The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the reform movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring Suffrage in Southern states. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1954 and 1968, particularly in the South. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975, enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.
Many of those who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, with organizations such as NAACP, SNCC, CORE and SCLC, prefer the term "Southern Freedom Movement" because the struggle was about far more than just civil rights under law; it was also about fundamental issues of freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality.
During the period 1955–1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to crisis situations which highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts such as the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) in Alabama; "sit-ins" such as the influential Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama; and a wide range of other nonviolent activities.
Noted legislative achievements during this phase of the Civil Rights Movement were passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and across the country young people were inspired to action.
After the disputed election of 1876 resulted in the end of Reconstruction, Whites in the South regained political control of the region, after mounting intimidation and violence in the elections. Systematic disfranchisement of African Americans took place in Southern states from 1890 to 1908 and lasted until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s. For more than 60 years, for example, blacks in the South were not able to elect anyone to represent their interests in Congress or local government.
During this period, the white-dominated Democratic Party regained political control over the South. The Republican Party—the "party of Lincoln"—which had been the party that most blacks belonged to, shrank to insignificance as black voter registration was suppressed. By the early 1900s, almost all elected officials in the South were Democrats.
At the same time as African Americans were being disfranchised, white Democrats imposed racial segregation by law. Violence against blacks mushroomed. The system of overt, state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged out of the post-Reconstruction South became known as the "Jim Crow" system. It remained virtually intact into the early 1950s. Thus, the early 1900s is a period often referred to as the "nadir of American race relations." While problems and civil rights violations were most intense in the South, social tensions affected African Americans in other regions as well.
Characteristics of the post-Reconstruction period:
Racial segregation. By law, public facilities and government services such as education were divided into separate "white" and "colored" domains. Characteristically, those for colored were underfunded and of inferior quality.
Disfranchisement. When white Democrats regained power, they passed laws that made voter registration more inaccessible to blacks. Black voters were forced off the voting rolls. The number of African American voters dropped dramatically, and they no longer were able to elect representatives. From 1890 to 1908, Southern states of the former Confederacy created constitutions with provisions that disfranchised most African Americans and tens of thousands of poor white Americans.
Exploitation. Increased economic oppression of blacks, Latinos, and Asians, denial of economic opportunities, and widespread employment discrimination.
Violence. Individual, police, organizational, and mass racial violence against blacks (and Latinos in the Southwest and Asians in California).
African Americans and other racial minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it in numerous ways and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations, political redress, and labor organizing (see the American Civil Rights Movement 1896–1954). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. It fought to end race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying efforts. Its crowning achievement was its legal victory in the Supreme Court decision 'Brown v. Board of Education' (1954) that rejected separate white and colored school systems and by implication overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The situation for blacks outside the South was somewhat better (in most states they could vote and have their children educated, though they still faced discrimination in housing and jobs). From 1910 to 1970, African Americans sought better lives by migrating north and west. A total of nearly seven million blacks left the South in what was known as the Great Migration.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation. They were faced with "massive resistance" in the South by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, African Americans adopted a combined strategy of direct action with nonviolent resistance known as civil disobedience, giving rise to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of 1955–1968.
The strategy of public education, legislative lobbying, and litigation within the court system that typified the Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the 20th Century broadened after Brown to a strategy that emphasized "direct action"—primarily boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. This mass action approach typified the movement from 1960 to 1968.
Churches, the centers of their communities, and local grassroots organizations mobilized volunteers to participate in broad-based actions. This was a more direct and potentially more rapid means of creating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges.
The Montgomery Improvement Association—created to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott managed to keep the boycott going for over a year until a federal court order required Montgomery to desegregate its buses. The success in Montgomery made its leader Dr. Martin Luther King a nationally known figure. It also inspired other bus boycotts, such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida, boycott of 1956–1957.
In 1957 Dr. King and Rev. John Duffy, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, joined with other church leaders who had led similar boycott efforts, such as Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee and Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge; and other activists such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, did not attempt to create a network of chapters as the NAACP did. It offered training and leadership assistance for local efforts to fight segregation. The headquarters organization raised funds, mostly from Northern sources, to support such campaigns. It made non-violence both its central tenet and its primary method of confronting racism.
In 1959, Septima Clarke, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, with the help of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, began the first Citizenship Schools in South Carolina's Sea Islands. They taught literacy to enable blacks to pass voting tests. The program was an enormous success and tripled the number of black voters on Johns Island. SCLC took over the program and duplicated its results elsewhere.
Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
Spring 1951 was the year in which great turmoil was felt amongst Black students in reference to Virginia state's educational system. At the time in Prince Edward County, Monton High School was segregated and students had decided to take matters into their own hands to fight against two things: the overpopulated school premises and the unsuitable conditions in their school. This particular behavior coming from Black people in the South was most likely unexpected and inappropriate as White people had expectations for Blacks to act in a subordinate manner. Moreover, some local leaders of the NAACP had tried to persuade the students to back down from their protest against the Jim Crow laws of school segregation. When the students did not react the NAACP's demands, the NAACP automatically joined them in their battle against school segregation. This here became one of the five cases that made up what is known today as Brown v. Board of Education.
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding the case called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the plaintiffs charged that the education of black children in separate public schools from their white counterparts was unconstitutional. The opinion of the Court stated that the "segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."
The lawyers from the NAACP had to gather some plausible evidence in order to win the case of Brown vs. Education. Their way of addressing the issue of school segregation was to enumerate several arguments. One of them pertained to having an exposure to interracial contact in a school environment. It was said that it would, in turn, help to prevent children to live with the pressures that society exerts in regards to race. Therefore, having a better chance of living in democracy. In addition, another was in reference to the emphasis of how "'education’ comprehends the entire process of developing and training the mental, physical and moral powers and capabilities of human beings”. In Goluboff's book, it has been stated that the goals of the NAACP was to bring to the Court’s awareness the fact that African American children were the victims of the legalization of school segregation and were not guaranteed a bright future. Without having the opportunity to be exposed to other cultures, it impedes on how Black children will function later on as adults trying to live a normal life.
The Court ruled that both Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), which had established the segregationist, "separate but equal" standard in general, and Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), which had applied that standard to schools, were unconstitutional. The following year, in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered segregation to be phased out over time, "with all deliberate speed".
After the Court's decision, a myriad of things have come about to promote the education of all Black people. What was most interesting was the fact that, at the time, the Black press had taken the initiative to become involved in the encouragement of all Black individuals holding different professional jobs by exposing them in their articles. Not only that, but some of the poor Black people were used as examples as well and gained as much respect as those with a diploma. Regular praises were given out to people with very modest lives. For instance, a Black journalist named Ethel Payne interviewed in 1954 a lady called Mrs. Sarah Belling. That woman worked as a bookkeeper and had a son named Spottswood who “had been the plaintiff in one of the school desegregation cases consolidated as Brown vs Topeka Board of Education” Mrs. Belling was somewhat put on a pedestal for wanting her son to get a good education and for being involved in her church. Following her encounter with the journalist, Mrs. Belling's story was published in the press.
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (the "mother of the Civil Rights Movement") refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger. She was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and had recently returned from a meeting at the Highlander Center in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy had been discussed. Parks was arrested, tried, and convicted for disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. After word of this incident reached the black community, 50 African-American leaders gathered and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to demand a more humane bus transportation system. However, after any reforms were rejected the NAACP, led by E.D. Nixon, pushed for full desegregation of public buses. With the support of most of Montgomery's 50,000 African Americans, the boycott lasted for 381 days until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was lifted. Ninety percent of African Americans in Montgomery took part in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue by 80%. A federal court ordered Montgomery's buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph.
A young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protest made King a national figure. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood and American idealism created a positive impression on people both inside and outside the South.
The Civil Rights Movement received an infusion of energy with a student sit-in at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four students Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, an all-black college, sat down at the segregated lunch counter to protest Woolworth's policy of excluding African Americans. These protesters were encouraged to dress professionally, to sit quietly, and to occupy every other stool so that potential white sympathizers could join in. The sit-in soon inspired other sit-ins in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia.
As students across the south began to "sit-in" at the lunch counters of a few of their local stores, local authority figures sometimes used brute force to physically escort the demonstrators from the lunch facilities.
The "sit-in" technique was not new—as far back as 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia library. In 1960 the technique succeeded in bringing national attention to the movement. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns throughout the South. Probably the best organized, most highly disciplined, the most immediately effective of these was in Nashville, Tennessee.
On March 9th, 1960 an Atlanta University Center group of students released An Appeal for Human Rights as a full page advertisement in newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal, and Atlanta Daily World. This student group, known as the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR), initiated the Atlanta Student Movement and began to lead in Atlanta with Sit-ins starting on March 15th, 1960.
By the end of 1960, the sit-ins had spread to every southern and border state and even to Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio.
Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but also on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places. Upon being arrested, student demonstrators made "jail-no-bail" pledges, to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest, thereby saddling their jailers with the financial burden of prison space and food.
In April, 1960 activists who had led these sit-ins held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC took these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further, to the freedom rides.
Freedom Rides, 1961
Freedom Rides were journeys by Civil Rights activists on interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960) 364 U.S. that ended segregation for passengers engaged in inter-state travel. Organized by CORE, the first Freedom Ride of the 1960s left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.
During the first and subsequent Freedom Rides, activists traveled through the Deep South to integrate seating patterns and desegregate bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains. That proved to be a dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Birmingham, Alabama, an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor gave Ku Klux Klan members fifteen minutes to attack an incoming group of freedom riders before having police "protect" them. The riders were severely beaten "until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them." James Peck, a white activist, was beaten so hard he required fifty stitches to his head.
Mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham temporarily halted the rides, but SNCC activists from Nashville brought in new riders to continue the journey from Birmingham. In Montgomery, Alabama, at the Greyhound Bus Station, a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded Jim Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth.
The freedom riders continued their rides into Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested for "breaching the peace" by using "white only" facilities. New freedom rides were organized by many different organizations. As riders arrived in Jackson, they were arrested. By the end of summer, more than 300 had been jailed in Mississippi.
The jailed freedom riders were treated harshly, crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended by "wrist breakers" from the walls. Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.
Public sympathy and support for the freedom riders led the Kennedy administration to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue a new desegregation order. When the new ICC rule took effect on November 1, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they chose on the bus; "white" and "colored" signs came down in the terminals; separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated; and lunch counters began serving people regardless of skin color.
The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, a single-minded activist; James Lawson, the revered "guru" of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Bob Moses, pioneer of voting registration in Mississippi; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer and facilitator. Other prominent student activists included Charles McDew, Bernard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Hosea Williams, and Stokely Carmichael.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Although President Kennedy had proposed civil rights legislation and it had support from Northern Congressmen, Southern Senators blocked consideration of the bill by threatening filibusters. After considerable parliamentary maneuvering and 54 days of filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate, President Johnson got a bill through the Congress. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in employment practices and public accommodations. The bill authorized the Attorney General to file lawsuits to enforce the new law. The law also nullified state and local laws which required such discrimination.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States, and he has become a human rights icon: King is recognized as a martyr by two Christian churches. A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. King's efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement and established himself as one of the greatest orators in U.S. history.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and opposing the Vietnam War, both from a religious perspective. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. national holiday in 1986.