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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
Resources (click here)
Printable Version (click here)
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'
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.
and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce
Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Site Designer: William Weems
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