The growing militancy among the masses of black Americans in the 1930’s and 1940’s-punctuated by major ghetto riots by blacks in Harlem and Detroit-stimulated leaders of traditional civil rights organizations to rethink their own strategies and tactics. The ordinary cautious, pro-business, National Urban League became an advocate of unions and interventionist government social policies. The NAACP, committed since its founding to court suits against Jim Crow and polite lobbying in the Congress and the White House, redirected its legal campaign.
In 1934, Charles Houston, the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, agreed to lead a systematic attack on segregated education in the South. Houston was the first black lawyer to head the association’s legal program. Houston, with the assistance of William Hastie, later the first black federal judge, and Thurgood Marshall, later the first black Supreme Court justice, brought a renewed sense of mission to the attack on segregation. Breaking with previous policy, these lawyers actively sought out litigants and carefully nurtured the suits.
Convincing black parents to challenge the southern “way of life” often involved these lawyers in mass meetings and community organizing and exposed them to white retaliation. Their strategy was first to challenge segregated graduate education where the fiction of separate but equal was most blatant. Between 1938 and 1950, they won a series of suits that forced the Supreme Court to recognize that equality entailed more than physical structures and expenditures but involved intangible factors as well.
Segregation was, as Homer Plessey had contended more than half a century earlier, “a badge of slavery” that stifled the human spirit. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregation was “inherently” unequal. This conclusion emanated from diverse legal, political, and intellectual sources, but essentially the justices, like John Marshall Harlan in 1896, could not blink the palpable injustice of requiring eight year old Linda Brown to walk past the white school three blocks from her home in order to attend a black school a mile away.
No verbal ingenuity could any longer disguise this “badge of slavery”. A strategy of social change that relied exclusively on traditional legal and political processes lost its appeal under the circumstances.
Consequently, the decade after Brown witnessed a shift toward more confrontational tactics designed to shake the system rather than work through it. Beginning in December 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., where blacks boycotted the city bus system to protest its degrading treatment and job discrimination, and subsiding after the Selma to Montgomery, march in 1965, in which blacks and whites from across the nation converged to demand the restoration of black voting rights, the civil rights movement thoroughly transformed American race relations and created a legacy of black pride and militancy. The Montgomery motor vehicle rejection was instigated subsequent to Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was under arrest for declining to resign from her seat to a white American man on the municipality’s isolated bus.
Blacks organized effective substitute transportation and pressed their case until in December 1956, the Supreme Court declared Montgomery’s segregation ordinance unlawful. From the boycott emerged a new leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , who went on to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Charles A. Wills and David Halberstam, 2005, 16) and to become a symbol of the movement’s commitment to militant, nonviolent, direct action against segregation.
In February 1960, college apprentices in Greensboro, organized sit-ins to protest separated lunch counters. Their example soon inspired imitators throughout the South and sympathy demonstrations in the North. Later that year Ella Baker, an SCLC worker, helped students organize the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (Charles A. Wills and David Halberstam, 2005, 10). The nonviolent movement for civil rights started with major effects when two black lawyers initiated the desegregation of schools.
Both Houston and Marshal new the value of education and how it will help blacks' endeavor to get their rights. The education of black people was promoted before by Du Bois and Washington. The two lawyers knew that legalizing the struggle was better than rioting in front of the court and this would reflect a good image about black as educated people and nonviolent opposed to their stereotyped image as violent. Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark in the passive journey, on May 17, 1954; the US Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal.
This triumph was out of unity and determination of the African American people to gain their rights in a civilized way that portrayed their adoption of the nonviolent theory. Decisions of Supreme Court could only mean the success of nonviolent method in winning over the government which had no chance but to abide to law. One figure who used and applied the nonviolent struggle that made a difference in the African American struggle for freedom and civil rights, was Martin Luther king.
A Baptist minister and civil rights leader born in Atlanta, Georgia with his family long history in the Baptist church, he grew up on Christianity creed which later played a great role in establishing the SCLC to coordinate civil rights. He saw Christianity as potential force for the advancement of blacks. His doctrine of nonviolent struggle was the outcome of his family deep roots in the African American Baptist church, and his study of liberal theology of Christianity where he shaped his personality and beliefs. He believed that everyone is entitled to the basic human rights given to him by God and Law.
King's election as the spokesperson of Montgomery Improvement Association was out of his ability to preach to the mass and affect them by his biblical theologies and philosophic texts which he gained from his religious background and academic training, in addition to his experience with his father. Montgomery became his first station to his nonviolent believes when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the bus for a white person. This event was his first practical place to promote his doctrine. The boycott was a nonviolent form to resist whites' prejudice actions towards black people.