Beyond Civil Rights
Remembering and Continuing the Black Freedom Movement in the United States
Greta de Jong
Two artifacts in The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® reveal aspects of the American civil rights movement that are not often acknowledged in the public memory, but that historians working with archival sources have identified as major themes in the struggle for racial equality. A placard carried by protesters in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 8, 1968, four days after James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in that city, exhorts us to “Honor King: End Racism,” evoking the work that was left – and remains – unfinished after King’s death. A related item in the collection, Ernest Withers’s photograph of the memorial march, helps us to place the placard in its broader historical context. In the photo, African American marchers and a few white supporters fill the frame as they file past business storefronts and a crowd of onlookers on a wide city street, carrying placards expressing the goals of the freedom movement. Pictures like this one, showing interracial groups of citizens participating in nonviolent demonstrations to protest injustice, are among the most iconic depictions of the movement. A Google search for images of the civil rights movement will bring up dozens of similar photographs from the 1960s, along with some from more recent demonstrations organized to draw attention to racist practices that continue in the twenty-first century (Figures 7.1 and 7.2). It is important to note that the racial discrimination that African Americans experienced was not the only motivation behind the memorial march and others like it. King had gone to Memphis in April to support the city’s sanitation workers, who were mostly black and poor, after they went on strike to demand safer working conditions and better pay. The night before his assassination, King told an audience at Bishop Charles Mason Temple that “in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. . . . God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” As Withers’s photo shows, participants in the memorial march highlighted the economic dimensions of the struggle with signs that read “Union Justice Now!” alongside those reading “Honor King: End Racism.” These dual messages asserting the need to end both racial and class oppression encapsulated the meaning of the Black Freedom Movement and echoed sentiments that King had been emphasizing toward the end of his life. Yet in popular accounts of this period in the nation’s history, the struggle for economic justice is often ignored, despite its being an essential element in the fight to end racial discrimination.
Figure 7.1 Maker unknown. Honor King: End Racism!, 1968. Ink on board, 21 x 14 in. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Figure 7.2 Ernest Withers. Memorial March after the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
To illustrate this point, consider the relative renown of two of King’s speeches. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, King set out his dream of a future in which the southern Jim Crow system was dismantled and all Americans enjoyed the right to liberty, equality, and democratic participation regardless of skin color. One statement he made that day is a staple of Americans’ annual commemorations of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and other events organized to remember his life and legacy:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
This segment of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech exemplified his ability to frame the freedom struggle in terms that appealed to white as well as black Americans by expressing widely shared ideals rooted in the nation’s religious and political traditions. Its enduring appeal lies in the idea that everyone should be treated equally and that ending racism requires only that individual prejudices be cast aside. Many people would like to believe that King’s dream was achieved with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s, which were supposed to end racial discrimination and ensure that African Americans enjoyed the same opportunities as everyone else. To King and other participants in the movement, however, it was clear that civil rights legislation alone was not enough.
King highlighted the inadequacy of the new laws in a speech he gave early in 1968 at a church in Mississippi as he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to pressure the federal government to do more to solve problems of unemployment and poverty that continued to hinder black Americans’ progress toward full citizenship. In this speech, King provided a summary of the ways white Americans had historically
benefited from government programs that largely excluded African Americans and assured his audience that their demands were legitimate:
At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates, in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.
Most Americans are very familiar with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and have never heard of “We Are Coming to Get Our Check.” Yet to truly honor King and to fully appreciate the actions of those who marched in Memphis after his death, we must acknowledge the necessity for economic justice that motivated their activism and that of countless others who participated in the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s. This essay highlights some important scholarship that challenges popular portrayals of the movement as one in which a charismatic leader mobilized hundreds of thousands of people with inspiring rhetoric about Judeo-Christian values, American ideals, and nonviolent resistance to injustice, ultimately ending racism in the United States. The historical record contained in written documents, oral histories, and material artifacts like those preserved in the Kinsey Collection presents a more complicated reality. Studies based on archival sources have shown that the civil rights movement was not the product of one leader but of many, that nonviolence alone was not enough to bring about social change, that ending racism requires us to pay attention to the connections between racial inequality and economic inequality, and that this project is not yet complete.
Martin Luther King, Jr., first came to national prominence as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, an event that is often taken to mark the start of the civil rights movement. The story of the boycott in the public imagination is that it was a spontaneous protest that grew out of an action by a lone black woman named Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus on December 1, 1955. A common misperception is that black protests against segregation and other forms of racism in the mid-twentieth century came out of nowhere, as if African Americans suddenly decided they were tired of being oppressed and were not going to take it anymore. In reality, black residents of Montgomery had been resisting segregated public transportation since the system was first adopted on local streetcars in 1900, and the city was home to several organizations that were working to end racial discrimination long before the bus boycott. Parks herself had been active in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1943, and she worked closely with E. D. Nixon, a local union leader and civil rights activist who headed the Progressive Democratic Association. Montgomery was also home to English professor Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, founded in 1946 to pressure city leaders into doing something to end the inequitable treatment of black citizens. When Parks was arrested for disobeying bus driver James Blake’s order to move to the back, Nixon provided the money to bail her out of jail and called other black leaders to propose a boycott. Robinson and her students at Alabama State College spent the night of Parks’s arrest printing off and distributing 3,500 leaflets to black churches, schools, and homes urging people not to ride on city buses on December 5, the day that Parks would appear in court.
Following the success of the initial boycott, local activists met and agreed to form the Montgomery Improvement Association to coordinate and continue the effort, electing Martin Luther King, Jr., as its president. A young minister who had only recently moved to Montgomery, King was chosen for his speaking ability and detachment from the political rivalries that existed within the black community.
King’s inspiring rhetoric garnered national media attention and helped to sustain the boycott for more than a year, but the protest could not have succeeded without the organizing skills of grassroots leaders such as Nixon, Robinson, and many others who devoted their lives to overcoming racism. As activist Ella Baker once observed, “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.”
Local activists and organizations existed throughout the United States in the mid-twentieth century. In every part of the country, not just the South, black Americans fought against white supremacy on multiple fronts in the decades leading up to the civil rights era. Studies of what historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall termed the “long civil rights movement” have uncovered various forms of subtle resistance and more open forms of protest that predated the 1950s and laid the groundwork for later activism. Southern sharecroppers, domestic servants, and other low-wage workers expressed dissatisfaction with the economic exploitation and mistreatment they suffered through a range of actions that included malingering, theft, sabotage, and quitting without notice, as well as forming labor unions and mounting more obvious challenges to the system. African Americans in both the North and the South struggled to ensure access to quality education for their children by petitioning local officials to allocate more funds to this purpose or raising money to build schools of their own. In the early twentieth century, black teachers and parents risked violence and economic reprisals to act as plaintiffs in dozens of cases filed by NAACP lawyers to equalize school facilities in the South. These efforts culminated in a successful challenge to the practice of segregation itself and the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that “separate but equal” public schools were inherently unconstitutional. During and after World War II, black veterans who had fought for democracy
overseas returned to their home communities more determined than ever to secure democracy in the United States. These men and women often took the lead in forming local voter leagues and other civic organizations that encouraged political participation by African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s.
Black people were not sitting around waiting for the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., to inspire them to action. Local activist Moses Williams grew up in a sharecropping family in rural Louisiana during the Jim Crow era and always hated the injustices that white supremacists inflicted on African Americans. “We had two eyes, two ears, we had two hands, two feet – we looked just like them,” he stated. “Look like we should have been recognized as another person, but we was not.” After moving to Tallulah to take a job in a tire shop, Williams joined a small group of activists who were working to challenge segregation, disfranchisement, and economic exploitation. He recalled, “I came here late, in the last part of ’52, and I found in Madison Parish some Roy Wilkinses, Martin Luther Kings, and James Farmers, right here in Madison Parish – not in New York or Chicago. They were here.” In the 1960s, the impetus provided by the national freedom movement assisted these black southerners to secure their rights. After passage of the Voting Rights Act, several members of Williams’s cohort successfully
ran for political office and helped make their local governments more responsive to black constituents.
Few people know the stories of Moses Williams or other activists who worked, far from the media spotlight and at risk to their lives, to build local movements in places like Tallulah. Most Americans’ understanding of the civil rights movement remain bounded by a framework that emphasizes the centrality of King’s speeches and actions, particularly his powerful articulation of the immorality of racism, the righteousness of demands for racial justice, and the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Both scholars and participants have observed that the narrow focus on King’s life and legacy distorts public perceptions of the black freedom struggle and, more generally, how mass movements form and bring about social change. Highlighting the abilities or achievements of a single charismatic leader encourages citizens to think they need exceptionally talented people to come and save them instead of getting involved in political work themselves. Activist Diane Nash explained the importance of recognizing the myriad grassroots struggles and the actions of ordinary people who made up the movement particularly well: “If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they . . . are more likely to say, ‘gosh, I wish we had another Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ . . . If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is ‘What can I do?’”
The mass protest phase of the freedom movement embodied by events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and other well-publicized confrontations with racism represented more of a white awakening to injustice than a black one. However, understanding this struggle as part of a broader historical continuum should not cause us to ignore aspects of the civil rights era that made it unique. Several significant political and economic shifts converged in the mid-twentieth century to foster the conditions that allowed thousands of black Americans to mobilize and draw support from white allies seeking to end racial discrimination.
Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, the mechanization of southern agriculture reduced plantation owners’ reliance on cheap black labor, freeing many sharecropping families from surveillance by and dependence on white employers. World War II opened new employment opportunities for African Americans in defense industries in the North and West as well as the South and drew many of them into the armed forces. Black soldiers deployed overseas to fight racist regimes in Germany and Japan returned with an enhanced determination to fight injustice in the United States. Some of these men and women were able to use the benefits they received under the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (more commonly called the GI Bill) to obtain college degrees, train for skilled jobs, buy homes, and establish their own farms or businesses, creating a new cohort of economically independent black southerners that was instrumental in mounting challenges to the Jim Crow system in the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time, increasing urbanization and industrialization in the South generated incentives for business leaders to moderate racial injustices in order to counter the disruptive effects of social protests that might discourage northern and international corporations from investing in the region. Finally, the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union made national political leaders more susceptible to pressure from civil rights groups seeking to push the United States to live up to its professed ideals. All of these factors created a social context that was particularly conducive to change. Attributing the passage of civil rights legislation to the power of King’s moral arguments or his philosophy of nonviolence does not adequately take into account the political and economic considerations that contributed to white Americans’ change of heart in the 1960s.
There is no question nonviolent direct action was a powerful tactic that played a key role in generating support for the movement among white as well as black Americans. National media coverage of peaceful protesters calmly resisting racism and refusing to fight back against harassment by white supremacists placed civil rights activists clearly on the moral high ground and subverted racial stereotypes that depicted black people as violent savages. For some proponents, nonviolence was a deeply held worldview, grounded in religious and philosophical beliefs that cast any form of violence as both morally wrong and counterproductive. They argued that using violence to fight violence could only produce more hatred and racial conflict, making it harder to achieve a more equal and just society based on mutual respect. For others, nonviolence was simply a matter of practicality: African Americans were a minority of the nation’s population, white Americans controlled all the instruments of power, and using violence would only result in repression or a race war that black people would surely lose. Moreover, national civil rights organizations did not want to alienate white liberal donors who provided crucial financial support. For these reasons leaders of the NAACP, the SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) all emphasized the importance of remaining nonviolent to their members and supporters, particularly during demonstrations where media were present. As CORE’s national director James Farmer observed in 1963, “Widespread violence by the freedom fighters would sever from the struggle all but a few of our allies. It would also provoke and, to many, justify such repressive measures as would stymie the movement.”
At the local level, however, in isolated rural hamlets of the Deep South, activists were skeptical that nonviolence alone could secure their freedom. In the early 1960s local residents of states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and civil rights workers who traveled to these regions to help with voter registration, risked their lives every day, and intimidation by police and vigilante groups discouraged many people from participating in the movement. Activists were routinely arrested, jailed, and beaten by law enforcement officials who could act without any fear of punishment. Private citizens who opposed black struggles for equality also knew that they could attack and kill civil rights activists with impunity. Members of the Ku Klux Klan frequently drove through black communities and shot into the homes of people who were involved in the movement, and dozens of black churches that hosted civil rights meetings were burned down. State and local officials did little to stem the violence, and the federal government was also reluctant to intervene.
With no protection from their government, activists were forced to protect themselves. Like their white neighbors, many African Americans in rural southern communities owned guns. Mostly the weapons were used for hunting, but they were also useful for deterring unwelcome visits or violent attacks by white supremacists. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as King and other national leaders publicly exhorted black Americans to remain nonviolent, local activists continued to keep guns in their homes and carry them to civil rights meetings. In Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP members led by branch president Robert F. Williams organized themselves into an armed militia to guard black homes and neighborhoods from the Klan. Similarly, a group of black war veterans in Louisiana formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice to protect civil rights workers from violence. Armed self-defense was not as widely publicized or remembered as nonviolence, but it was essential to ensuring the continuation of the civil rights movement at the local level. Without the protection offered by those who carried guns, voter registration and other civil rights work in the rural South could easily have been crushed by the violent tactics of racist officials and vigilantes who were impervious to King’s moral arguments and cared only about maintaining their own power. National leaders were understandably concerned that images of black people carrying guns and fighting back against white violence might undermine support for the movement. When activists like Malcolm X and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael began to question the effectiveness of nonviolence and suggested that African Americans might need to adopt more assertive methods, white support and funding for civil rights organizations dropped off. Liberal flight was accelerated by uprisings in black neighborhoods of Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and dozens of other cities in the second half of the 1960s that resulted in deaths, injuries, and millions of dollars in property damage. In media representations, images of angry black rioters battling police against a backdrop of burning buildings replaced peaceful marchers as the face of the freedom struggle, fueling calls for tougher law enforcement to crack down on protesters. In many accounts of the civil rights struggle, the turn toward violent tactics is identified as the point where activists lost legitimacy and the movement fell apart.
One aspect of the riots that is often overlooked is their role in pressuring policy makers to act on problems that could not be solved by civil rights legislation alone. Recognizing that the causes of these uprisings lay in mass unemployment, poverty, substandard housing, poor schools, lack of public services, and racist policing in black communities, the federal government stepped up efforts to provide more resources and opportunities for African Americans and other economically disadvantaged groups. As President Lyndon B. Johnson noted in 1965, exercising the privileges of American citizenship “takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.” The Johnson administration’s War on Poverty launched an array of new federal initiatives that included adult education and job training programs, early childhood education programs, community health centers, legal assistance clinics, and programs to provide affordable medical care for elderly and poor people. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) provided millions of dollars in grants to locally organized Community Action Programs and encouraged them to develop innovative approaches to social problems. Significantly, federal funds were granted directly to organizations that served poor people, bypassing state and local officials that had a history of diverting such money to other purposes.
The War on Poverty encouraged a mix of civil rights and social justice activism that deployed federal resources to empower poor people to solve their own problems. One of the best-known and most effective of the OEO’s antipoverty projects was the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), an early childhood education program focused on addressing the disadvantages faced by low-income families. The program offered health screening checks and nutritious meals to the children enrolled, employed their parents and other local people to operate its centers, and encouraged political participation to challenge the racist officials who had long neglected poor people’s needs. A similar project took shape in Bolivar County, Mississippi, where an interracial group of activist doctors and social workers founded the Tufts-Delta Health Center (TDHC) to provide free medical care to a growing number of displaced sharecroppers who were left without adequate food, clothing, and shelter after plantation owners moved to mechanize their operations and eliminate the need for black people’s labor. The TDHC went beyond simply treating illnesses to removing their root causes, which meant eradicating malnutrition, substandard housing, and poor sanitation. The health center trained local people and employed them on its staff, and it also gave poor people leading roles in designing and operating supplementary programs that addressed concerns expressed by community members. After it became clear to organizers that the most pressing problem faced by many people in the area was obtaining enough food, TDHC staff helped 900 families to join together in a farmers’ cooperative that employed the jobless to grow vegetables for themselves and other low-income residents. As in the case of the CDGM, both the health center and the farmers’ cooperative became centers of black activism that pressured local political leaders to pay more attention to low-income constituents.  Local activist L. C. Dorsey recalled the transformative potential of antipoverty initiatives in an interview, observing, “Johnson’s poverty programs came to town, and that really freed a lot of black folks and poor whites from a stranglehold economy that just didn’t let you live, or barely let you live. We went to work for wages that we never dreamed you could earn in Mississippi, and people were freed for the first time from a system that really controlled you through the threat of starvation.”
The federal government’s antipoverty programs were open to all who needed them regardless of skin color. Many white citizens, however, associated the War on Poverty with African Americans. Partly this was because centuries of racial discrimination had left black people disproportionately poor, which meant they were more likely than white Americans to need assistance. But it also reflected a campaign by opponents of antipoverty initiatives to portray them as programs that served only black people and to discourage white participation. Segregationists warned that the federal government’s mandate that programs be integrated was just another way to force racial equality on the South. The Ku Klux Klan harassed and intimidated white staffers and families who were involved in the programs, making it difficult to recruit participants. In Louisiana, anonymous phone calls and flyers warned people not to support antipoverty efforts, crosses were burned outside people’s homes, and several buildings that housed federally funded projects were burned down. Meanwhile, newspapers and other media portrayed the political mobilization of poor people as attempts by militant Black Power groups to start a race war and take over local governments in majority-black counties. An OEO staff member who traveled through the South in the late 1960s noted the widespread belief that antipoverty programs served only black residents and the resulting resentment of white southerners:
These constituents, often among the very poor themselves, are led to believe that Poverty Programs are for Negroes only. They are brainwashed by the constant harangue of newscasters who repeat the irrational statements made by “leaders.” They read the slanted news stories which try to connect the funding of a much needed program in which Negroes outnumber whites to the mythical control of the Black Panther Party. But they never tell their poor white constituents that the programs are aimed to help all of the poor people in the community. The poor white man is not encouraged to take advantage of his Government’s efforts to lift him out of the pits of poverty.
This framing of efforts to enhance economic security for all Americans as wasteful attempts to give special privileges to black people was very effective in undermining support for the War on Poverty, not just in the South but in the North as well. White resentment of the federal government’s civil rights and antipoverty initiatives helped to elect a more conservative Congress in 1966, making it harder to secure the increased expenditures needed to expand pioneering antipoverty programs to serve more people. At the same time, President Johnson’s attention shifted away from the War on Poverty to the war in Vietnam, leaving participants in the black freedom struggle without the level of support from national leaders that they had enjoyed in the early 1960s. By the time the SCLC organized its Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, it was facing waning interest, if not outright hostility, from both the government and fellow citizens toward the problems facing the unemployed, homeless, and hungry. Despite bringing a multiracial coalition numbering in the thousands to lobby legislators and participate in demonstrations in Washington, D.C., for several weeks in May and June, the SCLC’s demands for policies to ensure full employment, adequate incomes, health care, and decent housing for all Americans were never fulfilled.
The rightward shift in American politics continued with the election of Republican president Richard Nixon in November. In the 1970s, Nixon and his advisers enacted policies that returned control over antipoverty programs (and the federal funds that sustained them) to state and local officials, allowing them once again to allocate resources in ways that maintained existing racial and economic inequities. A faltering economy and the rise of new economic theories promoting deregulation and free markets as the way to restore prosperity convinced political leaders to abandon interventionist approaches to solving poverty and rely more on the private sector to generate wealth and jobs. In contrast to President Johnson’s earlier pledge to wage an “unconditional war on poverty,” Democratic president Jimmy Carter asserted in 1978 that there were limits to what government could do to address social ills. “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision,” he stated. “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. . . . We know that in our free society, private business is still the best source of new jobs.”
Americans’ growing antipathy toward government efforts to ensure racial and economic justice had devastating consequences for the freedom movement. Weak enforcement of civil rights legislation meant that African Americans continued to experience racial discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, and the legal system after the 1960s. In these same decades global economic restructuring threw millions of people out of work as industries shifted production overseas, trade barriers came down, and financial speculation began to displace manufacturing as a key source of corporate profits. Although these processes eliminated jobs held by white as well as black workers, they disproportionately affected African American communities. Housing segregation meant that black people were more likely than white Americans to reside in older, deindustrializing areas of the nation’s cities that lacked employment opportunities, good schools, public transportation, recreational facilities, and other services. Shut out of wealthier suburban areas by low incomes and persistent racism in housing markets, many black families had few options apart from trying to subsist on increasingly inadequate public assistance programs. Those who were not eligible for aid sometimes resorted to criminal activity to earn a living. High rates of poverty, crime, and violence in urban communities in turn reinforced racist stereotypes of African Americans as “welfare queens” and dangerous “thugs” who needed to be contained rather than helped.
These conditions, along with the brutal tactics used to police black neighborhoods in many American cities, gave rise in the age of social media to the Black Lives Matter movement, born from a Twitter hashtag in 2013 and hailed by its supporters as a renewed form of mass protest against racist institutions and structures that continue to deny full citizenship to African Americans. Cell phone videos of police using deadly force against unarmed black men, women, and children who posed no threat to the lives of these officers, often with no consequences or accountability, have raised awareness of inequities that permeate the criminal justice system and other areas of American life. As in the 1960s, however, efforts to draw attention to injustice have sparked violent reactions from white supremacists and criticism from opponents who prefer to blame African Americans themselves for the problems exposed by Black Lives Matter rather than admit their own complicity.
The placard and photograph described at the beginning of this essay are among thousands of similar objects that document black Americans’ long fight for freedom, equality, and dignity in the United States. Preserving and analyzing such artifacts is essential not just for understanding the past, but also for making sense of the racial divisions that remain evident in the twenty-first century. Visitors examining these items in the Kinsey Collection might ponder how they, today, can honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who struggled to end racism and ensure justice in the 1960s. Lessons drawn from the archives-based research conducted by historians of the freedom movement suggest some answers to this question. To start with, we can abandon simplistic narratives promoting the idea that a single inspiring leader convinced thousands of people to engage in mass demonstrations and nonviolent direct action, thus securing the passage of civil rights legislation and ensuring equal treatment for all citizens in the United States. We can recognize that ending racism is the ongoing, continuous, and daily work of ordinary citizens organizing in their local communities, and that these efforts may be encouraged or destroyed by policies pursued at the national level. We can link the struggles of black Americans to the struggles of other exploited and marginalized groups, including poor white people, as King was attempting to do toward the end of his life. And we can reiterate his conviction, powerfully expressed in a Mississippi church in 1968, that black citizens have a right to demand of their government the same level of economic support that has historically been granted to white Americans.
 “Honor King: End Racism” (1968), placard, and Ernest Withers, “Memorial March after the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968,” photograph, both part of The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection®, http://www.thekinseycollection.com/2015/01/19/11815-honor-king-end-racism/ ; and Google Images search, “civil rights movement,” https://www.google.com . The Kinsey Collection organizes traveling exhibits of artifacts and collaborates with schools to develop African American history curricula.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” address delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968, transcript, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute (Stanford University) website, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” address delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, transcript, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute (Stanford University) website, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom.
 See, for example, John McWhorter, “Racism in America Is Over,” Forbes
online, December 30, 2008, https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/30/end-of
 Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free Press, 2000), 11–12; Martin Luther King, Jr., “We Are Coming to Get Our Check,” speech delivered in Mississippi, [March] 1968, in Frontline, season 16, episode 3, “The Two Nations of Black America,” directed by June Cross, written by June Cross and Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired February 10, 1998, on PBS (New York: Films Media Group, 2009), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/etc/script.html. For information on racial discrimination in federal agricultural programs and other forms of government assistance, see Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013) and Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).
 See, for example, the popular song “Sister Rosa,” released by the Neville Brothers in 1989, which includes the lines: “Sister Rosa she was tired one day, after a hard day on her job . . . Thank you Miss Rosa, you are the spark. You started our freedom movement, thank you Sister Rosa Parks.” The Neville Brothers, “Sister Rosa,” on Yellow Moon (A&M Records, 1989).
 Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks (New York: Viking, 2000), 9, 32, 48–55, 68–73, 84–90, 121–22.
 Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), 20–47.
 Brinkley, Rosa Parks, 130–34; Peter J. Ling, Martin Luther King, Jr., 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2015), 41–43; Ella Baker quoted in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986), 625.
 Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1233–63.
 Key works in this historiography include Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: Free Press, 1984); Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994); Adam Fairclough, Race Beyond Civil Rights and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915–1972 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995); Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds., Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles outside the South, 1940–1980 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); and Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).
 Moses Williams, interview by Greta de Jong, tape recording, 24 November 1996, T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge (first quotation); Zelma Wyche, Harrison H. Brown, T. I. Israel, F. W. Wilson, and Moses Williams, interview by Miriam Feingold, tape recording, 1966, Miriam Feingold Papers, 1960–1967, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison (second quotation). Roy Wilkins and James Farmer were national civil rights leaders of similar stature to Martin Luther King Jr., heading the NAACP (Wilkins) and the Congress of Racial Equality (Farmer).
 Edmund P. Morgan, “The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten: Media Culture and Public Memory of the Civil Rights Movement,” in The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, edited by Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 137–66. In recent decades, a number of studies focusing on local, grassroots movements have uncovered the experiences of lesser-known participants in the movement. See, for example, Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Cynthia Griggs Fleming, In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004); Hassan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009); and Françoise N. Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
 Diane Nash quoted in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 625.
 Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 168–83, 239–55; Greta de Jong, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 144–74; Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945–1980: The Story of the South’s Modernization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 213–22; Penny M. Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 109–13.
 James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 11, 94, 155–56; August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 9–10, 296–98.
 Ninety-five percent of the financial contributors on CORE’s mailing list, for example, were white. The organization received support from prominent liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lillian Smith along with national labor unions and foundations. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations all received varying levels of support from similar sources. Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 126–27, 148–49, 225, 336–37; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 97, 278; Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 39–41; 70–71; M. S. Handler, “Civil Rights Groups in Financial Squeeze,” New York Times, 24 January 1965, E5.
 James Farmer quoted in Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 297.
 Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, 101–2, 201–2; de Jong, A Different Day, 160, 162–63, 170, 191–92; John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 238, 242–52.
 Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 136–65; Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 30–51.
 John D. Pomfret, “Johnson Asserts Riots by Negroes Impede Reforms,” New York Times, 24 July 1966; Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 411–25; Carson, In Struggle, 218–24, 244–64.
 Lyndon B. Johnson, “Special Message to Congress: The American Promise,” 15 March 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Book 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966), 286.
 Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: Free Press, 1969), 81–86, 90, 97; Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 33–34; Susan Youngblood Ashmore, Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964–1972 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 58–62.
 Dittmer, Local People, 368–82; Amy Jordan, “Fighting for the Child Development Group of Mississippi: Poor People, Local Politics, and the Complicated Legacy of Head Start,” in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980, edited by Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 280–307.
 Greta de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 65–71.
 L. C. Dorsey, interview by Robert Korstad and Neil Boothby, 22 April 1992, transcript, 14, Southern Rural Poverty Collection, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke University, Durham, NC, transcript, http://dewitt.sanford.duke.edu/rutherfurd-living-history/southern-rural
 Kent Germany, “Poverty Wars in the Louisiana Delta: White Resistance, Black Power, and the Poorest Place in America,” in The War on Poverty, ed. Orleck and Hazirjian, 234–37.
 De Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 75–78.
 Robert W. Saunders to Maurice A. Dawkins, memorandum, 6 June 1967, file “CR Robert W. Saunders–1967” (1 of 2), box 8, Program Records of the Assistant Director for Civil Rights, 1965–68, Office of Civil Rights, Office of Economic Opportunity, Record Group 381, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
 De Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 81–85, 121, 175–76; Dona Cooper Hamilton and Charles V. Hamilton, The Dual Agenda: Race and the Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 168–72.
 Kim Philips-Fein traces the growing influence of free market economists and think tanks in the 1970s in Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade against the New Deal (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 166–84.
 Lyndon B. Johnson, “Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” 8 January 1964, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 114; Jimmy Carter, “The State of the Union,” 19 January 1978, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1978, Book 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979), 91, 93.
 Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 113–47; Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, 1st Princeton Classics ed. (1996; rpt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 259–71; Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, new ed. (London: Verso, 2008), 3–44; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010),35–57.
 The collection of primary source documents and contemporary articles compiled in Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain, eds., Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016) is an invaluable resource for tracing various iterations of white supremacy, and antiracist resistance, in the United States from slavery to the present.