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The Riots of 1963

In this WSB clip from July 1963, the city many dubbed “too dignified to hate” erupts in violence after a series of mass protests over segregation. The summer of 1963 saw civil rights protests in almost every American city including Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; and Little Rock, Arkansas. In Savannah, a more confrontational protest took place downtown. Under the leadership of activist Hosea Williams, the former youth council director for the NAACP and leader of the Chatham County Crusaders for Voters, black Savannahians took to the streets in protest of segregated policies. In the weeks prior, three local theaters had bowed to public pressure to re-segregate their facilities after promising to integrate them. A former chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Williams organized a series of night marches and daytime protests to make a public display of the black community's anger about the overturned decision.

Thousands of blacks marched along with Williams or listened to his speeches. Reports state that one demonstration attracted more than six thousand people and one march included three thousand protesters. Denounced by Savannah’s postman/activist William Wesley (W. W.) Law, then president of the state NAACP, the relatively peaceful protests threatened to erupt in violence when police confronted marchers on their routes. On July 11 the demonstrations reached a breaking point when local and regional law enforcement officials used tear gas and fire hoses against the demonstrators. Angry members of the crowd responded by throwing stones, setting fires, and breaking windows of downtown businesses.

As seen in this clip, the Savannah Morning News commented on demonstrators who laid down in the streets and formed human barricades to stop traffic downtown. A local white church had been set afire, but it was not apparent who perpetrated the arson. When the sun came up there had been seventy-five arrests. Three policemen, a white cab driver, and a black marcher who suffered gunshot wounds to the foot, reported injuries. Governor Carl Sanders put more troops from the National Guard on standby. For days afterward the city remained tense with demonstrations and stalled negotiations. By the time leaders called off the series of night marches, police had arrested more than five hundred blacks, and Williams served sixty-five days in jail, the longest continuous stretch for a civil rights activist.

In the aftermath of the night marches and the riots, white businessmen, alarmed by the demonstrations, agreed to renegotiate the terms of desegregation. The businessmen agreed to a widespread plan to integrate theaters, bowling alleys, hotels and motels if black Savannahians would cease their demonstrations for a cooling-off period of sixty days. Taking effect on October 1, the agreement desegregated the city's public accommodations eight months before the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Williams continued his crusade in cities such as St. Augustine, Florida, where with his new ally, the SCLC, he organized marches for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and confronted members of the Ku Klux Klan. Although night marches would later become one of his trademarks, Williams at this time explained that the late demonstrations were not intended to intimidate or instigate whites, but to allow the involvement of many blacks who worked during daylight hours. Even with their success, the night marches signaled an important shift in Savannah's and in national Civil Rights Movement campaigns.

The disagreements between the Law and the NAACP, and Williams and his Chatham County Crusade for Voters, exposed a major rift between traditional activists, who wanted to continue to use non-violent passive resistance to gain civil rights and an emerging breed of activists who preferred more confrontation through direct action protests. Williams’s later departure from the political strategy of the NAACP to the then more confrontational SCLC foreshadowed the militant Black Power protests of SNCC and later the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Considered one of the most liberal cities in Georgia, and praised in 1964 by Dr. King as “the most desegregated city south of Mason-Dixon line,” Savannah has been heralded a success in the struggle for civil rights because of sustained mass protest. Activists in the city staged a boycott from March 1960 through October 1961 and built a bloc of registered black voters who lead Savannah to become the first city in the state with desegregated lunch counters. Protest leaders such as Law and other members of the local and state NAACP managed to secure black rights and garner major concessions from local whites by relying heavily on nonviolent tactics.

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1. Read the essay in the "Freedom on Film" Americus page entitled Press Conference: Gov. Sanders. What pattern can you find in the Governor's responses to civil rights activism? What suggestions would you make that Sanders might not have and why?

2. Hosea Williams asserts that he did not organize nighttime marches as a means of intimidating white residents. Then why would these residents perceive nighttime marches as acts of aggression? What stereotypes about black people might have lead to fears about African Americans marching at night, even if they were civil rights activists?

3. This article reveals the difficulty of remaining nonviolent in the face of provocation and the struggle among various civil rights activists to determine the best way of protesting racist policies within their communities. Read the article on our Americus page, Evening March and Prayer Vigil. Consider why the activists in the Americus march remained nonviolent, whereas some members of the Savannah group began to throw stones, set fires, and break windows. Do the different reactions arise from the time frame when the marches happen? Does it make a difference when more young people are involved? How does police treatment affect the demonstrators' reactions?

Take it to the Streets!

Imagine that it is 1968. Divide the class into two groups: members of the SCLC, SNCC, and the NAACP, who advocate nonviolence; and members of the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who advocate the use of violence for various reasons. List reasons for your group's position on violence on the board or a flip chart. Debate what would be the most effective strategy for ending segregation and promoting social justice and support your claims with discussions of political and social events during this year.

 

Writer: Kamille Bostick
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems                

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