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A wide range of Americans contributed to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Students and young people were prominent groups of activists within the movement. Today, we'll learn about the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro Four, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Freedom Riders. These groups undertook protests and worked to integrate schools and public accommodations by riding segregated buses, demanding service at lunch counters, and even by simply attending school.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Jon N. Hale, The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Cambridge: South End Press, 2002).
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
Karen Anderson, Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013).

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CC Kids:

 Intro (0:00)

Hi, I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course: Black American History.

As we get further along in this series, you're probably encountering more events and people that you recognize. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. But, as you've probably learned at this point, the civil rights movements and any social change movement, for that matter, aren't just successful because of singular heroic figures. They're successful because of the everyday work and courage of ordinary people. And among the people who most effectively help make social change possible, is young people, students, just like many of you.

So today, we'll be talking about three different groups of students who helped advance the cause of justice, equality and civil rights. Whose bravery, intelligence and commitment is something that all of us can learn from. Let's start the show.

(Intro Music)

The civil rights movement is considered by many to have officially started in 1954, following the ruling from the supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education. And it's considered to have largely ended by 1968, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time, the popular mode of organizing against the discrimination of Black Americans was by using non-violent direct action. We should note that sometimes people misunderstand the tactic and they think that this sort of non-violent activism was all about holding hands and picking flowers and singing Kumbaya.

No shade to any of those things, I love picking flowers and Kumbaya is a great song, but non-violent direct action was often about putting your body in harms way and possibly even putting your life on the line. It took an enormous amount of self control, dignity and courage. Many young activists even spent days and weeks and months training for the actions that they would take so that they could teach their bodies and their minds how to respond when encountering the violence that often awaited them.

Some of the groups that we're gonna talk about today include the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro Four and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commitee, or SNCC [pronounced /snɪk/].

 The Little Rock Nine (2:30)

The Little Rock Nine was a group of high school students who were hand-chosen by the NAACP to test whether Brown v. Board of Education was going to be enforced. It's not surprising that this ruling needed to be tested, considering the unrest that followed it, including the gruesome murder of Emmett Till. Black people needed to make sure that the state, not just the literal state of Arkansas, but the United States as a country, was going to follow through on its commitment. Through generations of experience, Black folks knew better than to think that just because the Supreme Court made a ruling for Black equality, that that meant people across the country would follow it.

Daisy Gatson Bates, President of the Arkansas NAACP, was the mastermind behind this test. She recruited ten high school students to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students knew they would face some serious opposition and the NAACP did everything they could to prepare them for what they might experience. This included counseling sessions and practicing how to respond to hostile situations. And remember, these are high schoolers, not battle-tested activists. Their courage and commitment just can't be overstated.

On September 4th, 1957, the first day of school, the state of Arkansas was ready for a fight. Governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard to keep the students from integrating the school. Daisy Gatson Bates had arranged for the students to meet up before going to school in order to protect them from mob activity, but one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, didn't have a phone, and so, she didn't get the message. Eckford had to walk to school alone while being screamed at and harassed as soon as she was within sight of the building. The National Guard even kept her from entering the building while the mob harassed her outside. And because of the violence and threats against her father's job, another one of the students, Jane Hill, withdrew and returned to her segregated school, making the Little Rock Ten, now the Little Rock Nine.

This havoc went on for weeks, meaning zero of the nine students were able to attend a full day of school. They attempted to go to school through a side door on September 23rd but an angry mob threatened to rush the students. The NAACP was so afraid for the students' lives that they let the authorities send them home. It would get so bad that the President of the United Stated, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had to send down 1,200 members of the Army and federalize the National Guard to protect the students from the mob.

They were finally able to attend school on September 25th, almost a month after school had actually started. All nine students remained there for the rest of the year, but that didn't stop the harassment. Everyday on the way to school, they would have things thrown at them, including acid. Each student had an armed guard that escorted them to class, but the guards didn't go inside the classroom, or the bathroom, or the locker room. So, the students still experienced horrible harassment at the hands of their classmates.

After one student, Minnijean Brown, was expelled in February of 1958 because of an altercation she got into with a white classmate, some students wore badges that read, "One down, eight to go."

Ultimately, through incredible persistence, on May 27th 1958, Ernest Green graduated and became the first Black student in history to graduate from Central High School.

The presence, and the reaction to, the Little Rock Nine, forced the nation to confront how hard it was going to be for the promise of Brown v. Board, and de-segregation more generally, to be fulfilled.

 The Greensboro Four (6:32)

Now, let's get to know the Greensboro Four.

At North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, another historically Black university also known as North Carolina A&T, students started organizing to integrate lunch counters in the south. These sit-ins were an outgrowth of earlier non-violent integration efforts in Chicago by an organization called "Fellowship of Reconciliation" in 1942. James Farmer, who would eventually be the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, also known as CORE, was at the forefront of those sit-ins.

On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, who would become known collectively as the Greensboro Four, started off these protests by asking for service at an all-white lunch counter in the Woolworth's store of Greensborough, North Carolina. And after they asked, they were denied, but they persisted each day after that, and more and more HBCU students would join them.

By February 5th, about 300 students sat at the counter and protested at Woolworth's. They took up so much space that they kept the lunch counter, and other local businesses, from even running. This lead to heavy television coverage of these sit-ins, and as a result, an entire sit-in movement erupted across the United States.

By the end of March, 55 Cities in 13 states had experienced sit-ins. Not just in the South, but in the North as well. They were spat on, had condiments poured on their heads, and had cigarette butts pushed into their skin. But at the end of July, the Woolworth lunch counter had been integrated.

Now you would think that a bunch of students protesting on the national news would set off a lightbulb in the heads of older leaders who were working on civil rights, but not everyone fully understood the power of these students right away.

 The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (8:32)

But there was one woman who definitely did. Ella Baker, the acting director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, realized that the students were important, and could play a unique and central role in the movement. She organized a 1960 conference that trained students in non-violent direct action, and encouraged them to develop a strong, autonomous organization independent of the SCLC. And this lead to the formation of one of the most important and more radical groups of the entire civil rights movement: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

And many of the SNCC students would go on to become Freedom Riders - a group that travelled throughout the south, testing integration in places like bus stations and restaurants, using non-violent direct action. The Freedom Rides were actually started by members of the Congress of Racial Equality, but they were also joined by members of SNCC and the SCLC.

Starting in Washington, D.C. in May of 1961, an integrated team of Black and white activists rode on buses as far as Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. In Anniston, Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan, the domestic white-supremacist terror organization, and other local white mobs, bombed the bus and brutally beat the riders. In Birmingham, the students were once again attacked by white mobs and clan members. And after the driver refused to go any further, the students were evacuated to New Orleans, Louisiana on May 15, 1961. 

But if you thought that this would be the end of the story, then you clearly didn't know these students very well. Organizers from other activist groups started to support these students, and other Freedom Rides began happening throughout the south. And by the fall of 1961, the Kennedy administration started to pressure the Interstate Commerce Commission to protect the activists, and this was the whole point. It wasn't that these Freedom Riders were even asking for a new law to protect them; they were asking simply for the one that actually existed to actually be enforced. And as a result of the Freedom Rides, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally began enforcing the segregation ban in interstate transit terminals.

By 1965, SNCC had more staff members than any other civil rights organization in the south. They not only engaged in desegregation activism, they also conducted voting registration projects all over the region. And what's more, they also built two independent political parties - one of which was the well known Missippi Freedom Democratic Party.

SNCC organized labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, and reinvigorated the women's liberation movement. They also inspired what would become known as the New Left Movement, which was the radical left movement that became active in the 1960s and 70s. It was composed of college students, and young intellectuals whose goals included furthering racial equality, nonintervention in foreign affairs, and other major social changes.

 Conclusion (11:38)

The work of these young activists completely transformed the civil rights movement. Without these sit-ins, the freedom rides, the voting registration drives, and the school integration battles, the movement would not have made the progress that it did.

Now we can't emphasize this enough - Martin Luther King was amazing, and he did remarkable work - but he alone did not push the civil rights movement forward, and he would be the first to tell you that. It took thousands of people, many of whose names we'll never know, but who's work made it possible that I'm even able to be here talking to you today. The work of social change is intergenerational, and the fight for freedom and liberation needs us all.

So if you're a young person, don't ever feel like you don't have the ability to change things, and it doesn't have to be some massive global movement. Most of the time, the most important changes happen on hyper-local levels. It's in our families, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and in ourselves. And ultimately, the work we put into changing ourselves and our friends and our family, create the groundswell that leads to societal level change.

Believe in yourself. You got this.

Thanks for watching, I'll see you next time.

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