The civil rights movement was a struggle for social justice that mostly took place in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, with the goal of granting Black Americans equal legal rights. Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not stop prejudice against African-Americans, who continued to suffer the devastating impacts of racism, particularly in the South. By the mid-nineteenth century, Black Americans had had their fill of bigotry and brutality. They, together with a large number of white Americans, rallied and began a two-decade-long campaign for equality.
Black people took up leadership capacities in unprecedented numbers during Reconstruction. They served in public office and lobbied for reforms in the law to promote equality and the right to vote.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, guaranteed Black people equal legal protection. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, gave Black American men the right to vote. Nonetheless, many white Americans, particularly in the South, were dissatisfied that people they had formerly enslaved were now on a more-or-less equal footing.
Beginning in the late 1800s, “Jim Crow” laws were enacted in the South to marginalize Black people, keep them separate from white people, and erase the accomplishments they had made during Reconstruction. Black people were denied access to the same public facilities as white people, as well as the ability to live in many of the same communities and attend the same schools. Interracial marriage was prohibited, and most Black people were unable to vote due to a lack of voter literacy.
Although Jim Crow laws were not implemented in the northern states, Black people continued to face prejudice at work, when purchasing a home, and when seeking an education. To make matters worse, some states have established laws restricting Black Americans’ ability to vote.
Furthermore, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that facilities for black and white people could be “separate but equal,” southern segregation gained traction.
Most Black people worked as low-wage farmers, factory laborers, domestics, or servants prior to World War II. War-related work was thriving in the early 1940s, but most Black Americans were denied the better-paying jobs. They were also persuaded not to enlist in the military.
On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in response to thousands of Black people threatening to march on Washington demanding equal job rights. It allowed all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, to apply for national defense and other government employment.
Despite facing segregation and discrimination during their deployment, black men and women served valiantly in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the United States Army Air Corps, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses in the process. When they returned home, however, many Black soldiers were treated with discrimination and derision.
This was in sharp contrast to why America had entered the war in the first place: to preserve global freedom and democracy.
As the Cold War began, President Harry Truman began a civil rights program, issuing Executive Order 9981 in 1948 to prevent military discrimination. These events paved the way for grassroots efforts to pass racial equality laws and sparked the civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old lady, secured a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus after work on December 1, 1955. Parks had complied with segregation laws at the time, which required Black passengers to sit in assigned seats at the back of the bus.
The bus driver told Parks and three other Black passengers to give up their seats when a white man boarded the vehicle and couldn’t locate a seat in the white area at the front. Parks was detained after refusing to comply.
Parks unknowingly became the “mother of the contemporary day civil rights movement” when word of her arrest sparked outrage and support. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was founded by black community leaders and led by Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., putting him at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
The MIA was inspired by Parks’ bravery to launch a bus boycott in Montgomery. The bus boycott in Montgomery lasted 381 days. The Supreme Court found segregated sitting was illegal on November 14, 1956.
Little Rock Nine
In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools illegal in 1954, igniting the civil rights movement. Central High Institution in Little Rock, Arkansas, requested volunteers from all-Black high schools to attend the formerly segregated school in 1957.
On September 3, 1957, the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African-American students, arrived at Central High School to begin school, only to be confronted by the Arkansas National Guard (on Governor Orval Faubus’ orders) and a yelling, threatening mob. The Little Rock Nine tried again a few weeks later and made it inside, but were forced to leave for their own safety when violence erupted.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower finally intervened, ordering federal troops to accompany the Little Rock Nine to and from Central High School. Despite this, the kids were subjected to constant abuse and intolerance. Their actions, on the other hand, drew much-needed attention to the issue of desegregation and fuelled protests on both sides.
1957 Civil Rights Act
Despite the fact that all Americans were granted the right to vote, many southern states made voting difficult for African-Americans. They frequently asked potential voters of color to complete complicated, inaccurate, and nearly impossible-to-pass reading tests.
The Eisenhower administration pressed Congress to approve additional civil rights legislation in order to demonstrate its commitment to the civil rights movement and reduce racial tensions in the South.
President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, into law on September 9, 1957. It made it possible for anyone who attempted to prevent someone from voting to face criminal charges. It also established a panel to look into allegations of voter fraud.
Woolworth’s Lunch Counter
Despite considerable progress, Black Americans continue to face open discrimination in their daily lives. Four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, made a stance against segregation on February 1, 1960, when they refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter without being served.
Hundreds of people joined them in what became known as the Greensboro sit-ins over the next few days. After a few students were detained and charged with trespassing, demonstrators staged a boycott of all segregated lunch counters until the proprietors gave in and the initial four students were finally served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter where they’d first stood their ground.
Their work led to nonviolent sit-ins and protests in dozens of cities, as well as the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which encouraged all students to participate in the civil rights struggle. It also drew the attention of young college graduate Stokely Carmichael, who joined the SNCC to register Black voters in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Carmichael became the SNCC’s chair in 1966, and gave his famous speech in which he coined the phrase “Black Power.”
The Freedom Riders
Seven Black and six white activists boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, to begin on a bus tour across the American south to protest segregated bus terminals. They were putting the 1960 Supreme Court judgment in Boynton v. Virginia to the test, which deemed interstate transportation segregation illegal.
The Freedom Rides garnered international attention as they faced violence from both police officers and white protesters. The bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama, on Mother’s Day 1961, where a mob mounted it and tossed a bomb into it. Although the Freedom Riders were able to flee the burning bus, they were severely beaten. The gang couldn’t locate a bus driver to take them any further when photos of the bus engulfed in flames went viral. The Freedom Riders continued their journey under police protection on May 20 after US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (brother of President John F. Kennedy) mediated with Alabama Governor John Patterson to find a suitable driver. However, once they arrived in Montgomery, where the bus was viciously attacked by a white mob, the officers left the group. Attorney General John F. Kennedy sent federal marshals to Montgomery in response to the riders and a call from Martin Luther King, Jr.
A group of Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, 1961. Despite the support of hundreds of people, the group was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for trespassing in a “whites-only” facility. The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court by attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which overturned the convictions. The rides continued as hundreds of fresh Freedom Riders joined the fight.
The Interstate Commerce Commission established regulations barring segregation in interstate transit terminals in the fall of 1961, following pressure from the Kennedy administration.
March to Washington, D.C.
On August 28, 1963, one of the most renowned events in the civil rights movement occurred: the March on Washington. Civil rights heavyweights such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. organized and attended.
Over 200,000 people of all colors gathered in Washington, D.C. for a peaceful march with the goal of imposing civil rights legislation and ensuring work equality for everyone.
The march’s centerpiece was King’s speech, in which he repeatedly proclaimed, “I have a dream…”
The speech “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. energized the national civil rights movement and became a rallying cry for equality and freedom.
1964 Civil Rights Act
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation launched by President John F. Kennedy prior to his assassination.
The signing was observed by King and other civil rights advocates. The law ensured that all people were treated equally in the workplace, limited the use of voter literacy tests, and empowered federal officials to ensure that public facilities were integrated.
The civil rights movement in Alabama took a particularly violent turn on March 7, 1965, when 600 peaceful demonstrators marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of Black civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a white police officer and to encourage legislation to enforce the 15th amendment.
The protestors were stopped as they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state and municipal police sent by Alabama governor George C. Wallace, a staunch opponent of desegregation. Refusing to back down, demonstrators marched ahead, where they were brutally battered and teargassed by police, resulting in the hospitalization of hundreds of protesters.
The entire incident was broadcast on television, and it was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” Some activists planned to retaliate with violence, but King advocated for nonviolent protests and was finally granted federal protection for a second march.
1965 Voting Rights Act
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, taking the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a step further. The new law outlawed all voter literacy tests and gave federal examiners power over specific voting districts.
It also gave the attorney general the authority to challenge state and local poll taxes. As a result, in the 1966 case Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, poll taxes were deemed unlawful.
Assassination of Civil Rights Leaders
In the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had tragic implications for two of its leaders. Malcolm X, the founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity and former leader of the Nation of Islam, was assassinated at a demonstration on February 21, 1965.
Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was slain on the balcony of his hotel room on April 4, 1968. Looting and riots erupted, as a result, placing even more pressure on the Johnson administration to pass more civil rights legislation.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act was signed into law on April 11, 1968, just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, gender, national origin, or religion. It was also the final piece of civil rights legislation passed.
For Black Americans, the civil rights struggle was both liberating and dangerous. Civil rights activists and numerous demonstrators of all races worked together to pass legislation that abolished segregation, voter suppression, and discriminatory job and housing policies.
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