Today, many Americans celebrate an incomplete memory of the civil rights era. We appropriately honor the activists who bravely challenged the segregation regime in the South, but we understate the violent resistance mounted by the majority of institutions, officials, and white individuals who supported white supremacy and segregation.
For a century following the Civil War, racial terrorism targeted African Americans with lynchings and mass violence in order to maintain segregation in the South. This campaign of terror persisted during the civil rights movement, as private citizens and public officials subjected activists to threats, mass arrests, beatings, bombings, and murders. Widespread white support of segregated muted opposition to this violence.
On May 28, 1963, Black students and a white professor from Tougaloo College were brutally attacked as they sat peacefully at the “whites only” lunch counter in the segregated Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. When students at historically-Black Alabama State College staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse on February 25, 1960, Governor John Patterson demanded their expulsion and warned that “someone [was] likely to be killed” if the protests continued.
Law enforcement widely refused to protect activists or prosecute their attackers, and frequently participated in violence against demonstrators. In a nation where few institutions supported the fight for equality, Americans who courageously registered to vote or took a stand against unjust laws faced great risk with little protection.