The modern civil rights movement emerged during the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s. It sought to overcome the history of racial inequality in the United States of America, embodied by Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto discriminatory customs in the North. It grew into a mass movement and gave rise to some of the nation's most famous leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. ( 1929–1968 ), Malcolm X ( 1925–1965 ), and Thurgood Marshall ( 1908–1993 ).
As the twentieth century hit the midway mark, African Americans were still second-class citizens. Blacks earned half the average annual income and suffered from unemployment and poverty rates that were twice as high as those of whites. While the United States as a whole stood as the envy of the world, millions of African Americans continued to battle age-old problems of inadequate healthcare, education, and housing. In the South, blacks faced a rigid set of Jim Crow laws that limited where they could go to school, eat, and recreate. Only a minority of black southerners enjoyed the right to vote, and fewer still could affect policy. While blacks who migrated to the North or West did leave behind Jim Crow laws and a society that openly espoused its belief in white supremacy, they found themselves living in segregated neighborhoods and limited by discriminatory customs in terms of employment, housing, and their public lives. As President John F. Kennedy ( 1917–1963 ) rhetorically asked in a nationally televised address in June 1963, “Who among us [meaning whites] would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his [meaning blacks] place?”
The modern civil rights movement sought a revolution in race relations in America. It sought to dramatically alter the answer to President Kennedy's question, so that whites would be content to have their color changed and blacks would not feel that white skin color meant superiority. While blacks differed over the best way to achieve equality, and disagreed over the extent to which the American system would have to be changed in the process, they had relatively few differences over the ultimate goal, which King captured in one word—freedom. Yet to define the goal of the civil rights movement somewhat begs the central historical question, which is: Why did the civil rights movement take place when it did and take the shape that it took? In other words, African American inequality was not new in the 1950s, but the intensity of the movement to gain freedom was. Why?
The modern civil rights movement was built on a long history of struggle and sacrifice. More so than any other group of Americans, African Americans share a history of struggle for freedom and human dignity, partly because, right from the start, white Americans sought to deny them from achieving either. Unlike all other migrants to North America, Africans did not come of their own free will. As slaves, African Americans faced physical cruelty, were stripped of the fruits of their labor, and were consciously dehumanized by their masters and the American system of law that defined them as property. Nonetheless, African Americans managed to maintain some degree of freedom and human dignity. As Lawrence Levine has aptly written in Black Culture and Black Consciousness: “Upon the hard rock of racial, social, and economic exploitation and injustice black Americans forged and nurtured a culture: they formed and maintained kin networks, made love, raised and socialized children, built a religion, and created a rich and expressive culture in which they articulated their feelings and hopes and dreams” ( 1977, xi ).
The modern civil rights movement emerged when it did partly because of several structural changes that took place during the middle decades of the twentieth century. First, the Great Migration, or the movement of millions of blacks from the rural South to the North, West, and urban South, underlay the rise of civil rights movement. While, as noted above, blacks did not find full equality in the North, they did gain the vote and a degree of political power and greater access to the media than before, which, in turn, they could and did use to affect public opinion. Second, America's rise as a global power—first with World War II and then with the Cold War, combined with the simultaneous decolonization of much of the non-Western world, opened new opportunities to those who sought to challenge white supremacy. During the Cold War, for example, American leaders felt compelled to support race reforms lest they fall prey to Soviet propaganda that the United States was not really a land of freedom and equality. Third, the forces of modernization in the decades that followed World War II, from the rise of the mass media to the decline of small self-contained communities, ran against the grain of traditional race relations. For instance, the mass media broadcast stories of racial brutality, such as the murder of Emmett Till ( 1941–1955 ), an African American teen from Mississippi who was beaten and killed in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman, to a national audience, which in turn raised Americans' consciousness of the banality of racism and prodded them to do something about it.
While structural changes and the long-term accumulation of resources by African Americans set the stage for the emergence of the civil rights movement, ultimately its rise depended on the actions of individuals who chose to make the most of these favorable conditions. Traditionally, historians have identified several prime examples of African Americans stepping up to challenge Jim Crow. In 1947, Jackie Robinson ( 1919–1972 ) broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1954, the effort by a group of parents in Topeka, Kansas, to challenge school segregation was vindicated by the US Supreme Court decision to strike down the legal principal of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 ( 1954 ). Then, on December 1, 1955, forty-two-year-old Rosa Parks ( 1913–2005 ) refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking a year-long bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. Close studies of all three of these breakthrough events show that these individual acts of courage had deep roots. Brown, for instance, grew out of the NAACP's decades-long efforts to chisel away at white supremacy, and Parks had been a key participant in the struggle for human rights for most of her adult life.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most significant immediate impact of the Brown decision was on white southerners, who redoubled their efforts to maintain their “way of life.” Throughout the South, whites revitalized or formed white supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens' Councils, and punished politicians who displayed even a limited willingness to accommodate black demands for equality. In Arkansas, for instance, Governor Orval Faubus ( 1910–1994 ) guaranteed his reelection by resisting efforts to desegregate schools in Little Rock. Even though President Dwight Eisenhower ( 1890–1969 ) forced Faubus to comply with the Court's desegregation order for the 1957–1958 school year by sending in federal troops to protect the nine black students who were enrolled at Central High, Faubus's defiance encouraged other southern politicians to follow his lead. As a result, little to no school desegregation took place in the Deep South for years.
Unlike in the past, white southern resistance did not deter African Americans from pursuing the dream of equality, nor did it stop white Americans from joining in that pursuit. Evidence of direct action was widespread, from the sit-ins (nonviolent protests against segregated public accommodations, like restaurants) of 1960 and freedom rides (desegregated challenges to segregated transportation) in 1961 to the rise of countless community-based freedom movements, some of which, like Birmingham ( 1963 ), Greenwood ( 1964 ), and Selma ( 1965 ), became as famous as the battle sites of the American Civil War. In response to these “fires of discord,” as President Kennedy termed them, and to violent attacks by whites, America's political leaders proposed and ultimately enacted a series of racial reforms, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination (by race and sex) in public accommodations and employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which overcame barriers to black participation in the electoral process.
Many whites saw Black Power as a call to arms and as a rejection of the initial goals of the civil rights movement.King himself, though he sympathized with the goal of increasing black pride and economic empowerment, worried that the Black Power movement would alienate erstwhile allies. Indeed, white resistance to racial equality in the North grew in strength during the latter half of the 1960s, partly in reaction to the growing militancy of the civil rights movement. This said, it is wrong to paint King as a moderate or as Malcolm X's alter ego or to suggest that if only King had lived the movement would have remained more moderate. In fact, at the time of his death, King was in the midst of mobilizing a poor people's campaign in Washington to demand radical socioeconomic reforms and had set himself apart from many moderates, white and black, by protesting vociferously against the war in Vietnam.
Even though the civil rights movement fell short of achieving its ultimate goal of full racial equality, it stands as a reminder of the power of ordinary people to change the course of history. Against long odds, it overturned Jim Crow laws, challenged traditional notions of white supremacy, and inspired many others, such as women and gays and lesbians, to forge their own freedom movements.
SEE ALSO Abolition Movement ; Brown v. Board of Education ; Civil Rights Act of 1964 ;King, Martin Luther, Jr. ; Malcolm X ; Social Movements .
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. 30th anniversary edition, 2007.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality. 25th anniversary edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
Sullivan, Patricia. Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New Press, 2009.
Peter B. Levy