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How do civil rights movements achieve their goals? How are they resisted? How do they fail or have their achievements rolled back?

Civil rights movements can achieve their goals through tactics similar to those used in the twentieth-century civil rights movement in the US: grassroots organization, public demonstrations, and legal maneuvering. Activists were resisted by counter protesters, vigilante groups, and sometimes even police officers and lawmakers. Though achievements in civil rights have been rolled back through various means, public apathy is the biggest culprit.

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To best illustrate the response to this question, I'll focus on the best-known civil rights movement of the twentieth century—that is, the movement for the civil rights of African Americans.

Though there had been numerous efforts in civil rights for black people, going back to the nineteenth century, the movement...

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To best illustrate the response to this question, I'll focus on the best-known civil rights movement of the twentieth century—that is, the movement for the civil rights of African Americans.

Though there had been numerous efforts in civil rights for black people, going back to the nineteenth century, the movement didn't achieve national recognition until 1955. The brutal murder of the Chicago boy Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi was a catalyst. Photos of Till's disfigured body, lying in his casket, went all over the world, revealing the callous disregard that white America had for black lives, despite the republic's promotion of equality and democracy abroad. The press coverage from Till's funeral provided some international support for civil rights, just as there had been support from abroad, particularly from Great Britain, during the abolitionist movement a century before.

Many early civil rights efforts began in churches. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, was especially instrumental in organizational efforts, which culminated in the 1963 March on Washington. Some grassroots efforts involved students. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, first under the leadership of Robert Moses, led early voting drives in the Deep South and helped many rural black people learn to read to ensure their ability to vote.

Marches were also key in these efforts. The 1965 march in Selma across Edmund Pettus Bridge (this was symbolic: Pettus was a former US Senator from Alabama, a senior officer in the Confederate Army, and a member of the Ku Klux Klan) was a demonstration for voting rights that was immediately met by violence, largely from sheriffs. In the previous year, civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi by the Klan for helping Black people gain access to the vote.

These grassroots efforts and public demonstrations occurred in tandem with efforts in the courts and in Congress. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have been passed had there not been immense political pressure from black leadership, particularly Dr. King. The violence with which young people, particularly, were confronted when they went to the South on buses to participate in voter registration drives necessitated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which worked to ensure that states did not place any impediments against anyone's right to vote.

Several years ago, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed to repeal certain requirements that Southern states had to meet to ensure an equal franchise. In a notable dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg compared the decision to throwing out one's umbrella in a rainstorm because one is no longer getting wet.

The public remains largely unaware of the machinations that some state governments take to repeal civil rights, particularly measures that ensure proper voter representation. Gerrymandering, or the redrawing of district lines to favor one party over another, is one of the most common tactics. If the public remains well-informed and vigilant about the ways in which some lawmakers attempt to repeal civil rights, we can do a great deal in helping to maintain hard-won efforts to protect everyone's rights and liberties.

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