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Civil Rights Movement History by Emily Brady

Emily Brady is a PhD candidate in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, where she researches African American women photographers in the civil rights movement. As we prepare to open the Nottingham Playhouse production of Kemp Powers One Night in Miami…¸ Emily explores the history of the civil rights movement, and the period of upheaval and change in which we find Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke throughout the play.

On 28 August 1963, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. took to the podium at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 250,000 people watched King deliver one of the twentieth century’s most iconic speeches, where he called for equality and freedom for all African Americans. In temperatures so hot that many marchers dipped their feet in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, they listed as King declared, “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’”.

This speech was the result of centuries of struggle for equality. Although scholars are divided over the start date of the civil rights movement, several key events are worth noting: The Supreme Court declaring segregated schools unconstitutional in the court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954); the 1955 lynching of fourteen-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a white woman; Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in December 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the efforts of nine students dubbed ‘The Little Rock Nine’ to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957, where the army was deployed to protect them; Freedom Riders riding interstate buses around the South to challenge segregation, beginning in 1961; and the Birmingham Campaign in early 1963, where powerful fire hoses and police dogs were turned on peaceful protest to the outrage of the world.

Yet the movement was not nearly as united as these events suggest. In reality, organisations and individuals voiced strong disagreements on how the movement should progress. Should aggression from white segregationists to be met with violence, or non-violence? To attract the media’s attention, is it ethical to utilise children in marches when they may be attacked? What should be the role of white allies in the movement? What’s the role of African American women? What’s the best way to actually generate change?

Some ridiculed King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and the March on Washington, which many took to be a high point of the movement. Malcolm X called it “the farce on Washington” and said in his autobiography: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionaries swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I have a dream’ speeches?”

In this environment Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), Malcom X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke met in a Miami hotel room on the 25th February 1964. At this point, Malcolm X – so called because he rejected his legal surname Little as the name “which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears” – was still a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI)­. The NOI advocated for black self-reliance and independence, rather than integration with white society. X discovered the organisation whilst in prison, and after his release in 1952, he became one of the group’s most influential members due to his powerful public speaking. As his popularity began to eclipse that of leader Elijah Muhammad, X became disillusioned with the group. The NOI’s lack of response following police brutality against its members in Los Angeles, alongside Muhammad’s sexual misbehaviour, caused X to lose faith in the organisation. He would leave on 8 March 1964, less than a month after the Miami hotel gathering.

Malcolm X originally inspired Cassius Clay to join the NOI and change his name to Muhammad Ali. After X left the NOI, Ali never spoke to him again. When X was assassinated in 1965, it was by three members of the Nation of Islam. Ali has since said that he regrets breaking ties with Malcolm X, stating, “turning my back on Malcom was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life”.

The four men who met that one night in a Miami hotel room all lived in a time of upheaval and change. Just a few months prior, shortly after the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, an African American musician phoned ahead to a Louisiana hotel to make a reservation for himself and his wife, yet when the desk clerk realised they were African American they were quickly told there were no vacancies. When the musician protested, he was arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’. That man was Sam Cooke, and this incident partly inspired his Civil Rights anthem ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, before his death in 1964. By focussing on the lives of these four men, we catch a glimpse into how overly simplified the idea of a single, unified ‘civil rights movement’ is. And it was not merely a movement of conventional activists, but one that included musicians, sports stars, and everyday people.

One Night in Miami… runs from Tue 2 – Fri 5 Jul.