Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Making Best Use of the New Laws: The NAACP and the Fight for Civil Rights in the South, 1965-1975

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Making Best Use of the New Laws: The NAACP and the Fight for Civil Rights in the South, 1965-1975

Article excerpt

ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 3, 1970, THREE BUSES CARRYING BLACK schoolchildren arrived at Lamar High School in Lamar, South Carolina, a small town in the eastern part of the state. The buses were transporting some of the 514 children who were integrating the school in accordance with a recent federal court order. Shortly after 8:00 A.M., the buses entered the school grounds and were promptly attacked by an angry mob of white adults carrying bricks, ax handles, and heavy chains. The black children were trapped inside, and many were injured by bricks and flying glass. Bullets were fired into one bus, and two were tipped over only moments after the children had dashed into the school. It was a terrifying ordeal that the youngsters never forgot. "Within seconds," recalled bus-rider David Lunn, "every window in the bus was broken out and glass was in my face and ears." "The crowd was shouting 'get them niggers' and 'run, nigger, run,'" added another student. "The policemen didn't seem very interested in what was going on." (1)

The Lamar violence received extensive press coverage and was widely condemned by both local and national political leaders. South Carolina governor Robert E. McNair termed the episode "unspeakable," while Vice President Spiro T. Agnew declared that the Nixon administration would not "tolerate violence or unlawful interference in efforts to desegregate." (2) The case highlighted how black and white southerners were still fighting over racial issues well after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the passage of federal equal rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Like Darlington County, where Lamar is located, most southern school districts carried out substantial integration only after 1969, when the federal courts finally brought to an end the stalling tactics that many school boards had used for well over a decade. In January 1969, 68 percent of black children in the South still attended all-black schools, and close to 79 percent were enrolled in schools that were at least 80 percent black. (3)

The Lamar violence also highlighted the central role that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People played in this ongoing civil rights struggle. Immediately following the violence, local NAACP leaders were instrumental in securing federal marshals to protect the children and in obtaining contempt citations against seven local whites on riot charges. Earlier, it had been NAACP lawyers who filed the federal lawsuit that led to the controversial desegregation order in Lamar. When federal judge Robert Martin rejected the lawyers' motions, the local NAACP branch also pushed for the case to be appealed. The incident spotlighted how the NAACP's legal work, far from being separate from the grass roots, drew on local activism. Across the region, NAACP members worked with the association's lawyers to bring hundreds of suits that desegregated public schools and workplaces and helped protect blacks' right to vote. (4)

After 1965 the NAACP was the only civil rights group able to maintain a mass membership in the South. (5) In his recent personal history of the organization, former NAACP official Gilbert Jonas has noted that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Black Panthers would all "disappear as effective agents of change by the next decade." (6) Organizational histories of CORE and SNCC have documented how these formerly vibrant groups were ripped apart by disputes over Black Power. The SCLC's main historian has shown that after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death the group was hurt by personal rivalries and failed to achieve the "national victories" that it craved. The NAACP was left standing as the only organization capable of enforcing the new laws at the grassroots level in the South. (7)

While other groups declined, the NAACP did not suffer a big fall in membership. …

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