Making movements: Five decades apart two student organizations mobilize younger generations

Making movements: Five decades apart two student organizations  mobilize younger generations

Gus Flores and Willa Smith

Austin residents celebrate the life and mission of Martin Luther King Jr. while marching in front of the state capitol on January 18, 2016. Photo by Rewon Shimray.

A crowd of over 20,000 gazed up at Dr. King, eyes wide, waiting.

He stepped up to the microphone, and his voice rang loud over the steps of the Alabama state capitol. “No tide of racism can stop us,” he declared.

Half a century later, Jonathan Butler struggled to class, weak from his hunger strike, starving for the same cause.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, was hard at work trying to desegregate the country. In 1965, the organization decided to make Selma, Alabama the focus of its shorter term efforts to register black voters in the South–only two percent of Selma’s eligible black voters had successfully registered. Alabama Governor George Wallace and Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark were loud opponents of desegregation and black voter registration drives, making the SCLC’s mission even more pertinent.

Southern states had been turning away black citizens registration offices for decades, even though the 14th and 15th Amendments extended suffrage to black citizens in 1868 and 1870. These states used restrictive practices like the “grandfather clause,” literacy tests, and poll taxing to get around the law and squash the black voice in government. These practices made it so that only 7.5 percent of the black population in 1959 could vote.  

Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma on January 2, to help lead the SCLC’s campaign. But they weren’t the first ones there: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, had already been in Selma for over a year. Since its conception in 1957, the SCLC had attracted largely older citizens and those involved in the church, struggling to draw a younger population to their organization. This is where the SNCC came in.

The SNCC successfully drew the young black population into the Civil Rights Movement, and became one of the more radical organizations involved in the movement. The SNCC and SCLC struggled to see eye to eye on tactics, but upon the SCLC’s arrival in Selma, the two organizations came together for one of the most prolific demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement.  

After about a month of protesting, a group of peaceful demonstrators in Marion, a town near Selma, were attacked by white segregationists on February 8, 1965. In the chaos that followed, an Alabama state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American protester. In reaction, King and the SCLC planned an extensive protest march from Selma to the Alabama state capitol of Montgomery, 54 miles away.

They didn’t get far though.

When the 600 peaceful civil rights activists, led by Dr. King and the SNCC member John Lewis, reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after KKK Confederate Edmund Pettus), they were met by a group of violent segregationists with tear gas, clubs, and state troopers blocking their way.

County sheriff Clark had rallied a large group of law enforcement and citizens to violently stop the protesters. This brutal aggression from white citizens led to 17 hospitalizations. March 7 would forever be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

Following the assault, President Lyndon B. Johnson voiced his support for the Selma campaign and its mission. On March 21, the National Guard pledged protection and the protesters, now 20,000, continued the march.

50 years later, in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, another student group fighting for the validity of black lives (like the SNCC) arose: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter has been involved in countless protests since 2012 and has drawn renewed attention to issues of race relations and police brutality within the United States, mirroring the student efforts of the SNCC throughout the Civil Movement.

One day, Briana Gray, senior at The University of Missouri (“Mizzou”), arrived at her dorm room door and found herself face to face with a picture of a black woman being lynched. Gray is a part of the astonishingly small eight percent of the student body who is black. In an interview with The New York Times’ reporter John Elington in November, Gray discussed the racism, both widespread and serious, she encounters on campus.

Gray wasn’t alone. A few months earlier, Mizzou’s student government president Payton Head complained of bigotry and anti-gay sentiment around campus in a Facebook post. The lack of response from administration sparked protests throughout September and October.

On November 3, student Jonathan Butler, frustrated with administration’s lack of action, reached a breaking point and launched a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until the president of the university, Timothy Wolfe, resigned. Butler’s actions had a similar effect as Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death did, which launched the Selma campaign, instantaneously commanding public attention. Two days later, 30 of the 58 Mizzou black football players announced that they wouldn’t practice or play until Wolfe resigned. The Mizzou Athletics Department stood with them.

A day later, despite previous refusals, Wolfe resigned.

Just as the violence in Selma, broadcast on televisions nationwide, turned attention to the black suffrage issue in the South, the events at Mizzou sparked nationwide protests on other college campuses. Among those campuses were Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna College (whose president also resigned following a student’s hunger strike), Smith College, Brandeis University, Yale University, and Amherst College. Across the country, campuses were announcing their support for Mizzou, placing a spotlight on racial issues that had previously been in the dark.

Less than five months after the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed voting barriers–poll taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause. By the time 1969 arrived, just four years later, 60 percent of eligible black citizens in the South were registered to vote.
In the quad that was once home to the Mizzou protesters’ tent city, students danced in celebration of former university president Tom Wolfe’s resignation. The chants of hundreds of students at a nearby amphitheater filled the air: “I…am…a…revolutionary!”