The way the civil rights unfolded, gave others a chance to reach equal opportunity in the future. When one thinks of the words “civil rights” one often thinks of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before the nation’s capital. Many can recall television footage of peaceful marchers being abused by fire hoses and police dogs. These and other images can be seen as a struggle and intense burst of black activists that characterized the civil rights movement of the mid twentieth century. Yet African Americans have always struggled for their rights.
Many consider the civil rights movement to have begun not in the 1950s but when Africans were first brought in chains, centuries earlier, to American shores (Gillon & Matson, 2001). In particular, those African Americans who fought their enslavement and demanded fundamental citizenship rights laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement. The first slaves were brought to America in 1619 ( Gillon & Matson, 2001). Not until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery following the Civil War did blacks gain their freedom (Gillon & Matson, 2001).
But the newly freed blacks could not read or write and did not have money or property, and racism and inequality remain, especially in the South, where slavery had predominated for so long. To aid black assimilation into white society, federal and state governments implemented many democratic reforms between the years 1865 and 1875, the Reconstruction era (Gillon & Matson, 2001). The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, guaranteed blacks federally protected equal rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote (Gillon & Matson, 2001).
Despite these and other measures to help the former slaves’ rights, the effects of the Reconstruction era were short lived. In the area of extreme southern white society, many did whatever it took to keep blacks from enjoying any of the benefits of citizenship. Some, for example, sought to keep African Americans from equal rights through harassment or intimidation. A number of racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), used even more cruel methods including lynching and other forms of violence to terrify African Americans seeking to exercise their rights or advance their social position.
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As the constitutional guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments continued to slowly disappear, the Supreme Court struck perhaps the most crippling blow to the black struggle for equality: In 1896 the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that blacks and whites could be legally separated as long as the facilities for each were “equal” (Chong, 1991). Facilities for blacks and whites were rarely equal. More importantly, the Supreme Court’s decision, by legally backing segregation, gave white society a powerful tool to keep blacks from enjoying the rights of citizenship.
With the Supreme Court now reinforcing the South’s segregation practices, the environment of white racism gave birth to the Jim Crow Laws, southern customs and laws that kept parks, drinking fountains, streetcars, restaurants, theaters, and other public places segregated (Conklin, 2008). In response to Jim Crow, which by 1900 extended into all parts of public life, several leaders in the black community stepped up to debate political strategies to fight injustice and racial inequality. One of the dominant figures of this early movement for civil rights was an intellectual W.
E. B. Du Bois, who encouraged African Americans to fight for the rights that they deserved. Du Bois’ crusade led, in part, to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization that brought together lawyers, educators, and activists to collectively fight for black civil rights (Powledge, 2001). Through protests, agitation, and legal action, the NAACP continued a steady campaign to end segregation in housing, education, and other areas of public life.
With the outbreak of World War I, well over a quarter of a million black troops joined the military, but were relegated to segregated units (Romano, 2006). At the same time, many blacks traveled north to take advantage of the rapidly increasing defense industries. This massive migration, however, aggravated unemployment and other problems that already plagued the northern urban centers. Racial problems continued. When the United States entered World War II, African Americans were, as before, subjected to discrimination in the defense ndustries and in military units, despite their willingness to risk their lives in combat (Powledge, 2001). These wartime experiences, along with a growth in the African American population resulted in a surge of black protest that brought Jim Crow under national scrutiny. During the 1950s, two incidents brought the issue of civil rights squarely into the public spotlight. On May 17, 1954, the NAACP, which had been steadily chipping away at the legal foundations of segregation, won an unprecedented legal victory: The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional (Polsgrove, 2001). Chief Justice Earl Warren presented the Court’s decision, in which he describes why “separate but equal” in education represents a violation of African Americans’ rights: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.
Segregation, with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to inhibit the educational and mental development of Negro children and deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system” (Patterson, 2001). By ruling against “separate but equal” doctrine set by the case Plessy v. Ferguson, the court had struck a blow to segregation. But still many southern racist practices were still being practiced, and many whites remained opposed to change. With the ruling of Brown, the affects remained slow, if not existing at all.
Many school officials refused to comply with the ruling and the threat of harassment; for the ruling had unleashed fierce resistance preventing many black students from enrolling in all-white schools. At the same time, schools for black students remained overcrowded, dilapidated, and, in general, grossly inferior to those that their white counterparts enjoyed (Conklin, 2008). The second incident that captured the public eye unfolded in Montgomery, Alabama, when a woman named Rosa Parks started the spark that would provide the momentum for the entire civil rights movement.
On December 1, 1955, the NAACP member boarded a public bus and took a seat in the “Negro” section in the back of the bus. Later, Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, defying the law by which blacks were required to give up their seats to white passengers when the front section, reserved for whites, was filled (Polsgrove, 2001). Parks was immediately arrested. In protest, the black community launched a one-day local boycott of Montgomery’s public bus system. As support for Parks began, the NAACP and other leaders took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to their cause.
They enlisted the help of a relatively unknown preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. , to organize and lead a massive resistance movement that would challenge Montgomery’s racist laws (Kohl, 2005). Four days after Parks’ arrest, the citywide Montgomery bus boycott began (Kohl, 2005). It lasted for more than a year. Despite taunting and other forms of harassment from the white community, the boycotters persevered until the federal courts intervened and desegregated the buses on December 21, 1956 (Kohl, 2005).
The Montgomery bus boycott was important because it demonstrated that the black community, through unity and determination, could make their voices heard and effect change. Picketing, boycotting, and other forms of resistance spread to communities throughout the South. Meanwhile, King emerged as the movement’s preeminent leader. His adherence to the nonviolent tactics used by the Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi would largely characterize the entire civil rights movement and inspire large scale participation by whites as well as blacks (Sunnemark, 2003).
From 1955 to 1960, the efforts of blacks to bring attention to their cause met with some success. In 1957 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the first since Reconstruction, to establish a civil rights division in the Justice Department that would enforce voting and other rights (Davis, 2001). Meanwhile, the NAACP continued to challenge segregation, and out of that came numbers of new organizations that where formed. Among these, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a Christian-based organization founded in 1957 and led by King, became a major force in organizing the civil rights movement (Sunnemark, 2003).
An organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grabbed the media spotlight, and started many protests; when it backed four students who launched a sit-in campaign to desegregate southern lunch counters (Conklin, 2008). Not only was the nonviolent sit in technique used to desegregate other public places, but it gave large numbers of African American youths a way to participate in the movement. This helped gain national attention, bringing equal rights demands before the public eye.
The protest movement continued to accelerate as different leaders tested new tactics and strategies. Many established community-based projects that sought to combat the barriers that kept blacks from voting. Others targeted the white terrorism that continued to intimidate blacks into submission. King and other leaders launched a massive campaign that brought together thousands of blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most segregated and violently racist cities at the time (Sunnemark, 2003). Early in the campaign, King was arrested and jailed.
From his cell, he penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which earned him the support of many sympathetic whites (Conklin, 2008). Meanwhile, as blacks continued the desegregation campaign in Birmingham, an event occurred that irrevocably commanded the attention of America and its leaders: In an effort to stop a demonstration, the notoriously racist police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor turned vicious attack dogs and fire hoses on the peaceful demonstrators (Sunnemark, 2003). The force of the water slammed women and children to the ground and sent others hurling through the air.
Television coverage and other media reports of these brutal assaults shocked the nation and viewers around the world. After a month of this highly publicized violence, city officials repealed Birmingham’s segregation laws (Powledge, 2001). In Birmingham’s aftermath, mass demonstrations continued to spread, as did fierce resistance within the white community. In response to these events, King and other leaders planned a mass gathering on the nation’s capital in the summer of 1963 (Sunnemark, 2003).
On August 28, the March on Washington brought an estimated quarter of a million people, black and white, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech (Romano, 2006). This triggered the SNCC to start a wide-scale campaign to bolster voting rights. The group launched a massive voter registration drive throughout the South, concentrating on Mississippi, where less than 5 percent of the state’s eligible blacks were registered to vote (Conklin, 2008). Freedom Summer, as it became known, was marked by episodes of extreme white terrorism.
One of the most heinous examples involved three young civil rights workers. The trio was working to register voters when they were arrested and later murdered by the Ku Klux Klan (Patterson, 2001). By 1965 the voting campaign had shifted to Selma, Alabama, where, under the leadership of King, thousands of demonstrators began a fifty-mile trek to Montgomery (Sunnemark, 2003). This time, as the peaceful demonstrators approached the Edmund Pettis Bridge, state troopers used police whips and clubs to halt their progress.
The scene blasted into American living rooms via the nightly news. After “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of people gathered again to complete the march, this time under the protection of the Alabama National Guard (Powledge, 2001). On August 6, 1965, shortly after the highly publicized events in Selma, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which, for the first time since Reconstruction, effectively opened up the polls to southern black Americans (Davis, 2001).
By the mid-1960s, many black activists started to lose faith in the civil rights reforms that thus far had targeted only the most blatant forms of discrimination (Chong, 1991). While King’s nonviolent direct action approach had dominated the movement, many people particularly in the North, adopted a more revolutionary stance. As a wave of nationalist sentiment grew within the movement, organizations such as SNCC and CORE took up more militant agendas. SNCC, for example, began promoting a program of “black power” a term that meant racial pride (Conklin, 2008).
The greatest spokesman for Black Nationalism was Malcolm X. With his working-class roots and charismatic style of speaking, Malcolm appealed to a lot of young urban blacks. Malcolm rejected Dr. King’s advocacy of nonviolence and instead urged his followers to secure their rights “by any means necessary” (Sunnemark, 2003). After Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965, another extremely provocative Black Nationalist group emerged: the Black Panthers, a group that boldly adopted the idea “by any means necessary” (Sunnemark, 2003).
Race riots exploded across America, as blacks trapped in urban slums lashed out against the poverty and racism still rampant in their communities. Not only did the riots devastate ghetto areas that were home to millions of African Americans, including those in the Watts section of Los Angeles, but the racial violence started a separation between those who continued to believe that civil rights could be achieved through peaceful means and those who were more violent .
King’s assassination in April 1968 struck a blow to the already fractured civil rights movement. Marin Luther King Jr. became the face of national equality not just for African American but to all those who sought justice and freedom. The American civil rights movement nevertheless left a permanent mark on American society. Most of the forms of racial discrimination came to an end, and racial violence decrease. Today, African Americans can freely exercise their right to vote, and in communities where they were once banned from the polls.
Millions of African Americans have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the many economic opportunities created by the civil rights movement. Also important, the civil rights movement served as a model for the advancement of other minority groups, including women, the disabled, Hipics, and many others. The civil rights movement has left a legacy in which generations after it can learn by reading it and not through experiencing it.