Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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What are the factors responsible for the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the US during 1960s?

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Many factors, both great and small, contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Small but significant factors include the decision of popular entertainers to advocate for civil rights. Though we often like to pretend these days that we do not care what the famous think, the role of those whom we elevate to such a status is key in forming popular culture. This may have been more true in the early 1960s, when the influence of such people became more ubiquitous as a result of television.

The Beatles famously refused to play to a segregated audience in Jacksonville, Florida, on September 11, 1964. Numerous figures from the entertainment world, such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Paul Newman, participated in the March on Washington—a huge, televised event. Politicians, including the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson, also enlisted the support of black entertainers, such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, to promote civil rights and even to provide suggestions on how to proceed. Through the popularity of black music, such as rock-and-roll, and Poitier's 1962 win as Best Actor at the Academy Awards, black entertainers were becoming more visible, and some used their cultural capital to speak out on behalf of civil rights.

Lastly, in relation to the previous educator's comment about World War II, it is very possible that some U.S. soldiers' encounters with the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe presented them with the hypocrisy of condemning systemic dehumanization in Europe while being indifferent toward it at home. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 made this inconsistency very clear. Till, a fifteen-year-old Chicago native, was dragged from the home of a relative he was visiting in Money, Mississippi, and tortured, shot, and dumped into a river for supposedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a local white woman. Toward the end of her life, Bryant admitted that she had lied.

Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, insisted on allowing news photographers at the funeral to take photos of his disfigured body. The photos were circulated throughout the world. For the USSR, they were instrumental in disproving the nobility of American democracy. Shortly after Till's murder in August 1955 and the acquittal of his killers in September, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December 1955. The Civil Rights Movement maintained a steady progression from this time.

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There are many factors that were responsible for the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Let us look at some of the more important factors:

  • Quality of black leadership.  The Civil Rights Movement was lucky to have good leaders.  The greatest of these leaders was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His charisma and his brilliant idea of using nonviolence were instrumental in making whites in the North support the idea of black rights.
  • WWII.  During the war, the US had engaged in a great deal of propaganda about how it was fighting to preserve democracy and human rights.  This was true, but it was also somewhat odd given how the country oppressed African Americans at home.  African Americans used this rhetoric, along with the fact that they helped fight for democracy, to assert a moral right to be treated equally after the war.
  • Cold War.  In the 1960s, the US was involved in the Cold War with the USSR.  Both sides wanted the support of black and brown people around the world.  Many American leaders felt that segregation and discrimination made the US look bad to these people and would therefore help the Soviets.  These leaders pushed for greater rights of African Americans as a way to help fight communism.
  • Black migration to the North.  During and after WWI, blacks had started moving north.  They came for factory jobs and to escape the blatant racism of the South.  In the North, they had the right to vote.  In some places, this made them an important voting bloc and encouraged politicians to care about black demands.
  • The media, particularly visual media.  African Americans used the media very well to get their message out.  When whites in the North saw the ways in which blacks in the South were being treated (like the famous pictures of peaceful marchers being attacked by police dogs), it helped convince them that the blacks’ cause was just.

All  of these factors helped the Civil Rights Movement succeed in the US in the 1960s.

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