The Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s—A Personal Perspective

[1] As a student at Midland College in the late 50s, I became aware of the civil rights movement emerging in the South. The national news carried reports on sit-ins and demonstrations going on in a number of southern states. Though all this seemed very distant from northeast Nebraska, my readings of Reinhold Niebuhr-especially his Interpretation of Christian Ethics-enabled me to relate at least intellectually with this exciting movement, whose time had come in America.

[2] After a year on a Fulbright Scholarship in Erlangen, Germany, I returned to do my graduate work at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I was drawn to the Ethics and Society Field to do my M.A. and Ph.D. work, andthere ran into professors and students that made the distant civil rights movement come much closer. Al Pitcher not only taught an exciting vision of the church’s role in the civil rights movement, he acted it out in numerous roles around the city. Al was a key advisor to Dr. King when his movement came to Chicago. We students were drawn into the fray, along with many churches and individual Christians in the Chicago area.

[3] In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., brought “the movement” north to Washington, DC, where he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands of people. In that speech he fused biblical themes of justice, reconciliation, and nonviolence with civil religious themes of liberty and equal rights. He ended the speech with the stirring refrain: “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last!” Then came strong renditions of the movement’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

[4] This movement to overcome overt discrimination has to be placed into the larger context of the economic and political context of the early 60s. The country was still experiencing the great economic expansion of the 50s and large numbers of American blacks were becoming economically and socially mobile. They were coming north for education, jobs, and a more open society. These advances made the discriminatory laws of the South seem more and more unjust; young black people were rebelling against them. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

[5] Politically, John F. Kennedy had been narrowly elected and had brought a fresh new spirit to the country. The coming of Kennedy’s “Camelot” generated an idealism that helped to fuel the civil rights movement. There was a palpable feeling among many young people and among many of the institutions of society-including the mainstream churches-that the great problems of poverty and racism could be overcome. A new generation ready to move on these challenges was coming to maturity. While the Kennedys themselves were not great proponents of the civil rights movement, they certainly stimulated an optimism about our country’s possibilities to overcome whatever obstacles it faced, both at home and abroad. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” intoned JFK, “but rather what you can do for your country.” This was uttered without irony or phoniness; such was the spirit of the time.

[6] After many struggles-and some victories-in the South, the movement came north. I took my family to a giant rallyat Soldier Field in Chicago at which 93,000 people came to hear another stirring sermon by Dr. King. We students marched in parades into the Loop and some suburbs to demand equal opportunity in housing. Various organizations were created to carry the momentum of King’s movement into the northern cities.

[7] King selected the young Jesse Jackson, a student (who flunked homiletics!) at Chicago Theological Seminary to head up Operation Breadbasket, which was intended to gather black economic actors into an organization that could bargain with the government and large private companies to get more business and contracts for minority businesses. We would gather on Saturday mornings to hear inspirational preaching from the great black preachers in the city (and were they inspirational!) and to rally the troops for the economical bargaining that was going on. King himself appeared about once a month and preached sermons that made you want to go out and change the world. Indeed, I got to greet him and shake his hand a couple of times, a thrilling encounter for a white boy from Nebraska.

[8] Even the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy-as profoundly shocking as it was-could not dampen the liberal idealism of the time. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson, that master politician, took up the momentum achieved by the civil rights movement and molded it into the programs of the Great Society and, supremely, into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This high-water mark of the civil rights movement and American liberal idealism was supported by almost all the churches. It seemed to epitomize the hopes and dreams of the Kennedy years.

[9] I left Chicago in 1965 to teach for two years at the Rock Island Campus of the Lutheran School of Theology, which was to open a new campus in Hyde Park, Chicago, in 1967. But in that two year interim I was able to bring a fiery vision of the church’s role in overcoming racism and poverty to the students on the Rock Island Campus. After five years of immersion in the civil rights and community organization movements on the South Side of Chicago, I was brimming with ideas about why and how the church should carry out its transformative mission in the cities of America. I taught with Michael Harrington’s The Other America in one hand and Gibson Winter’s The New Creation as Metropolis in the other. Over half the seniors whom I taught in my first year asked to be given assignments in urban ministry upon graduation. It was a heady time.

[10] The excitement continued when LSTC opened in the fall of 1967. Large incoming classes of students ready to encounter the challenges of the city continued to respond to the exhortations to transform church and society. The Operation Breadbasket movement was outgrowing the cafeteria of Chicago Theological Seminary so we invited the organization to use LSTC’s larger cafeteria on Saturday mornings. We exposed new LSTC students to the city and its problems and funneled them into various civil rights and community organizations. In their senior year we arranged internships for them with Operation Breadbasket and other organizations. Themes of justice, liberty, equality, and social transformation animated a good deal of the life at the seminary.

[11] An organization of Lutheran pastors, the Northwest Lutheran Parish, decided to help in the election bid of Richard Hatcher, who was running for mayor of Gary, Indiana. He was the first black candidate for mayor of a large American city. On election day we drove down for a day of poll-watching. We knew there would be attempts to keep the city in the hands of a corrupt white machine, and we challenged voters whom we thought were voting “right and often.” A long black limousine carrying several very heavy, swarthy men dressed in black pulled up near a group of us and warned us to be out of town by sundown or we wouldn’t get out alive. Tough-looking black guys in beat-up jalopies came by to check on our safety and then gather us into the Hatcher headquarters before dark-happily! Never before or since have I felt protected by such folks. Hatcher won and blacks gained political power in one of America’s industrial cities.

[12] However, already in 1965 large clouds began to darken the sun of American liberal idealism. Huge riots broke out in northern and western cities. The American military build-up in Viet Nam proceeded apace. The draft was instituted and the anti-war movement gained enormous strength. Terrible pictures of the carnage in Viet Nam came into our homes with every installment of the TV evening news. The anti-war movement melded with the radical student movement, which soon fractured into many competing radical groups. The Black Power movement quickly outflanked the civil rights movement with its commitment to nonviolence within the system. Even before his assassination in 1968, King was being upstaged by firebrands such as Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Rap Brown.

[13] Two of our faculty members at LSTC experienced first-hand the consequences of black and student radicalism. One, who had taught at the Maywood campus of LSTC, had befriended a young black man from Maywood, who later became a leader in the Black Panther organization in Chicago. The young man was killed in a shoot-out with the police in his Maywood apartment. Another faculty member’s daughter joined the Symbionese Liberation Movement on the West Coast and was also killed in a shoot-out with the police.

[14] Nineteen sixty-eight was a dark year in American history. First, King was assassinated in April followed by Robert Kennedy in June. Riots in many cities took place after King’s assassination. The National Guard rolled into Chicago and citizens experienced the traumatic sight of armed soldiers posted on street corners of many of our cities. The summer of turmoil was followed by the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in the fall.

[15] The liberal idealism of the early 60s began to disappear in the conflict and chaos of the late 60s. Rather than being an occasion for unified action, the assassination of King became a point of fragmentation among black leaders. There was a sharp disagreement over whether Jesse Jackson was really present during the dying moments of Dr. King. Jackson held his own memorial service. He broke off from the older compatriots of King and began his own organization, PUSH. (People United to Save Humanity.)

[16] Bowing to Black Power pressures, many black organizations took a separatist turn and whites were no longer welcome in many of them. Those organizations also became more militant and radical. Al Pitcher, who had been an advisor to both King and Jackson, was no longer welcome in Jackson’s new organization. PUSH would no longer take white LSTC students for internship. Gatherings were now held at PUSH, not at white seminaries.

[17] Again, this turn in the civil rights movement has to be placed into the dramatically changed context of the late 60s and early 70s. A huge shift in the perception of the American project had taken place among many of the elite sectors of American life, as well as among many leaders of black America and militant student groups. For many of them the myth of America was flipped on its head. The myth of American innocent progress became the myth of American rapacious guilt. Liberal idealism seemed strangely out of place within this new polarized situation in which the radicals were leading in one direction and a conservative reaction was pulling in another.

[18] My idealistic liberalism was soon outflanked by the radicals who popped up among our students and faculty. “As a liberal institution, LSTC isn’t even worth bombing,” offered one of our student radicals, a Lutheran wrestler from the University of Iowa, who had been radicalized by the revolutionary student movement. My reformism looked tame and compromising to such radicals. I certainly was no longer on the cutting edge.

[19] But what to do? For a while I tried to join the radicals and get back on the front lines. But it didn’t work. Protest trips to Washington and revolutionary rallies in the neighborhood turned me off. The radical interpretation of American society and its institutions, including the church, seemed grossly exaggerated, if not downright wrong. “Power to the people,” I thought, would mean the election of Richard Nixon rather than a revolutionary upheaval.

[20] After undergoing serious cognitive dissonance at a neighborhood rally that featured every imaginable revolutionary group, I vowed to be more honest with myself and my students. I told the Dean that he would see some changes in what I taught. I would begin “calling them as I saw them,” not posturing as some radical I was not.

[21] My membership in the religious left was coming to an end. There seemed to be no room for the liberal idealism of the early 60s. Moreover, my disengagement with the left involved a return to a more solid Lutheran ecclesiology. In these upheavals I found out how deeply I disagreed with the liberal Protestant transformist vision, i.e., that the central mission of the church is to transform society toward the Kingdom of God through social action.

[22] The last half of the 60s was a tragedy, I believe, for the civil rights movement. That period saw the movement fracture into many splinters and it has never recaptured its lost unity. Traditional organizations such as the NAACP have never regained their influence among African-Americans or in the larger culture. Militant organizations were off-putting to whites and could not gain significant loyalty among blacks. Most have disappeared. Yet, the movement toward equal rights and liberties in the 60s has had a deep and positive effect on American life. Our country came to the full realization that those rights and liberties were unjustly withheld from black people from the very beginning of our history. After the 60s it was no longer possible to defend overt schemes of discrimination; there has been and can be no turning back. The debate now is how to overcome residual effects of racism and how to generate a wholesome, upwardly mobile culture among disadvantaged African-Americans. Those daunting challenges do not lend themselves to the straightforward answers that characterized the early civil rights struggle. We shall have to labor on.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.