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Civil Rights Heroes Gone On

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Two huge losses of civil rights movement legends this week. First Amiri Baraka died. Then Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro 4 that sparked the student wing of the civil rights movement.

There’s been a lot of remembrances of Baraka, so I’ll focus on McCain for a second. While it’s important to remember that they were not the first group of people to try integrating stores through sit-ins, they were the ones who sparked the movement. And it’s equally important to remember the struggles of the grassroots civil rights movement in 1960. After the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, no one, including Martin Luther King, really knew what to do next. They spent the next 5 years trying to figure it out. Some wanted to further integrate Montgomery, others to take the bus boycotts around the South. The period between 1955 and 1960 is largely remembered only for the Little Rock school desegregation but it’s important to note that was court mandated and had little to do with the grassroots wing of the movement led by King. During these years, King wrote a book, was nearly murdered by a crazed woman at a book signing, built up the SCLC, gave speeches around the country, and planned for further events, but not much really happened that significantly furthered the cause nationally, although there were all sorts of local things developing.

Franklin McCain and his friends changed all that, spurring the all-important student wing of the civil rights movements (SNCC was founded immediately after the Greensboro victory), kicking the middle-class minister led wing of the movement into gear (and into often building on campaigns started by students), and beginning the extraordinarily rapid changes caused by grassroots mobilization in the 1960s, both through SCLC and SNCC-led activities.

What McCain’s story shows is that you just never know when and what will bring about widespread change.

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