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The US Civil Rights Movement was a mass movement against racial discrimination and segregation. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the struggle to resist oppression did not end there and African-Americans began to demand federal protection of their newly gained rights.
The Civil Rights Movement mainly took place in the 1950s and 60s, but this explanation will cover events from the 1940s until the 1970s to demonstrate how the movement progressed.
But what are civil rights anyway? And how did the Civil Rights Movement change things? Read on to find out.
Civil rights are the rights that all people in society enjoy, regardless of factors such as race, sex, or religion. They guarantee equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equality before the law.
In the United States, these rights are mostly protected through laws passed by Congress. The Civil Rights Movement aimed to secure these equal rights, mostly through non-violent civil disobedience.
A peaceful form of protest that involves refusing to comply with laws that are considered unjust.
Civil rights ensure equal treatment and apply in all settings of society. Examples include education, employment, housing, and public accommodations, as well as the right to vote.
For there to be a Civil Rights Movement, there first needed to be civil rights violations. So let’s begin there.
One form of subjugation African-Americans experienced was sharecropping.
A legal arrangement in which a landowner allows a tenant to use some of their land for agriculture, in return for a share of the crops produced on that land.
Southern states had been dependent upon slave labour before slavery was abolished in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. Southerners were eager to re-establish a system of plantation discipline and began to subjugate Black people economically.
Most Black families did not own their own land so they would rent plots to work for themselves, but they had to give a portion of their produced crops to the landowner. This system was exploitative and left many African-Americans in debt.
An alternative was exploitative labour contracts called the Black Codes. These were a set of laws that required Black people to sign yearly labour contracts, to avoid being arrested, getting fined, or even being forced to do unpaid labour.
Jim Crow was a period of legal racial segregation concentrated in the South of the United States. It followed a period known as Reconstruction, which worked to secure the rights of African-Americans.
During Reconstruction, two more amendments were made to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment forbade states from depriving citizens of the laws’ equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from restricting voting rights based on race. Reconstruction was largely successful until people became less sympathetic to the cause, and the period ended in 1877.
As Reconstruction ended, the Jim Crow era began. Throughout the South, they implemented laws that legalised racial segregation in both public and private facilities. These laws also denied voting, labour, and education rights to Black people.
These laws were supported by rulings of the Supreme Court, most notably Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. This ruled that racial segregation laws did not violate the ‘equal protection’ clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, establishing the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a US terrorist organisation, formed in 1865 to oppose Reconstruction and restore white supremacy to the South of the country. It was active in the late 1860s–70s, the 1920s, and the 1950s and 60s. They used different methods of intimidation throughout these periods, including lynchings, shootings, whippings, cross burnings, and bombings to spread terror and to prevent African-Americans from exercising their civil rights.
There were many groups that played a part in the Civil Rights Movement, the most notable of which are outlined in the table below. We will look at the roles of these groups throughout the rest of the article.
National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP)
The NAACP was founded in 1909 as the first national civil rights organisation. It focused on desegregation in schools, universities, and public accommodations.
The group also lobbied for civil rights legislation and promoted voter registration in the South.
The Youth Councils of the NAACP were important in the student movement.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
The CORE was founded in 1942 and was inspired by the non-violence teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. This same year, it held the nation’s first organised sit-in in Chicago.
It focused on securing voter rights and desegregating schools in the Deep South, as well as leading freedom rides: Black people and white people riding together on segregated buses.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
The SCLC was formed in 1957 and led non-violent civil rights campaigns in Southern towns. It later focused on ghettos in Northern cities.
Its first president was Martin Luther King Jr, who also followed Gandhi’s teachings.
Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
The SNCC was formed in 1960 by students involved in civil rights sit-ins.
The group participated in protests, registered Black voters in the South, and even formed a musical group: the Freedom Singers.
National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO)
The NWRO was formed in 1966 to advocate for improvements in the lives of those that received welfare payments. The group disbanded in the mid-1970s.
The National Urban League
The National Urban League was formed in 1910 as the largest social civil rights organisation in the world.
It advocated for economic and social justice.
The Black Panther Party
The Black Panthers were a revolutionary party formed in 1966. Its original aim was to protect African-Americans from police brutality.
As the group developed, it promoted the arming of all African-Americans, and compensation payments for centuries of exploitation, among other things.
The Nation of Islam (NOI)
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 by Elijah Muhammad, teaching that God was Black and white people were a race of devils. It was rooted in black pride and self-sufficiency.
Malcolm X was its chief spokesman.
The Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU)
The OAAU was a pan-Africanist organisation founded by Malcolm X in 1964. It aimed to promote cooperation among Africans and people of African descent and to fight for their human rights.
Fisk University was founded in 1866 in Nashville and provided education to freed slaves.
During the Civil Rights Movement, it hosted workshops on non-violent demonstration.
The Civil Rights Movement saw many important activists. Below we will describe ten of the most famous activists
Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) is the most famous leader of the Civil Rights Movement, known for his non-violence and civil disobedience. He was a Baptist minister and leader of the SCLC, notably leading the 1963 March on Washington. It was at this march that King gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. MLK was assassinated in 1968.
Perhaps the second most famous activist of the movement, Rosa Parks is known for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1955, she refused when asked to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. Her subsequent arrest motivated the boycott, which led to Supreme Court rulings that segregation on Montgomery and Alabama buses was unconstitutional.
Malcolm X was a prominent figure in the NOI and expressed ideas of race pride and Black nationalism. Instead of MLK’s insistence on non-violence, Malcolm X urged followers to use ‘any means necessary’ to defend themselves. After his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X's ideas were used as the foundation of the Black Power movement.
Support for maintaining a distinct Black identity, in order to avoid assimilation into white culture. Some followers supported the idea of a separate Black nation.
John Lewis was the chairman of the SNCC from 1963 to 1966. He helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama which was stopped by police violence. This event is known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
James Farmer was co-founder and leader of the CORE, organising Freedom Rides and other non-violent activism. After he resigned, he went on to serve as assistant health secretary to President Nixon from 1969 to 1970.
Bayard Rustin was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and was the main organiser of the 1963 March on Washington. He served as President of the civil rights organisation the A. Philip Randolph Institute (1966–79) before becoming involved in the gay rights movement.
A. Philip Randolph formed the nation’s first major Black labour union in 1925: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). He also worked to end racial discrimination in the defence industries and desegregated the armed forces. He helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington and inspired the ‘Freedom Budget’ to deal with Black economic problems.
Roy Wilkins was the executive director of the NAACP from 1955–77. He helped to organise the Washington March, and also served as chairman of the US delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights in 1968. He was referred to as the senior statesman of the Civil Rights Movement.
Whitney M. Young was head of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971 and directed its drive for equal opportunity in industry and government service. He also advocated a ‘Domestic Marshall Plan’, a fund allocation to solve America's racial issues which influenced programs of the Democratic Party.
Hosea Williams was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and an aide to Martin Luther King Jr. He was known for his ability to organise demonstrations and enthuse protesters, as exemplified by the 1965 march in Selma. He was arrested more than 125 times.
Black Power was a slogan and revolutionary movement in the 1960s and 70s. It was largely inspired by Malcolm X and emphasised racial pride and the creation of Black political and cultural institutions. It has been criticised for apparent support of a separate Black nation, which alienated the larger Civil Rights Movement. Another more prominent difference was its support for self-defence against the general acceptance of non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement.
Although it had existed prior, the slogan was popularised by Stokely Carmichael, president of the SNCC in 1966. Both the CORE and the SNCC aligned themselves with the Black power movement, whilst the SCLC and NAACP opposed its violent and separatist connotations. The concept was most embodied by the Black Panther Party.
Advocates of Black Power were inspired by revolutions in other nations, such as revolutions against European colonialism in Africa, and wars of national liberation throughout Southeast Asia and North Africa.
The Civil Rights Movement saw allyship between African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Indigenous-Americans, and Jewish-Americans. These groups joined together in numerous ways on the basis that civil rights would be won for all through coalition.
Jewish-Americans for one played a large role in the founding of civil rights organisations. In 1909, Jewish activist Henry Moscowitz became one of the founding members of the NAACP. The President of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975 was Kivie Kaplan, who was also vice-chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Additionally, Arnold Arneson -a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council- was a founding member of the Leadership Conference in 1950, which lobbied Congress to pass civil rights legislation.
Additionally, over 2000 schools and 20 Black colleges were established by Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist, between 1910 and 1940. Generally, Jewish activists made up a disproportionate number of the white people involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Asian-Americans were both inspired by and provided support for the Civil Rights Movement. It introduced new ways of thinking about justice and equality. The term ‘Asian-American’ was in fact coined in 1968 by UC Berkeley students inspired by the Black Power movement.
Japanese-Americans had been sent to detention camps during the Second World War as they were seen as threats. When Black Civil Rights leaders began to lobby for the repeal of the law which allowed the President to institute concentration camps at any time, Japanese-Americans supported them to prevent Black activists from being subjected to the same thing.
Indigenous-Americans were in a period of protest for their own rights, forming the National Indian Youth Council in 1961 and later the American Indian Movement in 1968. Indigenous people were notably involved in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, which demanded economic justice as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Around 100 Indigenous individuals protested outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Black women played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement but were often overshadowed by men. You can even see it in this explanation, as nine out of ten of the most famous activists we have looked at are men. This section, however, will recognise the important contributions of women.
Women experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the movement, yet they continued to work tirelessly for Black rights. Rosa Parks is often referred to as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement yet she is the only woman most people associate with it. Let’s look at some others.
|Ida B wells||One of the first civil rights activists was Ida B wells in the late nineteenth century. She exposed segregation, sexual harassment, and lynchings in her newspaper, and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black woman suffrage organisation.|
|Mary McLeod Bethune||Dr Mary Bethune founded a school for Black girls in 1904, which became the Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of Black women's organisations. Bethune also chaired the informal Black Cabinet under President Roosevelt, which was a group of federally appointed officials that planned social change.|
|Daisy Bates||Bates was president of the NAACP’s Arkansas chapter as well as co-owner of the largest Black newspaper in the state. Under her, the NAACP sued the Little Rock school board for segregation and then recruited Black nine students to the all-white high school in 1957. She was also the only woman to speak at the 1963 Washington march after Anna Arnold Hedgeman argued against the refusal to give women speaking roles.|
|Ruby Hurley||Ruby Hurley became the National Youth Secretary of the NAACP in 1943 and built up a membership of 25,000 youths. The Youth Council launched the 1960s sit-in movement. In 1952, she became NAACP regional director, having a large influence on civil rights events.|
|Dorothy Height||In the 1950s, Dorothy Height pressured President Eisenhower to work harder on school desegregation. She also worked as president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 97. Although rarely in the public, she was the most influential woman within the Movement's leadership.|
|Gloria Richardson||Richardson led the Cambridge Movement (1961–64) against segregation and promoted self-defence over non-violence. She influenced the rise of Black Power leaders.|
|Amelia Boynton Robinson||Robinson’s home served as headquarters for the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. At the march, she was beaten unconscious and her image was published in newspapers, causing public outrage.|
A wave of Black migration to urban areas initially fuelled by the labour needs of the Second World War led to racial tensions.
25 June 1941
Executive Order 8802 was enacted by President Roosevelt, prohibiting ethnic and racial discrimination in the defence industry. It was in response to a proposed protest march on Washington, which was suspended after the order was issued. It was the first federal action to promote equal opportunity in the US.
December 1941–September 1945
Around 1.15 million African Americans served in the military in the Second World War in segregated units or doing menial jobs.
A race riot in Detroit led to the deaths of 25 Black people and 9 white people.
3 April 1944
The United States Supreme Court ruled that white primaries were unconstitutional in the Smith v. Allwright case.
A white primary was a primary election held in the Southern United States in which only white people were allowed to vote.
A primary election is when people vote on their party’s candidate for a general, local or by-election.
3 May 1948
The Supreme Court ruled that lower courts could not enforce restrictive housing contracts in Shelley v. Kraemer.
26 July 1948
President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the armed forces.
17 May 1954
The United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional and ordered rapid desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. The case was argued by the NAACP's chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall.
A Black boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Two white men were charged, acquitted, and then boasted about the murder causing public outrage.
1 December 1955
Rosa Parks, a member of the NAACP, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began, with African-Americans refusing to ride city buses of which they made up the majority of passengers. Martin Luther King Jr. led the movement. The Boycott ended on 20 December 1956 after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating was unconstitutional.
The FBI and other government agencies began a war against protesters. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program targeted black groups, through spying, making criminal charges, and even conducting assassinations.
30 January 1956
The Ku Klux Klan bombed Martin Luther King Jr.’s home.
9 September 1957
The first federal civil rights law since 1875 was signed by President Eisenhower. It established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and introduced measures to protect African-American voting rights. These were largely ineffective.
25 September 1957
Nine African-American students were prevented from entering a school in Little Rock, Arkansas and President Eisenhower sent the army to protect them. These students are referred to as The Little Rock Nine, eight of which graduated the school.
1 February 1960
Four Black students staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This motivated similar protests throughout the South as well as inspiring the formation of the SNCC.
6 May 1960
President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which prohibited intimidating Black voters and gave judges the power to appoint referees to oversee voter registration.
6 March 1961
President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, creating the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and required that federally funded projects ensure employment was free of racial discrimination.
4 May 1961
The CORE began the Freedom Rides. Throughout the summer, over 1000 volunteers had participated. A few weeks after the Freedom Riders began, a mob in Alabama set the bus they were riding on fire.
December 1961–Summer 1964
The Cambridge Movement led by Gloria Richardson and the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee involved protests against segregation in Dorchester County, Maryland. It caused the desegregation of all schools, recreation venues, and hospitals in Maryland.
President Kennedy sent the National Guard to enable the first Black student, James Meredith, to enter the University of Mississippi against erupting violence.
Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail, which argued that people have a moral duty to refuse to comply with unjust laws.
12 June 1963
A member of the NAACP, Medgar W. Evers was killed by a sniper in Jackson, Mississippi.
Civil rights demonstrations, protests, and boycotts took place all over the country.
11th June 1963
President Kennedy appeared on television asking America to end racism.
28 August 1963
250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
15 September 1963
The Ku Klux Klan carried out the sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, killing four young Black girls. This led to riots, during which two more Black youths died.
22 November 1963
President Kennedy was assassinated.
23 January 1964
The poll tax, which made it difficult for poor blacks to vote, was abolished with the twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
3 February 1964
Nearly half a million people boycotted New York City public schools due to segregation.
‘Freedom Summer’ began, a volunteer campaign to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. It was organised by the Council of Federated Organisations (COFO), which was a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC. The SNCC also formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the state’s all-white delegation.
2 July 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the Jim Crow Era. It was signed by President Johnson, after being proposed by President Kennedy, and made segregation in public facilities, as well as employment discrimination illegal.
3 July 1964
Lester Maddox and supporters used axe handles to turn away Black activists trying to eat at his restaurants. Maddox was elected as Governor of Georgia in 1966.
4 August 1964
Three civil rights workers' bodies were discovered buried in Mississippi.
The SNCC helped to organise the Lowndes Country Freedom Organisation in Alabama, which later inspired the Black Panther Party. SNCC members launched the ‘Black Power’ slogan.
Martin Luther King Jr led a Voter Registration Drive in Alabama.
21 February 1965
Malcolm X was assassinated while speaking at the OAAU in New York City.
7 March 1965
Black activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis. They were met with police brutality, and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ appalled the nation. This contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
4 June 1965
President Johnson gave a speech that argued that civil rights laws alone were not sufficient to remove discrimination.
The Chicago Freedom Movement challenged racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago. It was the most ambitious civil rights campaign in the Northern US and is credited with inspiring the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
6 August 1965
President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices in many Southern states.
11 August 1965
The arrest of a young Black motorist led to six days of unrest in Los Angeles. 34 people were killed, 1000 were injured, and 3592 were arrested.
5 June 1966
James Meredith began his 220-mile solo ‘March Against Fear’ against the fear African-Americans faced to register to vote. On 6 June, he was shot by a white man. He survived but could not continue. Leaders including King and Stokely Carmicheal, chairman of the SNCC, continued his march.
16 June 1966
Carmichael popularised the ‘Black Power’ slogan at a rally.
The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California.
Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to be an Associate Justice in the Supreme Court.
Over forty race riots occurred, the worst being in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit. The 1967 Detroit riots are among the most destructive in US history.
12 June 1967
The Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.
4 April 1968
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. This was followed by a series of violent disturbances.
11 April 1968
President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in renting, buying, and financing housing.
12 May–24 June 1968
The SCLC, joined by the NWRO, began the Poor People'’s Campaign in Washington to gain economic justice for the poor. It was announced by Martin Luther King Jr in 1967 and was carried out in the wake of his death. Protesters set up ‘Resurrection City’, made up of over 3000 tents, as well as carrying out a series of demonstrations. Resurrection City remained for 42 days but was ultimately unsuccessful.
5 November 1968
Shirley Chisholm became the first Black congresswoman.
Dr Clifton Wharton Jr. became the first African-American to head a mostly white university in the twentieth century.
14 May 1970
Two Black youths were killed at Jackson State College by Mississippi law enforcement officers.
5 October–8 November 1970
Violent clashes occur around school desegregation in cities throughout the country.
20 April 1971
The Supreme Court upheld that busing was a legitimate way to achieve integration in school in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
Busing, or desegregation busing, was a practice of transporting students to schools within or outside of their local district in order to diversify the racial make-up of schools.
10–12 March 1972
The first National Black Political Convention was attended by 10,000 Black people.
15 August 1973
The National Black Feminist Organisation was formed.
Coleman Young became the first Black mayor of Detriot and served for 20 years.
26 February 1975
Elijah Muhammed’s son succeeded him as leader of the Nation of Islam and ended its separatist philosophy, changing its name to the World Community of Islam in the West.
Civil rights are the rights that all people in a society enjoy, regardless of factors such as race, sex or religion. They guarantee equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equality before the law.
There are not only three basic civil rights, but three examples are the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, and the right to use public facilities.
The US Civil Rights Movement was a mass movement against racial discrimination and segregation.
The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak in the 1950s and 60s but extended well before and after this period.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent civil rights activist who organised non-violent protests. To name a few examples, he was instrumental in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech vitalised the movement.
What are civil rights?
Civil rights are the rights that all people in a society enjoy, regardless of factors such as race, sex or religion. They guarantee equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equality before the law.
Why was the Civil Rights Movement needed after slavery was abolished?
Give five important groups in the Civil Rights Movement.
Any five of:
Which civil rights group did Martin Luther King Jr. lead?
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
What is Black nationalism, and which famous figure promoted it?
Support for maintaining a distinct Black identity, in order to avoid assimilation into white culture. It was promoted by Malcolm X.
Which groups aligned themselves with the Black Power movement?
Which group embodied the concept of Black Power?
The Black Panther Party
What role did Jewish-Americans play in the Civil Rights Movement?
Name all seven black women, besides Rosa Parks, referenced in the article that were important in the Civil Rights Movement.
What did Truman's Executive Order 9981 do in 1948?
It desegregated the armed forces.
What important ruling was made in 1954?
The Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
When did the Montgomery Bus Boycott begin?
Where were nine African-American students prevented from entering a school in 1957?
Little Rock, Arkansas
When did the Freedom Rides begin?
Which movement did Gloria Richardson lead in 1961–64?
The Cambridge Movement
What was the name of the Black student who entered the University of Mississippi in 1962 and later undertook a ‘March Against Fear’ in 1966?
How many people participated in the 1963 March on Washington?
When, and what, was Freedom Summer?
1964- a campaign to register Black voters in Mississippi.
What important legislation was passed in 1964?
The Civil Rights Act, making segregation in public facilities and employment discrimination illegal.
When was ‘Bloody Sunday’?
7 March 1965
What year was the Black Panther Party formed?
Who was the first African-American to be an Associate Justice in the Supreme Court?
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