Black History Month: How Black Youth Impacted the Civil Rights Movement

On the final day of Black History Month, we're taking a look at how young people played a pivotal role in the early Civil Rights Movement.
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Greg Timmons
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On the final day of Black History Month, we're taking a look at how young people played a pivotal role in the early Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement drew many young people into a maelstrom of meetings, marches, imprisonment, and in some cases, death. Some were willing, active participants who took action for a cause they believed in. Others were unsuspecting victims of an oppressive, racist culture that was determined to perpetuate a white supremacist society. 

Emmett Till, 1955

In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till had just finished the seventh grade in Chicago. He had convinced his mother, Mamie, to forgo a planned family vacation and allow him to visit his great-uncle, Moses Wright, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Mamie knew Emmett to be a responsible child, but also high spirited and at times, a prankster. Before he left, Mamie counseled Emmett to be polite and not provoke the white people. She gave him a ring that had belonged to his deceased father, Louis Till. 

Tallahatchie County in 1955 was economically and cultural depressed area of northern Mississippi. Most of the population had only a grade school education. Two-thirds were African American, working as sharecroppers and subjugated by whites in every way. The 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools, was viewed as a death knell by most whites in the Deep South and Mississippi in particular. Many feared mixing of the races would encourage African Americans to step out of “their place” and threaten the social order. One state newspaper boldly declared, “Mississippi cannot and will not try to abide by such a decision.” 

Emmett Till arrived at his great-uncle Moses farm house on August 21, 1955. He spent most of his days working in the cotton fields and his evenings with his cousins. He wasn’t conditioned, as they were, to address white people as “sir’ or “ma’am.” He boasted about his white friends in Chicago and a photo of a white girl he kept in his wallet whom he called his girlfriend. On the evening of August 24, Till and some cousins traveled to Money, a small junction near his great-uncle’s house. They gathered at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market owned and operated by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Roy was away on business, and 21-year-old Carolyn was minding the store. What happened next has been in dispute ever since. 

Emmett Till either began to brag about his white girlfriend or someone dared him to go into the store and ask Carolyn Bryant for date. As he entered the store, his cousins looked in from the window. Some witnesses said he walked up to Carolyn, said something and touched or held her hand or arm. Others say he didn’t. Till either calmly left the store or was dragged out by one of his cousins. On the way to the truck, he allegedly yelled “Bye, baby” to Carolyn and either whistled loudly at her or, as his mother later explained he often did, whistled as he tried to overcome his stutter. In any event, the teenagers sped off before Carolyn could get her gun, which she kept under the seat of her car. 

Carolyn chose not to tell Roy of the encounter with Till after he returned home, but he found out through local gossip and became enraged. In the early morning hours of August 28, Bryant and his half-brother John Milam stormed into Moses Wight’s house, pulled Till out of bed, and dragged him to an awaiting pickup truck. Wright and his wife fruitlessly pleaded with the men as they drove off into the night. 

Three days later, Emmet Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, mutilated beyond recognition. Moses Wright only knew it was his nephew because of the ring he was wearing. Authorities wanted to quickly bury the body, but his mother, Mamie insisted it be sent back to Chicago. After seeing her son’s remains, she decided to have an open-casket funeral so the world could see what had happened. Thousands of mourners filed passed the casket and several African American publications printed graphic photos of Till’s body. 

By the time of the trial, Emmett Till’s murder had become a source of outrage throughout the country and in Tallahatchie County. Roy Bryant and John Milam were charged with kidnapping and murder. Among the many witnesses called during the five-day trial was Moses Wright who bravely testified that Bryant and Milan kidnapped Till. It took the all-white, all-male jury only an hour to acquit Bryant and Milam. 

After the verdict, protest rallies took place in major U.S. cities and even press in Europe covered the trial and after events. The Bryant’s store eventually went out of business, as 90 percent of their clientele was African American. Desperate for money, Bryant and Milam agreed to an interview by LOOK magazine where they gave detailed confessions about killing Till, secure from further prosecution because of double jeopardy. 

Emmett Till’s murder brought light to the brutality of Jim Crow segregation in the South and galvanized an emerging civil rights movement. Two years after Emmett Till’s murder, nine brave African American high school students would break segregation tradition and enter a white-only high school. Three years after that, a very brave seven-year-old African American girl would enroll in an all-white grade school and four African American college students would integrate lunch counters and start integration movement that would sweep the country. In 1963, two more events in Birmingham, Alabama—a police attack on thousands of children and the bombing of an African American church, killing four young girls—would stir the conscience of a nation to finally enact civil rights legislation into law. 

Little Rock Nine, 1957  

Little Rock Nine Photo Courtesy U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Photo: U.S. Army/National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education set in motion the racial integration of the nation’s schools. Resistance was wide spread across the country and in 1955 the Court issued a second opinion (sometimes known as “Brown II”) ordering school districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” In response to the Brown decisions and pressure from the NAACP, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board adopted a plan for gradual integration, beginning with Little Rock Central High School. 

In the summer of 1957, Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, recruited nine high school students who she believed possessed the strength and determination to face the resistance to integration. They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. In the months prior to the start of the school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions on what to expect and how to respond. 

Two days before school opened, on September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar African American students from entry to the state’s schools, stating it was “for their own protection.” The next day, federal court judge Richard Davies issued a counter-ruling that desegregation would proceed. 

As the nine African American students attempted to enter the school on September 4, a crowd of angry white students and adults, and the National Guard, were there to meet them. As the students walked toward the front door, the white protesters drew closer, screaming racial epithets and spitting on them. Ultimately the Guard prevented the students from entering the school.

Little Rock Integration Protest Photo Courtesy Library of Congess

A rally at the state capitol protesting the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Photo: Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection)

In the days that followed, the Little Rock school board condemned the governor’s National Guard deployment and President Dwight Eisenhower tried to persuade Governor Faubus not to defy the Court’s ruling. On September 20, Judge Davies ordered the National Guard removed from the school and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. Three days later, the police attempted to escort the students to school but were met by an angry mob of 1,000 white protesters. Little Rock mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and on September 24, President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000 member of the Arkansas National Guard, taking authority away from Governor Faubus. The next day, the Army troops escorted the students to their first day of class. 

Legal challenges and protests to integration continued and the 101st Airborne Division stayed at the school the entire year. The nine African American students faced verbal and physical abuse. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown in her face and Gloria Ray was thrown down a flight of stairs. In May, 1958, senior Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. The next year, Little Rock Central High School was closed after local citizens rejected by a 3-1 margin a petition to officially integrate the school. The school reopened in 1959 and the remaining Little Rock Nine students went on to graduate and have distinguished careers in government, the military, and the media. In 1999, President Bill Clinton recognized the nine for their significant role in civil rights history, awarding each the Congressional Gold Medal and in 2009, all nine were invited to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.  

The Greensboro Four, 1960

Greensboro Four Photo Courtesy Cewatkin/Wikimedia Commons

A monument at North Carolina AT&T State University honoring Jibreel Khazan (formerly known as Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, four students who became known as the “Greensboro Four” for their sit-in protesting segregation at a Woolworth's department store in 1960. 

Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision, desegregation in the South came slowly and painfully and young African Americans were keenly aware of the hypocrisy. In 1960, four African American college students–Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil–were attending the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. They had become close friends, spending evenings discussing current events and their place as African Americans in a “separate but equal” society. They had been influenced by the non-violent protest techniques of India’s Mohandas Gandhi as well as the early Freedom Rides in the Deep South, organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). They all four had been shaken by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. 

Though all four students recognized that some strides had been made in desegregating the South, integration was not universal. Most businesses were privately owned and thus not subject to federal laws that banned segregation. When one of the students had been denied service at a lunch counter, all four of them carefully devised a plan to take action and encourage change. 

Greensboro Sit-In Lunch Counter Photo By RadioFan/Wikimedia Commons

Part of the counter where Greensboro students staged a civil rights sit-in protest is on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC. (Photo: RadioFan [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)

Wearing their best clothes, all four students walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. After purchasing some merchandise, they sat at the whites-only lunch counter and requested service which they were denied. They politely requested service and again were denied, this time by the store’s manager who told them to leave. Again, they refused. By this time, the police had arrived as did the media. Unable to take any action because there was no provocation, the police could not make an arrest. Customers in the store were dumbfounded at the situation, but did nothing. The four students stayed at the counter, unserved, until the store closed. They would be back. 

By February 5, hundreds of students had joined the sit-in at Woolworth’s paralyzing the lunch counter business. Intense media coverage on television and newspapers showed many of the protesters stoically facing abuse and threats by white customers. The sit-ins sparked a nationwide movement on college campuses and cities bringing attention to the struggle for civil rights. By the end of 1960, many restaurants, lunch counters, and privately-owned businesses had desegregated their facilities without any court action or legislation. The sit-ins proved to be one of the most effective protests of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Ruby Bridges, 1960

Ruby Bridges Photo Courtesy Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons

After a Federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. marshals escorted Ruby Bridges to and from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. (Photo: Uncredited DOJ photographer (Via [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Ruby Bridges was born the same year as the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In New Orleans, where Ruby lived, reluctant school officials devised a test to screen out African American children from attending white schools. While in kindergarten, Ruby took and passed the test, allowing her to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a mere five blocks from her home. She would be the only African American child there. 

Fearing a possible backlash, U.S. marshals were dispatched to New Orleans to protect Ruby. On September 14, 1960, she was escorted to the Frantz School by four marshals. She spent her first day in the principal’s office as white parents took their children out of school. 

After days of heated debate, a compromise was struck where the white students would return to school. Ruby would be isolated in a classroom on a floor separated from the other students. None of the teachers but one, Barbara Henry, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, agreed to teach her. For the remainder of the year, Mrs. Henry and Ruby would sit side-by-side going over lessons in the classroom. At recess, they would stay there to play games or do calisthenics. At lunch, Ruby would remain in the room to eat alone. 

Life wasn’t any better outside the classroom as the protests by white parents continued. One woman threatened to poison Ruby and another put a black baby doll in a coffin and left it outside the school. Her father lost his job and her mother was banned from shopping at the local grocery store. After the first semester, Ruby began having nightmares. She stopped eating her lunch until Mrs. Henry joined her. Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychologist, volunteered to counsel Ruby during her first year at school. Gradually, her confusion and fear were replaced with some level of normalcy. Occasionally, she was allowed to visit some of her classmates and by her second year, she was attending classes with the other students. 

Ruby attended integrated schools all the way through high school and went on to business school to become a travel agent. In 1995, Dr. Coles published The Story of Ruby Bridges recounting his experience with Ruby during that first year. Eventually, Ruby was reunited with Mrs. Henry on the Oprah Winfrey Show and from there she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation in New Orleans to promote the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences. Ruby Bridges’ experience as the first African American student to integrate the South was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting “A Problem We All Live With.” 

The Children’s Crusade 1963

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most notorious racist cities in the South, home to one of the most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of this, civil rights leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to register African Americans to vote and desegregate public facilities. The arrest and incarceration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, had produced “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” but had not increased support for integration. Local citizens were too intimidated after a circuit judge had issued an injunction against public demonstration. 

SCLC staff member, Reverend James Bevel proposed a radical idea of recruiting students to become involved in the protests. King was reluctant at first, fearing harm to the children, but after much discussion agreed, hoping they would inspire the consciousness of a nation. SCLC members canvassed high schools and colleges for volunteers and began training them in the tactics of non-violence resistance.

On May 2, 1963, thousands of African American students skipped school and gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for instructions. They then marched toward downtown on a mission to talk with Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell about segregation. As the children approached city hall, they were corralled by police and hundreds were escorted to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. That evening, Dr. King went to see the students at the jail with the message, “What you do this day will impact children who have not been born.”

The next day the march picked up again. This time, it was not so peaceful. Police were waiting for them with firehoses, clubs and police dogs. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor personally ordered his men to attack. Immediately the area exploded with high-pressure water cannons and barking dogs. The children screamed as the water tore at their clothing and flesh. Some were pinned against walls, others were knocked off their feet. The dull thud of night sticks hitting bone began as police grabbed children and hauled them off to jail. The news media was there recording the entire event.

Birmingham Chlldren's Crusade Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Young activists are sprayed by high-pressure water cannons in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo: Getty Images)

The protests continued as news stories circulated throughout the nation splashing images of the brutality and generating an outcry of support. Birmingham businesses began to feel the pressure as the entire city was linked with the actions of the police. Finally, city officials met with civil rights leaders and worked out a plan to end the demonstrations. On May 10, city leaders agreed to desegregate business and public facilities. 

The Children’s Crusade marked a significant victory for civil rights in Birmingham, telling local officials they could no longer ignore the movement. Yet, the resistance to integration and equality was not over and as the year moved towards September, one of the most diabolical plots against African Americans was about to unfold. 

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, 1963 

16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Victims Photo Courtesy AP Photos

(Clockwise from top, left) Denise McNair, 11; Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; and Carole Robertson, 14, were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963. (Photo: AP Images)

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was constructed in 1911 and, for generations of African Americans, it was the focal point of the community. In the 1950s and 60s, the church became an epicenter for the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy.

During the spring and summer of 1963, tensions had been mounting in Birmingham with the arrest of Dr. King in April and the Children’s Crusade in May, as civil rights organizations worked on African American voter registration and school desegregation. There had been several bombings of African American property in the previous months earning the city the nickname “Bombingham.” Alabama Governor George Wallace had recently stoked tensions with inflammatory rhetoric in a statement printed in The New York Times declaring that a sure way to stop integration in Alabama was through a “few first-class funerals.” 

On the morning of September 15, 1963, a white man was seen placing a box at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Worshipers were finding their seats for the eleven o’clock service and five young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Sarah Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were in the downstairs restroom putting on their choir robes. At exactly 10:22 am, a bomb ripped through the church blowing out all but one of the stained glass windows and several walls in the basement. As people fled the smoke-filled church, several rushed to the blast site. There they found the mangled bodies of four girls. Only 10-year-old Sarah Collins was alive, but she would lose her right eye. 

Hours after the blast, the city was rocked with riots in several neighborhoods. Businesses were firebombed and looted. Governor Wallace sent 500 hundred National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers to Birmingham. A number of protesters were arrested and two more African American youths were killed in separate incidents. The next week, eight thousand mourners attended the funeral of three of the girls (the fourth girl’s family held a private service) and an entire country grieved the loss. 

Birmingham’s white supremacist community was immediately suspected in the bombing. Quickly, the investigation centered around four men, Thomas Blanton, Jr., Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry, all members of a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan. Chambliss was arrested and charged with murder and possession of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, he was found not guilty in state court of murder and received a fine of $100 and six-month suspended sentence for having the dynamite. In 1971, the case was reopened and Chambliss was convicted of murder in federal court and died in prison in 1985. The case was reopened several times more and in 1997, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted and sentenced to prison. Cherry died in 2004. The fourth bombing suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial.

Even though justice came slowly for the four girls killed in the church bombing, the effect was immediate and significant. Outrage over the deaths helped pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The impact of the bombing proved to be the exact opposite of what the perpetrators intended. 

Birmingham Civil Rights March in 1963 Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

The Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church, Unitarian located in Washington, D.C. march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims. The banner, which read “No more Birminghams,” shows a picture of the aftermath of the bombing. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A Legacy That Prompted Change

The young people involved in these events were but some of the thousands who, one way or another, took action during the Civil Rights Movement. Some were wide-eyed idealists pursuing a cause and ignoring any consequence. Others sensed they were making history, even though they didn’t know the outcome. And some were just kids, doing what kids do. All of them made history in exposing decades of institutional segregation, white supremacy, and oppression and stirring a nation into action