In this video segment adapted from American Experience: "Freedom Riders," watch interviews and newsreel footage and see archival photos to explore the tactic of nonviolent direct action that was adopted by some of those challenging illegal segregation and discrimination against African Americans in the United States in the early 1960s. An alternative to legislative and legal challenges, direct nonviolent actions—such as sit-ins, boycotts, and strikes—allowed for broader public participation and brought faster results.
This video includes language that is considered offensive. However, it provides authentic documentation of the bigotry of the era.
Democracy in Action Study Guide (Document)
For the first half of the 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought against illegal segregation and discrimination in the corridors of power. Founded in 1909, the NAACP lobbied Congress and the executive branch, and challenged discriminatory laws in federal and state courts. This focus had brought victories that curbed lynchings; expanded job possibilities for African Americans; and struck down "separate but equal" public schools in the 1954 Supreme Court opinion, Brown v. Board of Education.
In an effort to build on these achievements, some activists adopted other methods. A group of Chicago students formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. CORE preferred to confront discrimination more directly, through efforts such as the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, in which eight white and eight black men rode buses together into the South after the Supreme Court had declared segregated interstate bus service unconstitutional in Morgan v. Virginia. Members of CORE were prepared to suffer the consequences of their actions in order to demonstrate the unfair practices that still existed. Several of those on the Journey of Reconciliation were sentenced to prison terms on Southern chain gangs.
This tactic—nonviolent direct action—utilized sit-ins, strikes, and boycotts to confront injustice. The action was "direct" in the way it confronted and disrupted discriminatory practices such as "whites only" lunch counters and bus terminals and discriminatory hiring practices. Nonviolence became an important part of the tactic in large measure through the influence of Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and one of the imprisoned Journey of Reconciliation riders. Rustin had been influenced by the Quaker religion and the example set by Mahatma Gandhi in India. To ensure that nonviolent direct action was carried out properly, participants received detailed training in the theory and practice of nonviolence. This training included a clear identification and articulation of goals, an analysis of the opposition's point of view, and extensive role-playing to anticipate a range of potential violent and illegal responses.
Nonviolent direct action gained national attention with the 1955 boycott of municipal buses in Montgomery, Alabama, after the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African American who refused to yield her seat in the “whites only” section of a bus. The success of this boycott inspired others to organize similar challenges to the "Southern way of life." Sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 and quickly spread throughout the region. As protests escalated and the cost of bailing protesters out of jail grew increasingly onerous, the concept of "jail, no bail" was introduced as a means of placing the financial burden of incarceration on those states that continued to discriminate against African Americans. In May 1961, this technique was central to the Freedom Rides, in which interracial pairs rode Greyhound and Trailways buses into the South. Extensive newspaper and television coverage of the Freedom Riders not only illustrated the nature of unlawful discrimination for all Americans to see, but also showed that citizens of different races and religions and from different regions of the country could work together for racial justice. When the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregated interstate transportation only four months after the Freedom Rides began, nonviolent direct action was seen as a very effective means to achieve justice quickly.
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