Sunday, February 10, 2013


1960 and 1961 were years of deep changes. Before these years, there were not a lot of changes regarding discrimination even after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1960, the black community was not unanimous anymore. A lot of black people started distancing themselves from the NAACP's nonviolent and prudent strategy. A new wave of protests was becoming visible, giving a different aspect to the Civil Rights Movement.
Tired of having no result and noticing that things did not change, the students launched a new form of protest: the sit-ins. They were independent from any organization. The first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960 was followed by a lot of similar actions. Franklin McCain, one of the students who initiated the sit-in movement, explained that the idea was to stay at the Woolworth's lunch counter until they get served. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created. This shows that students had a real supervision power and would prove that they had influence on the evolution of racial issues in America. Ella Baker, a prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movements, was even an advisor to the students. The Committee followed her lead focusing on local leadership. It highlights the potential of this new form of action. These protests, growing bigger and bigger, bore fruits quickly. In October 1960, during the presidential election campaign, John F. Kennedy committed himself to try to set Martin Luther King, Jr. free. He was arrested after having participated in a sit-in in Atlanta. Kennedy was elected, the black vote was an important factor in his victory. He dedicated a part of his legislative agenda to the voting rights violation and later, to the expansion of federal civil rights laws. The Freedom Rides, introduced by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were another type of action consisting in challenging segregation on buses and in terminals. Even if the Freedom Riders experienced violent attacks, the movement went on. It even forced the federal state of Mississippi to protect the Freedom Riders. It seems that American society was transforming. The movement had a new face, brought by this new generation and the rise of young white activists.

The new waves of protests were not all nonviolent. The efficiency of violence was actually a real debate during that time. Robert F. Williams, the president of Monroe NAACP chapter, was convinced that violence was necessary to get more rights. As the laws failed to protect “the weak”, violence was the only way to protect themselves. Passive resistance was not powerful enough to reach desegregation. Williams insists on the capacity of violence to get more justice: this is thanks to a group of black men that the Klan was deprived of its constitutional rights in Monroe. Violence must be the reply of violence. All the trials that resulted with no justice for black people were intolerable. They would be “delivered from bondage” only by fighting back. Martin Luther King did not advocate violence but recognized the legitimacy of self-defense. For him, violence as a means of advancement cannot bring people together and position them as a weak minority. The power lies in congregation: mass boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, mass meetings, mass marches...The Gandhi model is a proof that massive nonviolent protestations are successful to disband the enemy. Furthering that idea, Franklin McCain explained that solidarity and patience were the key words of the sit-ins which happened to be efficient.

There were clearly two schools of thought which emerged in the 1960s. The first one followed the traditional path of nonviolence advocated by the NAACP and Martin Luther King among others but chose a new way of demonstrating. The second one advocated violence and weapons to fight segregation. The Civil Rights Movement was then seen in a new light and reached a new degree in the struggle for rights and justice.


  1. What's most interesting to me about this debate is the way in which King frames it. Although he briefly addresses the moral legitimacy of violence as self-defense, he focuses much more on the practical considerations of nonviolence as a tool. He essentially argues that by choosing violence, blacks would be agreeing to fight on the terms of their oppressors and would necessarily be at a disadvantage. Nonviolence, then, is not a morally superior option, but a pragmatic decision.

    He also seems to be addressing the stereotypes regarding black men in general and black activism in particular, pointing out that whites assume and are prepared for blacks to be violent, a point which Franklin McCain reiterates when discussing his encounter with the policeman. In the face of the students' nonviolent protest, "the big bad man with the gun and the club" did not know how to react and was totally "defenseless." Nonviolence, then, in its unexpectedness redefines the situation and spotlights the tragic absurdity of the violently-enforced system of segregation.

  2. It appears to me that the categories suggested need to be amended to separate the NAACP view on nonviolence and the King version. The NAACP believed that litigation should be the main form of protest, and that activating the courts would allow precedent to be set for their cause. During these legal disputes the NAACP would be more willing to promote victims of protest in nonviolent ways because it would be more sympathetic to a judge and jury. This rational differs from King because they are looking for the right cases to try to protect rights where King is targeting people not policy. King's model is aiming at nonviolence because it seems to be a better way of winning the people over. I think there is some debate to whether King's views on winning the white people over would have also served in the NAACP's purposes, in having a more sympathetic white population would prevent white jurors from being as aggressive when living in a highly violent protest area.