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Summary Article: Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Movement: An Overview
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

The civil rights movement was a struggle to fulfill the promise, made in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, of full citizenship and equal opportunity for African Americans. It originated with those amendments (in fact, one could say, with the earliest African Americans) and more particularly with the decline in commitment to those amendments that the rise of segregation and disfranchisement embodied by the early twentieth century. Thus, though it came to a climax in the first half of the 1960s, it began long before the 1950s. The civil rights movement was a response to the Jim Crow era—the era of state-sponsored segregation, disfranchisement, and discrimination—which it sought to eradicate.

Something of a canon of actions has been established by historians to trace the trajectory of the civil rights movement, particularly between, on the one hand, the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954 and 1955) and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956 and, on the other hand, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with the sit-ins that began in February 1960 a key development in between. Though that chronology will largely be followed here, the fact is that the civil rights movement can also be understood as a myriad of actions, throughout the South (or even the nation) and across the twentieth century, a broader definition that reflects the universality not only of racial discrimination but of resistance to it.

Precursors, Premonitions, Parallels

Among the premonitions and reflections of the civil rights movement, many forces converged to nurture it and bring it to fruition in the 1960s. The work of Franz Boas and other anthropologists called into question the very concept of race as a biological reality. Hitler's Germany, together with the tremendous U.S. effort in World War II required to defeat it, demonstrated the utter ugliness of race-based policies. Jackie Robinson's baseball exploits with the Brooklyn Dodgers beginning in 1947 led to an easing of segregationist attitudes and practices across the nation; mixed-race audiences were soon attending spring-training games in the South. Racial styles of American music converged in the mid- to late 1950s, as “Little Richard” Penniman, a black singer, and Elvis Presley, a white one, alike reached mass biracial audiences. Writers found receptive audiences with such varied works as Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944), Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream (1949), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), and Harper Lee's Pulitzer—Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as well as The Family of Man: The Photographic Exhibition created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art (1955) and “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Comparisons of the 1920s and 1930s with the 1950s and 1960s suggest some of the changes as well as continuities. A successful campaign to end the white Democratic primary resulted in a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1927 and 1944, yet African Americans were still prevented from voting at all in many places in the Deep South into the 1960s. In the Great Depression years of the 1930s, African Americans in such cities as Chicago and New York campaigned for “don't shop where you can't work.” At Southern lunch counters during the sit-in movement in the early 1960s, the campaign was more like “don't shop where you can't eat.”

A successful struggle to begin desegregating schools at every level in the 1960s originated many years earlier. Litigation began in the 1930s to target black exclusion from public universities' graduate and professional programs. Little changed during the first decade, but all seventeen segregated states ended black exclusion from “white” universities by 1965. At some schools, such as the University of Arkansas in 1948, the desegregation of professional programs proceeded with little difficulty, but at others, notably the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963, tension was enormous and violence considerable. Most of the segregated states and schools fell somewhere in between, in both timing and tension.

Throughout the campaign to end black exclusion from segregated universities and other schools, white parents and politicians conjured up images of interracial sex and the threat of racial “mongrelization.” Whatever the fears or tactics of those who resisted integration, the African American campaign to desegregate higher education had two main objectives. One was to open up opportunities for African Americans to obtain the formal training to enter such professions as law, engineering, medicine, and pharmacy. The other, largely successful by 1950, was to establish precedents that would permit an assault on segregation in public elementary and secondary schools.

In the 1930s and 1940s the main effort regarding racial change in the nation's elementary and secondary schools was to obtain a greater measure of the “equal” within the old framework of “separate but equal.” Black lawyers, educators, and entire communities worked to obtain more nearly equal school facilities, high school curricula, and teachers' salaries. In the early 1950s the strategy was redirected to achieving desegregation and an end to dual school systems, one white, one black. After a major Supreme Court victory in 1954, schools began to desegregate in some states but not at all in various other states, and efforts continued through the 1960s to force the implementation of the 1954 victory and bring an end to segregation in the schools.

The civil rights movement necessarily involved private actions as well as efforts in conventional politics. Threats of direct-action protest in the 1940s were instrumental in obtaining presidential decisions to open jobs in defense plants to black workers and to desegregate the U.S. military. After the Supreme Court ruled against segregated interstate bus travel in Morgan v. Virginia (1946), a biracial group of freedom riders from the Congress of Racial Equality went on a bus ride into the South to highlight that decision and test its effectiveness. Protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 spurred passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Similarly, protest activity in Selma, Alabama, in early 1965 had much to do with passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Groups and Leaders

Various groups and organizations marshaled commitment, creativity, and energy to bring racial segregation and disfranchisement under siege. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began in the 1910s to bring cases in the federal courts to undo the laws that curtailed African Americans' rights regarding voting, housing, schooling, transportation, and criminal justice. During World War II, the all-black March on Washington movement attacked discrimination in employment and segregation in the military. At the same time, and for many years afterward, the biracial Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) took direct action against segregation in public accommodations as well as transportation. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) grew out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grew out of the sit-ins of 1960.

A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), “Mr. Labor” as well as “Mr. Civil Rights,” spanned the civil rights movement and was one of its towering figures. His March on Washington movement called for equal access to jobs in the federal government and in defense plants and an end to segregation in the United States military. Randolph postponed the march when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue Executive Order 8802 and ordered establishment of the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Seven years later, Randolph's opposition to a cold war peacetime draft for a segregated military provoked President Harry S. Truman into issuing Executive Order 9981, which inaugurated an integration of all the armed forces in the United States.

Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), barred from admission to the (white) University of Maryland law school in his hometown, Baltimore, had to commute to Washington, D.C., to attend law school at (black) Howard University, from which he graduated in 1933. From the 1930s until the 1960s, Marshall applied his formidable legal skills to the NAACP's efforts to break down segregation in schools at every level, and the NAACP won Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though not until the late 1950s or the 1960s did desegregation even begin in some states, that decision proved the basis for subsequent victories in federal court against segregation in public facilities ranging from parks to colleges to eating establishments. Moreover, it symbolized the possibility of dismantling American apartheid in all dimensions of life and helped energize the further development of the civil rights movement.

Adam Clayton Powell (1908–1972) represented the Harlem area of New York City in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1945 to 1971. He repeatedly introduced what became known as the Powell Amendment to spending bills, insisting that federal programs not support segregation. The gesture proved symbolic before the 1960s, but later, as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor for six years, Powell played a sometimes important role in shaping Great Society legislation, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 embodied the Powell Amendment. During his quarter-century in the House, Powell represented more than his New York constituents. He served as unofficial congressman for millions of African Americans who, especially in the South, had no other voice in national politics. Moreover, he symbolized the rise of black political power in the North, a force that had a tremendous influence in shifting the opinions of white politicians toward curtailing the pervasive power of Jim Crow policies in American life.

King (1929–1968) emerged on the national stage with his involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to obey an order to give a white man her seat on an Alabama bus. Following the success of the Montgomery Improvement Association, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 to coordinate antisegregation activities throughout the South, and he published Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story in 1958. His application of Gandhian strategy and tactics, fused with the rhetoric of a Baptist preacher, played a critical role in his leadership. He applied that approach to segregation, especially in the massive protests in Birmingham in 1963, and to disfranchisement, particularly in Selma in 1965. In between those events came the March on Washington in August 1963, at which Randolph introduced several speakers, including the final one, King, who gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” address.

Apex and Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought formal recognition that federal policy would no longer permit public policies of segregation and disfranchisement. The Civil Rights Act mobilized federal power to curtail racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act attacked the panoply of screens that various Southern states continued to employ to hold black voter registration to as near zero as possible. Those two federal acts hardly brought about full integration of American society, nor did they even bring a complete end to the old Jim Crow laws, but they signified tremendous change in American social and political life. A Supreme Court decision in 1967, Loving v. Virginia, invalidated laws in sixteen states that still banned interracial marriage. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 attacked persistent segregation in the nation's housing markets.

Among the explanations for the accomplishments of the civil rights movement was the technology of communications media that vividly portrayed stark images of violent actions taken toward black Southerners. Television, in particular, brought viewers direct visual and audio access to the scenes in Birmingham in 1963, for example, where cattle prods, fire hoses, billy clubs, and police dogs savaged peaceful protesters. Americans responded by becoming more supportive of change, even by participating in the change themselves, as so many Northern college students chose to do, for example, in Mississippi in summer 1965. Meantime, people outside the United States saw what was happening and made their own perspectives known, and U.S. leaders had to consider the role of domestic race relations in shaping perceptions of the United States in nonwhite nations during the cold war with the Soviet Union.

By a host of measures American society was markedly less segregated by the late 1960s and early 1970s than it had been before, or even just after, World War II. Beginning in 1967 Marshall served as one of nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a 1967 movie starring Sidney Poitier, portrayed an interracial couple, a black man and a white woman. Diana Ross was one among a number of African American superstar performers whose fans included millions of whites as well as blacks. Historically nonblack institutions of higher education throughout the South enrolled black students and recruited black athletes. World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who elicited hostility among white Americans in the 1960s reminiscent of Joe Louis some thirty years earlier, became hugely popular in the 1970s with a mass following among whites as well as blacks. In music, dance, literature, sports, politics, law, and movies the change was stunning, although a clear eye could discern that it remained sharply limited as well, such as in schools and housing.

In the 1990s basketball player Michael Jordan became an international icon; a half century earlier he could have neither attended the University of North Carolina nor played in the National Basketball Association. Yet changes in policy and culture went far beyond an end to laws regarding African Americans that restricted behavior on the basis of racial identity. The civil rights movement spilled over into efforts by Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans to secure greater opportunity and to curtail prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory practices directed against them. Deaf and disabled Americans adapted the ideas and tactics of the civil rights movement to achieve more of the promise of equal access for their groups. Female Americans benefited from such legislative initiatives as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (regarding employment) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 (regarding athletics and education). The civil rights movement reverberated long after the 1950s and 1960s.

Map of the United States showing school segregation laws prior to the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Wikimedia Commons.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. Peter Pettus, photographer. Library of Congress.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X waiting for press conference, 1964. Marion S. Trikosko, photographer. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

  • Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster 1988).
  • Burns, Stewart, ed., Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Univ. of N.C. Press 1997).
  • Dudziak, Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton Univ. Press 2002).
  • Halberstam, David, The Children (Random House 1998).
  • Jackson, Thomas F., From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Univ. of Penn. Press 2006).
  • Klarman, Michael J., From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Oxford 2006).
  • Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (Knopf 1976).
  • Lawson, Steven F.; Charles Payne, Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968 (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).
  • Patterson, James T., Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford 2002).
  • Powledge, Fred, Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It (Little, Brown 1991).
  • Sitkoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992, rev. ed. (Hill & Wang 1993).
  • Turner, Jeffrey A., Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960-970 (Univ. of Ga. Press 2010).
  • Van Deburg, William L., New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (Univ. of Chicago Press 1992).
  • Peter Wallenstein
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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