This article was last modified on February 2, 2010.

The Streets Approach to Civil Rights

The following is the second half of a paper I helped a friend write. If I ever write on the civil rights movement, I will use this as the template… but I don’t expect to do that any time soon.


In contrast to the NAACP and their legal approach, a whole other group of individuals and organizations were in the trenches, fighting for their rights and public support. While it is true that without the legal side being successful the minorities of America would never be completely free, it was equally true that laws could not be passed without broader, mass appeal. And that appeal could only be gained by flooding the nightly news with emotional stories that appealed to a wider swath of society. Power was, after all, in the hands of the whites, and without them there was to be no equality.

Activities taken up by these groups included bus boycotts, called “freedom walks”, and sit-ins at diners. We have all heard of Martin Luther King, but alongside him in this struggle was Rosa Parks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and countless other organizations and individuals. We will briefly cover their heroic activities.

Montgomery, Alabama was one of the more segregated places in America. We have all heard about the schools and restaurants that were divided, but the laws here were much more extreme. In fact, “it was against the law for a white person and a Negro to play checkers on public property or ride together in a taxi.” [Freedman 1] While the bigger problems, such as obstacles to voting, were probably of graver importance, the little things were shocking in their extremity.

Contrary to popular belief, the bus boycotts in the South did not start with Rosa Parks, but more likely with English professor Jo Ann Robinson in December of 1949. She was ejected from a bus for sitting in the fifth row, despite the bus being nearly empty. While the blacks were forced to sit in the back, the numbers were actually on their side: 40,000 blacks each day rode the bus in Montgomery, compared to only 12,000 whites. [Freedman 8] By arranging a boycott, the blacks could become powerful; the majority of the bus company’s business would be eliminated. This did not happen yet.

While minor changes occurred over the years, the blacks of Montgomery were still treated as inferior. The desegregation of schools in 1954 inspired Robinson and others to call upon the mayor to desegregate the buses. She made a veiled threat to the mayor of a boycott, saying that if “Negroes did not patronize them they could not possibly operate”, a basic economic truth. [Freedman 12]

Rosa Parks entered the picture on December 1, 1955. Her story is often misunderstood. Aside from not being the first black woman to give up her seat, it is often said that she was tired, a charge she personally denied. Parks’ significance is that she was, in fact, sitting in the black section of the bus when asked to move for whites. The driver was not only challenging her freedom, but was rolling back rights that she already had. For her to not fight back would actually hurt the cause. [Freedman 28]

While Parks had family connections to the NAACP, and because of this was able to get a white lawyer to help in her legal defense, what is interesting is how the protest movement, spearheaded by Robinson, grabbed Parks’ publicity and ran with it. On the day of the Parks trial, Robinson organized what was supposed to be a one day boycott of the bus system, following through on her threat to the mayor. Robinson and friends created 52,500 leaflets advertising the boycott. [Freedman 34]

The cause was taken up by Martin Luther King, as well, who created his own leaflets, and anonymous supporters who plastered signs around town, including at least one in the bus station itself. [Freedman 37] The boycott was largely successful, while the Parks trial simultaneously ended in a guilty verdict, with the defendant fined $14.

Interestingly, the bus boycotts were a catalyst for King’s popularity. He was not as widely known yet, and his involvement in this cause and his noteworthy oratory brought attention to both the freedom fight and to King himself. Using God and Gandhi as his background, he wanted the blacks to appear peaceful in contrast to the violent white groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. At one rally he cried out, “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.” [Freedman 47]

Ultimately, it was the mesh of trials and protest that worked in the protesters’ favor. Parks and her NAACP connections worked to appeal her case as far up the chain as they could. At the same time, King grabbed the reins of leadership in the streets and grabbed headlines across the country, shaming the public figures who stood in the way of progress. But the boycotts were not the only way that the movement went forward.

February 1, 1960 sparked the beginning of the diner sit-ins, with a mere four students present: Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond. These freshmen, dressed in suits and ties, remained polite in the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolsworth’s. No media from the local newspapers or television stations arrived this first day, but the men were not deterred. [Roberts 222]

By the next day, they had recruited another twenty-seven people, and the media arrived. Local coverage even went as far as getting the attention of the New York Times. According to the brief reports from the press, the blacks were not served, and one waitress who happened to be black herself called the students “stupid”, “ignorant” and “dumb”, saying their actions were part of what was holding the blacks back in society. [Roberts 224]

The response from average citizens, most but not all black, was thunderous. Within a week, the number of demonstrators at Greensboro was more than eighty, and a series of autonomous sit-ins sprouted up in major cities all over the South. In each case the black students were civil, and the whites were unruly. The media noticed this and was sure to point out the reality that was contrary to the stereotype. Whites “threw eggs and ammonia and knocked the Negroes off lunch counter stools.” [Roberts 224]

This approach meshed well with the popular preaching of Reverend King, who called for non-violence. The students took him and Gandhi as inspiration, and he in turn publicly called for support of their methods and activities. King’s high profile endorsement was just the push the demonstrators needed to break through to an even wider audience.

The sit-ins in Nashville grew bigger than the Greensboro protests, despite having no formal connection to them. One Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean, kept close watch on the demonstrations and reported on them a whopping seventy times over fourteen weeks. [Roberts 226] Surely nobody in Nashville and surrounding regions could not ignore the fever of disobedience that was spreading.

King and those of the sit-in groups ran against the NAACP, not realizing they were both attacking the same beast from different angles and with different weapons. One method was not necessarily more important than the other or likely to work alone. King preached against the NAACP, though not by name, when he claimed the sit-in movement was “a revolt against those Negroes in the middle class who have indulged themselves in big cars and ranch-style homes rather than joining a movement for freedom.” [Roberts 227] The protesters ultimately organized and became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more commonly simply called SNCC (“snick”). Theirs is another story entirely.

Some have argued that the NAACP and the protesters were at odds with each other, and this conflict hurt the civil rights movement. On the contrary, I believe the case can be made that the two methods worked to complement each other. As we have seen, the trials and lawsuits were an important part of advancing black rights. But they could not have worked alone, at least not in so short a time. Protesters were fueled by cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, and the law in turn was influenced by the growing public support for the protesters and Reverend King, who were aided by the media. By playing off each other, the fifties and sixties were constantly moving freedom forward.


Freedman, Russell. Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (New York, NY: Holiday House, 2006)

Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. (New York, NY: Borzoi, 2007)

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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