USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights for all.
In June 1963, as two newly admitted Black students attempted to register at the all-white University of Alabama, Gov. George Wallace positioned himself in a doorway to block their path.
Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court had pronounced segregated schools unconstitutional nine years earlier. Wallace was a staunch segregationist, famously declaring in his inaugural address: "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever."
Though Wallace ultimately conceded his doorway post to federal authorities, he was far from the only politician to stand in the way of civil rights progress in the 1950s and 1960s, an illustration of how federal, state and local institutions – including law enforcement, educators and the media – played roles in resisting or openly opposing racial justice.
While some media coverage was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion in favor of civil rights, some newspapers editorialized against integration or downplayed systemic racism in their own backyards. As many teachers and school boards stepped up to support integration, some academic leaders frowned on activism, such as those at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University) or Louisiana's Southern University, where students were expelled for taking part in civil rights protests.
And though a handful of police departments, largely under pressure from Black activists, hired more Black officers to better serve their communities, many others excluded Blacks from their ranks and clamped down on civil rights activities.
Now, as the country reckons with last year’s murder of George Floyd and a pandemic that has exacerbated inequities faced by people of color, these historically white institutions are continuing to control and shape public narratives around race.
“Those who run the system work hard to maintain the status quo,” said Jamel Donnor, an associate professor of education at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
How lawmakers block progress and maintain oppressive policies
Many lawmakers, especially in the South, fought to maintain the nation’s founding principles of white supremacy.
In Alabama’s Dallas County, more than half the population was Black in 1961 but fewer than one in 100 Black citizens were registered to vote due to daunting poll taxes and other measures meant to disenfranchise Black voters.
Across the South, registrars could selectively ask Black voters to read part of the Constitution, then decide whether the text had been read to their liking, said Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
As such, they had enormous power to block people from voting, Anderson said.
A modest civil rights act passed in 1957 had enabled the Justice Department to sue states for voting rights violations but put the onus on people whose rights had been violated, requiring them to challenge systems designed to keep them down, Anderson said. By 1963, a federal report examining 100 counties in eight Southern states found that Blacks remained substantially underrepresented at the polls.
Selma, the seat of Dallas County, became an important battleground as tensions escalated. A local judge stifled demonstrations by declaring public gatherings of more than two people illegal, drawing a visit from Martin Luther King Jr. and thrusting Selma into the national spotlight.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Southern legislators repeatedly derailed civil rights-related proposals while chairing key committees, said David Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
“Their control over these committees allowed them to gate-keep the agenda,” Bateman said.
Images of officers attacking voting rights activists – including then 25-year-old activist John Lewis – on a Selma bridge with clubs and tear gas in March 1965 helped sway public support. Days after the so-called “Bloody Sunday” incident, President Lyndon Johnson pressed lawmakers to pass broad voting rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and other discriminatory practices while requiring federal approval of proposed voting-eligibility standards before states could implement them.
Today, Bateman said, as increasing voting restrictions continue to disproportionately affect people of color, “there’s every reason to believe voter disenfranchisement campaigns will persist.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 reversed a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, allowing states to alter voting rules before obtaining federal consent. This summer, the court issued a ruling that disqualifies votes cast in the wrong precinct and only allows family members or caregivers to turn in another person’s ballot.
At least 18 states have enacted laws making voting harder this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. In Montana, legislators abolished Election Day registration. Florida curtailed after-hours drop boxes.
Georgia shortened absentee ballot request periods, criminalized providing food and water to queued-up voters and made opening polls optional on Sundays, traditionally a day when the Black vote spikes as congregants vote after church.
“We still have not dealt with anti-Blackness in this society,” said Anderson, of Emory University. “We’re really looking at the same pattern, the same rhymes.”
In September, Democrats introduced an elections and voting rights bill that would expand early voting options, identification requirements and access to mail-in ballots while allowing Election Day registration.
Police have long upheld racist laws, often with violence
As Blacks demanded equality during the civil rights movement, they faced hostility not just from fellow civilians but from those entrusted to protect and to serve.
In 1961, Freedom Rides occurred throughout the South as activists challenged Southern non-compliance with a Supreme Court decision ruling that declared segregated bus travel unconstitutional. The campaign met with often ugly resistance: In Birmingham, riders were attacked by a Ku Klux Klan mob, reportedly with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.
Within the mob was an FBI informant who told the agency of the impending attack, but the agency did nothing, reluctant to expose its mole. Two decades later, a U.S. District Court judge excoriated the FBI for its inaction.
“The FBI was passively complicit,” said Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
The attack occurred with the blessing of Alabama public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who told Klan leaders that police would wait 15 minutes before stepping in.
Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said he sees the links between the police violence of Birmingham and “Bloody Sunday” and the tanks, tear gas and rubber bullets employed at today’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“We have John Lewis and others marching on that bridge protesting police brutality, and they get attacked and beat up by police,” said Butler, author of the book “Chokehold; Policing Black Men.” “And last summer, throughout the country there were marches on police brutality – and at these marches, police attacked the people protesting police brutality. The parallels are clear.”
People of color continue to be disproportionately affected by fatal police shootings, with significantly higher death rates than whites over the previous five years, researchers at Yale University in Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania reported last year. “So it’s unclear whether change is actually occurring,” Butler said.
Critics note the police presence and brutality faced by Black Lives Matter protesters during the unrest following Floyd’s murder – the open-source database Bellingcat found more than 1,000 incidents of police violence – in contrast with the relatively unprepared force that was unable to stop hordes of mostly white Donald Trump supporters from breaching perimeter fencing and entering the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“There has never been a time when policing of public speech hasn’t been racially biased,” said Justin Hansford, executive director of Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center in Washington, D.C. “With the civil rights-era protests, most people understood that they were standing up for core American principles as opposed to Jan. 6, where they were trying to stop people’s votes from being counted.”
A USA TODAY analysis of arrests linked to the insurrection found that 43 of 324 people arrested were either first responders or military veterans; at least four current and three former police officers now face federal charges.
Education leaders have maneuvered to keep segregation, hide racist history
Education leaders have also at times sought to stall progress.
Two years after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision ruling segregated schools unconstitutional, U.S. Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, took the floor to address his colleagues.
There, he introduced a document signed by 82 representatives and 19 senators, all from former Confederate states. The so-called Southern Manifesto called for resisting desegregation and blasted the Brown decision as an abuse of judicial power violating states’ rights.
“The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence," Smith proclaimed.
The gesture demonstrated how deep resistance to desegregation ran in the South. The next year, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus summoned the National Guard to prevent nine Black students from entering Little Rock’s Central High, in defiance of a federal order.
“After the ruling comes down, you have massive resistance in the South,” said Sonya Ramsey, an associate history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “You have school boards saying they’re not going to do it. You have government officials saying they’re not going to do it. That’s a system.”
Resistance came in many forms, she said, from committees formed to study the matter in perpetuity to policies that allowed whites, but not Blacks, to transfer schools.
Some institutional leaders did make positive strides, Ramsey noted, even if for economic reasons. While many Southern cities resisted desegregation efforts, officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, eager to promote the area as a progressive business climate, constructed a districtwide busing plan designed to have schools reflect the community with the help of Black and white families and local leaders.
But institutional ills continue, Ramsey and others say – in charter schools now struggling with diversity, in faulty school funding formulas and in ongoing debates about what students should be taught about slavery and racism. Bills limiting how educators can teach about racism have been introduced this year in at least 28 states.
A 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center study of educational standards in 15 states found none addressed slavery’s justification in white-supremacist ideology nor its integral part in the economy; furthermore, the report noted, a separate survey found just 8% of high school seniors identified slavery as the Civil War’s cause.
“It’s fear of the unknown and of disruption,” said Donnor, of William & Mary. “And seeing that the status quo is no longer acceptable. One of the major parallels is in the hostility of the pushback. If you peel back the layers, you can see the similarities.”
News media shapes how Americans view race
The news media has throughout the nation’s history helped Americans understand racial issues – for better or worse.
In 1962, after James Meredith tested federal law to become the first Black student admitted to the formerly all-white University of Mississippi, the station manager of Jackson’s WLBT decried the decision on-air, saying states should make their own admission decisions.
Station officials strongly supported segregation, rebuffing calls for opposing views, avoiding civil rights coverage and notoriously blaming technical problems for interruption of a 1955 “Today Show” interview of attorney Thurgood Marshall. Ultimately, after repeated complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and a crucial federal court decision affirming public input in FCC hearings, the station lost its license.
“These are the stories we weren’t taught in journalism school,” said Joseph Torres, co-author of “News For All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.” “They (civil rights groups) were saying, it’s a public airwave, and it’s not being fair to the Black community.”
Black media stepped up to offer different perspectives of mainstream narratives or provide coverage that wasn’t otherwise there. When 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 by two men who would ultimately be acquitted by an all-white jury, Jet magazine published a photo of Till’s mutilated body that helped kickstart the civil rights movement.
While some white-owned media such as Mississippi’s Delta Democrat Times and Lexington Advertiser condemned segregation and violence, others such as Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger held to the status quo. Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY, purchased the newspaper in 1982.
“Had the Clarion-Ledger taken a leadership position denouncing atrocities going on in front of their faces, the state would be farther along in terms of getting past some of the pain,” said Mississippi Public Broadcasting executive editor Ronnie Agnew, who served as the newspaper’s executive editor until 2011.
In 1968, the landmark Kerner Commission, appointed to investigate the unrest that had exploded in national riots, faulted the media in addition to longstanding racism and economic inequalities. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective," the commission’s final report read.
“They made it absolutely clear that the white press had done a terrible job of covering civil rights,” said Craig Flournoy, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota who has critiqued the Los Angeles Times’ “incendiary” coverage of the 1965 Watts riots, for which the newspaper won a Pulitzer.
Flournoy said the Times relied heavily on white police and white elected officials for material. In one particularly egregious example, he said the newspaper, having no Black reporters on staff, sent a young Black advertising staffer into Watts to dictate dispatches by payphone, but his notes were repurposed into sensational stories that exaggerated the supposed Black threat.
Sixty years later, issues remain as studies show continued misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Blacks in news coverage and on film. A National Research Group study released last year found two-thirds of Black Americans feel their portrayals onscreen are lacking or nonexistent; 83% said the media furthers negative stereotypes.
Another study, in 2017, found major media disproportionately depict Black families as impoverished, dysfunctional and linked to criminality in contrast to white families, which were presented as being more stable and law-abiding.
“It’s something that’s still happening,” said Travis Dixon, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who conducted the study. “There’s not a lot of nuance.”
Such misrepresentations have consequences: Researchers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, reported in 2018 that negative media portrayals of Black men and stereotypes about their “criminality and dangerousness” affected how and how often they were engaged by police.
In recent years, numerous media organizations – including the Clarion-Ledger – have apologized for transgressions of decades past, such as running slave ads, downplaying civil rights activities or failing to address racial issues and injustice.
As journalism strives to improve, communications professor Dixon said readers can play a part by sharing news stories and coverage that gets it right.
“As consumers, that’s all we have,” Dixon said. “To tell our own stories when we can, and to boycott bad stories and promote good ones.”
Kaitlyn Radde contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Segregation forever’? Racial progress slowed by people in charge