The Origins of the Civil
Rights Movement
Prof. Jeffrey D. Gonda
Syracuse University
September 26th, 2012
Our Agenda
Why Make the Civil Rights Era Long?
Experimentation: 1910-1940
New World A’Comin: 1940-1954
Part I: Why Make the Civil
Rights Era Long?
The Debate
“Long Movement”
“Short Movement”
American Popular
What Does A “Long” Civil Rights Era Do?
• Broadens the scope of our historical understanding:
– Expanding the temporal, geographic, and ideological boundaries
of the Movement.
– Economic issues and housing rights.
– Contextualizes ideas, individuals, and alternatives.
– Grapples with the incompleteness of this “Second
What Does A “Long” Civil Rights Era Do?
• Deepens our sense of the actors and agenda (even within
the “Classical” narrative)
– The role of women.
Daisy Bates
Ruby Hurley
– The significance of global decolonization struggles.
– Ongoing importance of legal activism.
Adding Depth and Breadth: Baker, Rustin, and Randolph
Bayard Rustin
Ella Jo Baker
A. Philip Randolph
Ella Jo Baker
• Southern-born political activist.
• Embraces grassroots organizing in
Harlem during the 1930s.
• Works for the NAACP 1940-1946.
• Key staff member for Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC).
• Helps to found Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
• Works with the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party (MFDP).
Ella Jo Baker
Bayard Rustin
• Begins organizing in the 1930s.
• Works with the Fellowship of Reconciliation
• First Field Secretary for Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE) during World War II.
• Plans the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 to
protest segregation in interstate transportation.
• Assists Martin Luther King, Jr. with the
Montgomery Bus Boycotts (1956).
• Deputy Director and Chief Organizer for the
1963 March on Washington for Jobs and
Bayard Rustin
A. Philip Randolph
• Publisher and political organizer.
• Organizes the Brotherhood of Sleeping
Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925.
• First president of the National Negro
Congress (NNC) in the late 1930s.
• Organizes the March on Washington
Movement (MOWM) in 1941.
• Founds League for Non-Violent Civil
Disobedience Against Military Segregation.
• A key organizer for the 1963 March on
A. Philip Randolph
What Might We Lose?
• Where do we draw the boundaries?
– Historian Leon Litwack: “The civil rights movement
began with the presence of enslaved blacks in the
New World, with the first slave mutiny on the ships
bringing them here.”
• Sacrificing objectivity?
• Sacrificing specificity?
• Clear that the “Long” Movement concept is not without
its own perils.
Part II: Experimentation,
Understanding the Early Era
• Characterized by experimentation
– Tactics
– Organizations
– Alliances
• Focus on economic rights as central to the needs of black
• Establishing social and political infrastructures upon
which later efforts will build.
In the Shadow of Jim Crow
• Turn of the 20th Century marks the lowpoint of American race relations since
• Violence, law, and custom restrict
African Americans’ rights in virtually
every sphere.
• The philosophy of “Accommodation”
dominates the black political landscape
Finding a New Approach
• Four broad political strategies will overtake Accommodation in
the coming decades.
Integration (1910-)
Nationalism (1919-1930)
III. Unionization (1925-)
IV. Communism (1929-1939)
Represent overlapping approaches that often share
constituencies and respond to changing political/economic
• Emphasis on formal mechanisms of protest (i.e. litigation and
• Interracial coalition building.
• Internal focus on “uplift” – social and moral fitness for
• Not seeking fundamental change to the basic structure of
American society. Advocates inclusion rather than revolution.
Riot in Springfield
• August 1908 a racial pogrom in
Springfield, Illinois.
• 4,000 state militia needed to quell
the violence.
• 2,000 African Americans flee the
city and are denied entry to
neighboring towns.
• Fear that a southern race war was
making its way to the North.
Organizing a Response
• Oswald Garrison Villard
– Wealthy NYC publisher
– Longstanding supporter of Booker
T. Washington.
• Interracial meeting of activists in
• By 1910, organized as the National
Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP).
Mary White Ovington, co-founder
Taking Root: 1915
• Three significant events in the NAACP’s development as a
protest organization:
– Guinn v. U.S. (Voting Rights Case)
– Release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation
– Death of Booker T. Washington
Expanding the Program
• Over the next 25 years the NAACP establishes a crucial legal
and political infrastructure to challenge racial discrimination.
– Anti-lynching.
– Housing rights.
– Voting rights.
– Educational discrimination.
– Employment litigation.
• Longstanding political tradition.
• Reinvigorated by militancy and disillusionment of World War
• Economic self-determination
• Racial pride
• Black separatism
• Pan-African identification.
World War I
• WWI appears to be a unique opportunity for black
– Scale of the involvement – more than 350,000 African American troops.
– Expansion of officer training for black soldiers.
– Contact with European troops.
– The War’s stated objectives (democracy and freedom).
369th Infantry March to Harlem, February 1919 – 250,000 New Yorkers gather to watch
Bloodletting: America’s Red Summer
• The summer of 1919 explodes in racial
– Mass violence in Chicago, Washington, Omaha,
Knoxville, and Arkansas (and 20 other cities and
– Spike in the number of lynchings, including
returning black soldiers in uniform.
Up, You Mighty Race!
• Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)
• Born in Jamaica.
• Trained and worked as a
• Founds the Universal Negro
Improvement Association
(UNIA) in 1914 in Jamaica.
• Comes to America in 1916.
The UNIA and Economic Empowerment
• Garvey embraces the capitalist spirit of the
• Emphasizes black economic self-help
through cooperative ventures.
• His signal program: The Black Star Line
– Shipping company funded by $5 stock
certificate purchases.
– Opportunities for black employment.
– Exchange of ideas and global transportation
for black communities.
• First major breakthrough with Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters (BSCP) in 1925.
• Bolstered by the reforms of the New Deal.
• Single-industry or single-occupation organizing.
• Focus on opportunity and equity in employment.
• Both intra- and interracial efforts.
• Positions economic rights as essential parts of full citizenship.
• Toe-hold in black communities like Harlem in the mid-1920s.
• Gains traction during the Great Depression.
• Emphasis on interracial cooperation of laborers.
• Reliance on confrontation through mass protest tactics (strikes,
demonstrations, rallies).
• Seeks to change the fundamental political and economic
structure of American society.
African American Unionization
A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925)
A New Deal for Unions
• The National Labor Relations Act (1935)
• The option for workers to unionize and bargain
collectively become a federally protected right.
• Spawns a new wave of union organizing.
• The Committee for Industrial Organization breaks from
the AFL (1935).
• The CIO begins interracial organizing for Steel Workers,
Packinghouse Workers, Automotive Workers, and Mining.
Red Tide Rising: The Growth of Black Communism
• By the late 1920s, the Communist Party begins to see an
American black constituency as a powerful tool.
• A commitment to racial equality as key to the class
• The Sixth Congress (1928) marks a shift in Party policy.
– Emphasizes “self-determination” for African Americans
– The Party turns southward, begins organizing in the black belt.
Rise and Fall: The Black Communist Trajectory
• 1929 Gastonia, NC Textile Mill Strike establishes
a lasting southern presence.
• Economic desperation in the Depression gives a
wave of new recruits.
• 1931-1936 “Scottsboro Boys” Case builds a
national following for the Party.
• 1934-1939 “Popular Front” encourages coalition
building and expansion of the Party base.
• 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact
dramatically weakens the Party’s standing
among African Americans.
The Era of Experimentation
• Accommodation gives way to a variety of
– Inclusion (integration, unionization)
– Revolution (nationalism, Communism)
• Economic rights will remain the primary focus for
most of these approaches.
• These organizations establish networks and
provide experience that activists will build upon in
future endeavors.
Part III: New World A’Comin,
Workplace Discrimination
• African Americans only
make up 3% of defense
industry employees.
• Exclusion by employers,
unions, federal agencies.
• “Hate Strikes” in
response to black hiring.
March and Response: Randolph’s March on
• A. Philip Randolph organizes the March on
Washington Movement (1941)
• Builds a coalition of supporters.
• Prompts Federal intervention: Executive Order 8802
– Prohibiting discrimination by defense contractors
– Establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee to
oversee enforcement.
March and Response: Randolph’s MOWM
• A. Philip Randolph organizes the March on
Washington Movement (1941)
• Builds a coalition of supporters.
• Prompts Federal intervention: Executive Order 8802
– Prohibiting discrimination by defense contractors
– Establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee to
oversee enforcement.
Nobody’s Closing Ranks
• African Americans have significant reservations about
the war effort.
• Take a more militant stance regarding domestic civil
rights demands.
• In 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier gives a
name to the campaign: The Double V
• “Victory at home, Victory abroad.”
Black Military Service
• Nearly 1,000,000 African American men and
women serve during WWII.
• The vast majority in the Army.
• 500,000 serve overseas. Most continue to be
relegated to labor battalions.
Turning the Tide: The Military
• Pressure on the Federal Government leads to
“integration” of all military branches by 1943.
• Elimination of racial segregation at base facilities.
• But still segregated by units.
• Introduce literacy education.
Turning the Tide: The Military (Part II)
• Most famous of the new units … the Tuskegee
Turning the Tide: The Homefront
• New opportunities and protections in employment.
– Defense industries: Black workers from 3% (1942) to 8.3% (1944)
– Skilled work: Black men 4.4% (1940) to 7.3% (1944)
– 1943 War Labor Board bans race gap in wages.
– U.S. Employment Service bans race-specific job advertisements
– National Labor Relations Board denies certifications to unions that
openly discriminate.
– Strengthen the FEPC. (Philadelphia Transit Strike 1944)
Turning the Tide: The Homefront (Part II)
• Newly strengthened FEPC opens Federal employment
• 1938 – African Americans are 9.8% of Federal workforce.
• 1944 – rises to 12%.
African American Federal Employment by Classification
Working for Democracy
Turning the Tide: The Homefront (Part III)
Voting rights expand.
Soldier Vote Act (1942)
Smith v. Allwright (1944)
Poll-tax provisions eliminated for all servicemen regardless of race.
Elimination of the “White Primary” by the Supreme Court.
Registered black voters in the South increase:
– 1940: 250,000 (5% of eligible black voters)
– 1947: 600,000 (12%)
Turning the Tide: Public Opinion
• Nazi racial ideology spawns a pro-civil rights
shift in public attitudes.
• Interracial coalitions boom:
– NAACP goes from 54,000 members (1939) to more
than 500,000 (1945)
– Growing cooperation of NAACP and Jewish civil
rights groups.
– Founding of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in
Turning the Tide: Public Opinion (Part II)
• The growth of “Scientific
• 1944 – Gunnar Myrdal’s
American Dilemma
• 1939 poll – more than 70%
believe blacks are less
intelligent than whites
• 1946 – 57% believe the races
are equally intelligent.
The Truman Show: Postwar Progress
• President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
• December 1946 – Executive Order 9808
– establishing the President’s
Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR)
• To Secure These Rights (1947)
• January 1948 – Special Message to
Congress outlining Civil Rights
• July 1948 – Executive Order 9981 –
Desegregating the military.
Building Momentum at the NAACP
• Flurry of new court cases.
– Morgan v. Virginia (1946) – Interstate transportation
– Sipuel v. Board of Regents (1948) – Education
– Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) – Housing discrimination
– McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) – Education
– Sweatt v. Painter (1950) – Education
Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
• Shelley signals important shifts in the NAACP’s
litigation strategy.
• Sets the course towards a confrontation with
“separate but equal” in the courts.
America’s Long Civil Rights Era
• Instead of a sudden and surprising explosion of
protest in the 1950s, we can see continuities.
• Long history of activism in black communities.
• Established legal, political, and social
infrastructure for the mass movements of the 1950s
and 1960s.
• Steadily built a record of achievement that spurred
more far-reaching efforts and set the stage for
Our Ongoing Questions

The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement