Civil Rights Movement, U.S.
Civil Rights Movement, U.S.
From the beginning of their involuntary servitude in the United States, Africans contested the exploitation of their labor, their unequal treatment, and their less-than-human status. Black slaves engaged in work slowdowns and sabotage, escapes, and rebellions, while enclaves of free blacks opposed racial discrimination through petitions, litigation, incipient political organization, communal self-defense, and nonviolent protest, including a boycott campaign from 1844 to 1855 that pressured Boston authorities to desegregate public schools.
Until 1910, 90 percent of blacks lived in the South, where legal slavery persisted until 1865. The Civil War accelerated black freedom struggles throughout the country as free blacks in Massachusetts clamored to enlist in Northern armies (where they served in a segregated regiment), while numerous slaves deserted their war-torn plantations. Under Northern occupation during Reconstruction, emancipated slaves asserted their rights as voters and public officials and engaged in nonviolent protests against segregated transport.
The specter of black political power and public assertiveness spurred countermovements of white guerilla warfare and racial terror, particularly in the Deep South. This, coupled with the corruption, war-weariness, and casual racism of national political leaders, led to the withdrawal of Northern armies and the consolidation of legalized segregation, much of which was modeled upon existing statute and nationwide practice. These "Jim Crow" laws triggered black resistance in every state of the former Confederacy, much of it centered on boycotts of segregated streetcars, but including efforts to sustain nascent black political organization. These actions postponed the spread of segregation in some cities, but ultimately they failed everywhere amid a surge of white violence and legal repression, including disfranchisement of most southern blacks by 1900. Segregation was legitimized nationally by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that upheld a Louisiana segregation statute for affording blacks "separate-but-equal" facilities.
The preeminent southern black spokesman, Booker T. Washington, accommodated these bleak trends by appealing to whites for economic cooperation and racial peace while publicly renouncing agitation for social and political rights. Heavily patronized by white elites across the country, Washington presided over the truncated field of black political action until his death in 1915. Outspoken activists such as editor and antilynching crusader Ida B.
Because of the long odds and mortal risks facing black dissidents in the South, organized agitation for civil rights in the early twentieth century became chiefly the province of northern blacks, such as Massachusetts attorney William Monroe Trotter and writer and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1905 Du Bois began a movement in Niagara Falls, New York, to urge redress of racial injustices. Poorly attended and funded, the Niagara Movement reformed into a new, interracial organization in the wake of white rioting in Springfield, Illinois, the city of Abraham Lincoln's youth. In 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began its long crusade for racial equality, operating through the courts and the trenchant pen of Du Bois, the group's first black officer and the editor of a new journal, The Crisis.
The NAACP pinned its hopes upon educating elite public opinion into a more favorable dispensation toward blacks as fellow citizens. Its strategy focused on the courts, where it sought to chip away at the legal edifice of segregation. In the 1915 case Guinn v. United States, attorneys for the NAACP persuaded a unanimous Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the "grandfather clause," by which some states had disfranchised blacks through harsh registration tests while exempting citizens—invariably whites—whose grandfathers had voted. Beginning in the 1930s the NAACP sued for equal school facilities for blacks, in accord with the Supreme Court sanction of separate-but-equal treatment, securing the desegregation of all-white law or graduate schools in Maryland, Missouri, and other states unable to convince federal courts of an equal commitment to black and white students.
These unusual victories neither exhausted the South's legal stratagems for denying blacks the ballot nor frontally challenged the institutional segregation that powerfully skewed the distribution of rights and recognition, opportunity and reward along racial lines. At the same time, the impact of black migrations out of the South and the economic and political crisis of the 1930s were forcing issues of black civic inclusion and political representation onto the national agenda. More than 500,000 blacks entered into new industrial unions by the end of the decade and 150,000 blacks were on the federal payroll by the end of the 1930s—triple the number when Herbert Hoover left office in 1932. Black voters in northern cities defected to the Democratic Party en masse, providing a counterweight to the party's dependency on the white South. Federal antilynching bills pushed by the NAACP passed the House of Representatives in 1937 and again in 1940, though each time succumbing to southern filibusters in the Senate.
A range of militant civic and political organizations began championing the cause of racial justice. The Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia (PCDE) against the Italian invasion of that country signaled the enduring mass appeal of race-based internationalism once arrayed under the banner of Garveyism. The Communist Party widened its popularity among blacks as its International Labor Defense (ILD) spearheaded the defense of the unjustly convicted Scottsboro boys in Alabama. The National Negro Congress and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), supported by such black newspapers as the Pittsburgh Courier, agitated for racial equality in the United States to the point of collective action.
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, formed the all-black March on Washington Movement (MOWM), which planned a massive march on the nation's capital to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries. A young MOWM organizer, and later key strategist of the nonviolent civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin would describe this as the "symbolic inauguration" of the modern civil rights era. To persuade Randolph to call off the march, President Franklin Roosevelt in July 1941 created an advisory committee, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, to promote racial integration in munitions factories. A limited step, it was the first presidential order for civil rights since Reconstruction—and the first intended chiefly to quiet an emerging black mass movement.
World War II dramatically accelerated black struggles for democratic rights. Black activists and liberal intellectuals called for a "Double Victory" against fascism abroad and racism at home, sharply illuminating the contradiction between fighting a war against the vicious racial policies of Nazi Germany while sustaining a legalized racist order at home. Blacks in the United States consciously laid claim to the global promise of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, in which the Allies avowed that they were fighting for the rights of all peoples to self-determination. Millions of blacks worked in the armed forces and served in the munitions industry during these years, further augmenting claims for full citizenship. In 1944 the NAACP won a significant legal victory against southern apartheid as the Supreme Court overturned the formal exclusion of blacks from party primary elections in the South in Smith v. All-right.
Despite these signs of progress, this was a period of intensifying racial conflict around employment, housing, and public space, particularly in centers of wartime production like Detroit, where a race riot in 1943 left thirty-four dead and where racially motivated hate strikes were a regular occurrence. VE Day yielded a resurgence of incidents of white terrorism in the South in response to a new assertiveness, particularly among returning black veterans, while such northern cities as Chicago were gripped during the 1940s and 1950s by violent racial conflicts around neighborhood boundaries and the integration of public housing.
The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union had a contradictory impact upon the national arena of race relations formed by World War II. Competition for support from emerging nonwhite nations in the decolonizing world made evidence of American racism a damaging embarrassment. At the same time, domestic anticommunism was enlisted to retrench southern apartheid, with defenders of racial segregation sturdy proponents of anticommunist legislation in Congress. Vocal black liberals such as the NAACP's Walter White and Roy Wilkins were effective in linking the cause of cold war to civil rights, arguing that white supremacy was the "Achilles' heel" of U.S. claims to defend the "free world." Yet, prominent black leftists, critical of U.S. foreign policy, including Paul Robeson, Du Bois, Benjamin Davis, and Claudia Jones, were harassed by state agencies, opened to public vilification, and in some cases tried, imprisoned, or deported.
Under pressure to establish his legitimacy both at home and in the world arena, President Harry Truman appointed a committee to investigate violations of black rights. In 1946 he endorsed the resulting report, titled "To Secure These Rights," which prescribed a comprehensive federal assault on Jim Crow. In 1948 Truman acceded to a strong civil rights plank that liberal delegates had inserted in the Democratic national platform. He then weathered defections by a minority of southern whites to narrowly win a second term, aided by 70 percent of the northern black vote. Two years later he began desegregation of the armed forces to heighten military efficiency for the Korean War and to quiet restive black leaders threatening a mass boycott of military service.
By the late 1940s the NAACP's chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, directly attacked the principle of segregation
in public education. In several cases before the Supreme Court, Marshall argued that segregation denied blacks "equal protection of the laws" as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for a unanimous Court, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that in the area of public education "the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."
By threatening white supremacy the Brown case intensified southern resistance to the civil rights agenda. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups experienced over-night revivals, congressmen and governors vowed "massive resistance," and state district attorneys sought injunctions to ban NAACP branches (they were entirely successful in Alabama by 1957). In May 1955 the Supreme Court tempered its original ruling in Brown by requiring no timetable for school desegregation, only that school
districts move "with all deliberate speed." Compliance proved minimal, and when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops in 1957 to guard nine blacks attending a formerly all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, the prolonged furor discouraged further national intervention for desegregation.
Despite its limited tangible impact, Brown did confer legitimacy on black activists, who prepared bolder assaults on segregation in the South. In December 1955 blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a bus boycott after a former NAACP secretary, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to yield her seat on a segregated bus to a white man. The boycott leader was a twenty-six-year-old northerneducated minister originally from Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King gained national attention for the protest against segregation by invoking Christian morality, American ideals of liberty, and the ethic of nonviolent resistance to evil exemplified by Mohandas Gandhi of India in his campaign against British colonial rule. Like Gandhi, King advocated confronting authorities with a readiness to suffer rather than inflict harm, in order to expose injustice and impel those in power to end it. In November 1956, despite growing white violence, the boycott triumphed with aid from the NAACP, which secured a Supreme Court decision (in Gayle v. Browder ) that overturned Montgomery's laws enforcing bus segregation.
Growing black restiveness in the South encouraged new civil rights initiatives. In January 1957 King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a network of nonviolent civil rights activists drawn mainly from the black church. In September of that year Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction; the act created a commission to monitor civil rights violations and authorized the Justice Department to guard black voting rights through litigation against discriminatory registrars. This act (and a follow-up measure in April 1960) nonetheless failed to curb the widespread disfranchisement of southern blacks.
The failure to implement federal civil rights edicts increasingly provoked blacks to disruptive protest and collective action. During the late 1950s blacks, often affiliated with local NAACP youth chapters, conducted scattered, short-lived sit-ins at lunch counters that served whites only. On February 1, 1960, a sit-in by four students at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, triggered a host of similar protests throughout the South, targeting Jim Crow public accommodations from theaters to swimming pools. Strict conformity to the tenets of nonviolence characterized the demonstrators, many of whom courted arrest and imprisonment in order to dramatize the evils of segregation.
In April 1960 several hundred student activists gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the invitation of Ella Baker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker urged the students to preserve their grassroots militancy by remaining independent of established civil rights groups, and they responded by forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). By the summer of 1960 the sit-ins, which were often reinforced by boycotts of offending stores, had desegregated dozens of lunch counters and other public accommodations, mainly in southern border states.
Black protests intensified during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a Democrat elected in 1960 with heavy black support. Kennedy directed the Justice Department to step up litigation for black rights, but he avoided bolder commitments that he feared would trigger southern white racial violence and political retaliation. Civil rights leaders therefore increasingly designed campaigns to pressure their reluctant ally in the White House. In May 1961 James Farmer, who had cofounded CORE nearly two decades earlier, led fourteen white and black CORE volunteers on a freedom ride through the South, testing compliance with a Supreme Court order to desegregate interstate bus terminal facilities. White mobs abetted by police beat the riders in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 14; six days later federal marshals saved the riders from a mob in Montgomery.
Racial violence was unrelenting in these years. In October 1962 Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect a black student, James Meredith, who had registered at the all-white University of Mississippi at Oxford. After mobs killed two people at the campus and besieged the marshals, the president was forced to send troops to restore order. In early May 1963, police in Birmingham beat and unleashed attack dogs on nonviolent black followers of Dr. King, in full view of television news cameras. The resulting public revulsion spurred President Kennedy to address the nation on June 11, to confront a "moral issue" that was "as old as the Scriptures" and "as clear as the American Constitution." He urged Congress to enact a strong civil rights law that would allow racism "no place in American life."
A coalition of African-American groups, led by Randolph, Rustin, and King, along with their white allies in labor and peace and justice organizations, sponsored a March on Washington on August 28, 1963, to advance the civil rights bill then before Congress. Reflecting the growing national stature of the civil rights movement, the rally secured the participation of diverse political, cultural, and religious figures. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King told several hundred thousand blacks and whites at this event of his "dream" for interracial brotherhood.
When Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded to the presidency on November 22, 1963, he made passage of the civil rights bill his top priority and effectively linked this goal to the memory of the martyred President Kennedy. A broad-based federation called the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights coordinated the lobbying efforts of over a hundred groups on behalf of the legislation and centered on extraordinary activity by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish ministers. On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the omnibus Civil Rights Act, which barred segregation in public accommodations, ended federal aid to segregated institutions, outlawed racial discrimination in employment, sought to strengthen black voting rights, and extended the life of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
SNCC remained in the vanguard of black activism in 1964 by organizing rural black voters in Mississippi, a state whose history was pockmarked with the casual murder of black people. About a thousand college students, most of them white, volunteered for the Freedom Summer project to further the nonviolent, integrationist ideals of the civil rights movement. The project workers set up "Freedom
Schools" to give black children a positive sense of their history and identity, and an interracial party, the "Freedom Democrats," to give disfranchised blacks a political voice. The project also exposed the extreme dangers facing civil rights workers after a federal manhunt recovered the bodies of three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—murdered by a mob led by the deputy sheriff of Philadelphia, Mississippi. In late August the project workers helped the Freedom Democrats try to unseat Mississippi's entirely white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Despite considerable northern support, their challenge failed because of strong resistance by President Johnson, who feared the loss of southern white voters in an election year. This harsh coda to the Freedom Summer spurred younger black activists to question alliances with white liberals and to stress instead the importance of black solidarity.
The fraying civil rights coalition rallied in 1965 behind Dr. King's campaign in Selma, Alabama, for equal voting rights. On March 7 black marchers setting out from Selma toward Montgomery suffered assaults by state and local police. The televised scenes of violence galvanized national support for protection of blacks seeking the ballot, a view that President Johnson reinforced in a special appearance before Congress on March 15. Ten days later twenty-five thousand black and white marchers reached Montgomery escorted by federal troops. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed a strong Voting Rights Act, which authorized the attorney general to send federal examiners to supersede local registrars and regulations wherever discrimination occurred. The act also directed the attorney general to challenge poll taxes for state and local elections in the courts (the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1964, had already banned such taxes in national elections).
With the passage of landmark national legislation, black movements for racial equality and social justice suffered new divisions and faced new strategic dilemmas. During a march with King through Mississippi in June 1966, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael criticized faith in nonviolence and white goodwill and demanded "black power," a slogan that alienated white liberals and worried established black leaders. The emphasis of the movement turned from the problem of de jure segregation to issues relating to de facto segregation: poverty, police brutality, and the unequal access to employment, education, housing, and transportation produced by the divide between black urban areas and white suburbs. Ghetto riots, including a six-day conflagration in South Central Los Angeles in August 1965, highlighted these issues and divided the movement and its supporters by shattering the aura of nonviolence.
Despite the Johnson administration's avowed commitment to waging a war on poverty, the escalating war in Vietnam increasingly monopolized its resources and attention. In the spring of 1967, King, drawing upon a long tradition linking black struggles in the United States with the global tribulations of a colonized world, sharply attacked the war in Vietnam as an unjust war that undermined the promise of "the Great Society" at home. While younger activists cautiously applauded, established black leaders publicly repudiated King's stance, with Johnson accusing him of betrayal bordering on sedition. The cold war civil rights consensus that had linked official progress on racial matters with support for U.S. foreign policy was broken.
On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was supporting the unionization efforts of predominantly black sanitation workers. King's murder touched off riots that left Washington, D.C., in flames for three days. The following week, partly in tribute to the slain King, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of most housing.
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of expressly raceconscious government programs to redress the legacy of racial discrimination. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971), the Supreme Court acknowledged the failures of earlier approaches to school desegregation by sanctioning the busing of children to other neighborhoods as a tool to achieve racial balance. The federal government also promoted affirmative action to afford blacks (and, increasingly, other minorities and women) preference in school admissions and employment. These developments reflected the limitations of civil rights legislation in affording access to the economic mainstream; but they provoked fierce opposition. Violence in Boston and other cities over racial busing confirmed that the race problem was truly national rather than regional. And in Regents of University of California v. Bakke in 1978 the Supreme Court reflected the national acrimony over affirmative action by ruling five to four to strike down racial quotas in medical school admissions while allowing (by an equally slim margin) some raceconscious selection to achieve educational "diversity."
During the 1980s a conservative shift in national politics frustrated civil rights leaders, especially in the NAACP and the Urban League, who relied on federal activism to overcome state, municipal, and private acts of discrimination. Symbolically, Ronald Reagan, a Republican who won the presidency for the first of two terms in 1980, launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with the promise to trim federal authority in racial matters. From 1981 to 1985 his administration reduced the number of lawyers in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division from 210 to 57 and also vainly attempted to disband altogether the United States Commission on Civil Rights. On January 8, 1982, Reagan restored the federal tax exemptions for segregated private schools that had been ended in 1970. The following year the Supreme Court, by an eight-to-one vote, overturned this ruling as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; in 1986 Reagan appointed the lone dissenter, William Rehnquist, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The Rehnquist Court increasingly chipped away at government safeguards of black rights, a pattern evident from several employment discrimination cases in 1989: In Patterson v. McLean Credit Union the Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 protected blacks merely in contracting for jobs but did not protect them from racial harassment by employers; in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio the Court shifted the burden of proof from employers to employees regarding job discrimination; in City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co. the Court rejected a program setting aside 30 percent of city contracts for minority businesses in the absence of flagrant evidence of discrimination, although Richmond had a history of official segregation and although minority contractors held fewer than 1 percent of the city contracts in Richmond, where minorities constituted half the population; in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins the Court exonerated an employer who had committed acts of racial discrimination but who also cited other, legitimate reasons for such actions. In October 1990 Republican president George H. W. Bush vetoed a civil rights bill that expressly restored the earlier, tougher curbs on job discrimination, and the Senate sustained his veto by a single vote. In November 1991 President Bush signed a milder version of this same bill while restating his opposition to quotas to promote minority hiring.
The central goal of the long civil rights movement that unfolded over the second half of the twentieth-century—full equality between blacks and whites—remains a distant vision. Residential segregation, seen in the persistence of inner-city black ghettos and white suburbs, has easily survived federal open-housing statutes. De facto segregation of churches, social centers, and private schools also remains routine; and wealth, too, is largely segregated along racial lines, with the median family income of blacks in 1990 barely three-fifths that of whites, and with blacks three times as likely to be poor. Since the 1980s, as a "war on drugs" replaced antipoverty at the center of urban policy agenda, black incarceration rates soared—over one millions African Americans are now incarcerated, approximately 50 percent of the U.S. prison population. Many civil rights leaders have urged comprehensive government remedies, but black political power remains limited with regard to national office holding and access to the circles that make foreign and domestic policy.
Despite its limitations, the civil rights movement has in key respects transformed American society. During the 1960s "whites only" signs that had stood for generations in the South suddenly came down from hotels, restrooms, theaters, and other facilities. School desegregation by the mid-1970s had become fact as well as law in over 80 percent of all southern public schools (a better record than in the North, where residential segregation remains pronounced). The federal government has also checked groups promoting racial hatred: Beginning in 1964 the FBI infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan so thoroughly that by 1965 perhaps one in five members was an informant; federal indictments and encouragement of private lawsuits helped reduce Klan membership from 10,000 in 1981 to less than 5,500 in 1987.
Protection of the suffrage represents the civil rights movement's greatest success: When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 barely a hundred blacks held elective office in the country; by 1989 there were more than 7,200, including twenty-four congressional representatives and some three hundred mayors. Over 4,800 of these officials served in the South, and nearly every Black Belt county in Alabama had a black sheriff. Mississippi, long the most racially repressive state, experienced the most dramatic change, registering 74 percent of its votingage blacks and leading the nation in the number of elected black officials (646). The unexpectedly strong showing by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 reflected the growing participation by blacks in mainstream politics. The release of Nelson Mandela and the crumbling of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s was in part a product of international pressures for divestment that captured the imagination of younger activists and tapped wellsprings of the international solidarity that animated the black freedom movement from its inception.
In some ways the civil rights movement is a misnomer. There were in fact many movements dedicated to black freedom, social justice, and equality in the United States. Having leveled the formal barriers of a legal caste system during the early 1960s, the civil rights movement returned to older, more intractable problems of substantive equality of opportunity in all areas of American life. The NAACP and the Urban League have for decades urged federal measures to reconstruct the inner cities, create jobs, extend job training to all poor Americans, and strengthen affirmative action to help minorities overcome a legacy of exclusion. Beginning in the 1980s, however, a growing minority of blacks have gained national influence (highlighted by the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991) by emphasizing private rather than government initiatives and by deploring quotas and other raceconscious programs as politically divisive. The movement for racial equality is now struggling to forge a program that can both unify black activists and also capture the nation's moral high ground and its reform impulses as convincingly as earlier civil rights campaigns.
See also Affirmative Action; Carmichael, Stokely; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Freedom Rides; Freedom Summer; Jim Crow; Marshall, Thurgood; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Negro Congress; Niagara Movement; Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Trotter, William Monroe
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Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Random House, 1977.
Sellers, Cleveland, with Robert Terrell. The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Singh, Nikhil Pal. Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1991.
Williams, Juan, with the "Eyes on the Prize" Production Team. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1987.
robert weisbrot (1996)
nikhil pal singh (2005)