Our Back Pages: The Atlantic and Civil Rights

In preparing this special issue on Dr. King and his legacy, we scoured the magazine’s pages looking for articles that might give historical context to the struggle for which he lived and died.

4 images of past Atlantic covers
Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

The Atlantic was founded in Boston four years before the Civil War erupted. Its first editor, James Russell Lowell, was an ardent abolitionist. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which became the Union’s battle cry, was published on the cover of the February 1862 issue. In the ensuing decades, the writings of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, of Booker T. Washington and Richard Wright, appeared in the magazine’s pages. So did Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham jail, his manifesto of nonviolent activism, in the August 1963 edition.

In preparing this special issue on Dr. King and his legacy, we scoured the magazine’s pages, particularly those from 1954 through 1968, the civil-rights movement’s pivotal years, looking for articles that might give historical context to the struggle for which he lived and died. We found plenty: “Interracial Marriage and the Law”; “The Nation’s Worst Slum: Washington, D.C.”; Daniel P. Moynihan’s take on “The New Racialism”; Benjamin Mays’s “A Plea for Straight Talk Between the Races”; Anthony Lewis’s summary of racial jurisprudence from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education; “Higher Education for the Negro”; “I Invited Negroes to My Home”; “No Plumbing for Negroes”; and many more.

We picked six excerpts. Two of them feature leading black voices of the time—the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and Stokely Carmichael, the black-power advocate. Three are gritty accounts from the ground: Robert Coles’s street-level insights into why slums explode in violence; Jonathan Kozol’s poignant report from a Boston ghetto school; and Victor Navasky’s dark humor about the toilets in southern bus stations as segregationists’ last holdout. The sixth is poet Archibald MacLeish’s reaction to watching on television the 1962 riots that greeted the University of Mississippi’s first black student.

Integration Must Move

by Roy Wilkins, March 1958

March 1958 Atlantic cover
March 1958

As the executive director of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, Roy Wilkins preferred legislation over confrontation in order to bring about progress. Yet he was clear-eyed about the wrongs he hoped to right.

While we were making the world safe for democracy in one war and destroying Hitler’s master race theory in another, the Negro rode in the back of the bus, lived in a ghetto across the railroad tracks, sent his children to Jim Crow schools, worked at restricted jobs, enjoyed either inferior or no public recreation, endured daily humiliation and insult, received uneven justice in the courts, and was the victim of violence. He is not overcome with nostalgia for the pre-1954 days; he has bid them a grim and tearless good-by.

Read “Integration Must Move” from the March 1958 Atlantic.

Must We Hate?

by Archibald MacLeish, February 1963

February 1963 Atlantic cover
February 1963

In September 1962, riots broke out at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, when James Meredith enrolled as the school’s first black student. Archibald MacLeish, a poet and dramatist, watched the event unfold on television and described his anguish in a speech at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, adapted for The Atlantic in the February 1963 issue. An excerpt:

What shocked me, sickened me was the black pit of public hatred to which I looked. I had known, of course, that racial hatred existed in this country as it exists elsewhere. I could hardly have helped to know it after the events of my own lifetime. But … I had always thought of this hatred as something exceptional, something transient, something which would disappear with the illiteracy and poverty and ignorance out of which it came …

I never doubted that in an actual test between these petulant opinions on the one side and the Republic on the other the opinions would wither away in shame and disappear. But what happened in Oxford was that they did not wither away. They stared back at you out of young men’s faces ugly with spite. They spat back at you out of the faces of middle--aged men whose words would have been incredible if you had not heard them …

The idea those young men and those old men hated was precisely and literally the idea on which this Republic was founded, the idea that any man may claim his equal manhood in this country, his unalienable right. What the mob at Oxford hated was the intolerable idea that this different human being should claim a manhood equal to their own.

Read “Must We Hate,” from the February 1963 Atlantic.

The Freedom Rides Revisited

by Victor S. Navasky, July 1968

July 1968 Atlantic cover
July 1968

Ten years before he became the editor of The Nation, the journalist Victor S. Navasky retraced the routes of the original Freedom Rides. In the spring of 1961, activists had taken Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, D.C., into the South to protest the segregation of the region’s interstate bus travel, and had been met with attacks in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Anniston, Alabama. That September, the federal Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the desegregation of bathrooms and restaurants in public-transportation facilities. But in 1968, Navasky got off the bus in Hammond, Louisiana, and saw a sign for the “White Way Cafe” next door and another for a “Colored Cafe” 100 feet back from the street.

I am sure I found all of this more depressing than did the Negro passengers, whose seats I sometimes shared. For most of them, the fight for equal service has moved from the lunch counter to the rest room—from the esophagus to the bladder. Buses now contain rest-room facilities, although they are usually out of order. But the problem comes while waiting for the bus. In the smaller towns, where there is only one rest facility, the main function of the ICC order, as far as I can figure out, has been to launch an apparently inexhaustible supply of bathroom-door euphemisms for “White.” My favorites are “Employees Only,” “Private,” and “Out of Order.” I am still trying to figure out the significance of the sign on the rest room in McComb, Mississippi, which says: “For passengers only. Will open thirty minutes before departure. The management.” It strikes me as appropriate that the segregationist’s last holdout is the toilet, but actually, given the quality of most bus station food, the lack of rest facilities is no laughing matter.

Read “The Freedom Rides Revisited,” from the July 1968 Atlantic.

October 1967 Atlantic covers
October 1967


by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, October 1967

Stokely Carmichael, the charismatic 26-year-old ex-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was (in The Atlantic’s words) “perhaps the most controversial proponent of the new Negro militancy.” He teamed up with Charles Hamilton, a political scientist at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, to write Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, which included a thoughtful, history-minded explanation of urban riots. The Atlantic published an excerpt.

The core problem within the ghetto is the vicious circle created by the lack of decent housing, decent jobs, and adequate education. The failure of these three fundamental institutions has led to alienation of the ghetto from the rest of the urban area as well as to deep political rifts between the two communities.

In America we judge by American standards, and by this yardstick we find that the black man lives in incredibly inadequate housing, shabby shelters that are dangerous to mental and physical health and to life itself. It has been estimated that 20 million black people put $15 billion into rents, mortgage payments, and housing expenses every year. But because his choice is largely limited to the ghettos, and because the black population is increasing at a rate which is 150 percent over that of the increase in the white population, the shelter shortage for the black person is not only acute and perennial, but getting increasingly tighter. Black people are automatically forced to pay top dollar for whatever they get, even a 6-by-6 cold-water flat.

Urban renewal and highway clearance programs have forced black people more and more into congested pockets of the inner city. Since suburban zoning laws have kept out low-income housing, and the federal government has failed to pass open-occupancy laws, black people are forced to stay in the deteriorating ghettos. Thus crowding increases, and slum conditions worsen …

Here we begin to understand the pervasive cyclic implications of institutional racism. Barred from most housing, black people are forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, and with this comes de facto segregated schooling, which means poor education, which leads in turn to ill-paying jobs … These are the conditions which create dynamite in the ghettos.

Read “Dynamite,” from the October 1967 Atlantic.

Where Ghetto Schools Fail

by Jonathan Kozol, October 1967

Jonathan Kozol was a fourth-grade teacher in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighbor-hood of Boston, before he became the best-selling author of Death at an Early Age, an indictment of inner-city education. He was fired for teaching the poetry of Langston Hughes. In an excerpt from his book, published in The Atlantic, he describes his school’s “unspoken assumption” that it was shameful to be black.

When my class had progressed to the cotton chapter in our geography book, I decided to alter the scheduled reading. Since I was required to make use of the textbook, and since its use, I believed, was certain to be damaging, I decided to supply the class with extra material in the form of a mimeographed sheet. I did not propose to tell the children any tales about lynchings, beatings, or the Ku Klux Klan. I merely wanted to add to the study of cotton-growing some information about the connection between the discovery of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the great growth of slavery.

I had to submit this material to my immediate superior in the school … Looking over the page, she agreed with me immediately that it was accurate. Nobody, she said, was going to quibble with the idea that cotton, the cotton gin, and slavery were all intertwined. But it was the question of the “advisability of any mention of slavery to the children at this time,” which, she said, she was presently turning over in her mind. “Would it,” she asked me frankly, “truly serve the advantage of the children at this stage to confuse and complicate the study of simple geography with socio-economic factors?” Why expose the children, she was asking essentially, to unpleasant facts about their heritage?

Then, with an expression of the most honest and intense affection for the children in the class, she added: “I don’t want these children to have to think back on this year later on and to remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro.”

Read Jonathan Kozol’s two-part series: “Death at an Early Age,” from the September 1967 Atlantic, and “When Ghetto Schools Fail,” from the October 1967 Atlantic.

Maybe God Will Come and Clean Up This Mess

by Robert Coles, M.D., October 1967

Robert Coles was a research psychiatrist at Harvard with a poetic sensibility. He ventured into black ghettos to understand urban riots from the rioters’ point of view. His first book, Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, had just been published, the first in a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1973.

By and large, racial riots have occurred somewhere between June and September, and it is not very hard for anyone familiar with ghetto tenements to explain why. In Harlem or Chicago’s South Side men have no boats to haul by car to a beach. They don’t own summer homes or air conditioners, and their children have no nearby lakes or oceans to visit, or cars to take them to distant resorts. In July and August the sun beats down without letup on those flat-roofed buildings, and after a while they become unbearable. Rodents and bugs leave their hiding places; flies and mosquitoes are everywhere, and screens are rusty or simply absent. There is no wind, and there are no open spaces to give one respite, a sense of air and freedom. Rain brings not relief, but leaks, floods, more bugs.

It is terribly unsettling, even to a visitor who knows he can leave whenever he wishes …

To a panicky, fearful white nation (more guilty than it knows, and therefore more willing to strike back at the people whose actions summon that guilt) the lesson should be clearer than I think it is: the rioters are not nearly as wanton and “irrational,” as thoughtless and heedless, as we would like to believe. They know they are in a distinct minority. They talk about “black power,” but in their bones they recognize and pay their respects to white power …

Start with centuries of slavery and its persisting consequences, and add widespread Southern poverty with the resulting shift of millions of bewildered, hungry people from a rural to an urban situation. Add television, with its ability to bring news immediately and vividly to an incredibly wide audience, to “illiterate” people who nevertheless can see and “get the picture,” so to speak. Throw in hot weather and a confusing war that has stalemated much of the progress that was being made or could be made.

And finally, don’t forget the densely packed people, so chronically fearful, so naturally vulnerable to all the rumors and crosscurrents of any crowd that forms. They all accumulate … Then, suddenly, the explosion comes.

Read “Maybe God Will Come and Clean Up This Mess,” from the October 1967 Atlantic.