Civil Rights Movement

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The civil rights movement was a struggle by African Americans in the mid-1950s to late 1960s to achieve CIVIL RIGHTS equal to those of whites, including equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education, as well as the right to vote, the right of equal access to public facilities, and the right to be free of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. No social or political movement of the twentieth century has had as profound an effect on the legal and political institutions of the United States. This movement sought to restore to African Americans the rights of citizenship guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which had been eroded by segregationist JIM CROW LAWS in the South. It fundamentally altered relations between the federal government and the states, as the federal government was forced many times to enforce its laws and protect the rights of African American citizens. The civil rights movement also spurred the reemergence of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, in its role as protector of individual liberties against majority power. In addition, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and other leaders of the movement predicted, the movement prompted gains not only for African Americans but also for women, persons with disabilities, and many others.

The civil rights movement has been called the Second Reconstruction, in reference to the Reconstruction imposed upon the South following the Civil War. During this period, the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT (1868)?granting EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws?and FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT (1870)?giving the right to vote to all males regardless of race?were ratified, and troops from the North occupied the South from 1865 to 1877 to enforce the ABOLITION of SLAVERY. However, with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, southern whites again took control of the South, passing a variety of laws that discriminated on the basis of race. These were called Jim Crow laws, or the BLACK CODES. They segregated whites and blacks in education, housing, and the use of public and private facilities such as restaurants, trains, and rest rooms; they also denied blacks the right to vote, to move freely, and to marry whites. Myriad other prejudicial and discriminatory practices were committed as well, from routine denial of the right to a fair trial to outright murder by LYNCHING. These laws and practices were a reality of U.S. life well into the twentieth century.

Organized efforts by African Americans to gain their civil rights began well before the official civil rights movement got under way. By 1909, blacks and whites together had formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which became a leading

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ing organization in the cause of civil rights for African Americans. From its beginning, the NAACP and its attorneys challenged many discriminatory laws in court, but it was not until after WORLD WAR II that a widespread movement for civil rights gathered force.

The war itself contributed to the origins of the movement. When African Americans who had fought for their country returned home, they more openly resisted being treated as second-class citizens. The movement's first major legal victory came in 1954, when the NAACP won BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, in which the Supreme Court struck down laws segregating white and black children into different public elementary schools. With Brown, it became apparent that African Americans had important allies in the highest federal court and its chief justice, EARL WARREN.

The Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

On December 1, 1955, ROSA PARKS was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. News of Parks's arrest quickly spread through the African American community. Parks had worked as a secretary for the local branch of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE. Because she was a well-respected and dignified figure in the community, her arrest was finally enough to persuade African Americans that they could no longer tolerate racially discriminatory laws.

After exchanging phone calls, a group of African American women, the Women's Political Council, decided to call for a boycott of the city buses as a response to this outrage. This suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm by local African American leaders, including the influential black clergy.

On December 5, members of the African American community rallied at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery and decided to carry out the boycott. Their resolve was inspired by the words of the Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.

"We are here this evening," King declared to the packed church, "to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired?tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression." He went on to make a case for peace and nonviolence. Contrasting the methods of nonviolence that he envisioned for a civil rights movement, to the methods of violence used by the racist and terrorist KU KLUX KLAN, King declared,

in our protest there will be no cross burnings?. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order. Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to the people, "Let conscience be your guide" ? [O]ur actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."

With these words and these events, the long, difficult struggle of the CIVIL RIGHTS movement began.

Another catalyzing event occurred on December 1, 1955, when ROSA PARKS, an African American woman, was arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. The law required African Americans to sit in the back of city buses and to give up their seats to whites should the white section of the bus become full. The city's black...

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