Magazine article Newsweek

The Fire Last Time: The Civil-Rights Movement Was Born amid Blazes

Magazine article Newsweek

The Fire Last Time: The Civil-Rights Movement Was Born amid Blazes

Article excerpt

THIS IS HARDLY THE first time America's rural Southern black churches have come under fire. In the decade after 1954, the year the Supreme Court held, in Brown v. Board of Education, that schoolchildren should no longer be segregated by race, hundreds of bombings and attempted bombings convulsed the old Confederacy. The weapons were homemade affairs: cardboard suitcases stuffed with nitroglycerin, bunches of dynamite tied to mousetrap-timing devices. Nightriders--most often Ku Klux Klansmen--left the packages in bushes or flower beds outside black churches and Jewish synagogues, ministers' houses and integrated schools. The attacks signaled something new and ugly: not since the Civil War had Americans bombed other Americans.

It was a chaotic, violent, drunken era in the South after Brown. In 1957, for example, Knoxville's Municipal Auditorium was bombed during a concert by Louis Armstrong, and an explosive misfired at Martin Luther King's house in Montgomery. The year 1958 saw 27 bombings and attempted bombings: at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham (twice); the YWCA in Chattanooga; a Negro drive-in theater in Charlotte; Temple Beth-El in Miami; a Negro high school in Jacksonville.

The most infamous church bombing occurred in September 1963, when four young girls were crushed to death after a bomb tore into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The following year, 1964, brought "Freedom Summer" and scores of attacks, especially in Alabama and Mississippi.

The bombings did not stop progress toward civil rights, but they haunted it. They reminded Southern blacks and their white allies in the movement that they were being watched, and by whom. The rough logic was this: if you are planning to abolish segregation, you will have to do it in a minefield. Behind the attacks stood dozens of new units of the Ku Klux Klan, "states' rights parties," "white Citizens Councils" and the semimythical "Confederate Underground," all pledged to block integration and united in their belief that blacks were inferior. …

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