February 4, 2013
Civil Rights Movement

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marches with a group of civil rights demonstrators in Washington, D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Civil Rights Movement Rode Assembly, Petition to Greater Freedom

NASHVILLE — Assembly and petition are the "quiet freedoms" among the five rights set out in the First Amendment.

Speech, press and religion are more often — or at least, more obviously — in the headlines. But during Black History Month in February, the quiet kids on this corner of the constitutional block deserve at least as much attention as their better-known brethren.

There's a good case to be made that the march toward civil rights for African Americans in this nation is the best example of all five First Amendment freedoms fully at work.

But at the heart of the movement were assembly and petition — the right to gather with people of like minds without government interference, and to seek change peaceably from the government, either as a group or an individual.

Without the ability to assemble, those repressed by statute and custom could not have gathered the strength to begin or been able to sustain the "Movement." Without the First Amendment, many strategy sessions and prayer services held in churches to refresh the mind and restore the soul could have been suppressed.

The conscience of much of the nation could have remained closed for decades longer to the daily horrors of discrimination.

Being able to speak openly, to publish and broadcast without censorship, and to develop the principle of justice and fairness that so often came out of religious tenets, were essential to challenge those for whom the status quo was just fine.

In the modern era of the push for civil rights, the free press, particularly emerging national broadcast television, brought into the nation's homes the reality of the marches, lunch-counter protests and school-desegregation efforts, and the crude bigotry and violence that often followed.

The nation's Founders feared not just government suppression and censorship but also the "tyranny of the majority" — a static situation in which those in power would be so strong that they could remain forever in control, because they could prevent or punish those seeking change.

Although those revolutionary figures failed at the time to settle the issue of real equality for all citizens — even as they penned those words in our founding documents — they did provide the tools of change to be used by everyone.

Those tools are enumerated in the 45 words of the First Amendment, and their impact has resonated through the nation's life. Those five core freedoms nourished not just a push for equal justice among the races but also the women's suffrage movement, labor rights and more.

The celebration of those tools and that history should come in February, to be sure, and continue year round.

A new permanent exhibit, "Make Some Noise: Civil Rights at 50," will open at the Newseum on Aug. 2. The exhibit tells the story of how Americans used their First Amendment freedoms to fight for civil rights and will feature the lunch counter from F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C., where a group of students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College refused to leave their counter stools after being denied service in the "whites-only" section.

Also featured in "Make Some Noise" will be the casting of the original jail cell door in Birmingham, Ala., behind which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was confined after his arrest for leading nonviolent protests, and where he penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

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