The Violent History of Confronting Racial Segregation in America


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

On May 4, 1961, two buses of Black and white activists who would become known as the Freedom Riders left Washington, DC, for New Orleans to confront racial segregation in the South. They had been recruited by organizers of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Warned that they would likely be greeted with violence, the activists were determined to maintain peaceful protests.

Image of the Freedom Riders standing beside their bus
The Freedom Riders was a group of activists that fought to end racial segregation. (Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales/Public domain)

One Powerful Letter

Some of the worst violence took place in Alabama. Buses were firebombed and as passengers attempted to escape the burning wreckage, angry white mobs fell upon them. Birmingham, Alabama’s commissioner of public safety at the time, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, was a rabid segregationist who was committed to maintaining the South’s racial traditions. 

Image of Eugene “Bull” Connor
Eugene Connor gave local Klansmen a heads-up of when the police would arrive so they would have time to harass the Freedom Riders. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

When he learned that the Freedom Riders were headed his way, he promised local Klansmen that he would give them 15 to 20 minutes to deal with the civil rights protesters before police arrived. But his vision backfired. As Birmingham increasingly became a focus of civil rights activism, images of peaceful protesters falling to the ground, under high-powered firehoses and police dogs, shocked the conscience of the nation.

It was from a Birmingham jail cell that Martin Luther King, after he was arrested for peacefully protesting in April 1963, explained the essence of peaceful protest and its ultimate power. In his famous epistle, ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, King wrote:

You may well ask: ‘Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’… Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

I Have a Dream

President John F. Kennedy moved cautiously on civil rights during the first two years of his administration. But in 1963, he committed to the cause. Kennedy said, “The events in Birmingham…have so increased the cries for equality” that they could no longer be ignored. 

In a televised address that June, he said, “This Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” And he said he would send a civil rights legislation to Congress banning racial segregation throughout the country. At the time, activists had been planning a massive protest march in Washington. Now, it would be in support of the proposed civil rights law.

On August 28, 1963, some 250,000 people took part in the march. And Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still weren’t free, King said. Instead, they lived as exiles in their own land.

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Supporters of Racial Segregation

As President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation made its way to Congress, it might have appeared that the civil rights movement had reached a turning point. But in Birmingham, segregationists bombed the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15. Four young girls getting ready for the service inside died in the blast. 

Two months later, Kennedy himself was assassinated. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson assumed the highest office in the land and publicly committed to seeing Kennedy’s civil rights legislation through.

Image of Martin Luther King giving a speech in Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King’s speech was a powerful one and his assassination meant that the civil rights movement lost an important voice. (Image: Rowland Scherman/Public domain)

The Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, made employment discrimination illegal and provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities. It was the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil War era.

Unlike revolutionaries in other historical contexts, civil rights activists didn’t pick up arms or man barricades. Instead, they joined arms, sang hymns, such as ‘We Shall Overcome’, and used their bodies and courage to assert the rights of all people and the justice of their cause. As segregationists attacked with billy clubs, nooses, guns, and bombs, civil rights revolutionaries wielded what Dr. King called ‘the weapon of love’. This, in and of itself, was revolutionary.

America’s Journey Toward Equality

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. King’s assassination didn’t end the civil rights movement, but its unifying force and most articulate voice was lost forever. And the gains of the 1960s were never fully consolidated.

In the decades since, while society has in some ways become more integrated, fundamental inequities remain. More than half a century after King’s death, the promise of equality remains elusive. Only when we understand our history of racial oppression, the American novelist and activist James Baldwin has said, can we ‘make America what America must become’.

Common Questions about the Violent History of Confronting Racial Segregation in America

Q: What was Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety’s response to the news of Freedom Riders coming his way?

Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, Eugene Connor, was in favor of racial segregation and committed to keeping southern traditions alive. He promised local Klansmen that they would have 10 to 15 minutes with the Freedom Riders before the police arrived.

Q: What was the aim of Martin Luther King’s speech and protest in Washington on August 28, 1963?

Activists had been planning a march on Washington when President Kennedy addressed the nation and pledged to send civil rights legislation to Congress and end racial segregation. Afterward, the march would be in favor of this legislation. Dr. King gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and compared Black Americans to being exiles in their own country.

Q: What was different in the approach of civil rights activists compared to revolutionaries?

These activists didn’t have weapons and never took up arms. Instead, their courage was what ultimately put an end to racial segregation and secured justice for Black Americans. These activists wielded what Dr. King called ‘the weapon of love’.

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