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Charles Marsh


The Chastened Hopes of the Civil Rights Movement

The anchor of King's dream

While virtually every day of the adult life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been scrutinized, there has been little attention in studies of the civil rights movement to the years following the death of Dr. King, the dispersal and collapse of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the dissemination of the movement into inchoate forms of protest and confrontation. It is true that by the end of the 1960s, the white and black volunteers who had worked in the deep South had moved on to other concerns: women's liberation, free speech, the pursuit of an alternative consciousness and above all, the war in Vietnam, which imposed vast demands on the activist energies of the counterculture. Intensified warfare in Southeast Asia made the pace of southern racial progress tedious by contrast in what is often a zero-sum equation for the nation's moral attention. Racial peace in America was still a dream deferred, but the struggle (now "the black struggle") seemed a lot less urgent in view of the daily body counts in Vietnam.

No doubt, the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Alexander vs. Holmes County was a landmark case, and deserves greater attention in civil rights scholarship. The accompanying mandates of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered immediate integration of sixteen school districts in Mississippi and effectively ended legal segregation in the South. Public school districts could no longer avoid compliance with the Brown vs. Board decision by seizing upon the phrase "all deliberate speed" as a means of deferring implementation indefinitely. Still, it was hard to keep America on the edge of its seat with discussions of a "unitary non-discriminatory school system" and the drafting of guidelines for redesigned school districts in rural jurisdictions.

To be sure, a decade of dramatic legal victories had changed forever the public face of the South. In 1970, not only were all remaining school districts finally integrated, but the Ku Klux Klan found itself ...

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