For African-Americans, the racial segregation of the 1960s didn’t just create a separation between the races; it prevented African-Americans from advancements in all areas of life, a former civil rights activist said at the African-American History Month observance Feb. 19 at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.
Focusing on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in America, Frank Smith, director of the African-American Civil War Museum and a former Washington, D.C., councilman, spoke of his involvement in the fight for equality. Before the passage of the pivotal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, segregation was alive and well, especially in the southern United States, he said.
“To put it into context, in 1964, ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs were still up,” he said. “Those signs said black people go in one direction and white people go in another. You couldn’t sit together in a car or anyplace like that, and if you were in love, you couldn’t get married.”
As participants in peaceful demonstrations called Freedom Rides were being arrested, civil rights leaders started banding together to force change, Smith said.
“In 1963, all of the civil rights groups came together to do the March on Washington,” he said. “The President of the United States [John F. Kennedy] and the civil rights groups had a dispute about that, because the civil rights groups lead by Dr. [Martin Luther] King, and groups like my organization, we thought that the way you get legislation passed is to put people in the streets to show there was big public demand to get this done. But the president basically said, ‘No, you have to get this through Congress first.’”
But getting any law, let alone an anti-discrimination law, passed through Congress wouldn’t be easy. At the time, the Democratic Party controlled both houses in Congress, and many influential members were from southern states. For Smith and other civil rights activists, getting new leaders voted in became a top priority.
As a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Smith left college to pursue civil rights full-time, helping to enroll and register African-American voters in Mississippi, he said.
“At that time, it was unsafe for civil rights workers in Mississippi and it was unsafe for me too,” he said. “Our job was to try to see if we could register some people to vote, … because what [the people of Mississippi] wanted was to establish their right to vote.”
In the fall of 1963, civil rights groups began to organize another protest movement in Mississippi to draw attention to their cause, Smith said. By networking with counterparts on white college campuses all over the U.S., Smith and other civil right workers went north to try to bring 1,000 young, white supporters into Mississippi for the summer of 1964.
“My job was to go to Carleton College [in Minnesota] and talk to them about how hard it was to register people to vote in Mississippi,” he said. “But it was also for the purpose of supporting us, not us as individuals, but [our cause]. Because if we tried to get somebody to register to vote, at that time, not only were they turned down but their name was put in the paper. If they lived on the plantation, they were evicted. If they had a job, they might get fired. So we had to develop sort of a social welfare program to support those people. Otherwise, nobody would ever go with us anywhere because they’d say the punishment was too hard.”
For Smith and other activists, trying to recruit white college students as supporters was a formidable challenge and one that placed all of the activists directly on the front lines of the civil rights battle, he said.
“That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, like putting oil on a fire,” he said. “You were going to have black and white people in Mississippi riding around in a car together. And not only that, if we brought these 1,000 young people to Mississippi, they were going to have to live in the homes of local Mississippians because they couldn’t stay in a hotel. … We had to protect them, and the only protection we could offer to them was to say, ‘We’ll put you up in the home of a local person.’”
During the spring of 1964, while conducting non-violence training for 1,000 students in Oakland University in Ohio, things turned deadly for three of Smith’s colleagues who had traveled back to Mississippi early to check on problems at a local church in Meridian.
“The day that they got there, the sheriffs saw the three of these kids riding around in a car together and arrested them,” he said. “They took them off to jail, and eventually they were murdered. Now at that time, we had 1,000 white kids in an assembly, … and we had to go back there and tell them that these young people were missing and they [were] never going to be found again. We knew how this all worked. But we felt that we had to tell them that this is clear and present danger if you go down here with us. First of all, we are going back. That’s our job. … We said to them, ‘You have a choice whether you go or not.’ … And not one of those 1,000 kids turned and left. Every one of them followed us to Mississippi for the summer.”
In 1968, after helping to register more than 100,000 African-American voters that had previously been turned away at the polls, Smith left Mississippi and moved to Washington, D.C., to focus on education issues, another issue facing African-Americans at the time.
“Racial segregation was not just about racial separation; it was about more than that,” he said. “It didn’t matter how much education you had; it didn’t matter how well you composed yourself, how good you looked, how hard you worked. The fact of the matter is African-Americans were barred from certain jobs, not only in society but in the military too. … If we wanted to have our education mean something to us when we graduated from college, we had to change the cycle to make this opportunity better. … It’s not just enough to say that people marched, picketed and went to jail. And some of us died. [King] gave his life for the civil rights movement. … There’s a blood trail out there of people who worked hard to try to get this done.”
According to Smith, in 1950, there were only 700,000 African-Americans registered to vote, mostly in the North. By 2008, that number had risen to 18 million, something he says is proud to be a part of.
“Not only has the South changed, but America has changed too,” he said. “And it’s changed in a way now that made the world safer for all of us, including African-Americans, … It was a long and arduous struggle. But as Dr. King said, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ So we see these results now as we look around this country and this society. I’m happy to have played a minor role in making it happen here in the United States … where America is moving forward, where it can do a much better job of claiming its birthright of being a country where people are judged, as Dr. King said, by the content of their character.”
Guest speaker Frank Smith addresses the audience at the African-American History Month observance Feb. 19 at the McNamara Headquarters Complex. Smith, director of the African-American Civil War Museum and a former Washington, D.C., councilman, spoke to employees about his civil rights activism in the 1960s. Photo by Tonya Peter, DTRA
(Left to right) Shari Durand, executive director of Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Willisa Donald, director of DTRA’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Program Office, present African-American History Month Observance speaker Frank Smith a certificate of appreciation. Smith, director of the African-American Civil War Museum and a former Washington, D.C., councilman, spoke to employees at the F