Civil Rights Effort Drew On All 5 First Amendment Freedoms

Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

As we mark the 50th anniversary this month of a hallmark image of the civil rights era — the earliest lunch-counter sit-ins — it’s worth noting how all five freedoms in the First Amendment nurtured and empowered a movement that transformed our society.

While civil disobedience and nonviolent action were the tools of protest, religious liberty and free expression were the engines providing the power.

African-American churches were a bedrock institution in providing early and ongoing leadership in the nearly two-century-long fight against slavery and, later, legalized discrimination.

Freedom of speech protected the voices of those who opposed what came to be known as the "peculiar institution," and who later would fight from the late 1880s to 1965 against the "Jim Crow" state laws and local ordinances that enforced segregation.

The freedom to assemble peaceably and to petition the government "for redress of grievances" were essential for the myriad sit-ins, marches and protests and for tactics like organized boycotts of merchants and city buses — boycotts that led merchants and city leaders to capitulate.

And it was a free press — free not only from government control, but also, by the mid-20th century, from most of the shackles of its own bias and prejudice — that reported stories that touched the hearts of a nation as never before. Through the newspapers and a new medium, television news, journalists brought directly to their fellow Americans the terrible images of official brutality and of the fates of many nonviolent protesters.

As civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in a 2005 speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, "Without the (news) media, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings. Without the media’s willingness to stand in harm’s way and starkly portray events as they saw them unfold, Americans may never have understood or even believed the horrors that African Americans faced in the Deep South."

Before the lunch-counter sit-ins that began in 1960, only whites were able to sit at those counters in many American cities, no matter whether blacks or other minorities were regular customers or not.

News photographs of that era show in chilling detail hastily made signs behind a few demonstrators at vacant counters that say "closed for public safety." They show images of a few young black teens — sometimes joined by whites — sitting at counters waiting futilely to be served as jeering crowds dump ketchup and sugar on them, or grow even more violent.

From my own experience, as school groups tour a protest exhibit at the First Amendment Center’s offices in Nashville, it’s both comforting and disturbing that most teens of any race are shocked to know such things could have happened — and to see it in photos, as fate would have it, in black and white.

Those things did happen. Bigotry and racism were real. The civil rights movement grew in protest. And we all knew about it because we could read and talk and decide for ourselves, with no government officials controlling the message or the meaning.

The 45 words of the First Amendment — imperfectly applied or even denied at times, to be sure — ultimately played an important role in a great march toward racial equality and justice.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail: [email protected].