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Civil Rights movement

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Description: Demonstrations, debates, boycotts, legislation, and litigation that attempted to secure the political, social, and economic rights of African Americans and all other U.S. citizens.


Significance: The efforts of African Americans to secure their civil rights led to numerous challenges before the Supreme Court. The movement's ideologies and styles were adopted by other ethnic communities and minorities, including women and homosexuals, in their struggles to obtain their rights.


In the 1960's and early 1970's, the Civil Rights movement led by African Americans was most effective in altering the politics, culture, and mores of American society. The movement is often regarded as beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a Supreme Court decision that struck down racially segregated education; however, its roots can be traced back to the post-Civil War era. The Civil War (1861-1865) resulted in the preservation of the union of states and in the freeing of the bulk of the black labor force in the South's cotton economy. It did not, however, provide the freed slaves with the rights of citizenship. The Republican Congress passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution (ratified 1868 and 1870 respectively) to provide equal citizenship for the former slaves. However, after the end of Reconstruction, most southern states passed black codes that effectively kept African Americans from voting, segregated them by law in many areas of public life, and maintained their subservience. By the early 1900's, social historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that African Americans felt a sense of “twoness”: They were Americans but also blacks who were not fully allowed the civil rights all Americans were guaranteed. Early civil rights efforts were initially quite successful, but when poised against entrenched racist institutions, these successes were often reversed.


A Modern Challenge

The Civil Rights movement that began in the mid-1950's differed from earlier civil rights efforts in that its successes had far more lasting consequences. Its approach to the problem of a lack of rights was multifaceted, including legal challenges, economic boycotts, political empowerment, and even efforts to influence the arts and media. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), through its Legal Defense Fund, offered up numerous legal challenges against segregation, voting restrictions, and other civil rights violations, many of which reached the Supreme Court. Three events between the years 1954 and 1960 shaped the Civil Rights movement. The first was the historical Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in which Chief Justice Earl Warren, in his opinion for the Court, ruled that the separate but equal doctrine had no place in the field of public education. This decision, a major victory for the NAACP, had the profound consequence of placing the federal government officially on the side of desegregation. The implication was that the U.S. government would support the demise of segregation in more than education that is, that separate but equal facilities generally might not be lawful. This single legal decision by the Court emboldened blacks to challenge segregation and encouraged whites who supported them to participate in this growing movement. The second critical event was the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. In 1955 Rosa Parks, an African American bus rider, refused to relinquish her seat to a white man as required by the bus company. Black clergy united in support of Parks and organized a boycott of the bus company. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., became the group's primary spokesperson. A previous incident in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was as successful as the Montgomery boycott but was not well publicized. In both instances, African Americans gained the right to equal access and could sit where they chose on public transportation. The third event was a series of demonstrations that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, when black students from a local historically black university participated in a sit-in demonstration in which they occupied seats at a local segregated lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. The sit-in was successful, and similar demonstrations were held in many other areas in the South. Some demonstrators were arrested for disturbing the peace or trespassing, and these cases were appealed to the Supreme Court. In Garner v. Louisiana (1961), the Court overturned the convictions of sixteen African Americans who had participated in a lunch counter sit-in, and in Peterson v. City of Greenville (1963), it reversed additional sit-in cases, applying the state action doctrine to rule that the refusal to serve African Americans was not simply private discrimination. The Court continued to expand its definition of state action to include what had been thought of as private conduct through most of the 1960's. For example, in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority (1961), the Court ruled against a restaurant that had refused to serve an African American because it was located in a parking garage owned by a government agency and the leasing arrangement allowed the agency to profit from the restaurant. The Court also supported the efforts of the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP. In National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button (1963), it blocked the Virginia legislature's attempt to stop the Legal Defense Fund by claiming its efforts were a solicitation of legal business, then prohibited by law.


Internal Conflict

By the mid-1960's, groups within the Civil Rights movement, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), began to question the fundamental strategies of more traditional groups, including the NAACP's emphasis on litigation and nonviolence. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also changed the movement's focus. SNCC, CORE, and other groups debated the value of nonviolence as a tactic, argued about whether blacks and whites should be working together in the Civil Rights movement, and asked whether the movement should be attempting reform or revolution. In the second half of the 1960's, some African American civil rights leaders began talking about “black power,” the achievement of rights for blacks by blacks within the American sociopolitical system. By the mid-1970's, the Civil Rights movement had largely ended, although many African Americans continued to work to improve their status and safeguard their civil rights. The focus and emphasis of these efforts changed, however. The first African American mayor of Atlanta claimed that politics were the substitute for civil rights activism. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, by contrast, claimed that ownership and managerial power in the economy was the substitute. The Civil Rights movement was successful in gaining political and economic rights for African Americans, opening public facilities to them, and influencing American culture through the arts and the media. After it ended, however, an increasing gap emerged between those African Americans who had succeeded in the economy and those who remained part of an underclass. The movement, although it ended legal segregation and overt discrimination, could not eliminate all prejudice and discrimination, nor could it address all the social and economic needs of African Americans.



Further Reading

  • Belfrage, Sally. Freedom Summer. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
  • Boxill, Bernard. Blacks and Social Justice. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.
  • Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
  • Carnoy, Martin. Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Cashman, Sean Dennis. African Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
  • Feagin, Joe R., and Melvin P. Sikes. Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
  • Friedman, Leon, ed. Brown v. Board: The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court. New York: New Press, 2004.
  • Horwitz, Morton J. The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Patterson, James T. “Brown v. Board of Education”: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.