonstrators in Selma, Alabama.

The Need For Change The Players The Strategy The Cost The Prize

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