Who Played the Most Important Role in the Civil Rights Movement?
Chapter 4 Preface
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s radically altered the social, political, and economic conditions that affect all minorities in the United States. While the most conspicuous change was the abolishment of restrictions that kept blacks separated from whites, the freedoms gained extended into virtually every sphere of life. Through countless legal and political battles, African Americans increased the black franchise, gained the right to acquire an equal education, to own property, to enjoy the protection of the law, and to participate in state and federal government— in essence, to enjoy the rights and privileges once reserved for white Americans only. Perhaps most importantly, the civil rights movement laid bare forever the overwhelming barriers— many of which continue to plague minorities today—to full equality.
Because the civil rights movement lost momentum in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, many scholars mark King’s passing in 1968 as the end of the movement. Yet this watershed moment in history continues to be the subject of intense scrutiny as scholars and historians attempt to answer questions and challenge assumptions about the movement. For example, many scholars and observers consider the civil rights movement as part of an ongoing struggle that had begun decades earlier—since emancipated slaves sought to exercise the civil rights promised to them at the end of the Civil War. What, then, catalyzed...
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National Leaders Played the Most Important Role in the Civil Rights Movement
As contemporary historians debate the many facets of the American civil rights movement—its origins and legacy, for example— one line of scholarship has centered on the role of presidents, lawmakers, and other national leaders in the creation of a more equitable society. Among the leading scholars of civil rights history is Steven F. Lawson, professor of history at Rutgers University. In Lawson’s view, the federal government—in tandem with national organizations and leaders—played a crucial role in the civil rights movement through the creation of decisive civil rights legislation and the defeat of state governments that imposed upon blacks a second-class status. In contrast, grassroots movements, despite noble efforts, simply could not have overturned the insidious system of white supremacy without the backing of national organizations and the federal government. According to this “top-down” interpretation, as Lawson calls it, large-scale events, such as the passage of civil rights acts, for example, constitute the most substantive gains of the civil rights revolution. Lawson is the author of several books on the civil rights movement, including Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1968, from which the following viewpoint is excerpted.
It is impossible to understand how Blacks achieved first-class citizenship rights in the South without concentrating on what national leaders in Washington, D.C., did to influence the course of...
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Grassroots Organizers Played the Most Important Role in the Civil Rights Movement
David J. Garrow is a presidential distinguished professor at Emory University Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles about the civil rights movement, including Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the following viewpoint, Garrow challenges civil rights scholarship that focuses primarily on the policies and actions of nationally oriented—and commonly identified—civil rights organizations and leaders. To arrow, the real backbone of the movement was a cadre of crucial— albeit lesser known—grassroots leaders. As testament, Garrow offers several examples of unsung heroes—ordinary people who directed and sustained the movement and exerted a great personal impact on national events. Grassroots workers Diane Nash and James Bevel, for example, engaged in activities that were, in fact, catalytic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts. The following viewpoint is excerpted from The Civil Rights Movement in America, an anthology of perspectives on civil rights history.
Too often those who write about the civil rights movement employ too narrow and exclusive a concept of “leadership.” Implicitly if not explicitly, they presume that leaders are simply those individuals who are organizational chieftains or spokespersons. They thus restrict our definition of leadership to administrators and articulators, without looking as carefully and as thoughtfully as they...
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