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The civil rights movement in the United States is most commonly identified as the long-term effort to achieve legal, political, social, economic, and educational equality and justice for African Americans, especially the interval from 1954 to 1968.
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement
After Reconstruction ended in 1877, state and local governments in the South quickly enacted and enforced laws that required or allowed private racial discrimination and the racial segregation of public institutions and services. Other state laws circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment by using poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and white primaries to prevent blacks from voting. Collectively known as Jim Crow, these laws were unofficially enforced by the Ku Klux Klan, a white terrorist organization.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions also helped to legitimize Jim Crow laws and discourage renewed federal intervention. In the “Civil Rights Cases” of 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Congress did not pass another civil rights bill until 1957. In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law that required the segregation of railroad passengers. The court ruled that such segregation laws were constitutionally allowed under its “separate but equal” interpretation of the Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Legal and Political Activism of the Civil Rights Movement: 1910–1968
In 1910 W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), a black educator and writer, established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s initial purpose was to promote civil rights for African Americans through court cases. This organization’s most famous legal victory was the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Brown decision overturned Plessy and ordered the end of de jure racial segregation in public education. Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), the association’s chief legal counsel in this case, became the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967.
Racial segregation and the disfranchisement of southern blacks continued during the 1950s and early 1960s. Most southern states refused to effectively implement the Brown decision. Southern governors such as George C. Wallace (1919–1998) of Alabama, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and Orville Faubus of Arkansas exploited racial issues by dramatically resisting federal court orders to integrate public schools and state universities. Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who ran for president in 1948 as the nominee of the anti–civil rights “Dixiecrat” Party, tried to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through a record-breaking filibuster. In major nonsouthern cities with growing black populations, African Americans experienced de facto segregation in public schools, as well as racial discrimination in housing, jobs, and customer service.
The civil rights movement became better known to Americans nationally because of televised news coverage of civil rights demonstrations in the South, especially those led by Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), a black minister in Alabama. There was also national media coverage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (1890–1969) use of the U.S. Army to enforce racial integration at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the racially motivated murders of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964.
Organized as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King’s movement attracted white legal, financial, and political support from throughout the nation. Influenced by the nonviolent civil disobedience of Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), King’s first success in defying and ending racial segregation was the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955 to 1956. After Rosa Parks (1913–2005), a black seamstress, was arrested for violating the segregated seating of bus passengers, King led a boycott of local buses, which forced the end of segregated bus seating in Montgomery. The Montgomery bus boycott inspired similar peaceful protests elsewhere in the South, such as the sit-in protests by black college students seeking service at lunch counters and the Freedom Riders seeking to racially integrate Greyhound buses and passenger facilities on an interstate basis.
Many of the participants in the Freedom Rides and the voter registration project in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). SNCC and CORE were also prominent in organizing King’s August 1963 March on Washington. Earlier, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his exasperation with people who urged caution and patience in his incessant yet peaceful quest for civil rights and justice for African Americans.
Malcolm X (1925–1965) was the most militant and prominent critic of King’s pacifism. Malcolm X, a black Muslim religious and political leader based in New York City, asserted that African Americans should reject pacifism and arm themselves for protection against whites. He also rejected racial integration in a white-dominated society and urged the development of black separatism in order to promote economic independence and an Africanbased cultural identity among blacks. Although Malcolm X was murdered by rival black Muslims in 1965, his influence on the civil rights movement persisted in the formation of the Black Panthers and King’s later opposition to the Vietnam War (1957–1975), his linkage between racial justice and economic justice, and his increased activism on racial issues in northern cities, especially Chicago.
The most significant national legislative accomplishments of the civil rights movement were the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations, public facilities, employment, and the use of federal funds. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the federal government to register voters and supervise elections, prohibited literacy tests, and expressed opposition to poll taxes. The most controversial provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.
The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement
After the assassination of King in 1968, the further advancement of civil rights for African Americans became more controversial among whites as they associated the civil rights movement with black militancy, affirmative action, and court-ordered busing to racially integrate nonsouthern schools. Nevertheless, the black civil rights movement inspired other civil rights movements in the United States, especially those for women, gays, opponents of the Vietnam War, and Latinos, the latter led by César Chávez (1927–1993) and the United Farm Workers of America.
- Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Oates, Stephen B. 1982. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New American Library.
- Sitkoff, Harvard. 1981. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1980. New York: Hill and Wang.
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