How was the Civil Rights Movement similar to the Progressive Era?
The Civil Rights movement and the Progressive movement were both so large and diverse that it is difficult to make any meaningful comparisons. In many ways, the Civil Rights Movement, a mass movement aimed at effecting social reform, was different than the Progressive movement, which was largely limited to educated middle-class reformers. In addition, the main thrust of the Progressive movement was not directed at bringing about racial equality.
On the other hand, the Progressive movement did see the birth of the NAACP as well as a push for anti-lynching laws, which remained important in the Civil Rights movement. Fundamentally, however, the main similarity between the Civil Rights movement and the Progressive movement was that both argued for the use of the power of the state to remedy social ills. While their ends were different, both sought the use of congressional legislation to enforce a greater degree of equality. Progressives sought a wide variety of reforms, ranging from child labor laws to legislation to clean up political corruption. The Civil Rights Movement often aimed to gain federal anti-discrimination legislation and court decisions.
In addition, both the progressives and the civil rights activists understood the importance of economic concerns. Civil rights leaders did not just support political change, they sought increased economic opportunities for blacks, especially in the second half of the 1960s. Martin Luther King, for example, was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated in 1968. Countless other leaders organized committees to help secure assistance for African-American businesses and farms. Progressive leaders like Jane Addams and even mainstream politicians like Theodore Roosevelt understood that many in the nation needed protection from the excesses of capitalism, and fought for legislation that would benefit workers.
Both the Progressive Movement and the Civil Rights movement aimed to use the government as a means of improving society, specifically the lives of those who were disadvantaged. Although the methods pursued were not the same, the aims of both movements were similar: social progress. One member of the Progressive Movement stated:
The real heart of the movement is to use the government as an agency for social welfare.
In many ways, the same can be said of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Progressive Movement brought about such changes as the direct election of senators, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and numerous state laws which regulated or eliminated child labor. The Civil Rights Movement was more narrowly focused than was the Progressive Movement; it's aim was to ensure that minorities were treated equally under the law. Equality in this instance meant equality of education, access to public facilities, and the right to vote, among others. Among its accomplishments, aside from court ordered desegregation of public schools, were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One historian has suggested that the Progressive Movement was the heir to the Populist Movement. An argument might well be made that the Civil Rights Movement was the heir of the Progressive Movement--an attempt to improve the lives of Americans by governmental action.