"Fight the Power!" the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

THE IMAGES REMAIN FAMILIAR, EVEN TODAY. SOME OF YOU WERE PARTICIPANTS and witnesses; others watched as the scenes came across your television screens; still others learned from books, documentary films, and oral histories and by teaching. Across the South, some half a century ago, men and women, mostly young and black, challenged Jim Crow and the laws and administrators who enforced it, tilting the jails and enduring extraordinary violence, intimidation, and harassment. Children made their way through gauntlets of cursing, spitting, screaming white parents. Activists, seeking to change the way things were, found themselves beaten in the train and bus stations, in the streets and parks, in the jails and prisons; churches, homes, schools, and buses were bombed and burned to the ground; in the rural South, "nigger hunts," murder, terrorism, racial cleansing, and economic coercion and exploitation took their toll in black lives.

Few could forget as well the marches, the oratory, the raised expectations, the defiant songs (some of them rooted in old spirituals)--"We'll Never Turn Back," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," "Oh Freedom," "We Shall Overcome." It all made for powerful theater, and the drama often became critical to the success of the demonstrators. A new generation of black men and women embraced the promise of a new Reconstruction, more sweeping, more enduring than what had transpired a century earlier.

The roots of the civil rights movement lie deep in the history of this nation. The civil rights movement began with the presence of enslaved blacks in the New World, with the first slave mutiny on the ships bringing them here. The black odyssey includes some of the bleakest examples of repression and terrorism in the history of this or any nation. But it is at the same time a story of extraordinary resiliency, the story (as Nathan Irvin Huggins has written) "of a people who had to endure and make choices under conditions and circumstances which are outside our experience to know," "a people whose courage was in their refusal to be brutes, in their insistence on holding themselves together, on acting, speaking, and singing as men and women." (1) It is a story of resistance, defined not so much by spectacular feats and insurrections as by day-to-day acts, employing various forms of expression, often subtle and individual.

Through the first three decades of the twentieth century, the mechanisms that circumscribed black lives remained in place. Individual blacks made breakthroughs into the middle class; the New Deal, grassroots protests, and the stirrings in organized labor in the 1930s, culminating in the March on Washington movement in 1941, encouraged a politics of hope and raised the stakes in the struggle for economic justice.

But most black southerners still lived out their lives in a rigidly segregated and repressive world. In 1925 seventeen-year-old Richard Wright left his native Mississippi, fleeing "that most racist of all the American states." Fifteen years later, in the summer of 1940, he returned to ascertain how much the South had changed. During his brief stay, Wright witnessed no violence and no lynchings, only "the normal routine of daily relations between Negroes and whites." That was enough to satisfy his curiosity; indeed, the first two hours told him everything he needed to know. "Jim Crow was still Jim Crow and not a single racial practice had altered during my ... absence," he wrote. "What I saw there made me wonder why I had wanted to see and feel it all again. I discovered that the only thing that had really changed was I." (2)

For most blacks, as for Wright, it remained a familiar South: the narrow boundaries, the limited options, the need to curb ambitions, to contain feelings. Personal security lay in repressing any impulses toward individuality or assertiveness, in learning how to accommodate oneself to daily indignities. In 1940 more than three-quarters of adult blacks had not finished high school; some nine out of ten families lived in poverty; blacks earned some 41 percent of what whites made. …