Civil Rights Movement Essay
The civil rights movement in the United States was a political, legal, and social struggle that was organized primarily by black Americans with some help from white America. The civil rights struggle was aimed at gaining full citizenship and racial equality for all Americans, particularly the most discriminated group, African Americans, and was first and foremost a challenge to segregation. Segregation was deeply embedded in the South and was used to control blacks since the reconstruction of the South following the American Civil War. During the civil rights movement, individuals and organizations challenged segregation and discrimination by using a number of methods that included protests, marches, boycotts, and refusing segregation laws. Most historians agree that the civil rights movement began with either the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 or the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965; however, there is a lot of debate on when it began and ended. There were civil rights issues well into the 1980s.
The main tool of discrimination against blacks in the United States was segregation, often called the Jim Crow system. Segregation became common in the South after the Reconstruction when the Democratic Party had gained control of the South and started to reverse black advances made during reconstruction. Jim Crow laws emerged and effectively segregated every aspect of life for blacks in the South. This segregation included, but was not limited to, separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were inferior to white establishments. In theory, the black and white establishments were to be equal.
The denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement, is how the South controlled segregation. Between 1890 and 1910 virtually all the Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that kept the black voter out. Some of these requirements included, the ability to read and write, property ownership, and paying poll taxes; all these tactics were in direct violation of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Blacks were virtually powerless, because they could not vote there was nothing they could do to prevent the segregation of the South. Conditions in the North were slightly better, blacks could vote but there were so few blacks in the North before World War II that their votes barely counted, furthermore, even though segregated facilities in the North did not exist legally, most blacks were denied access to the more affluent facilities.
There were civil rights movements prior to the 1960s. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890 followed by the Niagara Movement in 1905, and then the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, the NAACP was to have a great impact on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and still continues to exist today. The NAACP became one of the most important organizations that championed civil rights in the twentieth century and relied on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination against blacks by using the American legal system. There were many cases that the NAACP fought in court that set the precedence for the legal battles during the civil rights movement that would take place twenty to thirty years later. Although the legal battles fought by the NAACP in the 1920s and 1930s did little to change discrimination against blacks they did lay the foundation for a legal and social challenge to the system the South had built.
After two world wars and a nationwide depression the civil rights movement that most Americans are familiar with began to emerge. The great depression which devastated the United States in the late 1920s caused a migration of black Americans from the South to other parts of the country, this migration exposed many of them to different views on segregation and discrimination, many of these blacks from the South became the civil rights activist of the 1960s.
World War II also caused migrations of large number of blacks within the United States as many blacks found themselves moving up the social ladder as they took over war essential factory jobs. On the other hand, the return of black soldiers that had a new outlook on social and racial equality in the United States most likely was one of the biggest factors that caused the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Not just black Americans were affected by these events; there were many white Americans, even in the South that felt a change was needed. One such white southerner, Harold Fleming wrote:
It wasn’t that I came to love Negroes; it was that I came to despise the system that did this. I mean, the nearest thing you could be in the army to being black was to be a company officer with black troops, because you lived and operated under the same circumstances they did, and they got crapped all over . . . You were sort of a second-class officer or a second-class white because of your assignment.
Fleming was a conventional white southerner born in Atlanta, Georgia, after he became involved in civil rights issues and according to Fleming, many of his white southern contemporaries would say, “You ought to know better, being a native-born Georgia white.” With all these factors in place, the civil rights movement in America emerged around the mid 1950s.
On 17 May 1954, after hearing arguments on five cases that challenged elementary and secondary school segregation, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that stated racially segregated education was unconstitutional. Although this was an historic ruling that essentially voided the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896 that established the separate but equal doctrine which was so prevalent in the South. The fundamental problem with the Brown v. Education was that the U.S. Supreme Court did not have a plan to enforce this ruling. The ruling stated that the school cases were class actions and that left the states with the enforcement of this ruling, the court wrote, “because of the wide applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity.”
At first white Southerners received this ruling with shock, however, by 1955 white opposition had grown into a massive resistance with organizations like the White Citizens Council; this council called for the economic coercion of blacks and whites who favored integrated schools. Schools in the South remained desegregated; this desegregation became a national issue when the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus openly defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to a Little Rock high school on 2 September 1957. The media dramatized the seriousness of desegregation by showing the nation pictures of an American high school being patrolled by federal troops so that black students could be protected from angry white mobs.
The civil rights movement quickly moved beyond school desegregation to challenge other unjust institutions in the South. It was Rosa Parks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP, who refused to give up her seat to a white person on 1 December 1955; the Montgomery bus boycott that brought the city of Montgomery, Alabama to its knees had begun. Parks was arrested and the black community leaders rallied local blacks to protest segregated buses; this local protest evolved into a national boycott that involved support of over 50,000 blacks and lasted over a year and showed the American public the determination of the blacks to end segregation.
During the Montgomery bus boycott the most influential civil rights leader emerged; Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) became, undeniably, the most important figure throughout the civil rights movement. It was King who seemed to have a master plan for the boycott, he emphasized keeping the struggle within the law and advocated nonviolence to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement. During the Montgomery bus boycott, King stated:
We are not asking for an end to segregation, that’s a matter for the legislature and the courts. We feel that we have a plan within the law. All we are seeking is justice and fair treatment . . . We don’t like the idea of Negroes having to stand when there are vacant seats. We are demanding justice on that point.
King’s and other black leaders along with the protestors of the Montgomery bus boycott hard work eventually paid off, in November 1956, a federal court ordered that Montgomery’s buses desegregate. The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the milestones of the civil rights movement because it established a national civil rights movement that recognized King as the leader and showed that nonviolent protest would work.
Four black college students from North Carolina A & T University sat at a white only lunch counter on 1 February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina to protest racial segregation; within weeks, these student “sit-ins” had spread across the South to many cities as a form of protest. In April 1960, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded to help organize and direct the student “sit-in” movement; SNCC would eventually move into other areas of the civil rights movement. Because SNCC focused on making changes at the local level rather than the national level, many of the accomplishments of this organization did not become nationally known.
The “sit-ins” did make the national news media and it was the New York Times that brought it to a national level. The New York Times published an article that interviewed the store superintendent and the students, the article also told of how white teenagers and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members tried to bar the way on the fifth day of the Greensboro “sit-in.” It was the well spoken black student Ezall Blair who told the newspaper on the second day that the students had been “complacent and fearful” the previous day and that they decided that morning that is was time for black students to “wake up and change the situation.”
By November 1960, one hundred and fifty-five communities across the South had television crews that were filming the demonstrations and the injustice that the students faced, white America, through the use of the mass media was seeing the same scenes over and over and for the first time witnessed segregation in the South; the scenes shown were of students patiently waiting to get served, angry white hecklers, and carloads of students being taken to jail by police. White students joined in, and in the North, many students boycotted the larger stores in the North that had lunch counters in the South, such as Woolworths. The culmination of the “sit-ins” occurred in Nashville, Tennessee, when, surprisingly, an unlikely ally emerged for the “sit-ins.” The mayor of Nashville, Ben West, announced that lunch counters in Nashville would not be segregated. When asked why he made that decision, West replied, “I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service
. . . It was a moral question that a man has to answer, and not a politician.” The “sit-ins” clearly demonstrated to America that young blacks and whites were determined to reject segregation openly and together.
After the “sit-ins” many of the SNCC members began to participate in freedom rides that started in the summer of 1961, these “Freedom Riders,” both black and white, traveled the south in buses to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that stated segregation was illegal in bus stations that were open to interstate travel. These freedom rides were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and started in Washington, D.C., as the buses moved south more violence was directed towards them.
This violence peaked when in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, buses were burned and the riders beaten. As a result of the freedom rides, the Attorney General’s Office realized that the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton v. Virginia was not enough to end discrimination on the Interstates and bus stations. In November 1963, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the administration of President John Kennedy intervened and regulations were issued. By 1963, the Attorney General was able to say, “Systematic segregation of Negroes in interstate transportation has disappeared.”
While the freedom rides and “sit-ins” were happening, SCLC leaders, under the guidance of King, were planning a series of protest campaigns that would happen throughout Southern cities, these campaigns were to be highly publicized and were to break the barriers of age, social status, and race. The demonstrations were to be against racial injustice and required the mobilization of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, both black and white, who were willing to participate in protest marches as long as necessary and who were also willing to be arrested and go to jail to achieve their goals. The first direct action protest took place in the spring of 1961 at Albany, Georgia. The presence of King and other SCLC leaders escalated the Albany protests by bringing national attention to Albany, however, after months of protests the police continued to jail protestors without a show of police violence and the protests ended in failure. The protests continued across the South with seemingly little success.
In the spring of 1963, SCLC’s direct action protests finally saw success; sadly, this success was at the expense of many protesters of whom some were elementary age school children. After mass demonstrations had been conducted for several days in Birmingham, Alabama, SCLC begin to send children in to the protests, some of them as young as six. The Birmingham police chief, Eugene Connor, jailed thousands of them and provoked the outrage of parents and caused the media to give undivided attention to the Birmingham protest, this is what King needed to be successful. The next day more children marched and Connor reacted with violence; photographs of high pressure fire hoses and police dog attacks released on peaceful demonstrators appeared on national and international media, producing an international outcry.
Eventually some protestors began to fight back and the state police were called in, King called for a twenty-four hour truce. The next day, On 9 May 1963, King announce an agreement with some white business leaders of Birmingham; they agreed to the desegregation of some public facilities within ninety days, progress in hiring and promotion, the release of arrested protestors, and a biracial committee. Birmingham mayor, Art Hanes called the white negotiators “a bunch of quisling, gutless traitors,” King stated that the settlement was “the most significant victory for justice we’ve ever seen in the Deep South.”
The civil rights movement direct action marches, for the most part, ended with the march on Washington D.C. In August 1963, over 200,000 civil rights supporters conducted a peaceful march in Washington, D.C.; it was at this demonstration that King gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” Because of this march, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law; after Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress as a tribute to Kennedy.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and NAACP all joined forces in 1964 to work towards establishing voter’s rights for blacks, particularly in the South. Voting rights issues have always been an objective of the civil rights movement, in fact, after the “sit-ins” and freedom rides, SNCC focused most of their attention on establishing voter’s rights and educating blacks on how to vote. It was most likely the combination of a series of deaths of civil rights workers in the South, and the MFDPs arrival at the Democratic National Convention of 1964 that caused all the different civil rights organizations to work together towards voting rights; It may also have been that simply voter’s rights was the last major obstacle to overcome.
It was on 22 August 1964, during the Democratic National Convention, that MFDP member Fannie Lou Hamer, who was from a Mississippi sharecropper family, addressed the nation on national television. Hamer’s sincere and articulate speech made supporters for black voting rights all over the nation. President Johnson, who did not support the MFDP, tried to detract attention from Hamer by conducted a last minute press conference on national television as Hamer was giving her testimony; his ploy did not work. President Johnson recognized the support Hamer was getting and was willing to compromise and recognized the predominately black MFDP.
It was the Selma, Alabama march on 7 March 1965 that was the final event to cause the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to happen. SCLC employed direct action techniques in a voting rights protest initiated by SNCC in Selma, when these protest were unsuccessful the protesters began a march to Montgomery, Alabama. As the marchers were leaving Selma, mounted police used tear gas and batons to beat down marchers and others who were not part of the march, this became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Because the march was televised, the violence shocked many Americans and caused a much-needed national support for a law to protect the Southern blacks’ right to vote. On 15 March 1965, President Johnson announced that he would send a voting rights bill to Congress. In a televised address to a joint session, Johnson spoke on racial injustices and stated, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigo!
try and injustice,” then he shocked the nation by saying, “And we shall overcome.” Two days later a voting rights bill went to Congress. On 6 August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the civil rights movement, according to most historians, ended.
Albert, Peter J. and Hoffman, Ronald, eds., We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.
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