Today we all celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is often remembered for his commitment to non-violent direct action as a means of activism. But do you know what Dr. King was protesting against?
[Photo of Dr. King with his fingers intertwined]
Dr. King and the millions of Black Americans who lived between the end of the Civil War and 1965 lived under a system known as Jim Crow. There were three elements of Jim Crow: segregation, voter suppression, and poverty. All three were maintained by violence or the thread of violence. Today, we explore the workings of violence under Jim Crow. Stay tuned for more about the other elements of Jim Crow that the Civil Rights movement fought against.
[Diagram showing a “Jim Crow System” triangle with 3 labelled points: “Poverty”, “Segregation”, and “Voter Suppression.” This triangle sits atop a wide rectangle labelled “Violence.”]
Dr. King is often remembered as a leader of “peaceful protest," but civil rights protests were marked by violence nevertheless. The diverse groups of activists that worked alongside Dr. King to protest against Jim Crow racial segregation were themselves peaceful, but violence from White resistance raged all around them because the Jim Crow system was enforced by creating terror through violence.
[Photo of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, where Dr. King, John Lewis, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Mrs. King, and others stand in the front row, several with arms interlocked. Behind the front row, a crowd of people, some carrying American flags.]
The most well-known form of violence used for this purpose was lynching: instances of mob violence, outside of the law, that resulted in the murder of over 4,000 black Americans between 1877-1950. These were public events and the perpetrators were well known to the community. Communities often gathered to witness them.
[Photo of KKK members in white hoods on horses, carrying a flaming cross and a U.S. flag]
Racial Terror Lynchings 1877-1950
[Heat map of Racial Terror Lynchings from 1877-1950 in the United States, with a large concentration in the South and scattered spots in Midwest and Northwest.]
(Source: Equal Justice Initiative)
Black people were also regularly subjected to non-lethal physical and sexual violence as they went about their lives. Riots, like those that swept the country in 1919, were attacks by angry White people who destroyed Black business and property and often forced Black people to leave their communities. There were no consequences for the violence enacted upon Black people.
[Photo of a crowd of white young men standing around a Black man who clutches his head in pain as he tries to sit up]
White children and adults, look on as a Black family packs a cart to leave their damaged home after the 1919 Chicago race riot.
[Photo described in slide text]
King and his contemporaries understand that there was violence under the surface everywhere in Jim Crow society so they advanced a strategy of non-violent direct action.
When Black civil rights workers or activists and their allies to put their bodies in spaces where they were not supposed to be, they applied non-violent pressure. That pressure released and exposed violence, which ranged from cigarettes extinguished on their skin to outright murder.
These civil rights workers trained to withstand the abuse they would endure. Though the violence was often terrifying, civil rights workers were so committed that they undertook risks anyway. Some described the feeling of fear leaving their bodies and feeling prepared to die for the movement.
[Photo of a civil rights march, with many marchers holding up signs: “We demand an end to bias now!”, “We march for effective civitl rights laws now!”, “UAW says jobs and freedom for Every American”]
In Montgomery, Alabama, sheriffs on horseback trampled voting rights marchers near the state Capitol on March 16, 1965.
[Photo of sheriffs on horseback rushing towards voting rights marchers]