What was the Civil Rights Movement?

Background Information

America in the 1950s was a place of widespread racism, where black African Americans lived worse lives than their white counterparts just because of the colour of their skin. America was widely segregated – services, facilities, and rooms were separated into ‘white’ and ‘black’, where the two were prevented from mixing, and the ‘black’ option was always significantly worse.

Whilst the Constitution stated that all men were ‘born equal’, many States still used (and were still creating) Jim Crow laws, which found ways to discriminate on racial grounds. In a time when many Americans were living the best lives in the history of the United States, people of any other colour remained ‘second class citizens’.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 1

The Civil Rights campaign was frequently characterised by marches such as this one - the 1963 march on Washington. People protested unfair, discriminatory, and racist treatment.

The Origin of the Civil Rights Movement

By the 1950s there were growing campaigns for equality – focussing upon equal rights for all people, regardless of skin colour. Before the 1950s, the following early seeds of the Civil Rights campaign had already taken place:

  1. 1937: A trade union for African-American rail workers won concessions from the company, including improved pay and better working conditions.
  2. 1941: A Federal law was passed, which said that “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defence industries and in government, because of race, creed, colour, or origin.
  3. 1945: A mixed-race politician, Adam Clayton Powell, won the right for black journalists to attend briefings in Congress.
  4. 1946: President Truman founded the ‘President’s Committee on Civil Rights’, which worked towards “the elimination of segregation, based on race, colour, creed, or national origin”.
  5. 1947: Jackie Robinson became the first black player to join a ‘white’ Baseball team (the Brooklyn Dodgers).

The History of the Movement

1955: December – Rosa Parks and the Bus Boycott

(Montgomery, Ala.) NAACP member Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the “coloured section” of a bus to a white passenger, defying a southern custom of the time. In response to her arrest the Montgomery black community launched a bus boycott, which lasted just over a year, until the buses were desegregated in late December of 1956. In particular, African Americans had made up 75% of bus customers in Montgomery, so without their custom, the company very nearly went bankrupt.

As the newly elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA, the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery), Martin Luther King, Jr., was instrumental in leading the boycott.

1957: September – Little Rock

(Little Rock, Ark.) Formerly all-white Central High School learned that integration is easier said than done. Nine black students were blocked from entering the school on the orders of Governor Orval Faubus. Eventually, President Eisenhower sent federal troops and the National Guard to intervene on behalf of the students, who became known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

The African American community of Little Rock took Governor Faubus to court and won (with reference to Brown v. the Board of Education). Black students could legally attend any school in the United States, and had legal backing the South.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 1

This picture shows Elizabeth Eckford walking into Little Rock, who was one of the members of the ‘Little Rock Nine’. Behind her you can see the reactions that these young black women got, when they exercised their constitutional rights to attend a school that had previously been ‘white’.

1957: September – Civil Rights Act (voting)

President Eisenhower passed a law which attempted to ensure that all African Americans could vote. The Act made it illegal to interfere in another person’ vote in any way, and set up a Civil Rights Commission to investigate any attempts to block people from voting. It was met with limited success.

1961: May – Freedom Riders

Over the spring and summer, student volunteers began taking bus trips through the South. They were testing out new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel facilities, which included bus and railway stations. Several of the groups of “freedom riders,” as they were called, were attacked by angry mobs along the way. These drew attention to places that still refused to desegregate, and was wining increasing support from white people in the North.

1960: February – Spreading Sit-Ins

Four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, in Greensboro’, North Carolina. Although they were refused service, they were allowed to stay at the counter. The event triggered many similar nonviolent protests throughout the South. Six months later the original four protesters were served lunch at the same Woolworth’s counter – they had won. Student sit-ins were fairly effective throughout the Deep South in integrating parks, swimming pools, theatres, libraries, and other public facilities.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 2

This picture shows two black women during a ‘sit-in’. You can see the treatment they received.

1963: May – Violent Treatment of Peaceful Protesters

During civil rights protests in Birmingham (Alabama) the ‘Commissioner of Public Safety’, Eugene “Bull” Connor, used fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators. These images of brutality, which were televised and published widely, were instrumental in gaining sympathy for the civil rights movement around the world. The President said that the Civil Rights Movement should ‘thank God for Eugene Bull Connor, because this was a trigger needed for the Federal Government to get involved. As a result, the Government ruled that Birmingham had to end all segregation.

1963: August – ‘I Have a Dream’

About 200,000 people joined a march on Washington. Congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, people listened as Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It captured the hearts of the nation.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 3

King, before his famous speech.

1964: July – Civil Rights Act (the big one)

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, colour, religion, or national origin – in every form, in every part of the country. The law also provided the Federal Government with the powers to enforce desegregation. This was swiftly followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This more strongly ensured that all Americans had the right to vote.

Your answer should include: black / white / apart / separate / services
Martin Luther King Jr
Your answer should include: Civil Rights / leader
Direct Action
Your answer should include: Martin Luther King / non violent / non-violent / protest
Your answer should include: use / refuse / leave / white / services
Your answer should include: refuse / service
Brown v. Board of Education
Your answer should include: Supreme Court / segregation / illegal / schools
Little Rock
Your answer should include: school / protest / Faubus

Becoming a Movement

1954: May – ‘Brown V. Board of Education’

This is one of the most famous Supreme Court cases. The Supreme Court rules (decides) that segregation within schooling is unconstitutional – schools must taken students of any race. This overturns the previous (1896) understanding that ‘separate but equal’ schools was the best way forwards. This ruling provides the Civil Rights movement with a spark of hope, believing that large scale change was about to happen, and further desegregation might be around the corner. The case particularly rules that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 1

Protests outside the Supreme Court during the case.

1955: August – The Murder of Emmett Till

A young boy, aged fourteen, was kidnapped and murdered. He was heavily beaten and shot, then dumped in the Tallahatchie River, in Mississippi. This was reportedly because he ‘whistled’ at a white woman. Two (white) men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were arrested for the murder, but they got off. Their trial was held by an all-white jury and courtroom. Afterwards, they have a magazine interview where they boast about the crime, and say that ‘they would do it again’.

This is a particular catalyst (provoking cause) for Civil Rights to become a movement, because African Americans are sick of these continued atrocities. Furthermore, coming at a time when they hoped things were getting better, this case persuades black people that they need to take more drastic action.

Peaceful Protests

Martin Luther King Jr. quickly became a key leader within the Civil Rights Movement. He was a strong Christian (a Baptist Minister in particular) and he believed passionately in non-violent protest.

Examples of this included:

  1. Sit-ins - where black people went and refused to leave ‘white’ services’.
  2. Boycotts – where whole African American communities refused to use certain shops.

King himself called this tactic ‘Direct Action’ – which is not to be confused with violent protest despite its name.

Both of these tactics were intended to force racist / segregated services to confront black people, whilst they broke no laws themselves.

Martin Luther King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in__ 1964__ in recognition of his non-violent approach to eliminating racism.

What was the Civil Rights Movement?, figure 2

This is an example of a peaceful protest when African Americans and immigrants walked calmly by armed forces holding guns at them. What do you notice about who the guns are not pointed at?

Define the following key terms: