Why and how did a grassroots civil rights movement emerge in the South in the mid-1950s and early 1960s? What was the movement’s guiding philosophy, tactics, and greatest accomplishments? Why and how did civil rights activists change their goals and tactics in the mid to late-1960s? What are some of the most important legacies of the movement? How were students and other marginalized groups influenced by its example?
Grassroots civil rights movements began in the South to pressure businesses and public leaders to enact desegregation as ordered by the federal courts. Several organizations organized movements that involved direct non-violent action. National news coverage of their protests put added pressure on public leaders and business owners.
In the years after World War II, grassroots civil rights movements began throughout much of the United States, particularly in the South. These movements took off during the 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s. Many black Americans had felt that their contributions in the war would help them find recognition as American citizens. Serving overseas exposed many black Americans to societies that did not live under systems of racial apartheid. They hoped to bring some of what they experienced overseas home with them. They were sorely disappointed. Returning black veterans found that they faced the same discrimination that they had before the war. In fact, sometimes it was even worse. Many white Americans saw black men in uniform as being overly proud and that they needed to "be put back in their place." When returning veterans were attacked, such Isaac Woodard who was severely beaten while still in uniform, it became clear to many black Americans that the fight for racial justice needed to be taken up in earnest.
Some civil rights tactics involved court actions. However, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, when southern authorities refused to comply with court orders to desegregate, grassroots movements became more widespread. Massive protests, marches, and boycotts, led by groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), raised awareness of the continued injustices and put pressure on private businesses and politicians. These movements often relied on tactics of civil disobedience and awareness campaigns. This includes the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, the Freedom Rides of 1961, and the March on Washington in 1963, in addition to countless smaller events. While the success of grassroots direct action varied, national media coverage allowed it to gain attention throughout the country. Eventually, many businesses began desegregating. With added political pressure, legislative changes were made as well. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was largely influenced by the March on Washington the previous year.