“There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over.”
- Martin Luther King
“My resistance to being mistreated on the busses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just on that day.”
- Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
The Second World War changed the position of black Americans. In 1940 there were 12.8 million African Americans, 9.8% of the population. About one quarter lived in the north and east of the USA; but the majority of black Americans still lived in the rural areas of ex-Confederate southern states.
In the South black Americans lived under a regime of vicious racist segregation known as Jim Crow. The Jim Crow system was created at the end of the nineteenth century, the result of a violent white counter-revolution in the South. That had followed the freeing of the slaves during the Civil War (1861-5) and a period of Northern-led post-war Reconstruction (ending in the mid-1870s).
White supremacy was enforced by the local state (and tolerated by the North) and supplemented by white vigilantes. In 1940, for instance, four black men were lynched.
The reality of segregation meant that in Mississippi, in 1940, for example, five times more was spent on a white child’s education than that of a black child.
Black life expectancy in the US was ten years less than that of whites.
Discriminatory laws meant that only 2% of Black Americans of voting age, in twelve Southern states, qualified to vote.
However the effect of World War Two was to shake up society, making segregation and social divisions less rigid and deepening trends begun during the First World War.
Over three million black men joined the military; about half-a-million were stationed abroad. Black men learned to handle weapons and, overseas, often discovered that they could be treated as equals, and with respect. The US state, which proclaimed it was fighting the Nazis for freedom and democracy, was unwilling to allow equality in its own army. The US armed forced were segregated, and black units were led by whites.
At home the socialist union leader, A Philip Randolph, threatened a black workers’ march on Washington against employment discrimination in the war industries. Under pressure, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, a limited reform.
The war effort brought one million black men and women into factory work. The number of black union members rose from 150,000 in 1935, to 1.25 million by the end of the war — encouraged by organising drives by the new industrial unions, the CIO.
The new situation brought both conflict and impressive acts of solidarity. For example, in 1943, 26,000 whites struck in Packards Motor Plant in Detroit against the employment of black workers; in 1944 white street-car workers in Philadelphia refused to work with black people and Roosevelt had to use troops to restore order. However, in North Carolina, 11,000 black and white tobacco workers struck at the Reynolds plant to upgrade black workers’ wages.
Black workers continued to migrate north, and to the east and west coasts. In the three years 1940-3 the black population of Los Angeles grew by 30%, Chicago’s grew 20% and Detroit’s 19%. From 1940-50 the number of black Americans outside the south increased from 2.4 million to 6.2 million. Philip S Foner also notes, “the median income of non-white wage-earners [rose] from 41% of the white median in 1939 to 60% in 1950.” The black middle class grew significantly.
And during the 1940s there were real improvements in the quality and accessibility of education available to black people.
Black America had increased its social weight inside the US.
The American academic, Manning Marable, makes the interesting point that, “[t]he democratic upsurge of black people which characterised the late 1950s could have happened ten years earlier. With the notable exception of the Brown decision of 17 May 1954, which ordered the desegregation of public schools, most of the important Supreme Court decisions which aided civil rights proponents had been passed some years before. In May 1946, for example, the high court ruled that state laws requiring segregation on inter-state buses were unconstitutional. In Smith versus Allwright, delivered on 3 April 1944 by an eight-to-one margin, the Supreme Court ended the use of all-white primary election… Yet the sit-ins, the non-violence, the street demonstrations did not yet occur.”
Why was that?
Marable believes, “The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges… had a devastating effect on the cause of blacks’ civil rights… the paranoid mood of anti-communist America made it difficult for any other reasonable reform movement to exist.”
Laws passed to suppress the Communist Party caught-up the broad, real left and labour movement in the witch-hunt, too.
The CIO convention of 1949 threw out the left-led electrical workers’ union, and within months eleven left/communist led unions had been purged.
The Stalinist American Communist Party had done useful work fighting racism and to de-segregate the labour movement during the 1920s and 30s. However, slavishly following a pro-USSR policy, the CP advocated no-strike policies and strikebreaking during the war. The American Trotskyists had denounced the CP and continued to fight for justice for black Americans during the war.
Foner comments that the CP had seriously damaged its credibility among black workers when they “placed the Soviet Union’s survival above the battle for black equality.”
When the drive against the CP came the Stalinists found themselves isolated. Helped by the police a gang of whites disrupted a concert given by "black Stalin" Paul Robeson in New York in 1948.
And, in 1951, the 82-year-old WEB DuBois was handcuffed, finger-printed and put on trial for serving a foreign power. DuBois, a socialist academic and activist, author of the ground-breaking books The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction, and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was witch-hunted by the right and abandoned by mainstream black civil rights leaders.
Under real pressure, the progress towards civil rights had slowed down by the early 1950s.
Although the number of registered black voters in the south had reached 1.2 million by 1952, C Vann Woodward comments, “in the lower South, apart from a very few cities, little change in Negro voting or office-holding could be detected. By one means or another, including intimidation and terror, Negros were effectively prevented from registering even when they had the courage to try.” Southern newspapers ran editorials threatening registered black voters; Senator Bilbo of Mississippi said, “The best way to keep a nigger away from a white primary is to see him the night before.”
And the racist right organised in response to the black gains of the previous decade. Active Klu Klux Klan groups appeared across the South as well as on the west coast and in the north-eastern cities.
By 1954, Marable comments, “there was a feeling of unfulfilled ambitions and expectations amongst many blacks… the drive for desegregation still seemed agonisingly slow. In the Deep South cities steeped in apartheid-style social relations, a black population was humiliated and exploited to the breaking-point.”
In 1954 a landmark ruling came from the Supreme Court, Brown vs the Topeka Education Board. The Chief Justice accepted that segregated education did irreparable damage to black children: “In the field of Education, ‘Separate but Equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision was a victory for the NAACP’s long legal war against Jim Crow. It placed more moral and legal pressure on the Southern establishment and changed facts on the grounds as more schools began to desegregate.
The mass black civil rights movement was about to erupt, the only question now was, when?
Rosa Parks, who died earlier this month, was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama. She was an educated woman who had been an activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since the early 1940s.
On 1 December 1955, returning from work, she took a seat in the part of the bus reserved for black people, behind the whites-only section. It was something that she often did, but this time her actions played out a little differently. As more people got on, and the bus filled up, the driver demanded Parks give up her seat for a white man. Parks refused, and the driver threatened to call the police. Parks answered, “You may do that.”
She was arrested, charged, locked up and, later, bailed. She consulted with her close family and decided her case would become a test.
The local NAACP chapter, led by E D Nixon, together with other black leaders, began to organise the boycott, which was called to start the following Monday, 5 December.
A twenty-six year old preacher, Martin Luther King Jr, was elected as the President of the Boycott Committee of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which would organise the boycott movement. King spoke at the first rally on the evening of 5 December. He wrote, “Within five block of the [Holt Street] church [where the meeting was held] I noticed a traffic jam. Cars were lined up as far as I could see on both sides of the street… I had to walk four blocks… The three or four thousand people who could not get into the church were to stand cheerfully throughout the evening listening to proceedings on loudspeakers… The question of calling off the boycott was now academic. The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an oncoming tidal wave.” (from King’s book, Stride Toward Freedom).
Addressing the meeting King declared, “We are American citizens, determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness… Just last Thursday one of the finest citizens in Montgomery — not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery — was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she refused to give up her seat to a white person… Mrs Rosa Parks is a fine person. And since it had to happen I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs Parks, for no-one can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity… nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment… You know my friends there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over…”
The first mass bus boycott had already taken place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953, and attempted again – with some success – in Virginia. In 1954 a group of professional black women in Montgomery had protested to the mayor about segregation on the buses and told him that a boycott was being discussed.
Now the Montgomery boycott had begun, initially around mild demands which did not directly demand the abolition of segregation.
Seventy five per cent of the bus users were black and the boycott was maintained for 381 days with great unanimity among Montgomery’s 50,000 black citizens. It is estimated that 95% of black bus riders observed the boycott.
The leading town officials openly joined the White Citizens Council (the WCC movement became very powerful across the South). Ninety two people — including King and Parks — were arrested during the struggle, and in January and February 1956 the houses of E D Nixon and Rosa Parks were bombed.
In May the boycott spread to Tallahassee.
The NAACP backed the case in the courts, forcing a Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation on Montgomery’s buses. The buses were integrated on 21 December 1956.
It was a great victory. And — for the first time — Montgomery had forced civil rights, as a political issue, into the centre of American life. The mass civil rights movement began in Montgomery in 1955-6, and from that point on no-one could ignore the issue. For the next 15 year the civil rights movement shook the US.
Rosa Parks, however, was sacked from her job in a department store and — following harassment — left the town for Detroit in 1957. In 1965 she marched with King through Montgomery, when King called for a ‘March on Poverty’. She continued to work for equality for the rest of her life.
Rosa Park’s actions had sparked one of the most important political movements of the twentieth century.