The US Civil Rights Movement
During their many campaigns for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s, African-American civil rights activists carefully cast both their protagonists and antagonists. The Montgomery Bus Boycott famously began when a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to obey a law that required her to give up her seat to a white man. Less famous is the fact that local activists chose Parks from among several similar cases in order to launch their campaign. As a middle-aged seamstress who was an active member of her church community, she was able to quickly win the sympathy of a wide range of audiences. Further, Parks was a seasoned activist who had served as the secretary of her local civil rights organization. She had proven that she had the skills and temperament to withstand the public scrutiny that followed her newfound notoriety.
The movement proved just as strategic in casting its antagonists. During the Birmingham campaign of 1963, activists tailored their tactics to provoke Bull Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety. Connor was notorious for his virulent racism and disproportionate responses to protests. Activists turned him into their perfect enemy, launching a series of confrontational (but nonviolent) demonstrations called “Project C.” Connor took the bait and instructed police officers to brutally beat the protestors, attack them with dogs and spray them with high-powered fire hoses. The resulting images dramatized the plight of black Americans throughout the South, and are credited with helping turn the tide of public opinion against segregation. President John F. Kennedy memorably said, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor.” However, the thanks really belongs to the savvy activists who used his bigotry to their advantage.