Civil Rights Movement in the United States

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Civil Rights Movement in the United States

The civil rights movement in the United States has a long history, beginning with the political framing of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, which compromised the rights of African Americans. In the Three-Fifths Compromise, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, both for the purposes of representation and taxation. The issue of black civil rights continued as a center point of American domestic conflict through the Nullification Crisis of 1840, the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" decision of 1896, and the "Jim Crow" segregation tradition that defined the next five decades in the American South.

The term "civil rights" has been applied to issues other than African-American racial strife, including civil rights for other racial minorities, for women, and for gays and lesbians. Beginning with the women's suffrage movement and continuing throughout the twentieth century, equal rights for women has paralleled the movement for black civil rights. Into the early twenty-first century, gay rights has been a major civil rights issue in the United States, leading in 2004 to a movement to allow gay marriage.

impact of brown v. board of education

However, when the "civil rights movement" is discussed, it almost always focuses on the issue of black civil rights in the era beginning in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that, in the field of public education, "separate but equal has no place." This decision, in both policy and symbolism, marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. It was followed a year later by a second Brown decision that ordered schools to be desegregated "with all deliberate speed."

For a decade following the Brown decisions, the civil rights movement focused largely on the issue of de jure discrimination, or discrimination by law. The first major crisis in civil rights took place in Montgomery, Alabama, when an African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a public bus as required by law. When Parks was arrested, a young black pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) helped to lead a boycott of Montgomery's city buses. The nearly year-long boycott led to a Supreme Court decision requiring the desegregation of the buses, thus affirming the effectiveness of the nonviolent civil disobedience advocated by King.

early civil rights acts

The first major legislative accomplishment of the movement came with the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which was the first legislative action related to civil rights since the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. The act was mostly symbolic in nature, but it established a Civil Rights Commission to study the problem and created a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. Both of these actions served to establish preconditions for subsequent civil-rights successes in the 1960s.

In the fall of 1957, the abstract commitment to desegregation of public schools stemming from the Brown decision was put to the test in Little Rock, Arkansas, at Central High School. Nine black students tried to attend the all-white school and conflict ensued. Governor Orval E. Faubus sent in the National Guard to maintain law and order by keeping the black students out of school. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) overruled Faubus, however, by "federalizing" the National Guard troops and ordering them to protect the black students, thus assuring national enforcement of desegregation. Near the end of his administration, Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which dealt weakly with the issue of voting rights.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African-American students, using the tactics of King, began to protest segregated restaurants by staging "sit-in" demonstrations. In early 1960, at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, one such demonstration attracted national attention, spurring copycat demonstrations throughout the South and bringing nationwide attention to the problem. Such actions led to additional challenges to the segregation of state universities in the South. The first confrontation took place at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) called in the National Guard to force the school to admit a black

student named James Meredith. Eight months later, a similar scene played out at the University of Alabama, where Kennedy ordered Governor George C. Wallace (1919–1998) to step aside and allow African-American students to attend the college.

movement peaks in the 1960s

Civil rights became the leading national domestic issue in 1963. In April, Sheriff "Bull" Conner turned fire hoses and guard dogs on civil-rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Television coverage of the events caused nationwide outrage about treatment of the demonstrators, and forced President Kennedy to put civil rights at the top of his domestic agenda. He endorsed the March on Washington, in which 250,000 protestors gathered in the nation's capital to support civil rights and heard King deliver his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Kennedy also pushed for a comprehensive civil rights bill, which the House Judiciary Committee brought to the full House with its recommendation for passage just before Kennedy's death in November 1963.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), who succeeded Kennedy, immediately told the American people that nothing could honor Kennedy's memory more than the passage of Kennedy's civil rights bill. Under Johnson's leadership, the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included provisions for public accommodations and fair employment, was enacted. The next year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which authorized the use of federal voter registrars to help African Americans register to vote. These two major acts largely marked the end of discrimination by law.

testing brown v. board of education : little rock and the university of mississippi

In September 1957, a group of black students arrived at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite the voluntary desegregation of the school three years earlier, the "Little Rock Nine"—Minniejean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls—were denied entrance by citizens and the Arkansas National Guard. On September 20, the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the removal of the National Guard. The students were escorted into the school by police on September 23, only to be sent home because of a threatening mob attempting to enter the school. On September 25, President Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to protect the Nine, who reentered the school. Eisenhower also federalized the Arkansas National Guard.

Five years later, on September 30, 1962, mob violence erupted at the University of Mississippi in Oxford when James Meredith, the first black student ever admitted to the school, sought to enroll. President John F. Kennedy ordered federal marshals to ensure Meredith's security as he returned to campus. Kennedy also sent in federal troops to quell the violence. Two people were killed and three hundred injured in the riot. Protected by a bodyguard twenty-four hours a day, Meredith did attend the university and graduated the following year.

As the de jure phase of the civil rights movement ended, other civil rights issues emerged. Although legal discrimination had ended, de facto discrimination persisted. With the change in issues, the civil rights movement changed character as well. Toward the end of King's life, and especially after his death in 1968, other, more militant leaders began to push for immediate reform. Rejecting the nonviolent gradual progress they perceived as having characterized the movement until then, groups such as the Black Muslims (led by Malcolm X), the Black Panthers, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) demanded "black power" and immediate, fundamental change.

issues for change

Two issues illustrated the discrimination "in fact" that civil rights groups wanted to change. First, only a small part of the desegregation of schools could be accomplished by changing the laws. In most urban areas, black and white citizens lived in different parts of cities; therefore, desegregating schools would require students to be transported across town. Over the next few years, the civil rights issues would evolve into the issue of busing school children to achieve desegregation. Busing met with limited success, however. In fact, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that buses should not cross school district lines, largely white suburban districts and largely minority urban districts emerged. Consequently, by the late 1980s, most urban schools had become even more segregated than they had been twenty years earlier.

Second, most African Americans faced significant disadvantages in employment. Employment discrimination patterns persisted that made it difficult for black Americans to succeed in the professional job market. To confront this problem, "affirmative action" programs were developed, beginning with an executive order issued by President Johnson in 1965. Affirmative action sought to give greater education and employment opportunities to members of minority groups who had been victimized by past discrimination.

The policy applied to practices such as hiring employees and making college admissions decisions. The Supreme Court addressed the latter issue in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. In it, the court showed ambivalence about affirmative action, endorsing the concept as a whole but banning the use of quotas to attain racial balance in admissions policies. In the years that followed, affirmative action continued as the signature controversy related to civil rights. During the administration of President George H. W. Bush (b. 1924), Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which allowed plaintiffs to collect damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination. In 2003, in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court ruled that a University of Michigan Law School program that gave special consideration to minority students was legal.

ongoing challenges

The civil rights movement continues to characterize American politics. Although the de jure discrimination that characterized racial relations before the movement began has largely been eliminated, de facto discrepancies in the opportunities of people of different races persist. The average income of African-American families remains significantly less than that of white families. In the presidential election of 2000, moreover, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, African-American ballots were more likely not to have been counted than those of whites in the closely contested state of Florida.

Civil rights issues continue to be championed by groups other than African Americans, including other racial minority groups, women, and gays and lesbians. Civil rights, a priority on the federal docket in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, remained an important domestic policy issue in the early twenty-first century. The civil rights movement continued to pursue change through legislative, judicial, and executive actions.

See also: King Jr., Martin Luther.


Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Graham, Hugh Davis. The Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking Press, 1987.

James W. Riddlesperger Jr.

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Civil Rights Movement in the United States

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Civil Rights Movement in the United States