The Civil Rights Movement, for many African-Americans, is not finished. For many minorities, there is a continuing, ongoing struggle for opportunity and equal rights. The most monumental period in the Civil Rights Movement was between 1954 and 1968. This was the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the men and women who knew something must be done. That things had to change. These people knew that their struggles were not just.
Before the Civil Rights Movement, segregation was common, in fact it was the law, in many states across this Country. There was segregation of facilities (public restrooms), services, housing, medical care, education, employment, transportation, etc. There was even segregation in the United States Armed Forces. Before the 1950s, black units were separated from white units, though all were led by white officers. Both units completed the same task, but when the black unit arrived home, after risking their lives for America, they were not treated with the same respect.
One of the first major triumphs in the Civil Rights Movement was Brown vs. Board of Education. Brown vs. Board of Education was a legal challenge of Virginia’s laws and the state’s segregated educational system. The black students at Morton High School protested the harsh, overcrowded conditions. The students refused to back down and could not be persuaded to stop protests against the Jim Crowe Laws and school segregation by local leaders. Eventually the local NAACP leader joined their fight. The NAACP challenged school segregation through the court system, filing five separate lawsuits that were later combined into what is now commonly known as Brown vs. Board of Education. On the seventeenth day of May 1954, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that mandating, let alone permitting public schools to be segregated by race is unconstitutional. The court stated, “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.”
Another event that had a great impact on the state of racial awareness was Rosa Parks’s Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December first, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in order to allow a white passenger to sit down. She was soon arrested for violation of the Jim Crow Laws. Gaining national attention. Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and was returning from a meeting at the Highland Centre in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience was being taught as a strategy. African-Americans organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in order to demand that the bus system treats its passengers equally. After the city of Montgomery refused to accommodate their reforms, the NAACP, led by E.D. Nixon pushed for full desegregation of public transportation systems. The boycott lasted 381 days with support from ninety percent of the 50,000 African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, until the local ordinance that separated African-Americans and Caucasians on public buses was repealed. She is often hailed as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement for her courageous act, standing up for herself and standing up for African-Americans for the first time.
In addition to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins and Brown vs. the Board of Education (1958-1960), other events took place. In 1957, Little Rock Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas was desegregated. Nine African-American students were chosen to attend Central High due to their outstanding grades. Only one student arrived on the first day of school because she had not received the phone call attempting to notify her of the danger regarding her attending the school. Upon arrival she was harassed by white protesters until the police placed her in their patrol car for protection. Thereafter, each day the students were escorted to school by the U.S. Martials in Jeeps. In addition to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High, the Robert F. Williams debate on nonviolence took place from 1959 to 1964.
Sit-ins became a common form of protest between 1958 and 1960. In July of 1958, the NAACP Youth Council sponsored a sit-in at the lunch counter of the Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. After only three weeks, the store changed its policy of segregated seating. Not long after all Dockum stores were desegregated. This form of protest spread across the country and successful sit-ins were led by Clara Luper in a Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City.
As sit-ins became an increasingly popular and successful form of protest, four college students, Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain led a successful sit-in at a local Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The students attended North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, an all-black college. The students placed themselves at the lunch counter to protest Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter policy. The students purchased items in the store, kept the receipt, sat down at the lunch counter, and requested service. After being denied service, they questioned the reason why their money was valued everywhere else in the store, but not at the lunch counter. Sit-ins and protests continued to spread rapidly throughout the country to places like Richmond, Virginia; Nashville Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1961, civil rights activists travelled south on interstate busses to the southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court verdict, Boynton vs. Virginia. These journeys were called Freedom Rides. They wanted to witness firsthand, the effects that Boynton vs. Virginia put in place.
After the Freedom rides to the South, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, and Medgar Evers, local black leaders, asked SNCC to help register black voters. Unfortunately, due to the restrictive provisions of the Mississippi Constitution the residency requirements, poll taxes, and literacy tests, it heavily complicated the voting process and stripped African-Americans from the ability to vote. It was a result of the above noted complications, in addition to other obstacles African-Americans were unable to (and likely did not even try) to vote, due to the violence at the time of elections.
In the autumn of 1961, Robert Moses, SNCC organizer began the first voter registration project in Mc Comb, Mississippi and the surrounding counties. Sadly, their efforts were met with violent reactions of the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. The activists involved were beaten, hundreds were arrested, and voting activist, Herbert Lee was murdered. White opposition to
African-American voter registration was so horrific, Freedom Movement activists concluded that every civil rights organization had to unite in order to have any chance of success.
In 1956, a Korean War veteran named Clyde Kennard wanted to attend Mississippi Southern College. The college president, Dr. William David McCain used the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission by appealing to local black leaders in order to prevent Mr. Kennard from enrolling at his school. Kennard was arrested twice with unreasonable charges, and eventually, he was sentenced to seven years in Mississippi’s state prison. When he was released, Clyde Kennard was paroled by the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett. Journalists had researched his case and publicized the state’s cruel mistreatment of his colorectal cancer. Though the role that McCain played in the arrests of Clyde Kennard, McCain stated, “We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society. In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting. The Negroes prefer that the control of the government remain[s] in the white man’s hand.”
The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 was fighting for one goal, the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants, distinguishing it from the majority of other movements where the goa was complete desegregation. This campaign was made stronger by the brutal response it received from local authorities, specifically the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor. The campaign employed nonviolent confrontation tactics such as sit-ins, kneel-ins, and marches to the county building attempting to change the policies of the downtown merchants. In reaction, the city obtained an injunction barring all protests, however, the protesters were convinced that such actions were unconstitutional, and defied the injunction. The campaign prepared itself for mass arrests. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the protesters arrested. When in jail, and placed in solitary confinement, King not allowed any writing paper, used the margins of the newspaper, to write his notorious, Letters from Birmingham.
The March on Washington, is likely to be the most well-known event of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a gathering of an estimated 200,000 or 300,000 demonstrators in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was held on August 28, 1963. It was a collaborative effort of all major Civil Rights organizations with the same official goals of obtaining: meaningful civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate integrated education. Initially, the Kennedy administration opposed the march based on concern that it would negatively impact the drive for passage of the Civil Rights Legislation. However, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King were dedicated to see that the march would proceed. If there was no stopping the upcoming march, the Kennedy administration knew that it was crucial to ensure its success. This event was monumental for the Civil Rights Movement. King delivered his I Have a Dream speech for the crowd as they gathered in the National Mall.
The Mississippi Freedom Summer brought about 1,000 activists to Mississippi (mostly white activists) to meet with local civil rights leaders and to register voters. They would teach in Freedom Schools and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The activists were resented by local white residents who disagreed with their attempts to change their society. The state and local government, the police, the Ku Klux Klan, and the White Citizens’ Council used arrests, beatings, arson, murder, spying, firing, evictions, and intimidation to oppose the registration of African-American voters. On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared. The three activists were found forty-four days later, murdered by conspirators who were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
President Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation which was supported by Northern Congressmen and Senators of both parties, unfortunately, Southern Senators blocked the bill, threatening filibusters. After 54 days of filibuster, President Johnson was successful in getting the Civil Rights bill through the Congress. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Additionally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. This act suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subjective voter tests, and it authorized Federal supervision of voter registration in states and districts where the tests were being used. If discrimination occurred in voter registration, the act authorized the Attorney General of the United States to send Federal examiners to replace local registrars. The bill showed positive and immediate effects. Within months of signing the bill, 250,000 black voters were registered.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Bill was being debated and again was being filibustered. On March first, the Kerner Commission report on the 1967 ghetto riots was delivered to Congress. It strongly recommended an inclusive Federal open-housing law as a therapy to the civil disturbances. The Senate filibuster ended that very week.
The Civil Rights Movement, the efforts to move to a more progressive and accepting society continues today in many ways. The Civil Rights Movement has changed the path of America with its introduction of violent and nonviolent forms of protest, famous activists, memorable events, and without a doubt, the desegregation of America. The Civil Rights Movement ended much of the overt discrimination that was commonplace in our country, but it has had a much harder time fighting the covert discrimination that still exists today. While we have made great strides, it can be argued, we still have a long way to go.