Aug 25, 2008
Forty-five years ago, on August 28, 1963, over a quarter million people marched in Washington D.C. Textbooks often depict Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the rally’s chief message, speaking of the moral impact it had in getting Congress to grant rights to the black population.
1963 marked 100 years since Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. It was 95 years since the 14th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed, granting citizenship to everyone born or naturalized and forbidding any state from depriving any citizen of their legal rights. And it was 87 years since the 15th Amendment had been passed, forbidding anyone from denying someone the right to vote because of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Nonetheless, in 1963 legalized Jim Crow ruled the South, and the lives of most black Americans were still dominated by poverty and racist oppression – and not just in the South. The black population had been mobilizing for several decades, protesting the denial of rights – with few results, and a great deal of their blood shed.
In May 1963, a rebellion broke out in Birmingham, Alabama, after the fire-bombing of the movement’s headquarters there. It was quickly followed by rebellions in Savannah, Georgia, and unrest in the streets of other Southern cities.
President Kennedy quickly moved to present a “Civil Rights” bill to Congress. It was nothing but a delaying tactic, since it contained nothing that was not already in the 14th and 15th Amendments. Even so, it languished in Congress.
King may have spoken of his “dream,” but the black population was living the American nightmare. As the summer dawned, the Klan, garbed in the uniforms of Southern sheriffs, attacked civil rights workers, and racist mobs in the North attacked black people on the streets. When demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida and Cleveland, Ohio were attacked by cops, small revolts broke out. The summer became more tense, with demonstrations becoming more militant, many carrying the slogan “Freedom NOW.”
Finally, the Civil Rights bill was pushed through Congress in July of 1964, as a way to calm down the growing storm. On July 2, Johnson signed the bill.
The black population would not be placated with a meaningless symbol. Only 16 days after the bill was passed, an angry rebellion broke out in Harlem, spreading quickly to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, then onto neighboring cities in New Jersey, moving further south to Philadelphia.
The stage was being set for the big rebellion in Watts in 1965. That was quickly followed by riots in Cleveland in 1966 and Detroit and Newark in 1967, riots which engulfed large numbers of smaller cities in the same regions. By the summer of 1968, hundreds of U.S. cities had been struck by rebellion. There was hardly a city left in the U.S. where black people had not stood up against the police and army, sending the message: “We are here, and we will fight.” As the rebellions progressed, they spread not only nationwide but also into the army, infecting it, including in Viet Nam.
The rights granted in 1863, and restated 101 years later finally began to be respected – not because of what was written in the law. Those laws and amendments never softened the heart of any Southern racist – nor, for that matter, the heart of any Northern politician who sent in police to attack black demonstrators.
What ended legal segregation in the South and began to break down the much more difficult institutionalized racism of the North was the willingness of the black population to stand together and fight back. What turned the tide was the unstoppable march of the great urban rebellions of the 1960s.
The ruling class didn’t listen to moral sermons. It responded to the enormous change in the relationship of forces, a change imposed on it by the rebellion of the black population in the mid to late 1960s.