Civil Rights Movement

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Civil Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

The Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

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

With these words and these events, the long, difficult struggle of the Civil Rights movement began.

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

Million Man March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Million Man March drew an extremely large share of the nation's television audience, as well as laudatory comments from many national leaders, including President bill clinton and former general Colin L. Powell.Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, declared Montgomery's bus segregation law unconstitutional. By December 1956, the city was forced to desegregate its buses.

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

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

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

A significant state-federal confrontation occurred in 1957 at Little Rock, Arkansas's Central High School, when angry mobs of whites attacked nine black students attempting to enroll for classes. President dwight d. eisenhower had to send in troops to enforce the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, confirming the right of the students to attend the school. In 1962, when james meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, President john f. kennedy also sent in federal military troops to uphold desegregation.

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

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

The Freedom Rides were a type of nonviolent direct action designed to oppose segregation in interstate buses and bus stations. They were inspired in part by the 1960 Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 459, 81 S. Ct. 182, 5 L. Ed. 2d 206, which outlawed racial segregation in bus terminals and other places of public accommodation related to interstate transportation. Organized by CORE in 1961, the Freedom Rides were undertaken by six whites and seven blacks who rode two interstate buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Along the way, the riders deliberately violated segregation policies on the buses and in bus terminal rest rooms, waiting areas, and restaurants. White mobs savagely beat Freedom Riders of both races at different stops in the Deep South and in Alabama, one of the buses was firebombed. Although the 1961 Freedom Rides proceeded no farther than Jackson, Mississippi, they achieved their larger goal of inducing the federal government to enforce its laws. The administration of President Kennedy sent in u.s. marshals to protect the riders during the last part of their journey. An even clearer victory was achieved in September 1961 when the Interstate Commerce Commission abolished all segregated facilities in interstate transportation.

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

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

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

Then Congress passed one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation ever proposed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.). This act made Congress an equal partner with the Supreme Court in establishing civil rights. Title II of the act outlawed discrimination in all places of public accommodation, including restaurants and lunch counters, motels and hotels, gas stations, theaters, and sports arenas. It also allowed the department of justice to bring suit in order to achieve desegregation in public schools, relieving the NAACP of some of its civil rights litigation caseload. The following year, Congress passed another important piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.). This act outlawed the voting qualifications, including literacy tests, that whites had used to keep African Americans from voting. It also gave the federal government oversight powers regarding changes in state voting laws. These laws together with federal actions showed that the civil rights movement had the backing of the powers of the federal government and that no amount of resistance, however violent, by white southerners would impede the cause.

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

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

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

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

Further readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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