The civil rights movement that spanned the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked a watershed period that accomplished far more than the elimination of racial barriers; it led to the overwhelming transformation of American social, cultural, and political life. Changes to prevailing notions about the citizenship rights of blacks, for example, coupled with a redefinition of the role of the government and courts in protecting these rights, continue to bolster the human rights of all Americans, regardless of their skin color.
The words civil rights often conjure images of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his soul-stirring “I Have a Dream” speech before the nation’s capital. On a darker note, many recall television footage of peaceful marchers beset by fire hoses and snarling police dogs, or the resolute faces of black college students as they waged their sit-in campaigns at southern lunch counters. Certainly one of the most trenchant set of images—and perhaps representing the nadir of the movement—are the photographs of four young black schoolgirls who were killed when a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where they were attending Sunday school. These and other images are a testament to the intense burst of black activism—and the resulting white backlash—that characterized the civil rights movement of the mid–twentieth century.
Yet African Americans have always struggled for their rights. Many consider the civil rights movement to have begun not in the 1950s but when Africans were first brought in chains, centuries earlier, to American shores. In particular, those blacks who fought their enslavement and demanded fundamental citizenship rights laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.
The Legacy of Slavery
The first slaves were brought to America in 1619. Not until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery following the Civil War did blacks gain their freedom. Yet the newly freed blacks were largely illiterate and bereft of money or property, and racism and inequality were rampant, especially in the South, where slavery had predominated for so long. To aid black assimilation into white society, federal and state governments implemented many democratic reforms between the years 1865 and 1875, the Reconstruction era. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, guaranteed blacks federally protected equal rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote.
Despite these and other measures to safeguard the former slaves’ newfound rights, the gains of the once-promising Reconstruction era were short-lived. In a climate of extreme southern white hegemony, many employed a variety of means to keep blacks from enjoying any of the benefits of citizenship. Some, for example, sought to keep blacks completely disenfranchised through harassment or intimidation. A number of racist groups, such as the vigilante Ku Klux Klan (KKK), used even more harrowing methods— lynching and other forms of violence, for example—to brutalize and terrify blacks seeking to exercise their rights or advance their standing.
As the constitutional guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments continued to erode, the Supreme Court struck perhaps the most crippling blow to the black struggle for equality: In 1896 the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that blacks and whites could be legally separated as long as the facilities for each were “equal.” Facilities for blacks and whites, however, were rarely equal. More importantly, the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, by legally backing segregation, gave white society a powerful tool to keep blacks from enjoying even the most rudimentary rights of citizenship. With the Supreme Court now reinforcing the South’s segregation practices, the environment of white racism gave birth to Jim Crow—southern customs and laws that kept parks, drinking fountains, streetcars, restaurants, theaters, and other public places rigidly segregated. In response to Jim Crow, which by 1900 extended into all spheres of public life, several leaders in the black community stepped up to debate political strategies to fight injustice and racial inequality. One of the dominant figures of this early movement for civil rights was the fiery intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who exhorted blacks to fight for the rights they deserved. Du Bois’s crusade led, in part, to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization that brought together lawyers, educators, and activists to collectively fight for black civil rights. Through lobbying, agitation, and legal action, the NAACP continued a steady campaign to end segregation in housing, education, and other areas of public life.
With the outbreak of World War I, well over a quarter of a million black troops joined the military, but were relegated to segregated units. At the same time, many blacks traveled north to take advantage of the burgeoning defense industries. This massive migration, however, aggravated unemployment and other problems that already plagued the northern urban centers. Racial problems continued unabated. When the United States entered World War II, African Americans were, as before, subjected to rampant discrimination in the defense industries and in military units—despite their willingness to risk their lives in combat. These wartime experiences, coupled with the redistribution of the black populace, resulted in a surge of black protest that brought Jim Crow under national scrutiny.
The Birth of a Movement
During the 1950s, two incidents brought the issue of civil rights squarely into the public spotlight. On May 17, 1954, the NAACP, which had been steadily chipping away at the legal foundations of segregation, won an unprecedented legal victory: The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren presented the Court’s decision, in which he describes why “separate but equal” in education represents a violation of black Americans’ rights:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority af- fects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation, with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to inhibit the educational and mental development of Negro children and deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.
In nullifying the “separate but equal” doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson, the high court had struck an unequivocal blow to segregation. Yet southern racist practices were deeply entrenched, and many whites remained adamantly opposed to change. The implementation of Brown, then, remained painstakingly slow, if not nonexistent. Many school officials refused to comply with the ruling, and the threat of harassment—for the ruling had unleashed fierce resistance—prevented many black students from enrolling in all-white schools. At the same time, schools for black students remained overcrowded, dilapidated, and, in general, grossly inferior to those that their white counterparts enjoyed.
The second incident that captured the public eye unfolded in Montgomery, Alabama, where a seamstress named Rosa Parks created the spark that would provide the momentum for the entire civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, the NAACP member boarded a public bus and took a seat in the “Negro” section in the back of the bus. Later, Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, defying the law by which blacks were required to give up their seats to white passengers when the front section, reserved for whites, was filled. Parks was immediately arrested.
In protest, the black community launched a one-day local boycott of Montgomery’s public bus system. As support for Parks burgeoned, the NAACP and other black leaders took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to their cause. They enlisted the help of a relatively unknown preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., to organize and lead a massive resistance movement that would challenge Montgomery’s racist laws. Four days after Parks’s arrest, the citywide Montgomery bus boycott began. It lasted for more than a year. Despite taunting and other forms of harassment from the white community, the boycotters persevered until the federal courts intervened and desegregated the buses on December 21, 1956.
The Montgomery bus boycott was important not only because it struck down a particularly overt Jim Crow law that affected many southern blacks but because it demonstrated that the black community, through unity and determination, could make their voices heard and effect change. Picketing, boycotting, and other forms of resistance spread rapidly to communities throughout the South. Meanwhile, King emerged as the movement’s preeminent leader. His adherence to the nonviolent tactics used by the Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi would largely characterize the entire civil rights movement and inspire large-scale participation by whites as well as blacks.
The Pace Quickens
From 1955 to 1960, the efforts of blacks to bring attention to their cause met with some success. In 1957 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act—the first since Reconstruction—to establish a civil rights division in the Justice Department that would enforce voting and other rights. Meanwhile, the NAACP continued to challenge the underpinnings of segregation, and a number of new organizations were formed to take up the banner of civil rights. Among these, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a Christian-based organization founded in 1957 and led by King, became a major force in organizing the civil rights movement.
Other organizations, too, made headway in publicizing the many civil rights abuses that continued to plague southern blacks. The newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grabbed the media spotlight—and triggered a flood of protests—when it backed four students who launched a sit-in campaign to desegregate southern lunch counters. Not only was the nonviolent sit-in technique used to desegregate other public places, but it gave large numbers of black youths a way to participate in the movement. As legions of young African Americans came forward to take part in boycotts, demonstrations, and rallies, expectations swelled. At the same time, the escalating black protest spurred extensive coverage by the national media, bringing black demands before the public eye as never before.
In 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) harnessed this rising tide of student activism and sent a band of young volunteers on what became known as freedom rides. These interracial bus trips were designed to test the implementation of laws that prohibited segregation on buses, interstate terminals, and other facilities along the way. Despite their adherence to nonviolence, freedom riders were met with open hostility. Many were jailed. Far more harrowing, however, was the real threat of violence. One group encountered a mob in Alabama that set the riders’ bus on fire, and proceeded to beat them as they fled the burning vehicle. The freedom riders continued their campaign, however, until President John F. Kennedy intervened and directed the enforcement of regulations barring segregation in interstate travel.
The protest movement continued to accelerate as different leaders and groups—buoyed by recent gains—tested new tactics and strategies. Many established community-based projects that sought to combat the barriers that kept blacks from voting. Oth- ers targeted the white terrorism that continued to intimidate blacks into submission. In this vein, King and other leaders launched a massive campaign that brought together thousands of blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most segregated and violently racist cities at the time. Early in the campaign, King was arrested and jailed. From his cell, he penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which earned him the support of many sympathetic whites.
Meanwhile, as blacks continued the desegregation campaign in Birmingham, an event occurred that irrevocably commanded the attention of America and its leaders: In an effort to stop a demonstration, the notoriously racist police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor turned vicious attack dogs and fire hoses on the peaceful demonstrators. The force of the water slammed women and children to the ground and sent others hurling through the air. Television coverage and other media reports of these brutal assaults shocked the nation—and viewers around the world. After a month of this highly publicized violence, city officials repealed Birmingham’s segregation laws.
In Birmingham’s aftermath, mass demonstrations continued to spread, as did fierce resistance within the white community. On June 12, 1963, for example, Alabama governor George Wallace brazenly attempted to block the entrance of two black students to the University of Alabama. Although Wallace was unsuccessful, tempers in the black community flared. That night, President Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised speech. Pledging to align his presidency with the cause of civil rights, Kennedy called for legislation that would ban segregation and broaden the federal protection of civil rights for all Americans.
The March on Washington
In response to these events, King and other leaders, including the veteran civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, planned a mass gathering on the nation’s capital in the summer of 1963. The leaders hoped to spur the passage of civil rights legislation and promote economic opportunity within the black community. On August 28, the March on Washington brought an estimated quarter of a million people, black and white, before the Lincoln Memo- rial, where King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In rousing words, King described a world of racial harmony and equality:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama . . . will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
The March on Washington generated high hopes that blacks would soon fully realize the dream of America. Black optimism was soon tempered, however. In addition to a spate of highly publicized incidents of racial violence, the much vaunted civil rights legislation seemed to languish in Congress. Following President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, though, President Lyndon B. Johnson resolved to translate Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights into action. After much political maneuvering, Johnson won congressional approval and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The legislation outlawed segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment and education.
Meanwhile, SNCC had inaugurated a wide-scale campaign to bolster voting rights. To this end, the group launched a massive voter registration drive throughout the South, concentrating on Mississippi, where less than 5 percent of the state’s eligible blacks were registered to vote. Freedom Summer, as it became known, was marked by episodes of extreme white terrorism. One of the most heinous examples involved three young civil rights workers. The trio was working to register voters when they were arrested and later murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1965 the voting campaign had shifted to Selma, Alabama, where, under the leadership of King, thousands of demonstrators began a fifty-mile trek to Montgomery. This time, as the peaceful demonstrators approached the Edmund Pettis Bridge, state troopers used police whips and clubs to halt their progress. The scene blasted into American living rooms via the nightly news. After “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of people reconvened and completed the march, this time under the protection of the Alabama National Guard. On August 6, 1965, shortly after the highly publicized events in Selma, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which, for the first time since Reconstruction, effectively opened up the polls to southern black Americans.
The Rise of Black Nationalism
By the mid-1960s, many black activists started to lose faith in the civil rights reforms that thus far had targeted only the most blatant forms of discrimination. The demise of court-mandated segregation, for example, did not bestow immediate equality upon blacks or reform a political system that left blacks economically and politically crippled. Thus, while King’s nonviolent direct-action approach had dominated the 1950s and early 1960s, many blacks, particularly in the North, adopted a more revolutionary stance.
As a wave of nationalist sentiment grew within the movement, organizations such as SNCC and CORE took up more militant agendas. The once moderate SNCC, for example, began advocating a program of “black power”—a term that endorsed racial pride and, in its most extreme form, complete separation from white society.
The greatest spokesman for black nationalism was Malcolm X. With his working-class roots and charismatic style of speaking, Malcolm appealed to a broad band of young urban blacks. Malcolm rejected King’s advocacy of nonviolence and instead urged his followers to secure their rights “by any means necessary.” The NAACP and SCLC, still striving to integrate into mainstream society, vehemently criticized Malcolm’s revolutionary views, and especially his advocacy of complete racial separation. After Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965, another extremely provocative black nationalist group emerged: the Black Panthers, a group that boldly adopted the slain leader’s mantra “by any means necessary.”
Black discontent continued to swell during the latter half of the decade. Race riots exploded across America, as blacks trapped in urban slums lashed out against the poverty and racism still rampant in their communities. Not only did the riots devastate ghetto areas that were home to millions of blacks, including those in the Watts section of Los Angeles, but the racial violence amplified the deepening chasm between those who continued to believe that civil rights could be achieved through peaceful means and the more militant vanguard of the movement. King’s assassination in April 1968 dealt perhaps the final crippling blow to the already fractured civil rights movement. Although groups with opposing agendas continued to operate, what had once been a unified quest for civil rights had splintered and lost momentum.
The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement
The American civil rights movement nevertheless left a permanent mark on American society. The most overt forms of racial discrimination came to an end, and racial violence declined immeasurably. Today, African Americans can freely exercise their right to vote, and in communities where blacks were once barred from the polls, blacks are elected to public offices. Millions of blacks, too, have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the many economic opportunities created by the civil rights movement. Also important, the civil rights movement served as a model for the advancement of other minority groups, including women, the disabled, gays, Hispanics, and many others.
Despite these gains, the civil rights movement fell short on many counts, and the fight for equality is far from over. Yet the black freedom struggle achieved something enduring: It profoundly changed people’s attitudes and made the promise of America if not a reality, at least a possibility.