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(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Introduction to Civil Rights
During the summer of 1958, I left California on a stream-liner for Florida to spend time with Mom, Ruthie, and Grampa. Most of my life I had lived away from them except from my first memory until five, a year when eight, and on some Xmas and summer vacations. My Dodger hat in hand, I took the Sunset Limited, from LA to Miami. After stowing my gear above my seat, I explored the rattling train. The cars were silver with red letter boards and white lettering. The blunted rear end had a neon sign: Sunset Limited. After studying the mountains and desert streaming past, I went to the Coffee Shop lounge, Pride of Texas.
(Coffee Shop lounge called the Pride of Texas)
College-aged passengers and single adults gathered there. Filling an empty seat, a group discussion that appeared interesting was taking place. A few were going to be college freshmen like me. The chatter seemed inconsequential until a bearded white middle-aged college professor in a green and black tweed coat addressed twenty-five eager faces in a booming voice: “Civil rights protests have sparked a change in history that has dramatically altered the American social fabric. When seamstress Rosa Parks refused to step to the back of an Alabama bus on the first of December 1955, she explained her refusal was ‘a matter of dignity; I could not have faced myself and my people if I had moved.’ She inspired the successful Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In January 1957, he invited a group of black ministers and leaders to Ebenezer Church in Atlanta to form an organization to battle for nonviolent direct action to desegregate bus systems across the South. King believed that the civil rights movement attacked ‘man's hostility to man.’”
Stumbling upon what some people call “a teachable moment” so intrigued me, I had to listen; it seemed relevant in some inexplicable way for my future.
(Federal Troops guard Black students at Little Rock entering a public school)
“The Ku Klux Klan bombs churches, and kills men, women, and children who support the movement. At night in white robes they lynch black men for an insult, an attempt to register to vote, unpopularity, self-defense, testifying against a white person, dating or looking at white women, asking a white woman to marry, peeping in a window, or nothing at all. Half are carried out with white police officers participating. In nine tenths of the others, they condone or wink at the mob action. Each died from the torture of the noose. Although many go unreported, about one fourth of the victims were women. The Klan even brings eager bystanders including children to indoctrinate them against the Negro race and mixed-race marriages. They claim these unions weaken the white blood that runs through their veins. They use violence to try to discourage those of us who fight against discrimination. King travels where these racists dwell and rallies his supporters against them.”
His talk sent chills through my body. How could anyone bring children to such an event? Did I have the courage to join King’s protesters? At an all white high school, I hadn’t been presented with the opportunity. My interest grew as the speaker continued.
“Encouraging boycotts, freedom rides, and sit‐ins to protest segregation, King taught that one who breaks an unjust law with a willingness to accept the penalty expresses ‘the very highest respect for the law.’ The bombing of Ralph David Abernathy’s home and church could not prevent the Atlanta meeting of sixty Black activists and civil rights leaders from founding the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’ in January of 1957.
(Black civil rights lawyers with clients walking to the U.S.Supreme Court)
(Sit-ins at restaurants in interstate commerce)
The protest movement, which began in the Deep South and spread to the nation, had a dramatic impact upon American legal institutions. The role of the Supreme Court suddenly became that of an advocate for the civil rights struggle. Starting with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), 347 U.S. 483 the Supreme Court determined that in the field of ‘public education, the doctrine of separate‐but‐equal has no place.’ Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Court in a successful effort to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), 163 U.S. 537. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana, that was designated for use by white patrons only, as mandated by state law. Although Plessy was born a free person and was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, under the Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and required to sit in the ‘colored’ car. In an act of civil disobedience, Plessy refused to leave the white car, was arrested, and jailed. Brown emphasized that separating school children ‘of similar age and qualifications in different schools solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.’
The Brown decision gave impetus to the demonstrations that began across the South in 1955. Robert L. Carter, former general counsel of the NAACP, wrote that the desegregation ruling altered the status of blacks, who were no longer supplicants ‘seeking, pleading, begging to be treated as full‐fledged members of the human race.’ They knew that they were entitled to equal treatment under the law; the constitution promised it. Most of the work lay ahead for the Court and civil rights activists.
Brown's demand for an unbiased public school system presented enormous practical problems. The Court's remedial decision, Brown v. Board of Education II (1955), 349 U.S. 294, ordered ‘all deliberate speed’ in the dismantling of segregated schools. Civil rights protestors refused to allow local school officials to move slowly. This year they urge us all to join them in direct non-violent protests for racial equality, which may expose you to arrests for trespass, contempt, and breach of the peace from local police. This will challenge the Supreme Court to treat arrests for protesting discriminatory practices as violations of protected First Amendment rights. They seem committed to review all such cases to offer protection to a protest movement of tremendous historical significance. I hope you demand your dean of admissions to respect the Negroes’ right to education. They are entitled to non-discriminatory public services at swimming pools, rest rooms, public transportation, and highway restaurants. I urge you to join Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and others against racism by songs and demonstrations.”
A young man asked, “What can we do to get college administrators to honor Brown v. Board of Education in schools where no Negroes have gained admission?”
“You can organize a group of concerned students to demand an end to segregation. Send letters to local newspapers, and congressional representatives. Who here plans to attend a segregated University?”
An attractive coed raised her hand. Frightened to enter a public discussion, I raised mine slowly. Ten more hands went up.
“You should have asked before you applied whether your university accepts Negroes? Yell out the University you’ll attend. I’ll tell you if they practice segregation.”
“Duke University,” I shouted.
He turned and looked at me, “Didn’t you ask whether they accepted Negroes?”
“Their information indicated they favored a diverse group of students for admission, especially out of state students.”
“Duke has never had a Negro student. Any competent library shows student population for every college. Anyone can find that if they have the curiosity. Duke needs to change to become relevant. What do you feel?”
“I believe in equal rights for all persons.”
“Then I hope you’ll work to challenge Duke’s repugnant discriminatory practices.”
His comments provoked me. When I sent my application to the Naval Academy and my NROTC scholarship applications to Duke, Stanford, and Dartmouth, I hadn’t considered segregation assuming Annapolis would admit me. When they didn’t, the accolades Duke received from many sources did not alert me to anything negative. The professor’s stunning lecture made me understand I had chosen Duke thoughtlessly: it was located between my families in Maryland and Florida, won the baseball NCAA championship, and was referred to as the Harvard of the south. He forced me to consider a new perspective. It hadn’t occurred to me that many qualified students were unfairly denied their educational opportunity on account of race.
The enlightening discussion presented a new challenge. Why accept the status quo in the South where I had selected my university? The Civil Rights Movement needed people of conscience who wanted to make a difference. Most political issues in the schools I had attended had adopted a conservative philosophy, as did my family that sheltered me from public protests on racial integration. Recalling a pep talk in our locker room before our football team played rival Poly High School, that had a large contingent of blacks who dominated sports in Long Beach, I heard a husky man who weighed two hundred and thirty pounds shout, “Smash the ‘spear-chuckers’ in the face as soon as you can to make them afraid of you for the rest of the game.” His offensive remarks sparked wild cheers, clenched fists, and stoked an unmistakable racial edge.
My experience with Black Americans was different from those who supported segregation; I admired black athletes, actors, singers, and musicians, but my life hadn't meshed with any individual Blacks. The professor had inspired me to challenge my conservative background, had no fear addressing strangers with passion on an essential subject, and planted a seed in my consciousness that would sprout. How ironic that it happened in the Pride of Texas.