The roots of the civil rights movement

August 24, 2012

Lee Sustar looks at some of the factors that galvanized the movement in the South.

LIBERAL BLACK leaders faced a dilemma as the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If they led a struggle for Black workers' rights, they would be attacked as "communists" and driven from the political mainstream. But if they did nothing, they risked losing the support of thousands of people who had joined groups like the NAACP in the 1940s.

After participating in the anti-communist witch-hunts themselves, by the early 1950s, middle-class Black leaders were themselves being red-baited. Even in the "liberal" Northern cities, where the majority of Blacks by then lived, demands for jobs and better housing were denounced as the "subversive" work of "reds."

The situation was somewhat different in the South. There, "Jim Crow"--the complete segregation of white and "colored" in virtually every aspect of life--was the law. Black leaders could contrast the segregation in the South with "equality before the law" in the North and criticize Jim Crow as a "deviation" from the "American tradition"--thus challenging racism in the conservative terms of the time.

The History of Black America

As Southern Blacks began to challenge segregation in large numbers, Northern-based civil rights groups took the opportunity to support a "respectable" liberal campaign that would "bring the South into the 20th century."

Despite their dwindling numbers, the largely rural Southern Black population continued to fight their oppressors throughout the farm crisis of the 1920s and 1930s. Black (and some white) sharecroppers and tenant farmers who lost their land through the pro-landlord policies of the Democratic Roosevelt administration organized the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. This short-lived, but militant, organization--which had close ties to the Socialist Party--forced the federal government to alleviate what some observers called the worst poverty in the Western world.

But it was the Second World War that really galvanized the Southern "Black Belt." The wartime boom drew even the most backward areas into the national economy for the first time. With full employment and higher prices, Blacks got a taste of a better life and the confidence to demand more.

Southerners among the more than 1 million Blacks who served in the armed forces had received higher pay and other benefits, which they did not want to give up in civilian life. Although most Black union members in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were in the North, the success of anti-racist unions like the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union in Alabama showed Black Southerners that they could challenge the bosses--and win.

By the end of 1945, the CIO seemed to hold promise for Black workers in both the North and the South. The rise of the labor federation helped boost Black union membership from a few thousand in the early 1930s to several million by the late 1940s.

Yet CIO leaders had other plans. In order to win favor with the Democratic Truman administration, the CIO leaders joined the anti-communist crusade. Eleven member unions of the CIO were expelled because of the supposed influence of the Communist Party, and the federation's Operation Dixie postwar organizing drive was put on hold so as not to upset the union bureaucracy's alliance with the Democratic Party and its openly racist "Dixiecrat" wing.

THUS, POLITICAL initiative in the Black South fell, as so often before, to the church. During slavery, innumerable Black rebellions were planned in churches, since they were the only place slaves could meet. In freedom, the relative economic independence of Black preachers enabled them to criticize Jim Crow without fear of losing their jobs.

Although Black church leaders were part of a small African American middle class, removed from the conditions faced by their parishioners by income and lifestyle, they faced far more oppression than their Northern counterparts, many of whom had, by the 1950s, already found a niche in big city political machines. Segregation and the racist violence that enforced it pushed Southern Black middle class leaders into close alliance with Black workers and farmers.

Such was the case with the Baton Rouge, La., bus boycott of 1953. Earlier that year, local Black leaders had successfully petitioned for an end to an ordinance that required Blacks to stand on city buses even when the "whites-only" section was empty. Reserved seating was abolished, although Blacks were still required to take seats from the rear of the bus to the front, and whites from the front to the rear.

City bus drivers, all of whom were white, struck rather than obey the new law. A few days later, the Louisiana attorney general overturned the ordinance because it conflicted with state segregation laws. Outraged, Black leaders announced a boycott.

T.J. Jemison, a New York University-educated preacher and a newcomer to the city, coordinated the boycott through the Urban Defense League (UDL). Essentially a federation of Baton Rouge Black churches, the League attracted 2,500 to 3,000 people to nightly meetings in a school auditorium that could hold 1,200.

Although few of the city's Blacks-owned cars, they were pooled into an alternative service that covered the regular bus routes. Virtually no Blacks rode the Baton Rouge buses during the six-day boycott.

Jemison was sharply criticized for the settlement he negotiated with the all-white city council. Rather than hold out for an end to all seating restrictions, the preacher agreed that one rear seat would be reserved for Blacks and two front seats for whites.

Nevertheless, mass action had accomplished more in a week than Louisiana NAACP attorneys had done in years of legal efforts. That lesson was not lost on another young Black preacher who one year later would be named pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Ala. There, Martin Luther King Jr. would capture the nation's attention as he attempted to use nonviolent direct action in the struggles to end Jim Crow.

First published in the September 1986 issue of Socialist Worker.

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