Because large segments of the populace–particularly African-Americans, women, and men without property–have not always been accorded full citizenship rights in the American Republic, civil rights movements, or “freedom struggles,” have been a frequent feature of the nation’s history. In particular, movements to obtain civil rights for black Americans have had special historical significance. Such movements have not only secured citizenship rights for blacks but have also redefined prevailing conceptions of the nature of civil rights and the role of government in protecting these rights. The most important achievements of African-American civil rights movements have been the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and established the citizenship status of blacks and the judicial decisions and legislation based on these amendments, notably the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moreover, these legal changes greatly affected the opportunities available to women, nonblack minorities, disabled individuals, and other victims of discrimination.
The modern period of civil rights reform can be divided into several phases, each beginning with isolated, small-scale protests and ultimately resulting in the emergence of new, more militant movements, leaders, and organizations. The Brown decision demonstrated that the litigation strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) could undermine the legal foundations of southern segregationist practices, but the strategy worked only when blacks, acting individually or in small groups, assumed the risks associated with crossing racial barriers. Thus, even after the Supreme Court declared that public school segregation was unconstitutional, black activism was necessary to compel the federal government to implement the decision and extend its principles to all areas of public life rather than simply in schools. During the 1950s and 1960s, therefore,NAACP–sponsored legal suits and legislative lobbying were supplemented by an increasingly massive and militant social movement seeking a broad range of social changes.
Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
The initial phase of the black protest activity in the post-Brown period began on December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, thereby defying a southern custom that required blacks to give seats toward the front of buses to whites. When she was jailed, a black community boycott of the city’s buses began. The boycott lasted more than a year, demonstrating the unity and determination of black residents and inspiring blacks elsewhere.
Martin Luther King Jr., who emerged as the boycott movement’s most effective leader, possessed unique conciliatory and oratorical skills. He understood the larger significance of the boycott and quickly realized that the nonviolent tactics used by the Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi could be used by southern blacks. “I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom,” he explained. Although Parks and King were members of the NAACP, the Montgomery movement led to the creation in 1957 of a new regional organization, the clergy-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King as its president.
King remained the major spokesperson for black aspirations, but, as in Montgomery, little-known individuals initiated most subsequent black movements. On February 1, 1960, four freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College began a wave of student sit-ins designed to end segregation at southern lunch counters. These protests spread rapidly throughout the South and led to the founding, in April 1960, of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This student-led group, even more aggressive in its use of nonviolent direct action tactics than King’s SCLC, stressed the development of autonomous local movements in contrast to SCLCs strategy of using local campaigns to achieve national civil rights reforms.
Birmingham and the March on Washington
TheSCLC protest strategy achieved its first major success in 1963 when the group launched a major campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Highly publicized confrontations between nonviolent protesters, including schoolchildren, on the one hand, and police with clubs, fire hoses, and police dogs, on the other, gained northern sympathy. The Birmingham clashes and other simultaneous civil rights efforts prompted President John F. Kennedy to push for passage of new civil rights legislation. By the summer of 1963, the Birmingham protests had become only one of many local protest insurgencies that culminated in the August 28 March on Washington, which attracted at least 200,000 participants. King’s address on that occasion captured the idealistic spirit of the expanding protests. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed–we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Although some whites reacted negatively to the spreading protests of 1963, King’s linkage of black militancy and idealism helped bring about passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation outlawed segregation in public facilities and racial discrimination in employment and education. In addition to blacks, women and other victims of discrimination benefited from the act.
While theSCLC focused its efforts in the urban centers, SNCC‘s activities were concentrated in the rural Black Belt areas of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where white resistance was intense. Although theNAACP and the predominantly white Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) also contributed activists to the Mississippi movement, youngSNCC organizers spearheaded civil rights efforts in the state. Black residents in the Black Belt, many of whom had been involved in civil rights efforts since the 1940s and 1950s, emphasized voter registration rather than desegregation as a goal. Mississippi residents Amzie Moore and Fannie Lou Hamer were among the grass-roots leaders who worked closely withSNCC to build new organizations, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (MFDP). Although theMFDP did not succeed in its attempt to claim the seats of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, it attracted national attention and thus prepared the way for a major upsurge in southern black political activity.
After the Atlantic City experience, disillusionedSNCC organizers worked with local leaders in Alabama to create the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The symbol they chose–the black panther–reflected the radicalism and belief in racial separatism that increasingly characterized SNCCduring the last half of the 1960s. The black panther symbol was later adopted by the California-based Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
Selma to Montgomery March
Despite occasional open conflicts between the two groups, both SCLCs protest strategy and SNCC’S organizing activities were responsible for major Alabama protests in 1965, which prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce new voting rights legislation. On March 7 a Selma to Montgomery march ended almost before it began at Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, when mounted police using tear gas and wielding clubs attacked the protesters. News accounts of “Bloody Sunday” brought hundreds of civil rights sympathizers to Selma. Many demonstrators were determined to mobilize another march, andSNCC activists challenged King to defy a court order forbidding such marches. But reluctant to do anything that would lessen public support for the voting rights cause, King on March 9 turned back a second march to the Pettus Bridge when it was blocked by the police. That evening a group of Selma whites killed a northern white minister who had joined the demonstrations. In contrast to the killing of a black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a few weeks before, the Reverend James Reeb’s death led to a national outcry. After several postponements of the march, civil rights advocates finally gained court permission to proceed. This Selma to Montgomery march was the culmination of a stage of the African-American freedom struggle. Soon afterward, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which greatly increased the number of southern blacks able to register to vote. But it was also the last major racial protest of the 1960s to receive substantial white support.
Rise of Black Nationalism
By the late 1960s, organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC, andSNCC faced increasingly strong challenges from new militant organizations, such as the Black Panther party. The Panthers’ strategy of “picking up the gun” reflected the sentiments of many inner-city blacks. A series of major “riots” (as the authorities called them), or “rebellions” (the sympathizers’ term), erupted during the last half of the 1960s. Often influenced by the black nationalism of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and by pan-African leaders, proponents of black liberation saw civil rights reforms as insufficient because they did not address the problems faced by millions of poor blacks and because African-American citizenship was derived ultimately from the involuntary circumstances of enslavement. In addition, proponents of racial liberation often saw the African-American freedom struggle in international terms, as a movement for human rights and national self-determination for all peoples.
Post 1960’s Civil Rights Movement
Severe government repression, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the intense infighting within the black militant community caused a decline in protest activity after the 1960s. The African-American freedom struggle nevertheless left a permanent mark on American society. Overt forms of racial discrimination and government-supported segregation of public facilities came to an end, although de facto, as opposed to de jure, segregation persisted in northern as well as southern public school systems and in other areas of American society. In the South, antiblack violence declined. Black candidates were elected to political offices in communities where blacks had once been barred from voting, and many of the leaders or organizations that came into existence during the 1950s and 1960s remained active in southern politics. Southern colleges and universities that once excluded blacks began to recruit them.
Despite the civil rights gains of the 1960s, however, racial discrimination and repression remained a significant factor in American life. Even after President Johnson declared a war on poverty and King initiated a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, the distribution of the nation’s wealth and income moved toward greater inequality during the 1970s and 1980s. Civil rights advocates acknowledged that desegregation had not brought significant improvements in the lives of poor blacks, but they were divided over the future direction of black advancement efforts. To a large degree, moreover, many of the civil rights efforts of the 1970s and 1980s were devoted to defending previous gains or strengthening enforcement mechanisms.
The modern African-American civil rights movement, like similar movements earlier, had transformed American democracy. It also served as a model for other group advancement and group pride efforts involving women, students, Chicanos, gays and lesbians, the elderly, and many others. Continuing controversies regarding affirmative action programs and compensatory remedies for historically rooted patterns of discrimination were aspects of more fundamental, ongoing debates about the boundaries of individual freedom, the role of government, and alternative concepts of social justice.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.