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Civil Rights Movement


The civil rights movement was a struggle by African Americans in the mid-1950s to late 1960s to achieve civil rights equal to those of whites, including equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education, as well as the right to vote, the right of equal access to public facilities, and the right to be free of racial discrimination. No social or political movement of the twentieth century has had as profound an effect on the legal and political institutions of the United States. This movement sought to restore to African Americans the rights of citizenship guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which had been eroded by segregationist jim crow laws in the South. It fundamentally altered relations between the federal government and the states, as the federal government was forced many times to enforce its laws and protect the rights of African American citizens. The civil rights movement also spurred the reemergence of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, in its role as protector of individual liberties against majority power. In addition, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and other leaders of the movement predicted, the movement prompted gains not only for African Americans but also for women, persons with disabilities, and many others.

The civil rights movement has been called the Second Reconstruction, in reference to the Reconstruction imposed upon the South following the Civil War. During this period, the fourteenth amendment (1868)—granting equal protection of the laws—and fifteenth amendment (1870)—giving the right to vote to all males regardless of race—were ratified, and troops from the North occupied the South from 1865 to 1877 to enforce the abolition of slavery. However, with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, southern whites again took control of the South, passing a variety of laws that discriminated on the basis of race. These were called Jim Crow laws, or the black codes. They segregated whites and blacks in education, housing, and the use of public and private facilities such as restaurants, trains, and rest rooms; they also denied blacks the right to vote, to move freely, and to marry whites. Myriad other prejudicial and discriminatory practices were committed as well, from routine denial of the right to a fair trial to outright murder by lynching. These laws and practices were a reality of U.S. life well into the twentieth century.

Organized efforts by African Americans to gain their civil rights began well before the official civil rights movement got under way. By 1909, blacks and whites together had formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), which became a leading ing organization in the cause of civil rights for African Americans. From its beginning, the NAACP and its attorneys challenged many discriminatory laws in court, but it was not until after world war ii that a widespread movement for civil rights gathered force.

The war itself contributed to the origins of the movement. When African Americans who had fought for their country returned home, they more openly resisted being treated as second-class citizens. The movement's first major legal victory came in 1954, when the NAACP won brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, in which the Supreme Court struck down laws segregating white and black children into different public elementary schools. With Brown, it became apparent that African Americans had important allies in the highest federal court and its chief justice, earl warren.

The Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

On December 1, 1955, rosa parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. News of Parks's arrest quickly spread through the African American community. Parks had worked as a secretary for the local branch of the national association for the advancement of colored people. Because she was a well-respected and dignified figure in the community, her arrest was finally enough to persuade African Americans that they could no longer tolerate racially discriminatory laws.

After exchanging phone calls, a group of African American women, the Women's Political Council, decided to call for a boycott of the city buses as a response to this outrage. This suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm by local African American leaders, including the influential black clergy.

On December 5, members of the African American community rallied at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery and decided to carry out the boycott. Their resolve was inspired by the words of the Reverend martin luther king jr.

"We are here this evening," King declared to the packed church, "to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression." He went on to make a case for peace and nonviolence. Contrasting the methods of nonviolence that he envisioned for a civil rights movement, to the methods of violence used by the racist and terrorist ku klux klan, King declared,

in our protest there will be no cross burnings…. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order. Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to the people, "Let conscience be your guide" … [O]ur actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."

With these words and these events, the long, difficult struggle of the civil rights movement began.

Another catalyzing event occurred on December 1, 1955, when rosa parks, an African American woman, was arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. The law required African Americans to sit in the back of city buses and to give up their seats to whites should the white section of the bus become full. The city's black residents, long tired of the indignities of segregation, began a boycott of city buses. They recruited King, a 27-year-old preacher, to head the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group which organized the boycott. The African Americans of Montgomery held out for nearly a year despite violence—including the bombing of King's home—directed at them by angry whites. This violence was repugnant to many whites and actually increased support for the civil rights movement among them. The boycott finally achieved its goal on November 13, 1956, when the Supreme Court, in Gayle v.

Million Man March

On Monday, October 16, 1995, hundreds of thousands of African American men gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March, a daylong rally promoting personal responsibility and racial solidarity. Organized by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the nation of islam, the march was one of the most well attended and significant rallies in the history of the nation's capital. With its mass of men stretching from the Capitol steps to the Washington Monument, the gathering marked a renewed commitment to self-empowerment and betterment on the part of African Americans.

The Million Man March deliberately recalled the 1963 March on Washington, which many consider the high point of the civil rights movement. During that earlier gathering, the Reverend martin luther king jr., gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Many speakers at the Million Man March invoked King's speech, noting with a combination of sorrow, anger, and penitence that King's dreams for a racially united America had not yet been realized.

Farrakhan gave the keynote address of the day. Flanked by members of his paramilitary group, the Fruit of Islam, and speaking from behind a bullet-proof shield, he announced at the beginning of his speech, "We are gathered here to collect ourselves for a responsibility that God is placing on our shoulders to move this nation toward a more perfect union." He continued to orate for over two hours, frequently bringing home the point that African Americans still suffer disadvantages that European Americans did not have. "There's still two Americas," he declared, "one black, one white, separate and unequal."

In another significant speech, the Reverend jesse jackson expanded on the religiously inspired tone of repentance that was so much a part of the Million Man March. Speaking for those in attendance, the civil rights leader prayed for "God to forgive us for our sins and the foolishness of our ways." Like many of the other speakers, he called on African American men to take responsibility for their families, to end violence and drug use in the home and in their communities, and to make sure their children are learning in school. He had this to say about the current problems facing African Americans:

We come here today because there is a structural malfunction in America. It was structured in the Constitution, and they referred to us as three-fifths of a human being, legally…. Why do we march? Because our babies die earlier…. Why do we march? Because we're less able to get a primary or secondary education. Why do we march? Because the media stereotypes us. We are projected as less intelligent than we are; less hard-working than we work; less universal than we are; less patriotic than we are; and more violent than we are. Why do we march? We're less able to borrow money…. Why do we march? Because we're trapped with second-class schools and first-class jails.

Other speakers at the march included the Reverend Joseph Lowery; Damu Smith, of Greenpeace; poet Maya Angelou; and rosa parks, whose arrest inspired the 1955 montgomery bus boycott.

Away from the speakers' podium, the men collected on the Mall made their own history on that day. Coming from different classes, regions, and religions, they were a diverse group not beholden to any one leader. Many men remarked on the deep meaning the experience had for them, on the fellowship and friendships they gained, and on their own commitment to renewal and repair of both themselves and their communities.

One of the most contentious issues of all regarding the march was the attendance figure. The National Park Service officially estimated attendance at 400,000, whereas event organizers pegged it at over 1.5 million. In comparison, the 1963 March on Washington attracted 250,000 participants.

The Million Man March drew an extremely large share of the nation's television audience, as well as laudatory comments from many national leaders, including President bill clinton and former general Colin L. Powell.

Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, declared Montgomery's bus segregation law unconstitutional. By December 1956, the city was forced to desegregate its buses.

Although African Americans had sporadically demonstrated against segregation laws in previous decades, the montgomery bus boycott became a turning point for their protests. It gained significant media attention for the civil rights cause, and it brought King to the fore as a leader. King would go on to head the southern christian leadership conference (SCLC), which was formed in 1957, and to guide the civil rights movement itself. The boycott also marked the end of reliance on litigation as the major tactic for gaining civil rights for African Americans. From this point on the movement also engaged in nonviolent direct action, a technique of civil disobedience that had been used before by pacifists, by labor movements, and by Mohandas K. Gandhi in the struggle to secure India's freedom from Great Britain.

Nonviolent methods had been used by African Americans since the 1940s, when the congress of racial equality (CORE)—a group of blacks and whites that formed in 1942 to lobby for equal civil rights for all—organized nonviolent direct action to protest racial discrimination. King described his own view of nonviolent protest in his 1958 book Stride toward Freedom. This type of protest worked in part by seeking to create a sense of shame in the opponent.

The nonviolence of the civil rights movement and the power of the federal government over the states were tested as African Americans sought to make use of the rights that had been confirmed by the Supreme Court. For example, segregationist whites, including the Alabama legislature, refused to recognize the rulings of the federal judiciary regarding school desegregation. Some whites formed citizens' councils to combat desegregation, and the ku klux klan and other reactionary whites began a campaign of terrorism, including bombings and murders, intended to intimidate African Americans into giving up their cause.

A significant state-federal confrontation occurred in 1957 at Little Rock, Arkansas's Central High School, when angry mobs of whites attacked nine black students attempting to enroll for classes. President dwight d. eisenhower had to send in troops to enforce the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, confirming

the right of the students to attend the school. In 1962, when james meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, President john f. kennedy also sent in federal military troops to uphold desegregation.

The SCLC, which under King's leadership had become one of the most important civil rights organizations in the country, in turn spawned another influential group, the student non-violent coordinating committee (SNCC, popularly called Snick). In 1960 this group, which was made up of both blacks and whites, became a major player in the civil rights struggle. SNCC attracted youths who were often dissatisfied by what they saw as the unnecessarily moderate goals and methods of the NAACP and the SCLC. SNCC members later led voting registration and education efforts throughout the South, often at great personal risk. Eventually, the group planted the seed of factionalism in the civil rights movement, as it became increasingly radical and alienated from the mainstream of the movement as represented by King.

SNCC played an influential role in another form of nonviolent direct action employed in the civil rights movement: sit-ins. These demonstrations often focused upon the whites-only lunch counters across the South. Armed only with a strict code of conduct that forbade them to strike back or curse their opponents, demonstrators endured jeers, spitting, and blows by angry whites. One tactic associated with this strategy was the jail-in—also called jail, no bail—in which hundreds of people, many of them underage youths, arrived in waves at segregated lunch counters, were arrested for trespassing, and proceeded to overcrowd local jails. Jail-ins bogged down local governments and drew national attention to the cause. In the North, activists responded by picketing businesses, including the Woolworth chain of stores that operated segregated lunch counters in the South. The right to participate in sit-ins was upheld by the Supreme Court decisions Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, 82 S. Ct. 248, 7 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1961), and Peterson v. City of Greenville, 373 U.S. 244, 83 S. Ct. 1119, 10 L. Ed. 2d 323 (1963).

The Freedom Rides were a type of nonviolent direct action designed to oppose segregation in interstate buses and bus stations. They were inspired in part by the 1960 Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 459, 81 S. Ct. 182, 5 L. Ed. 2d 206, which outlawed racial segregation in bus terminals and other places of public accommodation related to interstate transportation. Organized by CORE in 1961, the Freedom Rides were undertaken by six whites and seven blacks who rode two interstate buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Along the way, the riders deliberately violated segregation policies on the buses and in bus terminal rest rooms, waiting areas, and restaurants. White mobs savagely beat Freedom Riders of both races at different stops in the Deep South and in Alabama, one of the buses was firebombed.

Although the 1961 Freedom Rides proceeded no farther than Jackson, Mississippi, they achieved their larger goal of inducing the federal government to enforce its laws. The administration of President Kennedy sent in u.s. marshals to protect the riders during the last part of their journey. An even clearer victory was achieved in September 1961 when the interstate commerce commission abolished all segregated facilities in interstate transportation.

On August 28, 1963, the civil rights movement reached a high point of public visibility when it held the March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people—an estimated 20 to 30 percent of them white—gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to urge Congress and the federal government to support desegregation and voting rights. During this occasion, King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The following summer, civil rights activists in Mississippi organized another highly publicized event, Freedom Summer, a campaign to bring one thousand students, both white and black, into the South to teach and organize voter registration. Many civil rights groups provided backing for this movement, including SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP.

Throughout this period of nonviolent protest, the civil rights movement continued to suffer the effects of white violence. medgar evers, an NAACP leader who was organizing a black boycott in Jackson, was shot and killed outside his home in 1963. Three participants in Freedom Summer—James Chaney, an African American, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both whites—were killed in Mississippi in June 1964. Events such as these murders outraged many in the nation and solidified popular support for the civil rights cause.

Then Congress passed one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation ever proposed, the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.). This act made Congress an equal partner with the Supreme Court in establishing civil rights. Title II of the act outlawed discrimination in all places of public accommodation, including restaurants and lunch counters, motels and hotels, gas stations, theaters, and sports arenas. It also allowed the department of justice to bring suit in order to achieve desegregation in public schools, relieving the NAACP of some of its civil rights litigation caseload. The following year, Congress

passed another important piece of legislation, the voting rights act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.). This act outlawed the voting qualifications, including literacy tests, that whites had used to keep African Americans from voting. It also gave the federal government oversight powers regarding changes in state voting laws. These laws together with federal actions showed that the civil rights movement had the backing of the powers of the federal government and that no amount of resistance, however violent, by white southerners would impede the cause.

By the mid-1960s, the nature of the civil rights movement began to change. African Americans, who had been united in their support of activities such as the Montgomery bus boycott, began to diverge in their views over what political action should be taken to improve their situation. Members of different groups within the movement increasingly expressed their dissatisfaction with other groups. More radical groups, including the Black Muslims and black power proponents, voiced discontent with the limited goals of the civil rights movement and its advocacy of nonviolence.

Many of the new African American radicals called for black separatism or nationalism—that is, separation from white society rather than integration with it. Not content merely to seek civil equality, they began to press for social and economic equality. They also questioned the usefulness of nonviolence and no longer sought to include whites in the movement. SNCC, for example, became an all-black organization in 1966. The arguments of the African American radicals were punctuated by urban riots such as those in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965.

By the late 1960s, African Americans still suffered from many disadvantages, including poverty rates that were much higher than those among whites and physical health that was much worse. Racially motivated violence persisted as well, as seen in the assassination of King by a white man in 1968.

Despite these problems, the civil rights movement had forever changed the face of U.S. law and politics. It had led to legislation that gave greater protection to the rights of minorities. It had also greatly changed the role of the judiciary in U.S. government, as the Supreme Court had become more active in its defense of individual rights, often in response to litigation and demonstrations initiated by those in the movement. In this respect, the Court and the civil rights movement had great influence on each other, with each reacting to and encouraging the efforts of the other. Likewise, the federal government had, even if hesitatingly, enforced the rights of a persecuted minority in the face of vigorous opposition from the southern states.

further readings

Blumberg, Rhoda L. 1984. Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle. Boston: Twayne.

Chalmers, David. 2003. Backfire, Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Friedman, Leon, ed. 1967. The Civil Rights Reader. New York: Walker.

Gray, Fred D. 2003."Civil Rights—Past, Present and Future." The Alabama Lawyer 64 (January): 8.

Johnson, Frank Minis. 2001. Defending Constitutional Rights. Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Levine, Ellen, ed. 1994. Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. New York: Morrow/Avon.

Liebman, James S., and Charles F. Sabel. 2003. "The Federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Post-Desegregation Civil Rights Agenda. North Carolina Law Review 81 (May): 1703–49.

McKissack, Fredrick L., Jr. 2000. This Generation of Americans: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement. Columbus, Ohio: Jamestown.

Rostron, Alan. 1999. "Inside the ACLU: Activism and Anti-Communism in the Late 1960s." New England Law Review 33 (winter): 425–74.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. 1979. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Baker, Ella Josephine; Bates, Daisy Lee Gatson; Black Panther Party; Carmichael, Stokely; Cleaver, LeRoy Eldridge; Davis, Angela Yvonne; Douglass, Frederick; Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt; Jackson, Jesse; Ku Klux Klan; Liuzzo, Viola Fauver Gregg; Marshall, Thurgood; School Desegregation; Wallace, George Corley. See also primary documents in "From Segregation to Civil Rights" section of Appendix.

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Civil Rights Movement


CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. The civil rights movement comprised efforts of grassroots activists and national leaders to obtain for African Americans the basic rights guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution, including the rights to due process and "equal protection of the laws" (Fourteenth Amendment) and the right to vote. Although the 1950s and 1960s represent the height of the mass civil rights movement of the twentieth century, activists had sought basic rights for African Americans since before the Civil War.

Civil Rights 1865–1945

Between 1865 and 1870, Congress passed amendments to abolish slavery (Thirteenth Amendment), accord citizenship to African Americans (Fourteenth Amendment), and extend voting rights to black men (Fifteenth Amendment). But the end of Reconstruction in 1877 furthered white opposition to black equality. The oppression of blacks manifested itself most explicitly in southern states in what was known as Jim Crow customs and legislation passed between the 1890s and 1920s to racially segregate public venues, including trains, restaurants, schools, theaters, hospitals, beaches, and cemeteries. Additionally, laws and intimidation tactics prevented blacks from enjoying other rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.

African American activists, and some whites, challenged these injustices through public speaking tours, the black press, and organizations to advocate racial equality. In the 1890s, the journalist Ida B. Wells encouraged blacks to migrate northward to protest unfair hiring practices in the South and the lynching of African American men unjustly accused of assaulting white women. In 1909, Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other activists formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which in subsequent decades became the predominant American organization pursuing equality for blacks through the legal system.

Infringements upon blacks' civil rights did occur in the North and West, although to a lesser extent than in the South. As blacks emigrated from the South to industrial areas during and after World War I, whites in industrial areas, some of them relocated southerners or members of white supremacist groups such as the regenerated Ku Klux Klan, exercised coercion to prevent blacks from competing with whites for jobs and voting. Whites outside the South also practiced segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. Blacks in Chicago, for instance, encountered "white only" signs in businesses and limits on employment, usually being hired only as unskilled laborers. In 1942, James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Detroit, an interracial organization that sought to desegregate eating establishments, schools, and interstate buses in the 1940s.

World War II invigorated the civil rights movement, galvanizing blacks who during the Great Depression had developed a greater awareness of their potential political influence. During the 1930s many blacks had switched their political affiliation from the Republican Party, "the party of Lincoln" that had freed the slaves, to the Democratic Party, and in 1936 had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to show support for his New Deal programs. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 stimulated American industry and the demand for labor. As was the case with World War I, African Americans moved to industrial cities for employment but confronted discrimination in hiring and wages. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, informed Roosevelt that 100,000 blacks would march in Washington, D.C., to protest discrimination in defense industries. In June 1941, Roosevelt averted the protest by signing Executive Order 8802, outlawing prejudicial treatment of workers in defense industries and the federal government on the basis of race. Blacks also encountered opportunity along with racism in the armed forces. One million African American men and women served in the military, in segregated units. Blacks in the military and in civilian wartime jobs saw themselves as waging a "double victory" campaign to secure democracy abroad and for themselves in their own country. They emerged from the war with a renewed sense of the rights to equality and freedom in the land that claimed to represent these among the world's nations. During the war, membership in the NAACP swelled tenfold to 500,000.

Conditions for Social Change after World War II

Numerous factors energized the civil rights movement after World War II. In July 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9980, barring racial discrimination in the civil service, and Executive Order 9981, mandating "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces." The postwar economic boom improved job opportunities for blacks, and higher incomes resulted in rising college enrollments for African Americans and increasing donations to civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. The mass media, including fledgling television, publicized civil rights activism. Furthermore, television broadcasts displayed the material prosperity enjoyed by middle-class whites, feeding African Americans' desires for a better standard of living.

International events also influenced the civil rights movement. Observers at home and abroad pointed out that the nation that claimed to represent the ideals of democracy and freedom in the Cold War denied civil rights to a substantial proportion of its own population, provoking Americans of all colors to scrutinize racial discrimination. While opponents of civil rights used red-baiting tactics in their attempts to discredit integrationists, advocates of racial equality contended that racial discrimination in the United States damaged the nation's international image and played into the hands of communist adversaries.

Activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois noted a kinship between the American civil rights movement and decolonization movements in European-controlled countries. In their view, democracy and self-determination for people of color in Africa and Asia paralleled African Americans' struggles for equality. Anti-imperialist movements became for African Americans a metaphor for the civil rights movement in the United States: an effort of a people

to wrest control of their destinies from a white ruling class.

Turning Points in the 1950s

Landmark judicial decisions and a now famous bus boycott resulted in the civil rights movement gaining unprecedented strength and momentum in southern states in the 1950s. In 1954, with Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that the segregation of public facilities was unconstitutional. In 1955, the Court ordered the desegregation of public schools, though it did not set a deadline for this process. Three years after Brown, nearly all southern schools remained segregated. The NAACP decided to push the federal government to enforce the 1955 Supreme Court order to desegregate public schools, focusing on an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. In September 1957, nine black teenagers enrolled in Central High School. Angry mobs, encouraged by the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus's defiance of the federal government, surrounded and threatened the students. Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly ordered the National Guard to protect them. The efforts to integrate Central High School made headlines around the world.

In early December 1955, after the arrest of the seamstress and local NAACP secretary Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of the bus to accommodate a white passenger, the Montgomery NAACP organized a boycott of the city's buses. The year-long boycott called national attention to the South's Jim Crow practices, achieved the desegregation of Montgomery's public transportation, and established the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the young pastor of a local Baptist church, as a renowned spokesman for the civil rights movement.

Dr. King found ideas for a national integrationist movement in philosophy, Christianity, and the example of the nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi, whose principles of nonviolent civil disobedience shaped a movement that won India's independence from Great Britain in 1948. King and other civil rights activists developed a strategy to oppose racial segregation by nonviolent means, which they believed would win sympathy for their cause and ultimately create a racially integrated society, a peaceful and just "beloved community." The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), established in 1957, united black churches, historically a source of inspiration, community support, and activism, to achieve racial integration.

The Brown rulings, the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the questioning of racism in the country that proclaimed itself the world's leader of freedom and democracy attracted growing numbers of African Americans to the movement. Their magnitude and the movement's momentum gave them the courage to face the vociferous and often violent opposition of those who wished to maintain racial hierarchy.

The 1960s

More challenges to segregation arose in the South during the 1960s. In 1960 four college students initiated a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparking similar acts at public venues across the South. The student sit-ins led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which allowed a younger generation of civil rights activists to develop its own strategies to achieve racial equality. Like SCLC, SNCC advocated nonviolent resistance to racial inequality and trained members in workshops so that they would know how to respond when accosted by adversaries. SNCC and CORE members orchestrated "freedom rides" in 1961 to desegregate inter-state public buses and facilities. Black and white freedom riders endured assaults by hostile whites in Alabama. White attacks on blacks in Montgomery prompted Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send 600 federal officers to that city. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed the segregation of interstate transportation and facilities such as waiting rooms and restrooms.

Blacks and their white allies communicated their resistance to racial oppression in marches, sit-ins, and

boycotts that demonstrated their numbers and resolve. African American children became more visible in the movement. In May 1963, they participated in a children's march in Birmingham and, alongside adults, endured police assaults and jail time. The SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, and CORE organized the biggest civil rights march to date in Washington, D.C. On 28 August 1963, 200,000 blacks and 50,000 whites walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where they listened to speakers from the various organizations, including Reverend King.

Growing numbers of whites, especially white college students outside the South, expressed their solidarity with blacks. Whites joined African Americans in the sit-ins of 1960, the freedom rides of 1961, and marches in the South. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1961, declared its opposition to racism in its manifesto. Black activists allowed non blacks to join their organizations to demonstrate multiracial commitment to an integrated society and because the presence of whites attracted greater media attention. White college students from the University of California, Berkeley, for example, participated in civil rights projects in the South during the summer, such as the voter registration project in Mississippi in 1964. In the fall the students returned to their campus, where they educated their peers about civil rights abuses and activism and organized efforts to end racial discrimination in the Bay Area.

As civil rights activists grew bolder, violence against them mounted. Television, which had proliferated in the 1950s, enabled viewers from outside the South to witness mobs pelting blacks with stones, and policemen using clubs, dogs, and fire hoses to subdue peaceable protesters. In 1963, white supremacists bombed a church in Birmingham, killing four African American girls, and the NAACP field director Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his home. At the beginning of SNCC's Freedom Summer drive to register rural black voters in Mississippi in June 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared: two white men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner of New York, and one black man, James Chaney of Mississippi. In August, the bodies of the three men were found in a swamp. President Lyndon Baines Johnson publicly condemned the evident murder of the civil rights workers. In June 1966, a gunman wounded James Meredith as he

marched to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage other blacks to register to vote.

The civil rights movement culminated in legislation sought by activists for decades. Overcoming opposition from southern politicians, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination in employment and public facilities, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, barring states from obstructing African Americans from voting and ensuring federal oversight of registration and voting. Legislating the equal treatment of blacks helped topple Jim Crow and barriers to employment and enfranchised millions. Yet activists were well aware that legislation was not sufficient to eradicate racist attitudes or improve the economic status of African Americans.

The Movement's Ebb

Violence, arrests, and other degradations embittered many black activists who tired of enduring abuse without fighting back. Critics such as the Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X denounced the civil rights movement's strategy of nonviolent resistance and its integrationist goals, asserting that blacks were entitled to use violence to defend themselves from attacks, and scorning activists' desire to integrate into a racist white society. Malcolm X argued (though after leaving the Nation of Islam he would alter this position) that blacks must reject integration and instead create separate communities and direct energies toward the economic, spiritual, and cultural development of blacks. The radical ideas of "black power"—the empowerment of African Americans through economic self-reliance, black pride, and, if necessary, militant self-defense—influenced SNCC members such as Stokely Carmichael, who as SNCC chairman (1966–1967) recommended that whites leave the organization so that blacks could take control of their own liberation. SNCC members redirected their attention to economic improvement for blacks and opposition to the Vietnam War. But the subsequent decline in white membership and financial support weakened SNCC, which dissolved by the end of the decade.

Although Martin Luther King remained committed to integration and nonviolence, he too came to see racism as a problem that would take more than desegregation and voting rights to solve, and gave greater attention to the war in Vietnam and to the economic problems of blacks. King publicly announced his opposition to the war as a racist conflict against an Asian people and as example of the institutionalization of racism toward American men of color, who fought and died in disproportionate numbers. In April 1968, as King visited Memphis to support striking garbage workers and launch a Poor People's Campaign, a sniper assassinated him. Riots erupted in over 125 cities around the nation. The murder of King dispirited civil rights supporters, already troubled by previous assaults on activists as well as infighting within and between various civil rights groups.

Voters in the 1968 presidential election were divided on the issue of civil rights. The election of the Republican Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968, along with the unusually strong showing for the American Independent party candidate George Wallace—a former Democrat, the governor of Alabama, and an unabashed segregationist who in 1963 had vowed to keep African American students out of the University of Alabama—who received 13.5 percent of the popular vote, with support from southern voters as well as northeasterners and midwesterners, represented the limits of change that many white Americans were willing to tolerate. Republican Richard Nixon appealed to white working-class and middle-class voters repelled by riots and protesters, whom mainstream media often portrayed as destructive malcontents. Many white voters also believed that President Johnson's administration had overlooked the Americans whom they considered "respectable" and "hard-working," and whose taxes helped fund Johnson's Great Society programs designed to aid the poor and people of color. Nixon received 43.4 percent of the popular vote, defeating by a .7 percent margin Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had spoken in support of civil rights and social justice during his campaign. As president, Nixon did advocate school integration

(but not busing children to achieve this) and preferences for minority contractors in the construction industry. The Nixon administration, however, also resisted the program to enforce fair housing and made cuts in civil rights offices in the federal government.

Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement's influence has been extensive and enduring. It has inspired movements to promote the rights and equality of women, gays and lesbians, Asian Americans, Indians, Chicanos and Chicanas, and the disabled. Decades after the peak of the civil rights movement, activists for a variety of causes continued to employ strategies such as sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience popularized by civil rights groups.

The participation of African Americans in local, state, and national politics—as voters and office holders—increased dramatically as a result of the civil rights movement. Between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s—the decades preceding and following the height of the movement—the proportion of southern blacks registered to vote rose from about 10 percent to 63 percent. The number of African American elected officials multiplied from approximately 500 in 1964 to 4,000 by 1980. Presidents became more inclined—and were expected—to appoint African American staff members and judges. White politicians also were more likely to take into account their nonwhite constituents and give greater attention to racial issues.

The civil rights movement transformed American culture and society. Although racism did not disappear, there was far less tolerance for racist attitudes and behavior than before the 1960s. In response to criticisms that educational institutions perpetuated racial biases, educators at all levels, from grade schools to universities, revised curricula to incorporate the histories and cultures of diverse Americans. Educators have found an abundance of materials to draw upon, thanks to the burgeoning scholarship on the nation's many social groups, renewed appreciation of literature by African American authors such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and more recent works by writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Many predominantly white institutions of higher education have made efforts to recruit more non-white students and faculty through programs such as affirmative action, although opponents of this strategy have attempted to eradicate it, contending that it constitutes a form of "reverse discrimination" against whites.

Those who continued to strive for civil rights after the movement's peak years pointed to ongoing problems that they argued reflected the persistence of racism entrenched in institutions and attitudes: poverty, inadequate health care, urban violence, drug addiction, high rates of incarceration for black men and women, police brutality, racial profiling, de facto segregation in inner-city neighborhoods and schools, and nonwhites' difficulties in gaining access to institutions of higher education and professions.


Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

———. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900–1990. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

Collier-Thomas, Bettye, and V. P. Franklin, eds. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890– 2000. New York: Viking, 2001.

Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1984.

Olson, Lynne. Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York: Scribners, 2001.

Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1992. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

———. "Conditions for Social Change." In A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America. Edited by William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Takaki, Ronald. Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000.

Tushnet, Mark V. Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Plume, 1991.

Williams, Juan, ed. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1988.


See alsoAffirmative Action ; Brown v. Board of Education ofTopeka ; Civil Disobedience ; Civil Rights Act of 1964 ; Desegregation ; Freedom Riders ; Integration ; Jim Crow Laws ; March on Washington ; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ; Reconstruction ; Segregation ; Southern Christian Leadership Conference ; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ; Voting Rights Act of 1965 ; andvol. 9:An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer ; The Arrest of Rosa Parks ; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Founding Statement .

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Civil Rights Movement


The civil rights movement was a "freedom struggle" by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s to gain equality. The goals of the movement were freedom from discrimination; equal opportunity in employment, education, and housing; the right to vote; and equal access to public facilities.

Motivation for the movement came from an earlier period. During Reconstruction (18651877) the North attempted to force economic and social change on the South and at times exploited the region mercilessly. A broad-based reaction in Southern states led to creation of a legal system of discrimination against African Americans known as Jim Crow laws. The laws largely nullified recognition of citizenship and voting rights and equal protection under the law according to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Jim Crow laws persisted through the first half of the twentieth century.

Organized efforts to combat Jim Crow laws led to establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. The NAACP pursued a lobbying and litigation strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination. The NAACP, however, had few successes before World War II (193945). At the close of the war returning African American servicemen expressed impatience with the segregation laws and policies that they found at home.

The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education proved to be the landmark event that struck down segregation in public elementary schools. The Court's decision effectively closed the door on the "separate-but-equal" doctrine that supported Jim Crow policies. Legal groundwork was laid for a more concerted nationwide effort to eliminate racial barriers in the United States.

African-American activism forced the government to extend racial reform beyond Brown to other aspects of life. The Civil Rights Movement would become more than just a protest against segregation in the schools. In December of 1955 Rosa Parks, the secretary of the Alabama NAACP, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama; she had refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man as required by city law. In reaction to this arrest a group of black women called for a boycott of city buses. A rally was held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery. The decision to pursue the boycott followed an inspirational speech by a young, 27-year-old preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. (192968), who preached the tactics of nonviolent, civil disobedience in contrast the NAACP's legal approach. The boycott lasted almost a year during which King's home was bombed. But the violence only served to garner additional support for the movement from people regardless of ethnicity. Late in 1956 the Supreme Court's Gayle v. Browder decision ruled the Montgomery bus law unconstitutional.

King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to provide leadership to a movement that was gaining momentum. The Klan, along with other racists, responded by beginning a terrorist campaign of murders and bombings. Other highly publicized confrontations followed. In 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower (195361) dispatched federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School to assist nine African-American students who tried to enroll. (Central High was a segregated school that did not accept African American.) In 1962 President John F. Kennedy (196163) sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi when James Meredith attempted to enroll.

The movement proceeded on a number of fronts. A campaign to register African American voters grew throughout the South, often at great personal risk to those involved. Other protesters targeted "whites-only" lunch counters, where they would take a seat and refuse to move until they were forcibly evicted, thereby introducing the non-violent tactic of "sit-ins." They often withstood considerable abuse while maintaining their nonviolent conduct.

Another strategy was Freedom Rides targeting the segregation on interstate buses and in bus stations. In 1961 a group of civil rights activists boarded segregated interstate buses that traveled from Washington, DC into the South. These activists, who were beaten at various Southern stops, were deliberately violating segregationist policies that the Supreme Court had earlier ruled unconstitutional in the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia decision. The fire bombing of one of these buses in Alabama forced President Kennedy to send U.S. Marshals to protect the riders. In September of 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission implemented the Boynton decision by abolishing all remaining interstate transportation segregation policies.

The high point of the civil rights movement occurred on August 28, 1963, when 250,000 thousand persons participated in a March on Washington urging the federal government to support desegregation and protect voting rights. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech espousing nonviolent direct action and voter registration. President Kennedy, who had earlier tried to discourage the march, decided to use it to promote the passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, used the outpouring of grief after Kennedy's assassination in the fall of 1963 to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed by Congress. The sweeping act shattered the legal foundation of segregation by prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation, including lunch counters, motels, theaters, and service stations. It denied federal funding to programs with discrimination or segregation policies and it also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It outlawed discrimination in private businesses with 25 or more employees, as well as in labor unions. The act, however, did not address voting rights.

Violence continued. In 1963 Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot and killed in Jackson, Mississippi while organizing a boycott protesting voter discrimination. (Ironically, as a veteran of the World War II invasion at Omaha Beach Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.) Yet the issue of civil rights did not come to the fore of public consciousness until in June 1964 two young white civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered along with an African-American companion, James Chaney, for promoting African American voter registration in Mississippi. In 1965 King led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, protesting voting restrictions. After first being attacked by mounted police using tear gas and clubs, the march was finally held with court permission. Protected by 3,000 federal troops, over 25,000 people joined the march; it was the largest and last major civil rights protest of the 1960s. Congress responded with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act expanded voting rights to blacks by prohibiting use of literacy tests and other forms of discriminatory qualifications. In addition, the act established federal over-sight of state voting laws.

Despite these successes, dissatisfaction with King's message of nonviolence grew among blacks. New, more radical groups formed, including the Black Muslims. For some of them black separatism rather than integration was an objective. Urban riots across the country in 1965, including Watts in Los Angeles, drew greater attention to these groups.

King, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his leadership role in the movement, was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a strike by city sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted the following week in 125 cities. Six days after King's assassination Congress passed the Fair Housing Act which banned discrimination in most housing. The leader of the civil rights movement, however, was gone and organizational unity was no longer evident; thus, the civil rights movement's national thrust faded.

No other twentieth century social movement in the United States posed as profound a challenge to political and legal institutions as the civil rights movement. The movement altered fundamental relationships between state and federal governments and compelled federal courts to protect constitutional civil liberties more effectively. U.S. citizens of all ethnic groups benefited from the movement's gains in social justice, especially women, the disabled and other victims of discrimination. Despite large legal gains, however, substantial racial discrimination persisted throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

Topic overview

Eighteen days after the euphoria of the March on Washington, four hundred worshipers crowded into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham for Sunday services. . . . A group of young girls had just finished a Sunday school lesson and were in the basement changing into their choir robes. . . at 10:19 a.m., fifteen sticks of explosives blew apart the church basement and the children in the changing room.

henry hampton and steve fayer, voices of freedom, 1990

See also: Jim Crow Laws, Discrimination, Martin Luther King, Jr., Reconstruction


Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 196365. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Movements in America. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Robnett, Belinda. How long? How long?: African- American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Salmond, John A. My Mind Set on Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement, 19541968. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

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