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Tensions Among Black Activists And White Activists During The Civil Rights Movement

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Black vs White: The Social Tensions Between the Two Groups.

"Our objective is not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present" (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). This is a great preamble to the topic of the many tensions between blacks and whites in the 20th century. In researching this issue I have come across just a few out of many reasons why there is an extreme tension between the African American people and the Euro-white Americans.

In the mid-1950s, nearly one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and three hundred years after colonists forced Africans into slavery, Rosa Parks took what is commonly considered the first step in the movement towards true equality among blacks and whites. Refusing to give up a bus seat for a white passenger, she directly challenged the southern belief that blacks were inferior. Her actions generated a Civil Rights Movement involving not only blacks but also two white groups who would eventually serve as a critical function in the movement.

One of these two white groups were college liberals which were a radical result of the Cold War Era. The "inequality of black people was gradually becoming a prime symbol of what needed to be changed in American society" (Isserman/Kazin pg. 50), and liberals aimed to improve the blemish on America's image - a blemish that had quickly became "a staple of Soviet propaganda" (Isserman/Kazin pg. 50). Liberals fought inequality in order to improve conditions in the nation as a whole in addition to those in the black community as a unit. The second group was white politicians, affecting the movement at the most critical of junctions - the intersection of politics and leadership. White politicians sought a balanced recipe that could allow them to fight the evils of segregation and racism without losing votes in the south.

Within ten years of Parks' rebellion the whites would play a significant yet daring role in the Civil Rights Movement which would forever change due to the growing tensions between African Americans and the whites. The tensions between Africans Americans and liberal college students and between African Americans and white politicians would develop separately, but later intersect and result in a white backlash.

During this time, radical college students, specifically those who joined forces with the Civil Rights Movement via the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and eventually headed south with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), encountered tensions as early as the training period, during which the volunteers learned the nonviolent tactics used in Mississippi. "Many SNCC activists were black veterans who had developed a strong sense of racial pride and considered themselves militants or radicals, while many of the white students had just joined the movement...and considered themselves more idealistic and liberal" (Anderson, pg. 77). A conflict of backgrounds and interests, therefore, formed an initial tension among the veterans and the volunteers.

"The presence of white women inevitably heightened the sexual tension that runs as a constant current through a racist culture" (Kazin, pg. 78). Interracial sexual relationships, taboo even among the nation's most liberal, "introduced a tension that was internal to the movement as well as a cause of opposition from the outside" (Kazin, pg. 81). Black women grew to resent the presence of white women, and black men gained a "forceful" reputation among white men.

Racial tensions continued to escalate as African Americans in the movement noticed a disturbing trend in media coverage of the Freedom Summer events: "the press was outraged when whites were murdered and hardly noticed when blacks died in the struggle" (Kazin, pg. 96). The constant presence of white faces in the media angered most African Americans involved; the struggle was a primarily black struggle throughout which African Americans had endured hardships, beatings, and poverty. Media coverage of primarily white activists was insulting and degrading to most blacks. "Where had all those television news cameramen been when only blacks were being beaten, incarcerated, and murdered in Mississippi?" (Isserman/Kazin pg. 173).

The final and perhaps most powerful source of tension between African American activists and white liberal college activists was the rise in popularity of more extremist black leaders such as Malcolm X. Malcolm X's speeches rejected assimilation, which is a type of cultural adaptation in which an individual gives up his or her own cultural heritage and adopts the mainstream cultural identity- the goal all activists had primarily sought. Blacks began to turn against the idea of an integrated nation, and chants of "Black Power" replaced those of "Freedom Now." Without the desire to integrate, African Americans no longer needed white faces for the media coverage they drew. In 1964 the SNCC ousted all white members creating the eggshell tension between African Americans and white liberal college students.

Tensions did not cease between whites especially white politicians and African American activists. Developing on a more political level, tensions between politicians and African Americans had roots going back centuries, especially between black Civil Rights activists and white politicians, which had roots starting in the 1940s and 1950s. The most significant tension, however, occurred during the presidential campaign of 1960. John F. Kennedy and the Democratic party, "pledged vigorous enforcement of existing civil rights legislation" (Isserman/Kazin, pg. 60) and Kennedy's campaign arranged the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from a state prison. Kennedy thus gained a large number of black votes, and "the black votes proved decisive" (Isserman/Kazin pg. 61).

The misunderstanding that African Americans would earn immediate civil rights action because of their role in deciding the outcome of the election would result in an upheaval. Fearing the loss of white southern votes, Kennedy was very cautious towards improving civil rights for the first two full years of his term. Activists denounced the inactivity in which Charles Sherrod wrote in a letter



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