Civil rights brought ‘first freedoms’ together
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The five freedoms of the First Amendment have
propelled social movements throughout U.S. history, particularly the
struggle for civil rights, several former activists and historians say.
“Protest movements for change in our society are soundly based on the
First Amendment,” history professor John Semonche said on March 31 at a
discussion on the civil rights movement and the First Amendment, part of
the First Amendment Days programs at the University of North Carolina.
Some of the “foot soldiers” of the movement discussed how they used the
First Amendment to advance their cause.
Free press brings down Klan
Newspapers had an integral role in the civil rights movement, said
Horace Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and journalist.
For example, the newspaper he founded in Tabor City, N.C., crusaded
against the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated every aspect of the community.
“Being a racist was common” in the 1940s and 1950s, Carter said. His own
father “was as much racist as anybody who ever lived.”
Carter didn’t share his father’s opinions. From 1949 to 1954, he wrote
editorials almost daily condemning the Klan, despite “threats that ran
into the thousands. … If I’d gotten killed that would have been a
When threats of violence didn’t work, the KKK changed tactics, Carter
said. The grand dragon visited the editor and said, ” ‘If you keep
writing what you write, I’ve got 3,500 members of the Klan … and we’ll
boycott every advertiser you’ve got.’ Well, we didn’t have many.” But
Carter held on.
Eventually, his articles got the attention of the FBI. From there, it
was all downhill for the Klan in Tabor City.
But the press wasn’t perfect, said Reavis Mitchell, chairman of the
history department at Fisk University. Regarding peaceful protests in
Nashville, “The press didn’t write about [them] because there was no
violence. So no one read about it.”
Student demonstrates despite school’s disapproval
At a time when proper young ladies didn’t go to town without gloves,
Eugenia Seaman Marks was working with young blacks in 1960 to organize
demonstrations in Greensboro, N.C., against segregation. Her efforts
didn’t go unnoticed by her college’s administration.
The dean wrote to her mother, saying that Marks had been seen being
“picked up” by young black men, which could lead to “physical violence
against the boys” and against Marks herself.
But Marks’ mother was the one who taught her that “equality was the right thing to do.” The Greensboro sit-ins ended up being a spark for other demonstrations and a wider awareness of the civil rights movement across the country.
Freedom to associate
The U.S. Supreme Court made an important reversal during the struggle for racial equality, Semonche said. In the early 1950s, in a case involving a communist organization, the court had ruled that the
government could compel an organization to release the names of its members.
“A few years later, in a case involving the NAACP in Atlanta, the court came to a different decision altogether about freedom of association,” Semonche said. “The ruled that an organization could resist the government … . And that different decision has governed constitutional law ever since.”
Power of religion
Moderator John Seigenthaler of the First Amendment Center, who was a U.S. Justice Department official during the civil rights movement, said freedom of religion also played a powerful role in rallying black people.
“The black church was a major force” in fortifying the community’s strength under tremendous pressure.
Semonche said that the Rev. Martin Luther King was masterful at using religion to advance the movement without trying to impose beliefs. Instead, “He was advancing a divine conception of the individual [who could work toward] a greater society, so the individual could achieve according to one’s merit.”
Unlike some religious leaders of today, such as Jerry Falwell, King “never said ‘I’ll dominate the way you think,’ ” Semonche said.