Race relations and the civil rights movement in the United States and Australia in the 1950s and 1960s—A comparative study
Randwick Girls High School
Background to the study tour
While teaching the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, I realised that one can draw many parallels with Australian society during the same period. It would be particularly beneficial for NSW history students to have an understanding of how the rights and freedoms of African–Americans changed during the post-World War II period so as to enhance their understanding of the effect these changes had on Australian society. The parallels with Australian Aboriginal history that came to mind were the Freedom Rides and the 1967 Referendum. My enthusiasm for Aboriginal history and Aboriginal issues developed as a result of reading the great works of historian Henry Reynolds.
‘All things King’—Atlanta, Georgia
Historic Auburn Avenue, in East Downtown Atlanta, was a prosperous African–American economic district in the 1930s. It was not difficult to imagine this neglected area as the middle-class neighbourhood it once was. As we headed down Auburn Avenue, it gave us a wonderful opportunity to explore as we walked towards the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site.
Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, with its modest dark blue and white sign protruding from above the large wooden entrance doors, is no. 407–413 Auburn Avenue. The humble red brick building was completed in 1922. Directly across Auburn Avenue lay the New Ebenezer Baptist Church. The historic church is small in size compared to the grand new church, which was built in 1999.
Martin Luther King Jr and his siblings, Catherine and Alfred Daniel, spent a considerable amount of time there while they were growing up. From 1960 until 1968 Dr King served as co-pastor with his father. I was mesmerized as I sat on the front pew and listened to taped recordings of his sermons and famous speeches, and I was captivated by his calming voice and eloquent oratory. Dr King’s funeral service was held here in 1968 and also in this church his mother was fatally shot in 1974 while she played the organ one Sunday morning. A stone memorial fountain, plaque and photograph of his mother are on display in the church.
The African–American churches played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Apart from providing a refuge from the harsh realities of the larger society, the Southern urban African–American churches were institutional centres, places where people would assemble and design strategies, and they also provided the movement with leaders and funds. The social network that existed between the churches was also crucial in the movement, as church leaders would gather to discuss important issues relating to their communities.1
Dr King’s birth home, number 501 Auburn Avenue, was built in 1895. The attractive Georgian two-storey home, painted in cream with brown wood panel trims, has been restored to reflect the 1930s and 1940s. The house is large by today’s standards, and it was here that Martin Luther King Jr was born at 12 noon on 15 January 1929. The King children were born in an upstairs bedroom as Reverend Martin Luther King Sr refused to allow his children to be born in a segregated hospital.
During the tour we were told the history of their childhood from the perspective of Dr King’s sister, Christine. Martin played popular board games such as Monopoly, and the children were encouraged to be active conversationalists at the dinner table, something that was uncommon during that time. They were encouraged to read the newspaper prior to dinner and each child was expected to recite a Bible verse before eating. The birth home gave me an insight into his beginnings. It was his upbringing and his experiences of living in a segregated and prejudiced society that helped shape his views of the world.
Dr King’s burial place is a grand monument and is surrounded by a huge reflective pool with fountains. Thoughts of a gentle, sensitive, loving, compassionate and humble man dying a violent death saddened me. The inscription on the tomb said: ‘Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 1929–1968 Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.’
The foyer of Freedom Hall at the King Centre has large photographs of Martin Luther King Jr which hang from the ceiling. The aim of this museum clearly is to foster his legacy. The King Room, on the second level, provided me with immense insight into the complexity and multifaceted roles he and his wife played. Although Dr King was the primary spokesperson and also a leader of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968, he and other church leaders worked cooperatively for the duration of the movement. ‘His ultimate goal was to create a community that was embraced in love where people would not be judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.’2 He was well-educated and by 1955 he had received a PhD degree in Systematic Theology from Boston University. Dr King used the Bible to justify freedom, the same Bible that was once used to justify slavery.
Dr King was heavily involved in all aspects of the movement from his leadership roles in organisations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to his participation in non-violent direct action such as boycotts, marches, sit-ins and subsequent arrests. Along with other leaders, he talked with the people, walked with the people and was jailed with the people. He visited the White House on numerous occasions. He met presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and he was a guest of President Lyndon Johnson when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed.
The Gandhi Room provided me with an insight into the impact that the Indian social philosopher, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, had on Dr King. ‘Dr King considered Gandhi his mentor, one who dealt with political issues, social injustices and economic concerns through the power of unconditional love.’3 Both King and Gandhi were influenced by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s work ‘On Civil Disobedience’ taught them about non-cooperation with evil and, according to Dr King, it was Thoreau’s teachings that came alive in the civil rights movement.4
Prior to departing Atlanta I spent two days gathering primary material at the Robert W Woodruff Library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections at Atlanta University Centre, one of the universities that opened during Reconstruction for African–Americans. With gracious advice from Karen Jefferson and the assistance of her co-workers I gathered information on additional areas of interest.
‘Ole Miss’—Oxford, Mississippi
The University of Mississippi is known as ‘The Harvard of the South’, and the small township of Oxford is about an hours drive from Memphis International Airport. We stayed at Oliver-Britt House, and this proved to be an excellent choice as we were within walking distance of the town square and the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as ‘Ole Miss’ and founded in 1848. It was at 8 a.m. on 1 October 1962 that James Meredith became the first African–American student to enrol at this university. I completed the self-guided walking tour entitled ‘Remembering the Events of 1962’ and retraced the scenes of violent events surrounding the integration of ‘Ole Miss’. Bullet holes can still be seen in the white columns at the entrance to the Lyceum Building (the oldest building on campus and central administration building), where shots were fired during rioting on the dreadful night of 30 September 1962.5
‘Marvelous Memphis on the Mighty Mississippi’
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis occupies what was once the Lorraine Motel (although it still looks the same, with parking lot intact). It was in this motel that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the 4 April 1968 while standing with friends on the balcony outside his room; he was 39 years old. On the eve of his assassination Dr King delivered his famous speech ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ at a local church.6 For many, the modern civil rights movement as we know it deteriorated after Dr King’s death.
The museum is truly incredible and brings to life the civil rights movement and the extraordinary people involved in the movement from 1600 to the present day. Although the civil rights movement in Australia was not as colossal as the movement in the United States, the parallels between the United States and Australia were apparent as a result of the extensive amount of information on display. What first struck me about the introductory exhibit was that the civil rights movement in the United States did not start with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case in 1954, but actually started in 1619 with the slaves revolts that occurred. The same tactics used in 1619 were used in the 20th century.
By the 1960s non-Aboriginal people had united with Aboriginal activists to voice their opinions on discrimination and injustice affecting Aboriginal people. In early 1964 student activists in Australia supported the plight of oppressed peoples both in the United States and South Africa; however, they had done little to raise awareness of the suffering many Australian indigenous peoples experienced on a daily basis. Ann Curthoys has said that this support for overseas movements was partly as a result of widespread newspaper and television coverage and partly the fact that Australian’s had a habit of deploring injustices overseas instead of in their own country.7
Lasting images of the civil rights movement in the United States, especially the appalling events in Birmingham in 1963 (Project Confrontation), coupled with criticism from the public that Australians were not doing enough to address issues concerning Aboriginal peoples, eventually led university students and others to adopt the idea of non-violent direct action to raise awareness of issues at home.8 In 1965, this came in the form of the Australian Freedom Rides, motivated by the Freedom Rides in the United States that occurred in the Deep South in 1961. The Australian Freedom Rides also acted as a vital stepping stone in the lead up to the 1967 Referendum.
The common aim and overriding philosophy of the Freedom Rides both overseas and at home was to gain positive media attention via non-violent direct action to expose injustices. Both Freedom Rides achieved wide publicity; however, the Freedom Rides in the United States occurred within a much bigger civil rights context and one just has to take a walk through the museum to understand this. The aim of the Freedom Rides in the United States was very specific and that was to expose illegally segregated interstate bus travel and amenities such as restrooms, waiting rooms and food counters. The sit-ins that were occurring throughout the South provided the Freedom Riders with momentum to continue the attack on segregation. The aim of the Australian Freedom Rides was to raise awareness of issues concerning Aboriginal people, tackle segregation of public facilities and survey Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people on areas such as health and education.
The Freedom Rides in Australia were organised by Student Action for Aborigines and took place four years after the first Freedom Ride of the 1960s in the United States (CORE organised the first Freedom Ride in 1947). Both Freedom Ride groups were interracial; however, in the Australian Freedom Rides only two were Aboriginal, Charles Perkins and Gary Williams, while in the United States, the proportion of African–Americans and whites was almost equal. The Australian Freedom Riders were encouraged to read Dr King’s writings in order to gain further insight into the central role of non-violent direct action in a civil rights campaign.9
Both groups experienced violence on their journeys; however, the extent and nature of the violence differed. James Farmer, national director of CORE, organised the first Freedom Ride in the United States and later told people that when the buses departed Washington, DC, death was a possibility. Although the Australian Freedom Riders were fully aware of the violence the riders in the United States had experienced, they were unsure of what to expect.10 It was the Freedom Riders in the United States who suffered the worst violence at the hands of local antagonists.
The famous images of the burning Greyhound Freedom bus in Anniston, Alabama, (on display at the National Civil Rights Museum) and the bloodied US Freedom Riders John Lewis and James Zwerg in Montgomery, after being attacked by hostile white locals, provide a good summary of the extent of violence and the suffering they endured. The Australian Freedom Riders were also victims of violence and ‘their bus was run off the road just outside Walgett, they were spat at and had fruit and rocks thrown at them by hostile locals in Walgett and Moree.’ 11
The outcomes of the Freedom Rides in the United States and Australia provided strong evidence of the power of direct action. The Interstate Commerce Commission in the United States banned segregation on interstate travel and amenities and in both countries the Freedom Rides brought to the surface issues that led to heightened public awareness and further civil rights activity.
In both the United States and Australia, considerable achievements were made in the area of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. During the period known as Reconstruction, after the Civil War, there were several amendments to the US Constitution; however, it was the 15th amendment to the constitution in 1870 that gave African–American males the right to vote. During the same period many civil rights acts were passed by Congress to enforce the amendments. For decades, however, as a result of legal tricks, intimidation, violence and the Southern states unrealistic prerequisites for voting, many African–Americans were prevented from registering to vote. Some states also used the ‘Grandfather Clause’ to prevent African–Americans from voting. Consequently, by the onset of World War II only a small number of African–Americans in the South were registered to vote.12
It was not until 1957 that the first civil rights act was passed. It was ‘instrumental in establishing the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.’ 13 In the United States, the Freedom Rides prompted the federal government to encourage civil rights activists to direct their attention to voter registration, an area still needing urgent attention. Martin Luther King Jr wholeheartedly agreed with this and said ‘… the biggest step Negroes can take is in the direction of the voting booths.’ 14
The violent scenes in Birmingham, along with the Mississippi Summer Project, acted as further reminders for the federal government that serious civil rights legislation was needed. On 1 July 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and as a result, ‘an EEO Commission was set up and ended discrimination of African–Americans in public places; however, it didn’t go far enough in addressing issues concerning voting rights.’ 15
The violent events in Selma, Alabama in 1965, where a non-violent voting rights campaign organised by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was underway, led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act on 6th August, 1965. The National Civil Rights Museum exhibit on the Voting Rights Act stated that, when former President Johnson was questioned in retirement about what he considered his greatest achievement, he replied, ‘The Voting Rights Act of 1965.’
Although Australia did not have a ‘Selma’, voting rights for Aboriginal people were also being addressed in the 1960s, as many people within Australian society were showing a renewed interest in Aboriginal affairs. Aboriginal Advancement groups raised awareness of discrimination against Aboriginal people and the Australian government was becoming more aware of how Australia’s treatment of its indigenous peoples was perceived overseas. A Senate committee set up to address Aboriginal voting rights recommended that Aboriginal people be given the vote in federal elections. As a result of the recommendations, Aboriginal people were granted full citizenship rights. States which had not granted Aboriginal people the right to vote did so then in accordance with the recommendations.16
The Freedom Rides were one way university students raised awareness of the need for changes to the constitution; however, a referendum campaign had been in progress for a few years. In 1967, 90.77 per cent of all Australians of voting age overwhelmingly supported the changes to the constitution. Aboriginal people would now be included in the census and the federal government now had the power to make laws for Aboriginal people. By 1970, the Aboriginal people had been given more rights; however, they still had a long way to go.
The oldest civil rights organisation in the USA
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is the oldest civil rights organisation in the United States. We arrived at the humble NAACP Baltimore Branch, the second oldest and founded in 1912, to interview the Branch President, Mr GI Johnson. Mr Johnson, an African–American, had been out of the office that morning and arrived in the pouring rain, wearing a bright yellow NAACP raincoat. His humility and grace was noticeable immediately. What was meant to be a one hour interview lasted two and a half hours. Although I had prepared interview questions, we talked about a vast array of topics and issues. I found this truly insightful and highly beneficial.
‘From segregation to integration’—Topeka, Kansas
The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is housed in what was once the Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. The museum officially opened on 17 May 2004 and was attended by President George Bush to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Oliver L Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et al US Supreme Court case decision. Monroe Elementary School was one of four African–American segregated schools in Topeka and was constructed in 1926.
Otherwise known as Brown I, the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on 17 May 1954 declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional as it violated the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. The decision also stated that ‘separate but equal’ education was discriminatory, therefore overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that declared segregation as constitutional. However, what many people still don’t realise is that there were many challenges to school segregation prior to Brown and the earliest occurred in 1849. The decision had many far-reaching consequences, from changes to public school education to a raised awareness of human rights in other countries, and immediate responses to the decision were varied. However, today many people see the decision as the most important constitutional case in the United States.
The trip provided me with a burning desire to pursue further study on the parallels between the two movements and I now hope to complete a Masters degree. I am also eternally grateful for the chance the trip gave me to visit my relatives in the United States and meet my American penpal for the first time after writing to one another for 16 years. I would especially like to thank the Premier, the Hon. Bob Carr, Berel and Agnes Ginges, and Westfield for their generosity and the brilliant opportunity that this scholarship has given me to hopefully make a difference. I would also like to thank my mother, Deslyn Randall, for her help, love and support, and Mr Denis Mootz, Ms Karen Jefferson, Ms Jennifer Aronson, Mr GI Johnson, Ms Joan Hill, my cousin Janet Stephens, my aunt Dr Gillian Stephens, and my uncle, the Rev. Noel Stephens, especially for their gift, Civil Rights Chronicle.
This is an abridged version of my final report.
1. AD Morris, Origins of the civil rights movement, Free Press/MacMillan, New York, 1984, pp. 4–11.