The Civil Rights Movement


The Civil Rights Movement or 1960s Civil Rights Movement encompasses social movements in the United States whose goals were to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law.

When most Americans think of the Civil Rights Movement, they have in mind a span of time beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated education, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott and culminated in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The movement encompassed both ad hoc local groups and established organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The Civil Rights Movement

Despite the fact that they were not always united around strategy and tactics and drew members from different classes and backgrounds, the movement nevertheless cohered around the aim of eliminating the system of Jim Crow segregation and the reform of some of the worst aspects of racism in American institutions and life.

Much of our memory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is embodied in dramatic photographs, newsreels, and recorded speeches, which America encountered in daily papers and the nightly news. As the movement rolled across the nation, Americans absorbed images of hopeful, disciplined, and dedicated young people shaping their destinies. They were met with hostility, federal ambivalence and indifference, as well as mob and police violence. African Americans fought back with direct action protests and keen political organizing, such as voter registration drives and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The crowning achievements were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The images are alternately angering and inspiring, powerful, iconic even. However, by themselves they cannot tell the history of the Civil Rights Movement. They need to be contextualized.

The drama of the mid-twentieth century emerged on a foundation of earlier struggles. Two are particularly notable: the NAACP’s campaign against lynching, and the NAACP’s legal campaign against segregated education, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision.

The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s combined widespread publicity about the causes and costs of lynching, a successful drive to defeat Supreme Court nominee John J. Parker for his white supremacist and anti-union views and then defeat senators who voted for confirmation, and a skillful effort to lobby Congress and the Roosevelt administration to pass a federal anti-lynching law.

The Civil Rights Movement

Southern senators filibustered, but they could not prevent the formation of a national consensus against lynching; by 1938 the number of lynchings declined steeply. Other organizations, such as the left-wing National Negro Congress, fought lynching, too, but the NAACP emerged from the campaign as the most influential civil rights organization in national politics and maintained that position through the mid-1950s.

The campaign for desegregated education was part of a larger struggle to reshape the contours of America‐in terms of race, but also in the ways political and economic power is exercised in this country. Plans for the legal campaign that culminated with Brown were sketched in 1929 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Charles Hamilton Houston, the black attorney most responsible for developing the legal theory underpinning Brown, focused on segregated education because he believed that it was the concentrated expression of all the inequalities blacks endured.

Houston was unabashed: lawyers were either social engineers or they were parasites. He desired equal access to education, but he also was concerned with the type of society blacks were trying to integrate. He was among those who surveyed American society and saw racial inequality and the ruling powers that promoted racism to divide black workers from white workers. Because he believed that racial violence in Depression-era America was so pervasive as to make mass direct action untenable, he emphasized the redress of grievances through the courts.

The designers of the Brown strategy developed a potent combination of gradualism in legal matters and advocacy of far-reaching change in other political arenas. Through the 1930s and much of the 1940s, the NAACP initiated suits that dismantled aspects of the edifice of segregated education, each building on the precedent of the previous one. Not until the late 1940s did the NAACP believe it politically feasible to challenge directly the constitutionality of “separate but equal” education itself.

Concurrently, civil rights organizations backed efforts to radically alter the balance of power between employers and workers in the United States. They paid special attention to forming an alliance with organized labor, whose history of racial exclusion angered blacks. In the 1930s, the National Negro Congress brought blacks into the newly formed United Steel Workers, and the union paid attention to the particular demands of African Americans.

The Civil Rights Movement

The NAACP assisted the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest black labor organization of its day. In the 1940s, the United Auto Workers, with NAACP encouragement, made overtures to black workers. The NAACP’s successful fight against the Democratic white primary in the South was more than a bid for inclusion; it was a stiff challenge to what was in fact a regional one-party dictatorship. Recognizing the interdependence of domestic and foreign affairs, the NAACP’s program in the 1920s and 1930s promoted solidarity with Haitians who were trying to end the American military occupation and with colonized blacks elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. African Americans’ support for WWII and the battle against the Master Race ideology abroad was matched by equal determination to eradicate it in America, too. In the post-war years blacks supported the decolonization of Africa and Asia.

Gradualism was a smart legal strategy, but Charles Houston also knew that it was a mistake to trim political demands to suit the nation’s leaders’ ideas of propriety. He supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential bid in 1948. Wallace called racism the nation’s and the South’s “number one enemy.” He promised to defuse the Cold War, promote working class political participation, and limit the influence of corporations in American civil life. Houston saw school desegregation not as an end in itself, not to promote some amorphous “inclusion,” but as a major way to revolutionize American society.

The Cold War and McCarthyism put a hold on such expansive conceptions of civil/human rights. Critics of our domestic and foreign policies who exceeded narrowly defined boundaries were labeled un-American and thus sequestered from Americans’ consciousness. In a supreme irony, the Supreme Court rendered the Brown decision and then the government suppressed the very critique of American society that animated many of Brown’s architects.

White southern resistance to Brown was formidable and the slow pace of change stimulated impatience especially among younger African Americans as the 1960s began. They concluded that they could not wait for change‐they had to make it. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted the entire year of 1956, had demonstrated that mass direct action could indeed work. The four college students from Greensboro who sat at the Woolworth lunch counter set off a decade of activity and organizing that would kill Jim Crow.

Elimination of segregation in public accommodations and the removal of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs was no mean feat. Yet from the very first sit-in, Ella Baker, the grassroots leader whose activism dated from the 1930s and who was advisor to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pointed out that the struggle was “concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” Far more was at stake for these activists than changing the hearts of whites. When the sit-ins swept Atlanta in 1960, protesters’ demands included jobs, health care, reform of the police and criminal justice system, education, and the vote.

The Civil Rights Movement

Demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 under the leadership of Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was affiliated with the SCLC, demanded not only an end to segregation in downtown stores but also jobs for African Americans in those businesses and municipal government. The 1963 March on Washington, most often remembered as the event at which Dr. King proclaimed his dream, was a demonstration for “Jobs and Justice.”

Movement activists from SNCC and CORE asked sharp questions about the exclusive nature of American democracy and advocated solutions to the disfranchisement and violation of the human rights of African Americans, including Dr. King’s nonviolent populism, Robert Williams’ “armed self-reliance,” and Malcolm X’s incisive critiques of worldwide white supremacy, among others. What they proposed was breathtakingly radical, especially in light of today’s political discourse and the simplistic ways it prefers to remember the freedom struggle.

King called for a guaranteed annual income, redistribution of the national wealth to meet human needs, and an end to a war to colonize the Vietnamese. Malcolm X proposed to internationalize the black American freedom struggle and to link it with liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thus the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was not concerned exclusively with interracial cooperation or segregation and discrimination as a character issue. Rather, as in earlier decades, the prize was a redefinition of American society and a redistribution of social and economic power.


Quick Facts

Start Date:
1919

End Date:
1964


  • The Civil Rights movement in America was one of the most important events in America's history. It was a movement against discrimination, inequality, injustice, and against segregation of society on the basis of race and ethnicity. Although it is generally agreed that the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1960s, it is not clear on what date the movement actually first started. There is a consensus among historians that after the World War II was over, the struggle for racial equality gained prominence.
  • Even though slavery was made illegal, the African American people were still considered as the subordinate people. The separation was made between the white and black people.
  • Jim Crow Laws were the laws used in United States to separate the white people from the black people. The white people got the access to better transportation, restaurants, schools and restrooms. The black people were prevented from voting.
  • The case of Brown v. Board of Education was very important in the history of Civil Rights movement for finally the Supreme Court finalized that school segregation was illegal.
  • Nine Black students were not allowed to enroll in a school on the orders of Governor Orval Faubus. Later, with the help of federal troops and National Guard, these nine students got admission in the school and despite being constantly threatened, they managed to graduate from the Central High. These nine students were later known as “Little Rock Nine”.
  • Emmett Till, a 14-year old Black student was murdered by two white men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, and his body was dumped into Tallahatchie River. These two men were tried but were later evicted. The two men had no remorse in killing a minor and boasted of their act in an interview to ‘Look’ magazine.
  • The movement played an important part in ensuring that Blacks got their due place in America and paved the way for their prosperity and growth. Perhaps the biggest contribution of the Civil Rights Movement is that a country which once did not even grant African-Americans the right to vote, now has an African-American President in Barack Hussein Obama. We would like to conclude this article by quoting two great men in the history of America.

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