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.” Martin Luther King, 28 August 1963
US Civil Rights in graphic form
By Roger Childs
This is an article about racism. The story is extraordinary and features an end to one of the most shameful eras of American history.
Back in the late 18th century Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … But not if you were Black or a woman: Jefferson himself owned male and female slaves.
Incredibly it was not until the 1960s that African-Americans gained equality: 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery.
In a three book series, using superb illustrations and words, MARCH tells the story of the lengthy and sometimes violent battle to win this equality in the 1950s and 1960s.
Featuring in San Francisco
Located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Cartoon Archive has an excellent exhibition on MARCH. It features blown-up pages from the graphic books, as well as video clips of key events and background information.
One of the March writers, Congressman John Lewis, took part in the action.
MARCH traces the huge struggle for Black equality, especially in the South where the doctrine of Separate but equal was just an excuse for very unequal segregation. In theory Blacks could vote in the 1950s, but in Dallas Texas, less than 3% of those eligible were actually on the electoral role.
The white authorities set down all sorts of ridiculous requirements for Blacks, but not Whites, to get on the voting rolls:
- counting beans in a jar
- filling in very lengthy forms
- being set literacy test
- having to write an essay.
Action: the Freedom Rides and beyond
In 1961 some activists travelled for the north in a bus to draw attention to the inequality for Blacks in the South. Their bus was firebombed near Anniston Alabama. A second bus was attacked in Montgomery and some of the riders were injured.
These incidents and other violent acts against Blacks in the South galvanized the attention of the nation, and President Kennedy resolved to move on Civil Rights. In late August 1963 250,000 people arrived in Washington to further the cause and those present heard one of the greatest speeches all time: Martin Luther King’s I have a dream.
Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 meant that his successor Lyndon Johnson would get the Civil Rghts bill through Congress.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in businesses such as theatres, restaurants, and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools.
Nailing the voting rights
But authorities in the South still placed obstacles in front of potential Black voters.
One of the authors of MARCH! John Lewis, organised a march in Selma Alabama in March 1965.
… a column of five hundred to six hundred demonstrators marched without incident through the streets of Selma until reaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were brutally attacked by state troopers and mounted patrolmen. Television cameramen captured the incident on film, and “Bloody Sunday,” as it came to be known, helped marshal nationwide support for the passage of voting rights legislation. Civil Rights Digital Library
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
(The MARCH graphic trilogy is written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.)