Civil Rights Movement

views updated May 18 2018

Civil Rights Movement





THE 1950s AND 1960s


Although America engaged in World War II (1939–1945) supposedly to make the world safe for democracy, in 1945 most of the limitations imposed upon African Americans by racial segregation remained intact in the United States. Major changes affecting the potential for black insurgency had built up within the black community decades before the war, but the war accelerated them. A review of some of these changes is necessary for understanding the later civil rights movement of the 1950–1960 period. Known for generations as Jim Crow, the practice of segregation and discrimination against blacks stamped a badge of inferiority, stigmatizing them as a group. Unapologetic racists disfranchised black voters across the South, having removed African Americans in overwhelming numbers from the political process since the 1890s. Jim Crow also perpetuated the subjugation of blacks economically in domestic service, agricultural, and entry-level industrial occupations.


World War II and immediate postwar sociopolitical developments primed the black community for renewed struggles against deeply rooted racism. In response to the suffocating effects of Jim Crow, African Americans by the hundreds of thousands fled the South for greater freedom and dignity and for economic and educational opportunities in urban regions of the North and West. But the Second Great Migration of the 1950s uncovered the realities of racial hostilities in locales outside the South. Northern de facto Jim Crow met the migrants with urban ghettos and widespread employment discrimination, which diluted the promise of economic opportunities. However, the migrants were no longer obsequiously dependent on agriculture or domestic service for livelihood, nor were their lives and limbs endangered because of political agitation. They were free to support racial uplift organizations and programs.

The hallmark of black protest during the World War II era and its immediate aftermath was best signified in the “Double V” campaign: victory at home and victory abroad. Promoted via black media outlets, the “Double V” campaigners insisted that as America fought to secure a victory over fascism abroad, the nation must also secure a victory over racism within its borders. The “Double V” campaign, supported by organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League and supported by the black media, achieved some successes helping to drive the civil rights agenda well into the late 1940s. During the war itself, this campaign yielded some positive changes, at least in official governmental employment policies.

A. Philip Randolph, the outspoken labor radical and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an allblack union, led the charge for racial equality during the early 1940s. His March on Washington Movement (MOWM) pressed the federal government to end race discrimination in employment, particularly in defense industries and the military. In 1941 Randolph, Walter F. White of the NAACP, and other leaders threatened to convene 100,000 black marchers in Washington, D.C., if President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the federal government failed to respond to their demands.

Randolph sought a federal measure that would have forbade companies holding federal government contracts to practice racial discrimination. His desired bill called for the eradication of Jim Crow in defense-industry training and urged the total abolition of segregation in the armed forces. In addition, Randolph pushed for a law that would punish unions that refused membership and full union benefits to black workers.

Statistics suggest that by the time the United States entered the war, blacks made up only 5 percent of defense workers and less than 3 percent of the skilled work force in the construction industry. At the start of World War II the percentage of African Americans in industrial occupations was at a thirty-year low. In many respects, when the defense industry began its rapid expansion, African American workers remained marginalized from the upward mobility opportunities stemming from that growth.

In response to Randolph’s threat to protest on the lawns of the nation’s capital, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Federal Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), requiring the federal government to address the problems of employment discrimination affecting black workers. The FEPC was a five-person understaffed and underfunded commission that, lacking strong enforcement powers, could only receive and investigate complaints, draft policy, hold public hearings, and rely on moral suasion and negotiations to stem job discrimination. Nevertheless, the FEPC, Executive Order 8802, and subsequent federal measures did offer some hope that the federal government would react broadly and continuously to persistent demands for African American employment equality. While the basic challenges to employment fairness remained, the exigencies of war and the expansion of the economy increased African American job opportunities. Blacks could be found in entry-level positions in most wartime industries, and they had slowly gained access to some limited benefits associated with membership within organized labor.

In November 1942, Randolph indicated that the MOWM had an agenda called the Program of the March on Washington Movement, which included a series of broader demands, the most comprehensive being “the end of Jim Crow in education, in housing, in transportation and in every other social, economic and political privilege.” Among the other demands were the elimination of the segregated military establishment, the enforcement of the due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and inclusion of blacks in all governmental policy agencies, including those “which will be sent to the peace conference so that the interests of all peoples everywhere may be fully recognized and justly provided for in the post-war settlement” (quoted in Aptheker 1973).

Randolph’s threat to assemble black workers in Washington in his relentless efforts to uproot economic discrimination before, during, and after World II marked the beginning of black mass protest that was to characterize the civil rights movement in later years. Along with attempts aimed at garnering voting rights, desegregated education, and an end to residential segregation, the civil rights community added employment equality to the list of issues as part of its collective platform. These developments emerging from the World War II era set the stage for more dramatic challenges to the racial status quo in future decades during the civil rights movement.


Developments during the war invigorated the idea of equality in the consciousness of black veterans who returned having to contest racial inequality in housing and employment. World War II had increased income levels and thus standards of living, particularly for returning black soldiers in the South. When Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, black veterans looked to benefit as a result of their having laid their lives on the line for the United States.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill, emerged out of Congress as a broad reform measure designed to provide veterans with generous education benefits, guaranteed home mortgage loans, and income adjustment allowances during their transition back to civilian life. Black veterans made the most of the measure, taking particular advantage of its education and mortgage benefits. Large numbers of black veterans were able to find employment opportunities either within federal employment circles or in nonagricultural pursuits. Although many benefited from the bill, the legislation represented yet another federal measure marred by the shortcomings of racial bias in its administration, a situation that helped prime ex-soldiers for civic action on the homefront. Scores of black servicemen attended college as a result of the bill, but these veterans were barred on account of race from attending the more prestigious white universities in the Deep South. The Veterans Administration (VA) joined with white universities in funneling black veterans into historically black colleges and universities and even encouraged black veterans to receive training in agricultural and technical trades, further emphasizing beliefs in black mental inferiority and in the relegation of blacks to menial, substandard jobs.

In the area of housing, whereas small numbers of black veterans were able to purchase homes under the GI Bill, most experienced discriminatory practices from banks, lending institutions, and mortgage agencies. The suburbanization of American housing for white veterans virtually excluded blacks, with real estate developers such as William Levitt and Sons seeking “white only” tenants in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Residential restrictive covenants confined most African Americans to the growing numbers of racially identifiable overcrowded and often deteriorating urban ghettos. Although the GI bill guaranteed unemployment benefits to veterans, the VA regularly denied benefits to black workers who refused employment at the exploitatively low wages typical of the Jim Crow era. Low wages caused many veterans to seek ever cheaper used housing that had been left behind by whites fleeing their presence.

In response to the effects of discrimination in the immediate post–World War II era, however, African American assaults on the racial practices of the United States actually were continuations of significant prewar influences such as the First Great Migration of World War I, the Garvey movement, the efforts of the NAACP, and the sociocultural activism of the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement. Blacks were becoming less rural and more urban and aggressive. The social energies that fueled postwar activism had been built virtually out of sight of mainstream America. Understanding this earlier evolution of the black community helps one realize that it was not simply World War II exigencies that emboldened blacks to demand major changes in race relations.

In acts of individual resistance and as a means of obtaining better lives for their families, many southern blacks continued the trend of migrating to urban centers of the Northeast, Midwest, and West coast during the World War II era and beyond. This movement of blacks out of the South mirrored the earlier migration of the 1910s and 1920s. The Second Great Migration of black southerners, lasting from 1930 to 1950, was no small exodus. Black populations in the Northeast and Midwest nearly doubled during the twenty-year period, spurred largely by World War II industrial employment opportunities. Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area witnessed dramatic increases in their black urban populations because of job opportunities in the aircraft industry. As was the case during earlier migration years, once blacks arrived in these cities, racial tensions flared sporadically. By the 1950s sections of cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles increasingly became defined as ghettos populated by working-class blacks.

In response to this dramatic influx of black newcomers, white urbanites steadily fled cities to neighboring suburbs. Because of racially engineered residential segregation, blacks were typically locked into urban spaces while millions of whites sought refuge from blacks in burgeoning suburban areas on the margins of these cities. As early as the 1940s, the initial stages of white flight and white economic withdrawal had begun to affect the economies of urban spaces. White flight and residential segregation were fortified through agreements between insurance agencies and real estate agencies, and through policies stemming from the federal government. For example, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), in conjunction with real estate brokers and lenders, published documents that graded neighborhoods to determine how qualified their respective residents were for loans and mortgages; the higher the score, the greater likelihood of residents winning financial approval. Neighborhoods with even insignificant numbers of black residents were typically given lower scores.

Nonetheless, efforts to limit black opportunity continued to generate upsurges in the budding civil rights community. By 1945, the NAACP could brag of having an impressive 450,000 members, up from only 50,000 in 1941. Even the association’s southern chapters could boast of having an official membership of 150,000 across the region, with potentially greater numbers if unofficial membership had been tallied. For decades the NAACP worked to dismantle the legal underpinnings to Jim Crow through the efforts of its Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), and in the immediate aftermath of World War II, such legal activism gained momentum.


The successes of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, incorporated in 1940, are owed to the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston, then later to his young protégé Thurgood Marshall. For decades the LDF engineered essential U.S. Supreme Court victories that weakened the precedence set by the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision and its “separate-but-equal” doctrine. While LDF was a new component within the NAACP in 1940, Houston and Marshall had been the association’s legal brain trust for more than a decade. In addition, the organization had already accrued a great deal of experience in the realm of civil rights legal activism. As early as 1915 the NAACP had won its first significant victory in the landmark decision Guinn v. U.S. in which the Supreme Court found electoral grandfather clauses unconstitutional. Thus, by 1954 LDF staffers were veterans of legal battles who had earned significant Supreme Court victories over legally mandated racism. With Marshall at the helm, the LDF won the most historic decision of the twentieth century in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which racial discrimination in public education was ruled unconstitutional.

The LDF began its tactical assault on segregated education in the years prior to World War II, earning precedence-shaping victories on the road to Brown. In the following cases, LDF convinced federal courts to compel states to equalize their graduate and professional programs or be forced to admit qualified black applicants. The cases included: Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Regents (1948), McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). Thus, by the 1954 Brown decision, much of the legal support for segregated education had already been found unconstitutional by the nation’s highest tribunal as a result of the LDF’s school desegregation campaign.

LDF also earned noteworthy victories in areas still defined by the legality of Jim Crow but outside the realm of education. In the wartime decision Smith v. Allwright (1944), the LDF convinced the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the politically exclusive all-white primary election practices of the South. This victory aided in the slow march back to electoral and political participation on the part of African Americans. In Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the LDF showed that racial restrictive covenants indeed violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

While the NAACP and the LDF won important victories in the decades of legal struggles leading up to the civil rights movement, these cases did little to change the routine denial of full equality to African Americans. But these victories did suggest that the law might eventually evolve to protect black people’s civil rights. The decade prior to the civil rights movement, which included these successes in the courtroom and enduring legacies from the World War II era, paved the way to the turbulent 1960s and the many social changes that followed.

To complement the efforts of leaders such as Randolph and organizations such as the NAACP in battling racism, James Farmer, Bernice Fisher, and Bayard Rustin formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942, injecting a healthy dose of radical action into the civil rights community. CORE patterned its principles of nonviolent, direct action after Gandhian theories of civil disobedience. These theories and practices ultimately shaped much of the larger civil rights movement’s ideology and many of the movement’s protest tactics. CORE’s Freedom Rides of 1947 were precursors to the types of demonstrations the organization would help engineer during the 1960s. With the emergence of CORE and the growth of the NAACP, the civil rights movement had its two central organizations in place to effectively fight segregation, setting the stage for the nation’s second racial reconstruction.


Social, economic and legal demands for racial equality were not the sole expressions of resistance emerging out of black America in the immediate postwar era. Black writers, as extensions of the Harlem Renaissance, produced unabashed literary critiques of race and racism in the United States. This era of literary realism witnessed works by black writers such as Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940), Chester Himes (If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945), Ann Petry (The Street, 1946), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952), James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953), and Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun, 1959), and in 1945 Ebony magazine began circulation, appealing to a wide array of blacks across the nation.

In other entertainment venues African Americans made similar demands for equality. As late as the 1940s media depictions of African Americans remained openly negative. Black filmmakers and actors responded to these and other racial stereotypes by creating more positive images of African Americans beyond the standard Sambos, coons, and mammies. With Gregory Peck’s Gentle-man’s Agreement (1947) on anti-Semitism, Hollywood paved the way for what has been called “social problem” movies. With black audiences larger and more urban than ever, the problem/theme movies appealed to more assertive black communities who rejected the images of black clowns, happy servants, or token entertainers. Among the movies showing blacks as individuals beyond stereotypes were Home of the Brave (1949) with James Edwards, NoWay Out (1950) with Sidney Poitier, Member of the Wedding (1952) with Ethel Waters, Carmen Jones (1954) starring Dorothy Dandridge, and Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Sidney Poitier, the new and dignified black actor of the era. For African audiences on the verge of the renewed civil rights movement, complacent mammies and lackadaisical handyman servants were literally Gone with the Wind (1939).

Racially polarized popular entertainment was not exempt from the mushrooming rebellion against racism. In professional sports African Americans met racial hurdles with momentous achievements. Of these achievements, none was more important than Jackie Robinson integrating the fiercely segregated Major League Baseball. Robinson, a former All-American running back at the university of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and member of the historic Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, was the first African American to break the racial barrier to the hallowed, all-white, male-dominated institution of professional baseball when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. One year later, legendary Negro League home-run hitter Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians, opening the floodgates for black ballplayers to join major league teams. Ultimately, however, these developments signaled the end of the historic Negro Baseball Leagues. In boxing, Joe Louis reigned as heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, winning decisive victories over a multitude of white challengers for blacks to applaud. The accomplishments of these athletes and the many that followed offered African Americans brief respites from the frustrations associated with the norms and practices of Jim Crow America.

THE 1950s AND 1960s

As the cold war entered the political consciousness of the nation, outspoken critics of the United States and especially those with Communist ties were victimized by a congressionally supported witch hunt to expel such subversive elements from the country. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois and artist-activist Paul Robeson were two of the more prominent African Americans targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the era of McCarthyism. Whereas Du Bois avoided penalties because claims against him were dismissed, Robeson refused to yield in his scathing criticisms of racial practices in America, nor did he denounce his Communist Party affiliations. With little support from civil rights leaders because of fears of being targeted themselves, Robeson, at the mercy of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s vicious assaults, was eventually deported. Paul Robeson is widely recognized as one of the most tragic fatalities of McCarthyism and anticommunist aggression in the United States.

By the middle of the 1950s, racial realities in the United States still thrived to block black equality and progress. However, developments from the post–World War II era propelled civil rights activism and coordination. With the 1954 victory in Brown and the encouraging success of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, led by members of the NAACP and CORE, the modern civil rights era was ignited. Jim Crow—America’s version of racial apartheid—would soon meet its death knell as well-coordinated protest movements pushed the civil rights agenda, ultimately engendering the consciousness of America.

In February 1960, the student protest movement began when four students at North Carolina A&T walked into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down, refusing to move until served. Only days later, students across the South were leading numerous sitin movements against establishments clinging to the practices of Jim Crow. Within a month of the initiation of the sit-ins, hundreds of young radicals convened at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and created the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC radicals, black and white, infused a high degree of militancy into the civil rights movement, adding direct, confrontational action to the already successful legal movements and economic boycotts.

Alongside CORE, SNCC continued its direct-action, civil disobedience campaigns, exposing the lengths to which white southerners would go to preserve segregation, even in the face of laws proscribing such practices. CORE reinvigorated its 1947 Freedom Rides by teaming with members of SNCC in 1961 and leading an interracial group of riders through the South, challenging Jim Crow in interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were met with violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. However, no stop along their ride through the South proved more dangerous than Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, the protesters were met by more than 1,000 whites, with the police nowhere to be found. All the riders and a presidential aide assigned to monitor the crisis were injured by the mob and had to be hospitalized.

Under the coordination of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., protest movements in Albany, Georgia (1961), and Birmingham, Alabama (1963), propelled the civil rights agenda as young and old joined forces to battle racism in the Deep South. In August 1963, the civil rights movement momentum peaked as nearly 250,000 marchers of many colors and faiths assembled in the nation’s capital for the famed March on Washington, where they heard King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” However, soon after the march concluded, white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. Such violent responses were emblematic of the resentment and contempt whites held against blacks challenging racial norms.

Church bombings were only part of the violence directed at African American freedom fighters during the civil rights era. During Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, white terror surfaced against volunteers leading voter registration drives in the South’s most resistant communities. A collection of young, racially mixed activists from CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP joined forces under the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in an effort to restore and enhance political participation among blacks in Mississippi. Soon after Freedom Summer began, three volunteers disappeared. Two white volunteers in their early twenties—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—and James Chaney, a twenty-one-year-old black Mississippi native, were killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The efforts of COFO and Freedom Summer ultimately led to the highest political mobilization of blacks across the state since Reconstruction.

One year later, in 1965, SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to highlight the continued disfranchisement of African American voters in Alabama. As King and the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police officers met them with tear gas and proceeded to beat them before a national television audience. What became known as “Bloody Sunday” spurred Congress and President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also named the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed mechanisms whites had used to disqualify black voters for nearly a century. Congress had also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought an end to Jim Crow in public accommodations and employment and reaffirmed the congressional commitment to school desegregation.

In a roughly twenty-five year period after World War II, barely one generation, the civil rights community had effectively done away with Jim Crow. With much sacrifice, skillful protest, and charismatic leadership, legally sanctioned second-class citizenship, disfranchisement, and employment injustice reached a formal end.

SEE ALSO Baker, Ella; Baseball; Du Bois, W. E. B.; NAACP.



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

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. 2000. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Goldfield, David. 1990. Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Hanchett, Thomas W. 1998. Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875–1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Herbold, Hilary. 1994–1995. “Never a Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 6: 104– 108.

Hill, Herbert. 1985. Black Labor and the American Legal System: Race, Work, and the Law. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. 2004. African Americans: A Concise History, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Jones, James. 1976. “The Transformation of Fair Employment Practices Policies.” In Federal Policies and Worker Status since the 1930s, edited by J. P. Goldberg, E. Ahern, W. Haber, and R. A. Oswald. Madison, WI: Industrial Relations Research Institute.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 1990. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kluger, Richard. 1975. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.

Nieman, Donald G. 1991. Promises to Keep: African Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polenberg, Richard D. 2000. The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933–1945: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.

Sugrue, Thomas. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tushnet, Mark. 1987. The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925–1950. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.


Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915).

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950).

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).

Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Regents, 332 U.S. 661 (1948).

Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).

Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).

Robert Samuel Smith

Civil Rights Movement

views updated May 08 2018


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 .

Civil Rights Movement

views updated Jun 08 2018


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.

Civil Rights Movement

views updated May 18 2018

Civil Rights Movement

The African-American struggle for civil rights marks a turning point in American history because it represents the period when African Americans made their entry into the American mainstream. Although the focus of the long persistent drive for civil rights was centered around political issues such as voting, integration, educational opportunities, better housing, increased employment opportunities, and fair police protection, other facets of American life and culture were affected as well. Most noticeably, African Americans came out of the civil rights movement determined to define their own distinct culture. New styles of politics, music, clothing, folktales, hairstyles, cuisine, literature, theology, and the arts were all evident at the end of the civil rights movement.

Although African Americans have a long tradition of protest dating back to the seventeenth century, the mid-1950s represented a turning point in the black struggle for equal rights. With the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of "Separate But Equal," African Americans realized that the time was right to end all vestiges of Jim Crow and discrimination. On the heels of Brown, black Southerners undertook battles to achieve voting rights and integration, under the broad leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through marches, rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts, they were able to accomplish their goals by the late 1960s. With voting rights and integration won in the South, African Americans next shifted their attention to the structural problems of northern urban blacks. However, non-violent direct-action was not the preferred tool of protest in the North where the self-defense message of Malcolm X was popular. Rather, the method of protest was urban unrest, which produced very few meaningful gains for African Americans other than the symbolic election of black mayors to large urban centers.

Immediately, the civil rights movement ushered in a new black political culture. With the right to vote won in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, African Americans now began to place a

tremendous emphasis on political participation. Throughout the South African Americans went to the polls in large numbers seeking to elect representatives that would best represent their interests. In the North where the right to vote had been in existence since the mid-nineteenth century, a different type of political culture emerged. As a result of the civil rights movement black voters in the North began to move away from the idea of coalition building with white liberals, preferring instead to establish all-black political organizations. These clubs would not only attack the conservativeness of the Republican Party but they would also begin to reassess their commitment to the democratic party at the local, state, and national level. In essence, the race was moving toward political maturity; no longer would their votes be taken for granted.

Another aspect of the nascent black political culture was a re-emergence of black nationalism which was re-introduced into American society by Malcolm X. While a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X made African Americans feel good about themselves. He told them to embrace their culture and their heritage, and he also spoke out openly against white America. Via his autobiography and lectures, Malcolm X quickly emerged as the instrumental figure in this renewed black consciousness. Shortly after his assassination in 1965, the proprietors of black culture immediately gave Malcolm deity status. His name and portrait began to appear everywhere: bumper stickers, flags, T-shirts, hats, and posters. Although Malcolm popularized this new revolutionary frame of mind, by no means did he have a monopoly on it. Throughout the 1960s African Americans spoke of black nationalism in three main forms: territorial, revolutionary, and cultural. Territorial nationalists such as the Republic of New Afrika and the Nation of Islam, called for a portion of the United States to be partitioned off for African Americans as payment for years of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination. But they insisted that by no means would this settle the issue. Instead, this would just be partial compensation for years of mistreatment. Revolutionary nationalists such as the Black Panther Party sought to overthrow the capitalist American government and replace it with a socialist utopia. They argued that the problems faced by African Americans were rooted in the capitalist control of international economic affairs. Thus, the Black Panthers viewed the black nationalist struggle as one of both race and class. Lastly, the cultural nationalism espoused by groups such as Ron Karenga's US organization sought to spark a revolution through a black cultural renaissance. In the eyes of his supporters, the key to black self-empowerement lay in a distinct black culture. They replaced European cultural forms with a distinct Afrocentric culture. One of Karenga's chief achievements was the development of the African-American holiday "Kwanzaa." Kwanzaa was part of a broader theory of black cultural nationalism which suggested that African Americans needed to carry out a cultural revolution before they could achieve power.

One of the most visible effects of the civil rights movement on American popular culture was the introduction of the concept of "Soul." For African Americans of the 1960s, Soul was the common denominator of all black folks. It was simply the collective thread of black identity. All blacks had it. In essence, soul was black culture, something separate and distinct from white America. No longer would they attempt to deny nor be ashamed of their cultural heritage; rather they would express it freely, irrespective of how whites perceived it. Soul manifested itself in a number of ways: through greetings, "what's up brother," through handshakes, "give me some skin," and even through the style of walk. It was no longer acceptable to just walk, one who had soul had to "strut" or "bop." This was all a part of the attitude that illustrated they would no longer look for white acceptance.

One of the most fascinating cultural changes ushered in by the civil rights movement was the popularity of freedom songs, which at times were organized or started spontaneously during the midst of demonstrations, marches, and church meetings. These songs were unique in that although they were in the same tradition as other protest music, this was something different. These were either new songs for a new situation, or old songs adapted to the times. Songs such as "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," "Everybody Says Freedom," "Which Side Are You On," "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and "Ain't Scared of Your Jails," all express the feelings of those fighting for black civil rights. While these songs were popularized in the South, other tunes such as "Burn, Baby, Burn," and the "Movement's Moving On," signaled the movements shift from non-violence to Black Power. Along with freedom songs blacks also expressed themselves through "Soul music," which they said "served as a repository of racial consciousness." Hits such as "I'm Black and I'm Proud," by James Brown, "Message from a Black Man," by the Temptations, Edwin Starrs's "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem," and "Is It Because I'm Black" by Syl Johnson, all testified to the black community's move toward a cultural self-definition.

African Americans also redefined themselves in the area of literary expression. Black artists of the civil rights period attempted to counter the racist and stereotyped images of black folk by expressing the collective voice of the black community, as opposed to centering their work to gain white acceptance. Instrumental in this new "black arts movement," were works such as Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, and Dutchman. These works illustrate the distinctiveness of black culture, while simultaneously promoting race pride and unity.

The black revolution was principally the catalyst for a new appreciation of black history as well. Prior to the civil rights movement, the importance of Africa in the world and the role of African Americans in the development of America was virtually ignored at all levels of education, particularly at the college and university level. Whenever people of African descent were mentioned in an educational setting they were generally introduced as objects and not subjects. However, the civil rights movement encouraged black students to demand that their history and culture receive equal billing in academia. Students demanded black studies courses taught by black professors. White university administrators reluctantly established these courses, which instantly became popular. Predominantly white universities and colleges now offered classes in Swahili, Yoruba, black history, and black psychology to satisfy the demand. Due to the heightened awareness, all black students were expected to enroll in black studies courses, and when they didn't, they generally had to provide an explanation to the more militant factions on campus. Students not only demanded black studies courses but they also expressed a desire for colleges and universities that would be held accountable to the black community. Traditional black colleges and universities such as Howard, Spelman, and Fisk, were now viewed with suspicion since they served the racial status quo. Instead, schools such as Malcolm X College of Chicago and Medgar Evers College of CUNY became the schools of choice since they were completely dedicated to the black community.

The 1960s generation of African Americans also redefined themselves in the area of clothing. Again, they were seeking to create something unique and distinct from the white mainstream. The new attire consisted of wide-brimmed hats, long full-cut jackets, platform shoes, bell-bottoms, leather vests, and wide-collar shirts. These outfits were complimented by African-like beads, earrings, belts, medallions, and bracelets. However, the more culturally conscious rejected all types of western culture in favor of dashikis, robes, and sandals. In response to these new cultural tastes clothing companies began specifically targeting the black consumer by stating that their items were designed to meet the body style of blacks. To complement the new clothing look African Americans also began to reject the European standard of beauty. Whereas African Americans were once ashamed of their full lips, broad nose, high cheekbones, and coarse hair, they now embraced them. Black women took hair straighteners and hot combs out of their bathrooms and began to wear "naturals," cornrows, and beads, which many considered to be the most visible sign of black self-expression.

Interestingly enough, black Americans also experienced a slight shift in eating tastes. Although collard greens, "chitlins," catfish, pigs feet, and fried-chicken had been a staple in the black diet for years, it was now labeled "soul food," because it provided a cultural link to the African ancestral homeland.

African-American folktales took on a whole new importance during the civil rights movement as the famed "trickster tales" became more contemporary. Folklorists made the black hero superior to that of other culture's, by stressing its mental agility, brute physical strength, and sexual prowess. These heroes also reversed the traditional socio-economic arrangements of America as well. Characters such as Long-Shoe Sam, Hophead Willie, Shine, and Dolemite, all used wit and deceit to get what they wanted from white America. In the eyes of black America, traditional heroes such as Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett were no match for this new generation of black adventurers.

The civil rights movement also encouraged blacks to see God, Jesus, and Mary as black. As their African ancestors, these deities would assist African Americans in their quest for physical, mental, and spiritual liberation. By stressing that a belief in a white God or Jesus fostered self-hatred, clergyman such as Rev. Albert Cleague of Detroit sought to replace the traditional depiction of God and Jesus with a black image. Throughout the country black churches followed Cleague's lead as they removed all vestiges of a white Christ in favor of a savior they could identify with. Followers of this new Black Christian Nationalism also formulated a distinct theology, in which Jesus was viewed as a black revolutionary who would deliver African American people from their white oppressors.

As with other facets of black popular culture, television also witnessed a change as a result of the black revolution. With the renewed black consciousness clearly evident, the entertainment industry sought to capitalize by increasing the visibility of black actors and actresses. Whereas in 1962 blacks on TV were only seen in the traditional stereotyped roles as singers, dancers, and musicians, by 1968 black actors were being cast in more positive roles, such as Greg Morris in Mission Impossible, Diahann Carroll in Julia, Clarence Williams III in the Mod Squad, and Nichelle Nichols, who starred as Uhura in Star Trek. While these shows did illustrate progress, other shows such as Sanford and Son and Flip Wilson's Show all reinforced the traditional black stereotype. In the film industry, Hollywood would not capitalize on the renewed black consciousness until the early 1970s with blaxploitation films. In the mid-1960s however, African Americans were continually portrayed as uncivilized, barbaric, and savage, in movies such as The Naked Prey, Dark of the Sun, and Mandingo.

The principal effect of the civil rights movement on American popular culture was a renewed racial consciousness not witnessed since the Harlem Renaissance. This cultural revolution inspired African Americans to reject the white aesthetic in favor of their own. Although they had fought and struggled for full inclusion into American society, the civil rights drive also instilled into African Americans a strong appreciation of their unique cultural heritage. Through new styles of music, clothing, literature, theology, cuisine, and entertainment, African Americans introduced a completely new cultural form that is still evident today.

—Leonard N. Moore

Further Reading:

Anderson, Terry. The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dickstein, Morris. Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties. New York, Basic Books, 1977.

Seeger, Pete, and Bob Reiser. Everybody Says Freedom. New York, W.W. Norton and Company.

Van Deburg, William. Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

——. New Day in Babylon. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Civil Rights Movement

views updated Jun 11 2018


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.

Civil Rights Movement

views updated Jun 11 2018


The twentieth century's Civil Rights movement was, like the nineteenth century's Civil War, its central domestic watershed, but the parameters of the movement are less well defined than those of the Civil War. The origins of the Civil Rights movement lie in the early twentieth-century African-American struggle against the racial discrimination, disfranchisement, and segregation that prevailed in the years after Reconstruction. After 1900, African-American migration from the rural to the urban South and from the urban South to the urban North created institutions for organizing opposition to racial discrimination. In the urban South, African Americans boycotted newly segregated public transportation systems. The organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the National Urban League in 1911, with local affiliates in Northern and Southern cities, made possible longer-term campaigns for civil rights and economic opportunity. After World War I, the NAACP's lobbying and a long series of legal cases slowly built the challenge to peonage, residential segregation, disfranchisement, and discrimination in public education and transportation.

protests, world war ii to the mid-1950s

By World War II, some African Americans were exploring nonviolent direct action as alternatives to lobbying

and litigation. A. Philip Randolph's call for a March on Washington in 1941 reclaimed an older tradition of leveraging better conditions for African Americans in a time of national crisis. A year later, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized sit-ins at Chicago lunch counters and other facilities. In 1947, CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation sponsored a Journey of Reconciliation to test segregation of interstate public transportation. Between World War II and the Korean War, the armed forces of the United States were desegregated and, in a series of executive orders, President Harry Truman established a President's Commission on Civil Rights and a Fair Employment Practice Commission to encourage equal employment opportunity in the civil service. As Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union increased, tensions between the rhetoric of equality and the reality of segregation in the United States took center stage.

By 1950, NAACP legal appeals to the United States Supreme Court, masterminded by the attorney Thurgood Marshall, were chipping away at disfranchisement and racial segregation in residential zoning, interstate transportation, and public graduate and professional schools. These successes encouraged the NAACP to challenge segregated elementary and secondary education as well. In 1954, the Court found the old "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Yet the Court's order that segregated school systems begin the process of desegregation with "deliberate speed" allowed many school districts to delay implementation of the order into the 1960s. In 1955, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, protested racial discrimination on the city's buses with a dramatic boycott. Martin Luther King, the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, won national recognition as their eloquent spokesperson. Shortly after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of Mont-gomery's buses, King and his allies in churches across the South organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to extend nonviolent forms of social protest throughout the region.

Yet the SCLC's early efforts floundered and it was college students who launched the sit-in movement in 1960. Between 1957 and 1960, scattered sit-ins took place in cities from North Carolina and Florida to Oklahoma, but it was a sit-in at Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 that burst like wildfire across cities in the upper and peripheral South. By March, demonstrations had taken place in thirty-one Southern cities. On March 19, San Antonio, Texas, became the first Southern city to desegregate its lunch counters. In April, students gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, to organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to coordinate their efforts. In May 1961, CORE revisited its 1947 Journey of Reconciliation with a Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C., through the Carolinas and on into Alabama. The Freedom Rides showed both that interstate public transportation in the South violated rulings by the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Supreme Court and that citizens who tested those rulings would meet brutally violent opposition in the deep South.

As the NAACP continued to press its agenda of lobbying and litigation between 1953 and 1965, local movements mounted a variety of direct-action protests against racial discrimination in cities across the South. In Dividing Lines, historian Mills Thornton argues that direct action occurred in communities where local African Americans pursued local grievances by taking advantage of cleavages in the community's white power structure and conversely that direct action did not emerge in communities where African-American leaders saw no such opportunity. The argument challenges any notion of a national Civil Rights movement. Nonetheless, such local movements reached a crescendo in Birmingham, Alabama; Cambridge, Maryland; Greensboro, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Savannah, Georgia; and elsewhere during 1963. In August 1963, they coalesced in a national March on Washington, where some 250,000 participants heard Martin Luther King intone the themes of his "I Have a Dream" speech.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, launched a war on poverty and made the passage of new Civil Rights legislation a high priority. Six months later, Congress passed and Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination in public accommodations, strengthened voting rights guarantees, and established an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet opposition to and strains within the powerful coalition behind that legislation were evident in Alabama governor George Wallace's campaigns in presidential primaries in Maryland, Wisconsin, and Indiana; in the Republicans' nomination for president of an opponent of the legislation, Senator Barry Goldwater; in the murder of three Civil Rights workers at the outset of Freedom Summer in Mississippi; and in Johnson's refusal to seat a delegation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged an all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Three more Civil Rights workers were murdered during 1965's campaign in Selma, Alabama, for voting rights. The refusal of SNCC to endorse the SCLC's march from Selma to Montgomery indicated additional strains within the movement, but the movement found vindication in the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965 and authorized federal over-sight of voting in the South.

climax and decline

By 1966, the Civil Rights movement had crested and begun to disintegrate. The Vietnam War was a major factor in its disintegration. The conservative wing of the movement, the Urban League and the NAACP, which continued to pursue their work and valued their alliance with the Johnson administration, backed the war. To them, the U.S. armed forces were a model of equal opportunity and social mobility. The radical wing of the movement, including CORE and SNCC, grew increasingly critical of the Johnson administration and called the war "a white man's fight and black man's war." As the movement fragmented, SCLC seemed to flounder again. Martin Luther King expanded his efforts, addressing new issues in a frustrating campaign in Chicago and criticizing of America's engagement in Vietnam. In the years prior to his death, King became one of the most prominent critics of the American prosecution of the war.

After Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, the leadership of the SCLC passed to his friend Ralph Abernathy. Many stalwarts of the radical wing of the movement, CORE and SNCC, left them to new leaders, including Floyd McKissick, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, who increasingly spoke about "black power" and alternately allied with and struggled against Nixonian black capitalism and the claims of left-nationalist ideological purity. The movement had won an end to legal segregation and in many cases challenged de facto segregation. In 1966, Massachusetts Republican Edward W. Brooke became the first African-American member of the United States Senate since Reconstruction and Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American member of a presidential cabinet. Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American member of the Supreme Court in 1967. Increasingly, the movement's struggle took the form of political activity, leading to a realignment of political parties in the South, where African-American voters became a major constituency of the Democratic Party and massive numbers of white voters resuscitated the Republican Party in the region. A successfully desegregated armed forces gave the appearance abroad that racial tensions had been resolved, which was far from the reality at home.

In the hundred years that followed the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement ebbed and flowed. The twentieth century's major wars, as well as the Cold War, energized the struggle for equal rights as Americans sought to achieve at home the ideals they fought for abroad.


Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

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

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Morrow, 1986.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Lawson, Steven F. In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965–1982. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism, 1941–1973. 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 2003.

Thornton, J. Mills, III. Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

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

Ralph E. Luker

See also:Churches, Mainstream; Civil Liberties 1946–Present; Jackson, Jesse Louis; Johnson, Lyndon Baines; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Multiculturalism and Cold War; Race and Military; Truman, Harry S.

Civil Rights Movement

views updated May 14 2018


Because the basic rights of citizenship were not equally available to all Americans at the nation's inception, civil rights movements involving groups excluded from full political participation have been a continuing feature of U.S. history. Males without property, African Americans, and women are among the groups that have engaged in sustained struggles to establish, protect, or expand their rights as American citizens. These struggles have resulted in fundamental departures from the limited conceptions of citizenship and the role of government that prevailed during the early national era.

The term "civil rights movement" more narrowly refers to the collective efforts of African Americans to advance in American society. These efforts are aspects of a broader, long-term black freedom struggle seeking goals beyond civil rights, but they have had particularly important impact on dominant conceptions of the rights of American citizens and the role of government in protecting these rights. Although the Supreme Court in the dred scott decision of 1857 negated the citizenship status of African Americans, the subsequent extensions of egalitarian principles to African Americans resulted in generalized expansions of the scope of constitutionally protected rights. In particular, both the fourteenth amendment and the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, despite retrogressive Court decisions such as plessy v. ferguson (1896), ultimately served as foundations for major civil rights reforms benefiting black Americans and other groups. During the twentieth century, African Americans have participated in many racial advancement efforts that have enlarged the opportunities and protections available to individuals in other groups. More recently, as a result of sustained protest movements of the period after world war ii, the term "civil rights" has come to refer not only to governmental policies relating to the equal treatment of individuals but also to policies equalizing the allocation of resources among groups. In short, the modern civil rights movement in the United States has redefined as well as pursued rights.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an interracial group founded in 1909, has been the most enduring institution directing the course of twentieth-century American civil rights movements. Although many organizations later challenged the NAACP's priorities and its reliance on the tactics of litigation and governmental lobbying, the group's large membership and its increasingly effective affiliate, the naacp legal defense & educational fund, made civil rights reforms into principal black political objectives. Among the outgrowths of NAACP-sponsored legal suits were the Supreme Court's smith v. allwright (1944) decision outlawing white primary elections and the brown v. board of education (1954, 1955) decision against segregated public schools. These landmark cases helped to reverse earlier Court decisions—such as Plessy—that limited the scope of civil rights protections.

In the years after the Brown decision, other civil rights organizations departed from the NAACP's reform strategy and placed more emphasis on protest and mass mobilization. Starting with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, southern blacks, aided by northern allies, successfully used boycotts, mass meetings, marches, rallies, sit-ins, and other insurgent tactics to speed the pace of civil rights reform. The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), founded in 1957 and led for many years by martin luther king, jr. , and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, spearheaded a series of mass struggles against white racial domination in the South. The NAACP also supplied many of the participants and much of the legal support for these struggles, while the predominantly white Congress of Racial Equality (core) contributed activists and expertise in the use of Gandhian nonviolent tactics. Although desegregation was initially the main focus of southern mass movements, economic and political concerns were evident from their inception.

King and the SCLC played especially important roles in mobilizing mass protest campaigns in the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Selma in 1963 and 1965. SCLC leaders orchestrated clashes between nonviolent demonstrators and often brutal law enforcement personnel. Such highly publicized confrontations made northern whites more aware of southern racial inequities, particularly the pervasive and antiquated Jim Crow system of public segregation. As the southern struggle's best-known spokes-person, King sought to link black civil rights aspirations with widely accepted, long-established political principles. During 1961 he identified the democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers as an unrealized "noble dream." "On the one hand, we have proudly professed the principles of democracy, and on the other hand, we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles," he told an audience at Lincoln University. Speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, he insisted that the declaration of independence and the Constitution were "a promissory note" guaranteeing all Americans "the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." By exposing the contradictions between American ideals and southern racial realities, the SCLC's southern campaigns strengthened northern white support for civil rights reforms.

Although the SNCC was an outgrowth of the student sit-in movement of 1960, its most significant activities were concentrated in the rural areas of Mississippi and Alabama. In these areas, SNCC staff members worked with indigenous black leaders seeking to overcome economic and political oppression. During the first half of the 1960s, SNCC concentrated its efforts on the achievement of voting rights for southern blacks and federal protection for civil rights workers. SNCC organizers also helped to create new institutions, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party and the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization, under local black leadership. By 1966, the "black power" slogan, popularized by SNCC's chair Stokely Carmichael, summarized the group's emerging ideas of a struggle seeking political, economic, and cultural objectives beyond narrowly defined civil rights reforms.

By the late 1960s, organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC faced increasingly strong challenges from "black nationalist" leaders and new militant organizations, such as the Black Panther party. Often influenced by Malcolm X and by Pan-African ideologies, proponents of "black liberation" saw civil rights reforms as insufficient because they did not address the problems of poor blacks. Black nationalists also pointed out that African American citizenship had resulted from the involuntary circumstances of enslavement. In addition, racial-liberation proponents often saw the African American freedom struggle in international terms, as a movement for "human rights" and national "self-determination" rather than for civil rights.

The most significant legislation to result from the mass struggles of the 1960s were the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965. (Congress also passed notable civil rights bills in 1968, 1972, and 1990.) Taken together, these laws greatly enhanced the civic status of blacks, women, and other minority groups and placed greater responsibility on the federal government to protect such groups from discriminatory treatment. Although the 1964 and 1965 acts were in some respects simply restatements of protections specified in the constitutional amendments enacted during reconstruction, the impact of the new legislation was greater because of the expanded scope of federal regulatory powers and the continued militancy by victims of discrimination.

Since the mid-1960s, national civil rights policies have evinced awareness that antidiscrimination legislation was not sufficient to achieve tangible improvements in the living conditions of many blacks or to bring about equalization of the distribution of resources and services among racial groups in the United States. In 1968 the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) concluded that despite civil right reforms, the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." By the time of this report, the liberal coalition that had supported passage of the major civil rights legislation was divided over the role, if any, government should play in eliminating these persistent racial inequities. A "white backlash" against black militancy and claims that black gains had resulted in "reverse discrimination" against whites undermined support for major new civil rights initiatives during the 1970s and 1980s.

Although militant protest activity declined after the 1960s, civil rights movements have remained a significant feature of American political life. The increased black participation in the American political system that resulted from previous struggles lessened black reliance on extralegal tactics, but civil rights issues continued to stimulate protest, particularly when previous gains appeared to be threatened. Furthermore, women, homosexuals, disabled people, and other groups suffering discriminatory treatment have mobilized civil rights movements and created organizations of their own, thereby contributing to the continuing national dialogue regarding the scope of civil rights and the role of government.

During the 1970s and 1980s, debate continued over the appropriateness of employment affirmative action programs and court-ordered compensatory remedies for historically rooted patterns of discrimination. Nevertheless, despite contention regarding these issues and notwithstanding the conservative political climate of the period, most national civil rights policies established during the 1960s have survived. Moreover, civil rights advocates have continued to press, with limited success, toward implementation of policies for group advancement rather than individual rights, tangible gains rather than civil status, and equality of social outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. The modern African American freedom and liberation struggles of the 1960s therefore produced a major but still controversial shift in prevailing norms regarding the nature of civil rights in the United States.

Clayborne Carson

(see also: Race Consciousness; Racial Discrimination; Racial Preference.)


Branch, Taylor 1988 Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carson, Clayborne 1981 In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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

Kluger, Richard 1975 Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.

Lawson, Steven F. 1985 In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Civil Rights Movement

views updated May 23 2018

Civil Rights Movement

One of the distinguishing features of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century in America was that it was both a grassroots and a religiously based phenomenon whose aim was to protest against and demand the dismantling of the apartheidlike system of racial segregation, so-called Jim Crow, that defined the politics of white supremacy, especially in the southern states.

From the days of slavery, blacks had suffered the indignity of racial discrimination in which they were thought inferior to whites and denied the most basic of rights. They could not ordinarily vote, attend the same schools and colleges as whites, eat in the same restaurants, share the same seats on buses, or use the same public amenities. In addition, blacks were routinely subject to acts of physical violence, most typical being the practice of lynching prevalent in the South.

It was in this context that the modern civil rights movement arose. To be sure, blacks had always resisted both slavery and Jim Crow legislation. Men and women such as Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman had built a strong tradition of protest and resistance, much of which had been surreptitious and largely uncoordinated. Indeed, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, churchmen such as A. D. Williams, Martin Luther King, Sr., and others were beginning to tap into that tradition by using it to organize acts of public resistance. But it was not until the mid-1950s that black protest became a mass movement of opposition to white supremacy. Historically, it was the bus boycotts of the 1950s that formally marked the beginnings of the movement. Throughout the South public buses had been segregated into racial sections. Blacks were required by law to sit in the back of the bus, leaving the front seats vacant for whites. The arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955 for contravening such a law by refusing to yield her seat to a white man catalyzed the movement. This was not the first time blacks had defied bus laws in the South. In June 1953 blacks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, boycotted segregated buses, as did their counterparts three years later in Tallahassee, Florida. Rosa Parks herself had refused to yield a bus seat to a white man earlier, in the 1940s. The bus boycotts typified a general spirit of civil disobedience that went far beyond concern with bus laws. The boycott itself, together with the sit-ins, the long marches, and, later on, the riots in the ghettos of northern cities, was a popular method of protest that blacks used effectively against white businesses, public institutions, and local governments. But there were also other methods, such as contesting the constitutional legality of racism in southern courts as well as in the Supreme Court of the United States. It was through this approach that one of the most important victories of the movement was achieved, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1955 that public school segregation in the South was illegal.

It was not, however, the use of legal action as a strategy for which the civil rights movement became famous; it was for its use of civil disobedience. Resorting to civil disobedience was not the result of acquiescing in white power but a carefully worked out strategy that was part of the nonviolent philosophy of the whole movement. The aim of this approach was to cause as much social disruption through what was called "nonviolent direct action" as was consistent with dismantling racist structures. Three important points must be made about what made this approach effective. The first is that it was the result of a highly organized effort and was not spontaneous; second, the organizers had at their disposal a significant pool of human and financial resources; and third, the church provided a broad mass of people which the civil rights movement was able to mobilize.

Regarding the first point, the movement consisted of an extensive network of civic and religious organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), both under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Inter Civic Council (ICC) in Tallahassee, under Rev. C. K. Steel; the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), directed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; the many local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and churches and denominational and interdenominational ministerial alliances, to name but a few. What is interesting about these organizations is that almost all of them (the exception being the church and the SCLC) represented other, smaller organizations in their geographical regions. Interestingly, they were either all-Christian or all under the leadership of churchmen. The SCLC became the central organization to which all the others were affiliated.

Although it has become customary to think of the center of this movement as Montgomery, Alabama, and to associate it with the historic figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is clear that it was widely dispersed. Of course, the leaders of the movement often met to discuss tactics and strategies, but the implementation of the latter was always constrained by local circumstances, a fact that sometimes led to tensions in the movement. But it was the charismatic figure of King that served as a point of reference for diffusing these tensions. What is important, however, is that together the elements of the movement represented a formidable challenge to the white power structure.

In addition to its strong organizational base, the civil rights movement could count on the financial contributions of its members. Churches and civic organizations as well as individuals gave whatever they could. It has been said that the MIA, for example, had huge bank accounts in nine states in the South. Much of the money came from poor blacks who saw clearly that social and political change was possible only through their active participation in the movement. There were also varied degrees of financial and other support by mostly northern whites sympathetic to the movement. The involvement of ordinary women, youth, and men and the diverse leadership that was represented by the numerous organizations of the movement were themselves other important resources. It was here that the church played a decisive role in giving shape and content to the development of a civil rights culture in the black community.

The black church has always been the only institution truly owned and run by blacks; the only one to serve as a significant gathering point, a structure around which a communal sense of self developed and individual identities took shape. In the southern states there were not many blacks who were not affected by it. Popular participation was indeed one of the hallmarks of the black church, which it bequeathed to the civil rights movement. It was the church's predominance together with the fact that the minister was a highly regarded person in the community that enabled the civil rights movement to be so effective in its mobilization of blacks and in the impact of its resistance on official racism.

But apart from the financial and human resources of the movement, there was also its theology or doctrine, which taught that freedom from slavery and racism was demanded by the gospel of Christ. Thus Christian teaching, especially that prophetic aspect of it concerned with justice, inspired the message and ideology of the modern civil rights movement. Christian prophetic teaching was in fact rooted in a long tradition of religious protest within the black church, a tradition that it had compromised at various times in its history but that it was now recovering with spectacular results. There can be little doubt that one of the contributions of the civil rights movement to modern thought was the development of black theology first formally articulated in the documents of the National Conference of Black Churchmen (NCBC) in the late 1960s and in the writings of James Cone. Black theology sees itself as a people's theology with a long history of religious protest inspired by the experience of the struggles against both slavery and racism.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Jackson, Jesse; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Liberation Theology; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil RightsMovement from the 1950s through the 1980s. 1991.

Harding, Vincent, Robin D. G. Kelly, and Earl Lewis. We Changed the World: African Americans, 1945 –1970. 1997.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement:Black Communities Organizing for Change. 1984.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America'sCivil Rights Movement. 1990.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil RightsYears, 1954 –1965. 1988.

Edward P. Antonio

Civil Rights Movement

views updated Jun 11 2018

Civil Rights Movement

The modern-era civil rights movement originated in the late 1940s and intensified during the subsequent two decades. African American leaders had long been lobbying for the enforcement of existing laws that prevented discrimination based on race and the passing of new laws outlawing racist practices. Meanwhile, some enlightened white Americans were realizing that African Americans were entitled to the same protections and opportunities long enjoyed by other citizens.

The necessity for the civil rights movement grew out of the reality that, prior to the 1940s—and well into the 1960s—America was a segregated society. While as much a part of the American fabric as their white brethren, African Americans were treated as second-class citizens. They remained separated from the white majority, particularly in the South, where they lived in rural poverty and their right to vote often was discounted. While the South and its "whites only" way of life seemed deeply entrenched, much of the more "progressive" North was just as segregated. African Americans across the nation lived in separate neighborhoods. They went to inferior schools. They were denied job opportunities. They could not play major league baseball (see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1). They were not allowed to sit next to whites in many restaurants, drink out of the same water fountains, or socialize among whites at nightclubs. In a Hollywood movie, moviegoers would almost never find attractive African American actors playing in love scenes or cast as heroes, nor were they portrayed as existing within their own culture. Instead, African American actors were stereotyped as dim-witted, ever-smiling servants. African American characters were always portrayed in relation to more intelligent, more educated, and more affluent white characters.

In short, African Americans were the victims of racism and separated from the American mainstream. Unlike other citizens, who came to the United States by choice, often to escape persecution or famine in their native lands, the ancestors of most blacks had arrived involuntarily, as slaves. They won their freedom a century earlier, in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861–65), but the harsh reminder of their roots as slaves remained well into the twentieth century.

American society was overdue for a transformation. Commencing in the years just after the end of World War II (1939–45), event after event signaled that a segregated society was an un-American society. The American military began integrating after the war's end. Major league baseball began the process of integration with the arrival in 1947 of Jackie Robinson (1919–1972; see entry under 1940s—Sports and Games in volume 3) on the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On movie screens, such films as Pinky (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), Lost Boundaries (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), and No Way Out (1950) all portrayed African Americans as victims of racist practices. Sidney Poitier (1924–) became Hollywood's first real African American movie star. In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of "separate-but-equal." Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) became a rational and eloquent spokesperson for civil rights. The 1960s saw various pro-integration and pro-voting rights boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and rallies and, finally, the passage in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.

Nevertheless, during the 1960s, more militant African American leaders—Malcolm X (1925–1965) was the most high-profile—began earning national recognition. The nonviolence of the early civil rights movement, as personified by King, gave way to angry voices advocating an overthrowing of the system that created African American oppression. Such anger resulted in urban riots and the destruction of black communities in cities from New York to Detroit to Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles— but little actual political change. Nonetheless, this rise in political consciousness did result in a generation of perceptive African American leaders who preferred to create their own organizations and coalitions in their fight for political change, rather than link up with white liberals.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, countless individuals of color have entered the mainstream. African American doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, business leaders, and other professionals are as respected as their white counterparts. Denzel Washington (1954–), Whoopi Goldberg (1949–), Morgan Freeman (1937–), Eddie Murphy (1961–), Chris Rock (1966–), and others have followed Poitier as bankable Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) stars.Michael Jordan (1963–; see entry under 1990s—Sports and Games in volume 5) is arguably the most celebrated professional basketball player of all time, if not the most recognizable athlete in the world. In 2001, Colin Powell (1937–) became the secretary of state under newly elected president George W. Bush (1946–). Even controversial, politically conservative African Americans, such as Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (1948–), have taken their places in the national spotlight.

School systems and universities offer classes in black history, and African Americans have greatly influenced fashion styles and pop music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). Still, far too many have been left behind, victimized by poverty, hopelessness, and the ever-disturbing presence of drugs in American society. A drive-by shooting in a housing project will often go unnoticed in the media, yet a similar crime in an upscale community will be front-page news. Among the high-profile political issues of the early twenty-first century is racial profiling, or the placing under suspicion of a citizen solely because of the color of his or her skin.

Finally, in an era in which change is a constant, and yesterday's news is ancient history, it is meaningful to recall that the victories of the civil rights movement were not easily won. Paralleling civil rights progress were the assassinations of King and fellow civil rights leader Medgar Evers (1925–1963); the bombings of African American churches and the killings of innocent children and civil rights workers; and untold, unpublicized, but no less tragic events that are stark reminders of the legacy of racism.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Anderson, Terry. The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dickstein, Morris. Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Dunn, John M. The Civil Rights Movement. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.

Van Deburg, William. Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960–1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Weber, Michael. Causes and Consequences of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

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Civil Rights Movement