Essay: The Civil Rights Movement

There are have been many social movement that have captured my attention but the movement that I was most attracted to was the Civil Rights movement. The reason I am so fascinated by the Civil Rights movement is because the movement was ultimately about equality and freedom. The goal of this movement was to encourage people to give blacks the right to be equals to the rest of the society. Without the civil rights movement over half the United States would not have any rights. The movement took a long time to carry out but its outcome was amazing in the end they ended up getting rights. The ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to end racial segregation and discrimination against blacks in the United States. What made this movement so successful were the organization and the participation that it had from the black community. Many churches were the home base of where a lot of the planning took place. Women would make pamphlets and hand them out in the street. Without the community this movement would have not gone as far as it did. During this movement Women were forgotten, even though women played a large role making this movement happen they were never heard of. Most of the time women were invisible during the movement.

One could say that the case of Emmett Till can be seen as the motivation for the Civil Rights Movement in the sense that it launched a new era in media and national attention for the movement. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was a visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, when he reportedly whistled at white cashier at a grocery store about four days later, two white men kidnapped, beat and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till’s murder and open casket funeral motivated and really fired up the emerging Civil Rights Movement. ( mothers made the brave choice of having an open cascade ceremony this act is what really showed white America how horribly African Americans were treated. This was the first in a series of wake up calls for White America and even further for Northern America about the horrific realities of lynching. The broadcast of the images of Till’s remains into the homes of all American’s was so powerful that it shocked people into realizing that lynching was not just a southern problem, but rather an American issue and it successfully pointed out the limitations of the law in terms of federal versus state and even further versus local enforcement. Up until this point the Northern population saw the movement as an issue of unfair treatment, this was the wake up call that shocked them into caring and understanding that this movement was truly a matter of the preservation of lives. According to ‘Emmett Till’s death had a powerful effect on Mississippi civil rights activists. Medgar Evers, then an NAACP field officer in Jackson, Mississippi, urged the NAACP national leadership to get involved, and along with NAACP field workers Ruby Hurley and Amzie Moore, conducted a secret search for black witnesses willing to take the serious risk to come forward’, from this statement one could assume that he’s death was really ignited this movement, Tills death brought many in many activist into the movement, even though tills death had not been the first one it was, however, the first to get this much notoriety which is exactly what this movement needed to really kick start it. The other role this case played was the attention a black journalist named Simeon Booker got. It was the first time that the White press had taken an interest in a case like this in the movement. This was the point where leaders in the movement were able to grab ahold of the power of the non-Black press and set in motion a relationship with the media that would be crucial to the success of the movement.

It can be said that the modern Civil Rights Movement was birthed out of and functioned within the realm of the Black church; because this is true it only makes sense that the gender roles that shaped the Black church were the same that shaped the movement. The woman was essentially seen and not so much heard unless it was the wish of the men in the movement. The church also subscribed to the concept of charismatic leadership, which picked a figurehead as the face of the movement while grassroots led the movement. Just like male ministers head a church and the women of the church do all of the work that comes with running the church and preparing for service each Sunday, the women of the movement ensured order, made flyers, and created chains of information. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference can be seen as a microcosm of the structure of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr, who was the figurehead for the Civil Rights Movement and consisted of male ministers, founded it. These men traveled together and would preach about peace and equality but it was women who were necessary in organizing the groundwork. Even more apparent was the direct link between religion and the leaders of the movement. The men whom we know as the primary faces or figureheads of the movement were both, first and foremost, religious leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and Malcolm X was the head of Temple Number 7 of the Nation of Islam in Harlem. The fact that most of the civil rights movement leader were also church leaders shows how much church and this movement go together. If it weren’t for the church where most people would come gather and form a bond together the Civil rights movement would have been not as successful.

The two most prominent forms of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power are charismatic leadership and grassroots leadership. In order for a movement to be successful there was to be figurehead. What this figurehead is just the face of the movement, for example Martin Luther king Jr was one of the figure heads chosen for this movement. When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement he is what comes to mind. The two most prominent forms of leadership in the course of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power are charismatic leadership and grassroots leadership. Charismatic leadership is the more recognizable form of leadership in the movement this type of structure is modeled after the black church. It elects a figurehead with a charismatic disposition to essentially work as the face of the movement, such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. This form of leadership was common amongst organizations such as the SCLC and NAACP. The other form of leadership, not as prominent but still common, is grassroots leadership which essentially advocated for leadership that starts from the ground up, it’s created for the people by the people. Representation of ideas and thoughts are relayed directly from those who conceived them, not from a figurehead. This form of leadership was more popular in student groups such as the SNCC and was advocated by leaders such as Ella Baker. While these two forms of leadership are identified separately, they do in fact need each other. A figurehead leader is a good buffer to allow grassroots work continues without disruption while the public and press focus their attention on the leader. Grassroots is fueled by its workers and a charismatic leader can draw in more manpower and ideas when people are attracted to a figureheads charisma. Most importantly though, charismatic leaders would have nothing to relay and put in action if not for the work of grassroots, creating campaigns, ideas, and strategies. The word ‘manpower’ it self suggest that only men are the ones who are putting in time and effort into this movement. During this movement however, women are clearly overlooked. Women were everywhere in this movement. Women are behind the scenes in churches and schools preparing for the rally’s, boycotts and sit-ins. According to nbcnews ‘Most women in the movement played background roles, either by choice or due to bias, since being a women of color meant facing both racism and sexism.’ This quote further more explains how women were not given the correct the correct praise and acceptance during this movement, and how the word ‘Manpower’ does not truly represent the hard work put in by women.

The modern Civil Rights and Black Power Movements set the stage for the emergence of a new power within Black people in America. It was a moment in history where the oppressed took an organized stand against the oppressors in turn while doing this they were able to find their voice along the way; yet a movement that was so dedicated to a reformation of roles had one fatal flaw. Historian Barbara Bair’s suggestion that ‘women played essential roles but were too often little recognized and relegated to secondary or token positions’, holds considerable merit. This movement, so focused on progression, was based on an oppressive system of patriarchal leadership, one designed to muffle the voice of the women until the men decided it could serve a purpose. This age old, oppressive hierarchy, birthed out of the Black church, did to Black women what White America was doing to the whole of the Black population, yet this movement would not have gown and been so successful without the women to organize and spread the word. In this case the oppressed group became the oppressor.

The female role in the Civil Rights Movement was strictly to organize, execute, and appear. The mobilization of events in the movement relied on women like Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council who were the main force in the background of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In Hampton and Fayer’s Voices Of Freedom Jo Ann Robinson notes that the Women’s Political Council had been preparing for the phone call about the arrest of Rosa Parks for three years. Even though women pretty much running the movement in the backround what really demonstrates that women were in the oppressive role is the fact that an organization that was called a political council was held responsible for cutting stencils and making copies which is tedious mundane work. The women were ‘allowed’ to form this organization and use the term political in naming themselves, yet their greatest purpose was making flyers, this can easily be called stereotypical ‘women’s work’. Even further, Robinson’s commentary that the phone call initiated a carefully crafted plan shows the fact that Parks was a carefully selected proponent of the plan, someone who the male figureheads decided would be suitable to initiate action. This was simply one of the many female groups formed in an effort to support the movement by organizing the grassroots work.

Organizations such as the Women’s Political Council mainly consisted of Black professional women who at this time were mostly teachers and while they were doing grassroots work, tagging along behind them were their children, more importantly their daughters, learning the women’s role. Due to this fact the women of the movement were relegated to organizational work, the young women were kept in the dark about any other potential role they could play in the movement past making flyers and creating information chains. It was because of this that young girls like, Melba Patillo Beals, were unaware of their full potential in this movement. In her interview in Voices of Freedom Beals discusses the driving factor behind her decision to put her name on the list to attend Central High. Nowhere in her oral interview does Beals mention a desire to make history, stand out or be an influential figurehead; her driving force was curiosity.

In her memoir Warriors Don’t Cry Beals recounts her understanding of race relations and segregation as her observation of the adults around her living in constant fear of not pleasing the White people who they came on contact with. When the Brown v. Board of Education decision was delivered, the adults acknowledged the decision but had no discussion of its ramifications with her, she was kept out of the conversation about her own future. It wasn’t until Beals was nearly raped by a white man enraged by the Brown decision that she took her civil rights education upon herself writing in her Journal, “It’s important for me to read the newspaper, every single day God sends… I have to keep up with what the men on the Supreme Court are doing (Beals 28).”

During the Civil Rights Movements many groups came emerged from the this moved one of the most popular groups was created by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California founded the Black Panther Party in October of 1966. Its primary formation was a means of self-defense, purposed for the education of the Black masses. The organization’s Marxist roots played deeply into it’s militant nature. Although it is likened to the Nation of Islam, the BPP was markedly more aggressive in practice however, violence aside, the organization aimed to provide a safe space for black people to exist, launching food and education programs in the Black community.

In the 1960s the Student Nonviolent Coordinting Committee or the SNCC was birthed out of the new generation of black youth’s need to see a more direct means of change. Under the guidance of Ella Baker students such as Diane Nash, James Lawson, and John Lewis decided that instead of joining the ranks of older activists in the SCLC and NAACP, they would form their own movements to initiate change. The SNCC advocated for direct action and exercised more confrontational forms of action rather than passive acts such as boycotting. They were integral in the launch of the student leadership movement, lunch counter sit-ins, and freedom rides. The SNCC represented the grassroots leadership in action during the Civil Rights Movement; It was the example of leadership from the ground up. Even though there aren’t many women who are the face of this movement Ella Baker certainly pushed boundaries and made a name for her self. Ella Baker is most of the time known as the face of grassroots involvement and participatory democracy in the Civil Rights Movement; she spent time working for both the NAACP and the SCLC where she was incredibly important in both organizations. Ella Baker was disenchanted with the leadership in the SCLC, she felt that their focus was too much about the figureheads and the bureaucratic hierarchy that existed within and she clearly voiced this to the leaders of the organization. Her criticism did not leave her many friends in SCLC and she soon after left to form her own movement. In 1960 she helped to found the SNCC by encouraging black youth to take charge of their own freedoms and advocate for themselves, she later participated in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Baker impacted the Civil Rights Movement by challenging it’s misconceptions and calling out it’s figureheads on their inactivity.

When discussing the Civil Rights movement one cannot by far leave out the biggest figurehead on this movement Martin Luther King. According to Dr King the main purpose of non-violent action was to create discomfort, enough discomfort that it would eventually turn to tension that would then not allow everyday life to function until the people of the United States wouldn’t be able to avoid the issue that they have tried to hard to avoid. King’s goal was to force negotiations, the immediate goal of non-violence wasn’t desegregation, and rather it was to create space for discussion. Non-violence was an invisible hand that poked and prodded at White America’s comfortable, non-segregated life. He admits that it is okay to break a law if the law is in fact unjust because if the law itself is not just then it isn’t necessarily a law at all. We usually always view MLK as being a peaceful individual who kept views that emulated idea of turning the other cheek and not causing trouble but the reality was that he was finding a “peaceful” way to force enough discomfort that people had no choice but to allow change. He encouraged the breaking of a law as necessary in the pursuit of justice and I think that most of us assumed that he never toed the line. It is easier now to conceive that MLK did in fact motivate masses to action with a little more than a philosophy of turn the other cheek. He stood his ground and even pushed back a little bit and it was beliefs and practice such as these that really caused movement in the pursuit of justice.

John D’Emilio’s claim of Bayard Rustin’s ultimate responsibility for the modern Civil Rights Movement is easily proved by the fact that Martin Luther King Jr., the most important figurehead of the movement, would have been clueless as to how to lead a non-violent movement had he not formed a relationship with Bayard Rustin. According to D’Emilio Rustin’s decision to travel to Montgomery was sparked by a concern for the leaders of the movement, but even more so his concern that non-violence be maintained regardless of violent segregationist actions. It was Rustin who coached King in Gandhian methodology and beliefs, and transformed him from a man whose home was littered with guns to a successful non-violent leader. D’Emilio points out that there was no one more qualified to instruct King in non-violence then Rustin, because there was no black person as well versed in Gandhian beliefs. Only a black person could be entrusted with the education of the leader of such a delicate and important movement. It is important to realize that the King we have come to know, the King whom we have praised for his notion of turning the other cheek and leading us into a new era, does not exist without Bayard Rustin; in turn neither does the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The framing techniques and tactics that the movement used was the adoption of certain words that would catch peoples attention they used word like freedom, peace, nonviolent, equality and justice, so that when people would see these pamphlets posters or sign they would be able to relate to issues a lot more, as seen in these pictures.

What many people tend to forget when this movement is brought up is how important women were; they were the ones doing the grunt work while the men were the figureheads or face of the movement. One could say that the grunt work the women did is referred to as the grassroots work of the organization. Without the grunt work the women did the movement would not have been successful and the men would not have gotten the praise and recognition that they did. The gender structure in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements can be very simply defined by an old saying, the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck and turns him in whatever direction she pleases.

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