In the mid-1950s, nearly one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and three hundred years after colonists forced Africans into slavery, Rosa Parks took what is generally considered the first step in the movement that aimed for true equality among blacks and whites. Refusing to give up a bus seat for a white customer, she directly challenged the southern creed that blacks were inferior. Her actions sparked a Civil Rights Movement involving not only blacks but also two white groups who would come to serve a critical function in the movement.
One of these two groups, white college liberals, was a radical product of the Cold War Era. The “inequality of black people was gradually becoming a prime symbol of what needed to be changed in American society” (Isserman/Kazin pg. 50), and liberals aimed to improve the blemish on America’s image – a blemish that had quickly became “a staple of Soviet propaganda” (Isserman/Kazin pg. 50). Liberals fought inequality in order to improve conditions in the nation as a whole in addition to those in the black community as a unit.
The second group, white politicians, affected the movement at the most critical of junctions – the intersection of politics and leadership. White politicians sought a balanced formula that could allow them to fight the evils of segregation and racism without losing votes in the south.
Within ten years of Parks’ rebellion, however, the role whites would play in the Civil Rights Movement would forever change, due to growing tensions between African Americans and the two groups of whites. The tensions between African Americans and liberal college students and between African Americans and white politicians would develop separately, but later intersect and result in a “white backlash.”
Radical college students, and specifically those who joined forces with the Civil Rights Movement via the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and eventually headed south with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), encountered tensions as early as the training period, during which the volunteers learned the nonviolent tactics used in Mississippi. “Many SNCC activists were black veterans who had developed a strong sense of racial pride and considered themselves militants or radicals, while many of the white students had just joined the movement…and considered themselves more idealistic and liberal” (Anderson, pg. 77). A conflict of backgrounds and interests, therefore, formed an initial tension among the veterans and the volunteers.
“The presence of white women inevitably heightened the sexual tension that runs as a constant current through a racist culture” (Evans, pg. 78). Interracial sexual relationships, taboo even among the nation’s most liberal, “introduced a tension that was internal to the movement as well as a cause of opposition from the outside” (Evans, pg. 81). Black women grew to resent the presence of white women, and black men gained a “forceful” reputation among white men.
Racial tensions continued to mount as African Americans in the movement noticed a disturbing trend in media coverage of the Freedom Summer events: “the press was outraged when whites were murdered and hardly noticed when blacks died in the struggle” (Evans, pg. 96). The constant presence of white faces in the media angered most African Americans involved; the struggle was a primarily black struggle throughout which African Americans had endured hardships, beatings, and poverty.
Media coverage of primarily white activists was insulting and degrading to most blacks. “Where had all those television news cameramen been when only blacks were being beaten, incarcerated, and murdered in Mississippi?…depending on sympathetic whites for the political cover was, in itself, a concession to racism” (Isserman/Kazin pg. 173).
The final and perhaps most powerful source of tension between African American activists and liberal college white activists was the rise in popularity of more radical black leaders such as Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s speeches rejected assimilation – the goal all activists had primarily sought. Blacks began to turn against the idea of an integrated nation, and chants of “Black Power” replaced those of “Freedom Now.” Without the desire to integrate, African Americans no longer needed white faces for the media coverage they drew. The SNCC therefore, in 1964, ousted white members.
Tensions between white politicians and African American activists developed on a more political level. Tensions between politicians and African Americans had roots going back centuries, of course, and tensions between black Civil Rights activists and white politicians had roots in the 1940s and 1950s.
The most significant tensions, however, occurred beginning in the presidential campaign of 1960. John F. Kennedy and the Democratic party “pledged vigorous enforcement of existing civil rights legislation” (Isserman/Kazin, pg. 60) and Kennedy’s campaign arranged the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from state prison on a traffic violation charge. Kennedy thus gained a large number of black voters, and “the black votes proved decisive” (Isserman/Kazin pg. 61).
If African Americans believed that their role in deciding the outcome of the election would earn them immediate civil rights action, they were wrong. Fearing the loss of white southern votes, Kennedy was very cautious towards improving civil rights for the first two full years of his term.
Activists denounced the inactivity; Charles Sherrod wrote, in a letter to the administration, “Must we die before the federal government stops compromising with bigots?…Your failure to throw the full weight of your offices behind our attempts, black and white together, to make the real tenets of democracy is a black mark for your administration” (Anderson, pg. 67).
As activists grew impatient with the administration’s cautious techniques, tension increased between the black members of the SNCC and the white members of the Democratic party: “While admitting that white liberals had helped in the past, black attorney Loren Miller stated that activists were growing tired of advice and becoming more militant: ‘To liberals a fond farewell…until you are ready to re-enlist as foot soldiers and subordinates in a Negro-led, Negro-officered army under the banner of Freedom Now’” (Anderson, pg. 68).
Even after Kennedy’s proposal of Civil Rights legislation in 1963, the activists remained incompatible with the political system of action. After four years of fighting, in 1964 activists witnessed a disappointing compromise, between the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Mississippi Democratic Party, that offered the activists tangible change in four years. Thus the activists grew tired of the federal government. “[Racism] was institutionalized by liberals making compromises in Washington and Atlantic City. The federal government was not the solution; it was part of the problem.” (Anderson, pg. 81).
Therefore, tensions mounted between the white politicians and the black activists. Activists began to explore the accomplishment of their goals via paths independent of the government; radicals such as the Black Panthers and Malcolm X saw an increase in popularity, and non-violence as a form of action became obsolete. The tensions between white politicians and black activists and between white college radicals and black activists, therefore, intersect at the point where African American Civil Rights leaders became disillusioned with old processes and suggested radical ideas increasingly more often.
As African Americans felt more tensions between themselves and white politicians and college students, a “white backlash” made the tensions mutual. Whites voted for more conservatives and segregationalists, police officers arrested SNCC leaders, and support of further civil rights legislation plummeted. “The sixties were shifting away from liberalism, and a contributing factor was the demand for Black Power” (Anderson, pg. 158).
As tensions between African Americans and whites increased, African Americans grew tired of the apparent disinterest in their struggles. They, therefore, rebelled against their previous desire to assimilate into the American lifestyle, and whites rebelled against the increasing support of desegregation and African American assimilation.
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