The American Civil Rights Movement

The Black Lives Matter movement has been successful in bringing the injustice and discrimination faced by African Americans to the forefront of American politics and discussions. Critics, however, argue that the movement is violent and misguided, and some say that there is no need for such a movement today. While it is true that African Americans and people of different races, ethnic backgrounds and even sexual orientations enjoy more liberties and rights than ever before, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Also, it is important to acknowledge that the freedoms enjoyed today by non-white Americans can, largely, be attributed to the Civil Rights Movement that lasted until the 1960s. In order to understand the importance of the movement, it is important to understand the history of injustice and discrimination faced by African Americans in United States history.

Slavery in the United States

It is estimated that somewhere between 10 and 15 million Africans were brought to the colonial-era United States as slaves over the centuries that the slave trade lasted. Some estimates provide much higher figures. However, it was the year 1619 when the slave trade is thought to have formally begun when the White Lion brought over 20 slaves stolen from a Portuguese slave ship.

Slave labor was considered a cheaper alternative to indentured workers. It made running businesses and households more profitable. Additionally, the volume of slaves being bought and sold made the slave trade itself a lucrative industry.

The slaves had no rights and were often subjected to cruel punishments. The women were raped without consequences, marriages between slaves had no legal recognition, and people had no say in where they lived. Families were frequently divided as members would be sold for profit. They did not have access to legal recourse against the injustices they faced. They were not allowed to learn to read or write and had little or no access to health care. The situation did not improve much even after the United States gained independence after the Revolutionary War. In fact, in many ways, the situation actually worsened as slavery was given formal recognition when the newly formed Constitution recognized African Americans as 3/5th of a person for the sake of taxation and government representation.

However, the situation was vastly different between Northern and Southern States. The Northern economy was based on industry instead of agriculture. This resulted in contrasting attitudes towards slavery between the American North and the South. Also, many Americans started to relate with the plight of the slaves as they themselves had to go through prejudice and injustice at the hands of British Colonists. This sentiment resulted in the call for abolition of slavery by many white Americans. As a result, many slaves would escape to the North searching for freedom. This would become known as the Underground Railroad – not a network of roads or tracks, but of routes and safe passages towards freedom. These differences between the North and the South were an important reason behind the Civil War.

Life in Post-Civil War America for African Americans

The American Civil War began in 1861 and was fought between the Northern states that formed the Union and the Southern states that had seceded to form the Confederate States of America. While there were a number of issues that led to the war, abolition of slavery was not only one of the most important reasons but also what gave the Northern war effort its legitimacy and international support. It was the bloodiest war in American history and resulted in a victory for the Union and the abolition of slavery in most states and territories. In fact, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation 2 years into the 4 year war declaring all slaves to be free. It is estimated that over 200000 Black soldiers fought for the union.

The war changed the lives of African Americans forever. It resulted in 3 amendments to the U.S Constitution that aimed to reduce racial injustice. The 13th Amendment banned slavery, the 14th Amendment gave African Americans citizenship rights and the 15th Amendment addressed their voting rights. While the 15th Amendment allowed Black citizens to vote, it did not provide complete protection of their rights as states still had some control over voting and could deny the ability to vote based on other factors such as literacy and poll taxes.

The end of the war lead to what most historians call the Reconstruction Era. While President Johnson’s Republican government can be credited for the 3 amendments, the lenient approach he took in dealing with former confederate states gave rise to a new set of problems. For instance, all land that the Union had confiscated from the Confederacy and allotted to the freed slaves was given back to the pre-war owners. 

This leniency resulted in new laws in the South that were created to restrict economic and political liberties for Black citizens. The resulting friction lead to a decline in the Congress’ support for President Johnson. Some Republicans called for a more radical approach towards reconstruction and campaigned for stricter punishment for the Southern states. These Radical Republicans are the ones that lead to the passing and ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments. 
This radical approach faced opposition from those that were not willing to allow Black Americans to have political, social, civil and economic freedoms that rivaled their own. The opposition often came in the form of violence aimed towards African Americans and even political leaders that supported protecting the liberties of the Black community. It was during this era that the Ku Klux Klan was born.

African Americans were subjected to beatings, lynching, massacres, discrimination and other forms of extreme racial prejudice. When, in 1877, the Union withdrew its armed forces that had been stationed in the South to keep the Confederate elements at bay, the violence, injustice and prejudice grew even worse. African Americans found themselves disenfranchised once again, either by fear of violence or through legislation aimed to restrict their newfound freedoms.

While life had transformed for the better for most African Americans, they were still not free from injustice and discrimination. The new Black Codes or Jim Crowe laws aimed to prevent Black Americans from achieving economic independence and alleviation from poverty. African Americans were prohibited from marrying white Americans, serving in juries, and testifying against white Americans. There were also various restrictions preventing them from serving in numerous government departments and contesting for public offices. 

As a result of these restrictions many African Americans could not find their way out of poverty. They did not have access to quality education and healthcare. Many found themselves depending on their former masters for earning a livelihood. Job opportunities were limited and there were massive differences in wages. 

This was an era of systematic racial discrimination and segregation. They were barred, often by law, from attending the same schools as white Americans. Even the textbooks, by law, had to be different for Black and white Americans. They faced segregation in healthcare, transportation, employment and even in housing. They faced extreme discrimination at the hands of law enforcement authorities as well as the criminal justice system. The segregation even extended to government departments and the military. They could not serve in the same departments and units as white men. There have been cases where Black Americans were lynched merely for using the same toilets as white Americans. Restaurants could legally refuse service to non-white Americans and very often African Americans were not allowed to bury their dead in the same graveyards as white Americans. In fact, the problem of segregation was so severe that even whole towns were well within their legal rights to refuse entry to non-white Americans.

This segregation came in two forms. Firstly, there were laws the allowed, encouraged or mandated segregation. Secondly, in areas of life where segregation was not required by law, it was still often practiced by the citizenry and tolerated by the governments. 

The period of American history between the 1890s and the 1920 is often described as the Progressive Era. During this period there was a rapid increase in social, political and civil activism that lead to numerous reforms. While race played an important part in these reforms, most African Americans found themselves facing systematic racism, discrimination and even violence and police brutality.

The Civil Rights Movement

Right after the conclusion of the American Civil War, the various reforms made life better for Black Americans. However, the struggle did not end there. With slavery abolished, African Americans faced a range of new challenges and problems. These new issues gave rise to African American activism. By the mid-20th century, the situation had reached a boiling point. Black Americans had had enough of the prejudice, violence, segregation and discrimination directed towards them. This unrest lead to the Civil Rights Movement – a struggle for social justice and racial equality that spanned most of the 1950s and 1960s. Under the umbrella of the Civil Rights Movement, millions of Black Americans as well as many white Americans organized at an unprecedented scale to fight the system of oppression.

Key Events, Participants and Milestones

1)    World War II (1940-1944)

Before World War II, economic and employment opportunities for Black Americans were limited. They were paid wages that were significantly lower than their white counterparts, and mostly worked as low-wage farmers, factory workers and as domestic staff. Despite the creation of new jobs by the American war effort, these opportunities were rarely available for African Americans. They were even discouraged from enlistment. 

However, under the threat of protests, everything changed when President Roosevelt issued the Executive Order 8802 in 1941. This opened up new defense, military and government service opportunities for all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. However, the military service was still segregated and the servicemen were still met with prejudice and mistreatment upon their return from the war.

As the World War ended and the Cold War began, President Truman issued the Executive Order 9981 in 1948 as part of his civil rights agenda. This brought an end to formal discrimination in the military. This was a huge victory for the African American cause. It set the stage for widespread grass-root initiatives culminating the in the Civil Rights Movement.

2)    Brown V Board of Education (1954-55)

The historic case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education is actually the generalized name for 5 different court cases that were heard by the Supreme Court on the issue of segregation in schools. It was handled by Thurgood Marshall and funded by the NAACP. The Supreme Court heard the cases after the District 

Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education and segregation. On May 14th, 1964, Chief Justice Warrant stated that the judges were unanimous in their conclusion that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place in the public education sector. On May 31st, 1955 the Court ruled in favor of desegregation and handed out a plan. While it took years for desegregation to become common practice in schools, this was a landmark ruling. 

3)    Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56)

In December 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on her way back from work. Parks sat in the back of the bus on a seat designated for Black passengers in accordance to the segregation laws of the time. When a white man boarded and was unable to find a seat, Parks and three other passengers were asked to give up their seats. Parks refusal resulted in her arrest. Widespread outrage and support followed.

This incident resulted in Rosa Parks becoming an icon and, for many, the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. This led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. King, Jr. who would go on to become the face and leader of the movement on the national stage. The MIA staged a boycott of the Montgomery bus transport system that lasted over a year. In November 1956, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in transport unconstitutional.

4)    The Civil Rights Act of 1957 (1957)

While most Americans, at least on paper, had the right to vote, many southern states had passed laws aimed to make voting difficult for African Americans. Some preventive measures included literacy requirements and taxation. As many Black Americans lived in extreme poverty and access to education and income was limited, many Black citizens were unable to vote.

The Eisenhower administration pressured the Congress to bring about new civil rights legislation amidst rising racial tensions. The President signed the new Civil Rights Act into law in 1957. It was the first major civil rights legislation of the 20th century and allowed federal prosecution of anyone preventing any citizen, Black or white, from exercising their right to vote. 

5)    The Greensboro Sit-ins and the SNCC (1960)

While there was significant progress in some areas of everyday life for Black Americans, they still experienced racism and prejudice every day. For instance, restaurants and other places of business could still refuse service based on race. On February 1st, 1960, four students of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University – Ezell A. Blair, Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeill and David L. Richmond – sat at the lunch counter at the Woolworth store and refused to leave without being served. At the time, Woolworth’s only served African Americans at a stand-up counter. Choosing not to file charges, the manager simply decided to shut down the counter.

As news of the incident spread, hundreds of protestors joined the cause and became a part of the now famous Greensboro sit-ins. When some of the protestors were arrested, a boycott was launched that resulted in the original four students being served at the same counter where the protest began. 

This resulted in widespread nonviolent protests and sit-ins in many cities and was integral in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). The SNCC would become an important part of the movement and helped organize Freedom Summer of 1964 – an event aimed to encourage Black Americans to register to vote.

6)    Boynton v. Virginia and the Freedom Riders (1960-1961)

In May 1961, seven Black and six white activists boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C to begin a tour of the south to protest segregated bus terminals. These 13 activists would come to be known as the Freedom Riders. They aimed to put the ruling of the important Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling of 1960 that declared segregation of interstate transportation as unconstitutional. This drew international attention when the Riders were subjected to violence from the police as well as white American citizenry.

They escaped a bombing attempt when a mob entered the bus and threw a bomb inside as they reached Anniston Alabama. They were beaten with baseball bats as they fled. When they could not find a bus driver willing to take them further on their journey, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (President Kennedy’s brother) helped find a bus driver and arranged for the Riders to resume their journey with a police escort. The escort, however, left them as they reached Montgomery where a mob attacked the Freedom Riders once again. Robert Kennedy responded to the incident by sending federal marshals to Montgomery to aid the Riders.

As news stories and photographs of the violence and the burning bus spread around the country, hundreds of people came forward to join the Freedom Riders and challenge the racial status quo. On May 24th, a group of Riders was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for using ‘whites-only’ facilities and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The legal wing of the NAACP successfully appealed against the sentence to the Supreme Court. 

Hundreds more joined the cause. This lead to the Kennedy government pressurizing the Interstate Commerce Commission into ending segregation at interstate transportation facilities.

7)    The March on Washington (1963)

The March on Washington happened on the 28th of August, 1963 and is one of the most iconic and famous events of the Civil Rights Movement. It was led by many civil rights leaders including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rusting, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Some estimate that there were between 200,000 to 300,000 people of different races in attendance. At the time, it was one of the largest political rallies in American history. 

Although, African Americans had been freed from slavery, had been given citizenship rights and the men had been given full voting rights, there was still a system of discrimination in existence based on the Jim Crow laws, especially in the southern states. Black Americans demanded equality, better political representation, and economic, social, civil and political liberties. The March was a peaceful attempt to force new civil rights legislation and reforms addressing equality and socio-economic justice. It is at this March where King, Jr. delivered the famous and moving “I have a dream…” speech. 

Here is a list of demands that the various leaders and organizations put forward unanimously at the march:

i)    Meaningful civil rights legislation
ii)    Elimination of segregation in schools
iii)    Public works programs such as job training for the unemployed
iv)    Laws ensuring equal opportunities in public and private employment
v)    A $2/hour minimum wage
vi)    Withholding funds from programs and organizations that tolerate or encourage discrimination
vii)    Reforms in political representation
viii)    A more inclusive Fair Labor Standards Act
ix)    Greater authority to the Attorney General for injunctive suits in cases of the violation of civil rights

8)    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1964)

As a result of the Civil Rights Movement, President John F Kennedy began a public campaign to build support for new civil rights legislation. In a televised address on June 6th, 1963, he urged the nation to take action in guaranteeing fair and equal treatment of all Americans regardless of race. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law after Kennedy’s assassination. 

The new law prohibited discrimination based on race in public places, integration of schools, desegregation of other public and private services and facilities. It guaranteed equal employment opportunities for all Americans regardless of race. It limited the use of voter literacy tests that were put in place to restrict Black voters. It was the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction Era.

9)    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (1965)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson to overcome the various barriers and restrictions placed through law on Black voters in southern states and other areas. The law came about after years of violent and bloody opposition to Black voting rights. The new law banned all literacy tests for voters and allowed the Attorney General to contest state and local poll taxes. Poll taxes were, eventually, declared unconstitutional in the Harper v. Virginia State Board Elections verdict in 1966. The act also provided for federal supervision in voter registration especially in areas where large numbers of non-white voters did not register.

The bill passed through Congress with a 333-85 majority and through senate with a 77-19 majority. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other notable civil rights leaders were present at the signing on August 6th, 1965. 

While the enforcement of the law, especially in the South, was weak, it did give Black people the mean to fight the voting restrictions placed against them. It significantly increased African American voter turnout in the 1969 elections. The law has since been amended to include other protections such as voting rights for non-English speaking Americans.

10)    The Fair Housing Act (1968)

The Fair Housing act was passed within a few days of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It protects American citizens from racial, religious, ethnic or gender-based discrimination in relation to the sale, rent and financing of housing. It became law on 11th April 1968 and was the last major legislation of the civil rights era.

Consequences of the Civil Rights Movement

The movement faced strong violent opposition throughout its existence. Many people were harassed, attacked, imprisoned and even murdered for demanding their rights. On 21st February, 1965 Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights leader, was assassinated at a rally.  On April 4th, 1968, the most recognizable face and voice of the civil rights movement and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room. These assassinations further escalated racial tensions and resulted in additional protests and riots. This put more pressure on the President Johnson to campaign for more civil rights laws.

The civil rights era empowered and emboldened African Americans as well as other minorities by bringing about the realization that a unified struggle to achieve goals can change the system. The decades of efforts of activists and the African American community as a whole was able to end segregation, encourage voter registration, protect voters from restrictions, end race based discrimination in relation to employment, economic opportunities and an end to discriminatory housing practices. In addition to the reforms in legislation, the civil rights movement brought about a monumental change in American society. African Americans as well as other minorities had unprecedented rights and freedoms and access to greater educational, economic, and political opportunities. The movement unified America more than ever before. Race, however, is still an issue in modern America. Injustice and inequality still exists. However, the greatest gift the movement gave to America is that of hope – that America is capable of change.


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