Organizing and Why It Works: The Civil Rights Movement


by Katrina Tummino

We need not look far to quell any doubts about the efficacy of grassroots organizing, protests, and resistance. In the first of a four-part series on organizing history (globally and domestically), this article will focus on the Civil Rights Movement which stands as a prominent example of the power of organizing to make change and influence policy.

When reflecting on the movement, the first images that come to mind may include the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Lyndon B. Johnson – all typically and briefly studied in academic settings.

However, if we dig deeper into the decades-long fight, we find that everyday people, and grassroots organizations, were largely responsible for this change. To name a few, there was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

These groups were founded by young people and everyday citizens. The SNCC formed from a group of students at Shaw University, the SCLC emerged from members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the NAACP started from a single branch with a few members in NYC and grew to over 1,000 branches and over 300,000 members.

Their impact and involvement included organizing the Greensboro sit-ins, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, as well as at least hundreds of other protests and events. All of which culminated in legislative and legal action to end segregation and secure housing and voting rights.

The SNCC ran voter registration drives and planned protests. With the help of their student mentor and prominent civil rights leader, Ella Baker, they handed out flyers between classes and helped organize the Greensboro sit-ins along with several other organizations and universities including Bennett College in North Carolina. These sit-ins started with a handful of people and spread to 55 cities for a duration of six months.

The sit-in protests in 1960 not only integrated the Woolworth counter but ignited an already well-lit fire. CORE specifically planned and executed over 600 protests. Here are just a few:

  • The group pressured a local Boston café and successfully ended racial discrimination at their establishment.
  • CORE ended Jim Crow practices at cafés around the University of Kansas by selling 1,000 tickets for $1, then offered the funds to establishments willing to end segregated practices.
  • A hotel in New York ended discrimination at their swimming pool and restaurants due to CORE’s actions. St. Louis also ended segregation at several restaurants after organized sit-ins.
  • Two bowling alleys ended Jim Crow policies after CORE’s pressure.

Again, these are only a few examples out of hundreds. 

One of the most prominent examples of organizing power were the Freedom Rides, which came to fruition in 1961 and successfully ended segregation at bus terminals.  These rides involved 13 black and white activists who traveled through the southern states and gained international attention through their efforts.

During these trips they encountered violence from white mobs, which pressured then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send law enforcement and protection. As the riders continued, they were sentenced to prison for 30 days before the NAACP brought the case to the Supreme Court, freeing the group to continue.

The mob violence, tenacity of the riders, and legal action from the NAACP drew hundreds more to the cause. This put pressure on the Kennedy administration, who finally used a legal mechanism and the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation at restaurants, lunch counters, bathrooms, buses, trains, and drinking fountains.

The Freedom Rides led to the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, organized by the SCLC, SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and others, where 600 people responded to the killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The goal was to prompt legislation that enforced the 15th amendment.

Predictably, violence from mobs ensued, which put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson to send federal protection and sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which banned literacy tests for voters. This also helped decide a later Supreme Court case that rendered poll taxes unconstitutional. 

A surge of protests erupted after the assassination of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. which fueled further change such as The Fair Housing Act, making housing discrimination illegal.

The Freedom Rides, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Greensboro sit-ins are only three examples of at least hundreds that culminated in legislative and legal change. It is important to recognize the grassroots organizations, including the CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP (all starting with only a handful of people), doing the important work behind the scenes. These individuals spent years meticulously and creatively planning and executing what needed to be done. And, it worked.

Katrina Tummino is a writer and grassroots organizer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She received her BA in English Literature from Boston University.