By Alvin Benn
When author and historian Richard Bailey was a teenager, Montgomery’s public libraries were separate and quite unequal.
He had to go to the “black” library because if he had tried to check out a book at the “white” library, he faced arrest.
“I didn’t know a single white kid my age when I left high school,” Bailey said.
In Evergreen, Jerome Gray and his friends wanted to see “Carmen Jones,” a popular movie that had an all-black cast. They first had to wait until the “white” movie was over.
“Even then, we had to go down an alley and then up the stairs to the balcony to watch the movie,” said Gray.
Those and other examples of blatant discrimination began to end 40 years ago today with the stroke of a pen by President Johnson, whose signature made the Civil Rights Act official.
It had been a long time coming — a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were illegal.
A year after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he inked the Voting Rights Act, which stripped away barriers to voter registration and opened the electoral process to black Americans.
But not much was open to J.L. Chestnut as a boy growing up in Selma in the 1930s. He discovered that black people were not allowed to try on clothes at department stores. If they wanted a suit or dress, they had to buy it and hope it fit.
“I remember the separate water fountains and public restrooms,” said Chestnut, one of Alabama’s most prominent lawyers. “The only black people who had jobs downtown were janitors, barbers or delivery people.”
Wayne Flynt and his wife, Dorothy, were tossed out of the Alabama Department of Archives and History when an employee became upset seeing her at the same table as a black researcher.
“My wife and I may have been the only couple ever told to leave the Archives building on threat of arrest,” said Flynt, who is an Auburn University professor and an author and lecturer.
In 1958, law school student Bruce Boynton of Selma was arrested when he tried to order a cheeseburger and tea at a “white” bus stop cafe in Richmond, Va. It would become a landmark case eventually settled in his favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“What I did that day led to the lunch counter sit-ins around the South,” Boynton said. “Few ever ask me about it today. Few know anything about it.”
As the country marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Alabama finds itself once again in the spotlight because many of the events that led to congressional passage of the document occurred in the state.
Montgomery’s yearlong bus boycott, which began in 1955 following Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, launched the modern civil rights movement.
Six years later a biracial group of travelers challenging segregated waiting rooms at bus stops in the South were brutalized by a group of white thugs at the Montgomery bus station.
In 1963, Birmingham police and firemen used dogs and fire hoses to thwart demonstrations by blacks protesting that city’s segregated public parks.
That same year, Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in an orchestrated, futile “protest” against the admission of two black students to the all-white school.
Other cities and other states had their own examples of discrimination in the area of public accommodations, but Alabama’s seemed to “lead” the way.
When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, many thought changes would be immediate. They eventually occurred, but not as fast as some had hoped. It didn’t take 15 years or more as it did to integrate public schools in the country, but it was a long, slow process.
Flynt said he and his wife were at the State Archives building after the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law, but found that it wasn’t being observed at a place he often used to do his research.
“My wife was at the extreme end of the table, far from the black woman who had been sitting at the other end,” Flynt said. “The employee said to me: “Suppose some legislator saw her sitting there with that black woman. He’d probably stop our funding.”
Gray, who is field director of the Alabama Democratic Conference based in Montgomery, said he and his friends hated segregation “and we’d get angry over the way things were, but we knew we couldn’t change anything at that time.”
Gray, 65, said he often wondered if those who fostered discrimination realized what they were doing.
“Here we had Christian people, good human beings, and they were promoting this nonsense,” Gray said.
Foundations for the Civil Rights Act were laid many years before Johnson signed it into law. The first push toward racial equality began after the end of World War II, when black troops came home from combat and refused to accept things the way they had been.
In a speech given just after he signed the law, Johnson talked about the country’s patriotic past and his hopes for the future devoid of discrimination.
“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty,” he said. “Yet, millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.”
It’s unlikely he was aware of Boynton’s arrest, but his speech on July 2, 1964, certainly underscored the actions of many black citizens who had enough of segregation and weren’t going to stand for it anymore.
Boynton’s arrest may not have been as dramatic as Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, but it was every bit as important.
A 21-year-old student at the Howard University Law School, Boynton was aware of a decree by the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission prohibiting discrimination against plane, bus and train passengers.
He knew his actions on Dec. 18, 1958, could lead to his arrest, but it didn’t stop him from ordering his cheeseburger.
“The manager said ‘N—-r, move’ and when I didn’t, he called the police and they arrested me,” said Boynton, a Selma lawyer. I was convicted in city court and fined $10.”
The son of two activist parents, Boynton wasn’t about to pay the fine or accept the conviction. He eventually was represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the conviction was overturned.
Boynton said today’s generation of black men and women appear to lack the same commitment to equality that his generation had so avidly pursued.
“It reinforces my belief that the education of black people has never been a priority in this country,” he said. “Black people just don’t know their history. We were a creation of a slave society and until we know about out history, we will continue to be slaves.”
At the Rosa Parks Branch of the Montgomery Public Library, Jazzmine Gardber, M’Kaila Young, and her brother Michael spent part of Friday morning at a table, reading books to pass the time.
Neither seemed to know much about America’s civil rights era and the importance of the 40th anniversary of the federal law that ended segregation.
“I don’t really think about it too much, probably because it’s something in the past,” said M’Kaila, 10.
Teresa Temple, the manager of the Rosa Parks branch, began her career in 1953 when the city’s public library system was segregated. She was at the Union Street branch at the time. It wasn’t air-conditioned and the number of books fell far short of the city’s Carnegie Library, which was for use only by whites.
Three years before the Civil Rights Act was signed, the city built two new libraries — the “black one” now named for Parks and the “white one,” located on High Street.
In the late 1960s, a few years after Johnson signed the law, several black students went to the “white library” and demanded to check out some books.
“When they were refused, they had a sit-in,” Temple recalled. “The library board felt they’d keep coming back, so they took the chairs out and they had to sit on the floor. They took out the chairs at our library, too.”
The chairs eventually were returned and segregation at the library ended — as it would at other public facilities — from parks and playgrounds to swimming pools and recreation centers in Montgomery and throughout the South.
“When you grew up under segregation, you just went with the flow,” said Temple, who, at 66, has been a witness to racism and racial harmony in the city she loves.
Bailey agrees. He said segregation was so entrenched, as he grew up in Montgomery “that we didn’t question it.”
“We knew the obstacles we faced and we didn’t want to be branded as trouble-makers,” he said. “If we had to do without something, that what we did.”
Bailey is one of Alabama’s most respected writers today and has authored several books about prominent black citizens.
If he had written them 40 years ago, its unlikely they’d have been available at Montgomery’s “white” library.
They can be found there today.
When civil rights leaders began pushing for legislation to knock down barriers for blacks in education and employment, they were told the odds were against them.
But the mood in Congress changed after President Kennedy was assassinated and violence against civil rights workers and black citizens in the South increased.
Key dates in the push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
Source: Betty K. Koed, Assistant Historian, US Senate. Compiled by Ellyn Ferguson with Gannett News Service
STATE DELEGATION OPPOSED 1964 BILL
Members of the Alabama congressional delegation stood shoulder to shoulder 40 years ago to fight efforts to end segregation and racial discrimination.
And they lost—decisively.
Democratic Sens. Lister Hill and John Sparkman, and the eight members of Alabama’s House delegation, all Democrats, were some of the most active opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The legislation gave black Americans a better chance to increase their economic and political power.
“That piece of legislation by itself posed a significant challenge to what had become a way of life in the South,” said D’Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University Montgomery. “The lawmakers had to oppose it because they were concerned about their political careers.”
Today, members of the Alabama delegation express strong support for the Civil Rights Act and recently voted for nonbinding resolutions honoring the 40th anniversary of its signing.
That represents a dramatic departure from the actions taken by the men who were members of the delegation in 1964. Statements and votes entered into the Congressional Record at the time reveal virulent opposition to the legislation among lawmakers representing Alabama and other Southern states.
The act, promoted by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion or national origin,” and sped the desegregation of public schools.
In 1964, 10 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Alabama’s black children went to school with white children.
The act also denied federal funds to programs that discriminated, allowed discrimination cases to be heard in federal court, and reduced congressional representation to states that disenfranchised black voters.
The House approved the Civil Rights Act on Feb. 10, 1964, on a 290-130 vote, after lawmakers defeated dozens of amendments sponsored by Southern lawmakers aimed at weakening the act. One of the defeated amendments was a measure introduced in the Rules Committee by Rep. George Andrews of Union Springs that would have created a federal resettlement commission to move black people out of the South.
The chairman of the Rules Committee, Rep. William Conner, D-Miss., decided a more subtle attack might be more successful. He headed an informal Southern group of lawmakers, including the Alabamians, who met behind closed doors to craft amendments that would gut sections of the bill related to the integration of public accommodations and the cutoff of federal funds to agencies that discriminated.
Albert Rains of Gadsden argued unsuccessfully that denying federal funds to agencies that discriminated would “curb and curtail” the federal housing program that helped poor Alabamians secure shelter.
But Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., retorted “as a matter of simple justice, federal funds to which taxpayers contribute ought not to be expanded to support or foster discriminatory practices.”
BLACK AMERICA BY THE NUMBERS
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, supporters hoped it would significantly alter the lives of millions of blacks locked out of opportunities by decades of legal discrimination.
The Census Bureau, which collects demographic and economic information, has released a progress report on black America since then. The bureau adjusted income numbers for inflation for a truer comparison.
Here are the numbers:
Compiled by Ellyn Ferguson with Gannett News Service
The drama in the Senate was more intense.
Southern senators opposed to the Civil Rights Act decided to use a different tactic than their colleagues in the House had used. Instead of trying to amend the legislation, they tried to prevent a vote on it through a filibuster, or extended debate.
Hill, along with Sens. Alien J. Ellender, D-La., and John Stennis, D-Miss., led a 19-member group of Southern lawmakers who took turns keeping the filibuster alive on the Senate floor.
The filibuster lasted 57 days until supporters of the bill were able to muster enough votes to end it.
Southern senators had used the filibuster about a dozen times before to derail civil rights legislation, but this time the tactic failed. The Civil Rights Act was approved by the Senate on a 73-27 vote on June 19, 1964.
Congressional approval of the act was prompted in large part by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 march on Washington and escalating racial strife, including riots in northern cities and the bombing deaths of four black girls in a Birmingham church.
“The events of the civil rights movement were always in the forefront of the debate on the bill,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a proponent of the bill. “Each step of the way, we knew that everything we did had real consequences for the future of the nation.”
Published July 2, 2004