The Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s brought about a pivotal change in the race dynamics of American society. The nonviolent protesters were met with violence from the Ku Klux Klan, the police, and the private citizens. The literature on the subject focuses predominantly on the struggle’s leaders while neglecting the everyday personal experiences of Black people. This paper explores the role of violence in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the way the bottom-up approach offers a different view of the Black struggle.
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Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a tactic of passive and nonviolent resistance. This tactic was chosen as a tool to dismantle institutionalized discrimination and racial segregation. The peaceful protest actions stood in stark contrast to the violent acts of those in power. Thus, the violence in the context of the Civil Rights Movement is the brutality inflicted upon the activists, as well as assassinations of prominent figures, such as Reverend George Lee, King Jr., and Malcolm X. The Ku Klux Klan, a White supremacists organization, bombed and burned down churches and private homes. Activists were murdered as part of the intimidation tactics. The police and law officials, meanwhile, were unwilling to pursue those committing hate crimes, and all-white juries acquitted the perpetrators while protesters received harsh sentences.
According to Hollitz, a White judge’s statement upon sentencing several students to six months in jail for participation in a sit-in was “you will be like sheep and be slaughtered” (266). Therefore, many Black people took to defending their communities and themselves with firearms, as well as keeping around-the-clock surveillance of their properties. The public displays of non-violent resistance did not mean that activists shunned armed self-defense, on the contrary, it was crucial in protecting lives. Additionally, full-scale race riots took place in almost every community, although black violence usually coincided with protest activity, either directly preceding or following public demonstrations, it was often the act of violence that…catalyzed the transition to Black independence” (Button 232). Therefore, it might be concluded that “a combination of the nonviolence strategy and of the threat of violence on the part of African Americans were responsible for the two major legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago—the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA)” (Nimtz 1).
The discourse around the movement has focused predominantly on the prominent figures of the Movement and the legislative action they pursued. However, Kirk notes that King Jr’s strength was ‘his ability to mobilize black community resources, rather than to negotiate with influential Whites” (15). Thus, the bottom-up approach is crucial in understanding the everyday experiences of racism and violence of the Black community, and the personal contributions to the struggle. Tens of thousands participated in protest marches and experienced police brutality firsthand. Along with the sit-ins, there were nightly vigils to protect the churches and community centers.
The people rose because racism and discrimination marred every aspect of their life, and it was the community that could protect them from White violence, or counters it. More importantly, Hollitz states that the leaders “did not initiate some of the well-publicized demonstrations – or countless other protests“ ( 250). Additionally, the approach aids in understanding the role of the White activists, as “by challenging the entrenched system of segregation,” these people “rejected the racially oppressive environments in which they were raised” (Moore 102). All in all, according to Williams, the Movement “involved thousands of acts of individual courage undertaken in the name of freedom” (12).
The victory of the Civil Rights Movement can be attributed to both the exposure of White violence aimed at those participating in the peaceful civil disobedience actions and the self-defensive measures taken up by the Black community. While studying the Movement, a bottom-up approach is beneficial towards seeing the struggle in the context of the Black community, concentrating on individual experiences as well. Thus, one could see that the struggle encompassed the wide strata of American society.
Button, James W. Blacks and social change: Impact of the civil rights movement in southern communities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
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Hollitz, John. Thinking Through the Past. Vol. 2. Nelson Education, 2013.
Kirk, John A. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. London, England: Routledge, 2014.
Moore, Olivia Bethany. ” Black and white together, we shall win”: Southern white activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement,” 2016. Web.
Nimtz, August H. “Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement: The Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. Nexus.” New Political Science, vol 38, no.1, 2016. Web.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the prize: America’s civil rights years, 1954-1965. London, England: Penguin, 2013.