Unveiling the Transformative Journey: The Civil Rights Movement’s Evolution
Origins of Racial Disparities in America
Since the beginning of America, there has been a separation of races. The white Americans imported Africans to use as free labor, and this is how most Blacks can trace their roots today. The American Civil War freed the slaves, but it was a long, tough road for them to gain equal rights. With multiple court cases resulting in Black Americans gaining their rights, the fight for equality was not over.
Early Legal Battles: Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board
Now I will discuss the Portion of this struggle from the Brown v. Board decision to the black power movement to realize how America came to be what it is today. To understand how the Brown v. Board decision came to be, we must go back to the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. This 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine meaning that it is legal to keep races separated from each other as long as both races had equal services, including schools. However, keeping these schools separate was far from equal.
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A Clarendon, South Carolina case proved there was unequal funding in schools, as the local school board spent $179 per white student and $43 per black student. Also, the black students did not have running water in the buildings or indoor toilets, unlike the white schools. But another case was Brown vs. Board which a black third grader had to walk across a dangerous set of railroad tracks to get to school instead of attending a nearby school restricted to whites. But the biggest argument in the case was that segregation was inherently unequal since it stigmatized one group as unfit to associate with another group. This was found to do lifelong damage to black children by undermining their self-esteem.
Initiation of the Civil Rights Movement
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka allowed the integration of races in public schools even though in 1964, ten years after Brown, only one percent of southern black children attended public schools with whites. The Brown v. Board decision was a big start to the Civil rights movement, it gave black Americans a goal to equality. This led to organized, nonviolent civil disobedience as a way for black Americans to get their message heard by the rest of the United States population.
In 1955, Montgomery, Alabama, had a law where if a white rider did not have a seat, a black rider must stand in the back of the bus so that the white rider could sit. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. She went peacefully, and her message was heard. This began a boycott of white-owned businesses in Montgomery and began a major leadership role of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Government’s Role in Advancing Civil Rights
In 1957 Martin Luther King Jr became a major voice in the Civil Rights Movement when he created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Also, in 1957, the Government intervened twice in the Civil Rights Movement. First, they created the Civil Rights Act, which within the Department of Justice, spawned the Civil Rights Division and Civil Rights Commission, which would investigate racial problems and recommend solutions. Second, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the admittance of nine black students into the all-white Central High School. The Government was slowly beginning to enforce laws against racial injustices, but it was not enough. White southerners, with groups like the Ku Klux Klan, would often use violence against blacks as a form of intimidation.
Nonviolent Protests and the Growth of Civil Rights Organizations
Black Americans, knowing that the Government was only showing very limited support and the court cases were moving slowly, decided they must take action into their own hands. Knowing a nonviolent protest was the way to get your message heard. They did things like organize sit-ins, where beginning in 1960, they would sit in at an all-white Woolworths lunch counter. Soon, all across the South, black Americans were conducting these sit-ins. It was especially powerful for their message when whites would turn to violence, and they would remain peaceful. These direct action tactics helped bring back old civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and brought to life new ones like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Violence and the Turning Point of the Movement
Another direct action nonviolent tactic started in 1961 was the interracial freedom rides. This was when a Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus terminals was passed. Freedom riders would ride between states in a peaceful demeanor to demonstrate that the law had changed and they were now allowed to do so. White Southerners were not happy with this decision and quickly turned to violence.
A bus with black passengers, as it passed through Alabama, was firebombed, resulting in all the passengers sustaining injuries. The Government soon intervened when President Kennedy sent Federal Marshals to the scene. The Governor of Alabama sent state troops, and they struck a deal to have the riders arrested in Jackson at the next stop. The U.S. Government, at the time, was dealing with the Cold War and didn’t want to jeopardize political relationships in the South.
This was the case in the Old Miss campus, where it took 400 injuries and two deaths before federal marshals were sent in to restore order. These acts of violence against peaceful blacks were beginning to attract public attention. This was the case in 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, when Martin Luther King organized peaceful protests. The police used high-powered fire hoses and attack dogs against the nonviolent demonstrators.
They physically assaulted blacks and arrested children, all while being captured by television cameras. This was shown to a national audience, and Americans were shocked. This outrage sent a message to the Federal Government that they had to act now to promote civil rights. In 1963, Kennedy called for a federal civil rights law to prohibit segregation in public accommodations. After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1964, his predecessor President Johnson signed the bill into law.
The Government, taking a stronger stance on the issue than expected, added a job-discrimination title and included the creation of a new agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This was a decisive victory toward ending segregation. Turning their sights toward the right to vote brought more heartache and violence against activists in 1965.
After organizing and conducting a fifty-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, with television cameras running, the mistreatment of the marchers gave Johnson even more support for strong reforms. That summer, the Voting Rights Act was passed, which was another hurdle overcome by the peaceful protesters. Unfortunately, the movement was about to lose momentum as the nonviolent protest turned to rage. Violent protests erupted in Watts, a community outside of Los Angeles, California, just five days after the Voting Rights Act was passed. This was accompanied by other riots in other cities.
Shift from Nonviolence to Militancy
Next came the formation of non-peaceful groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, who brought a type of militaristic attitude and rejected interracialism in their ranks. They would protest in a threatening manner using the saying “Black Power,” meaning that they had to fight the white race and take them over. These groups fired whites in their ranks that were trying to help their cause. This ended with these groups losing support for their cause and also the fall of organizations such as CORE and SNCC in 1968. They had lost sympathy for their cause and eventually lost funding from whites.
Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement
With the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968, and the new violent civil rights groups that had recently developed, the movement had lost serious momentum. It has come a long way since, in a short time, Brown v. Board in 1954, and we, the American People, need to realize it will be a continuing struggle until we are all truly equal.
- Foner, Eric. “Give Me Liberty: An American History, Seagull Forth Edition.” 2014.
- Patterson, James T. “The Civil Rights Movement: Major Events and Legacies.” www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/civil-rights-movement/essays/civil-rights-movement-major-events-and-legacies