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Civil Rights Movement Rediscovered Essay, Research Paper

Civil Rights Movement Rediscovered

Protest against injustice is deeply rooted in the African American experience. The origins of the civil rights movement date much further back than the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which said, “separate but equal” schools violated the Constitution. From the earliest slave revolts in this country over 400 years ago, African Americans strove to gain full participation in every aspect of political, economic and social life in the United States.

Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s that was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation became common in the Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and paying a toll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern Blacks, who were very poor. Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating all aspects of Southern life.

Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s, blacks sued in courts to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states’ disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional. However, in 1952, the Supreme Court heard a number of school-segregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas. It decided unanimously in 1954 that segregation was unconstitutional, overthrowing the 1869 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that had set the “separate but equal” precedent.

As desegregation progresses, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew. The KKK used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and murder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klan activities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that did receive national attention was the murder of Emmit Till, 14-year-old black boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with a white woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accuse of Till’s murder were covered in the national media, demonstrating the continuing racial bigotry of Southern whites.

To protest segregation, blacks created new national organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagra Movement in 1905; and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910, the National Urban League was created to help make blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life.

The NAACP became one of the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied mainly on legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in courts to obtain equal treatments for blacks.

During the Civil Rights Movement, many political protests took place. Despite the threats and violence, the struggle quickly moved beyond school segregation in other areas. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, was told to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. When Parks refused to move, she was arrested. This incident began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was an immediate success, with virtually unanimous support from the 50,000 blacks in Montgomery. It lasted for more than a year and dramatized to the American public the determination of blacks in the South to end segregation. A federal court ordered Montgomery’s buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph.

There were also sit-ins. On February 1,1960, four black college students at North Carolina A&T University began protesting racial segregation in restaurants by sitting at “white-only” lunch counters and waiting to be served. This was not a new form of protest, but the response to the sit-ins in North Carolina was unique. Within days, sit-ins had spread throughout North Carolina, ad within weeks they were taking place in cities across the south. Many restaurants were desegregated. The sit-in movement also demonstrated clearly to whites and blacks alike that young blacks were determined to reject segregation openly.

After the sit-ins, some SNCC members participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The freedom riders, both black and white, traveled around the south in buses to test the effectiveness of a 1960 Supreme Court decision. The decision had declared that segregation was still illegal in bus stations that were open to interstate travel. The Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C. Except for some violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the trip southward was peaceful until they reached Alabama, where violence erupted. At Anniston, one bus was burned and some riders were beaten. The Freedom Rides did result in the desegregation of some bus stations, but more importantly, they demonstrated to the American public how far civil rights workers would go to achieve their goals.

In 1962, a black man from Mississippi, James Meredith, applied to the University of Mississippi. His action was an example of how the struggle for civil rights belonged to individuals acting alone as well as to organizations. The university attempted to block Meredith’s admission but he filed a suit. President Kennedy ordered Federal Marshal to escort Meredith to campus. A riot broke out before the National Guards could arrive and reinforce the marshals. In the end, two people were killed, and about 375 people were wounded.

The national civil rights leadership decided to keep pressure on both the Kennedy administration and the Congress to pass the civil rights legislation proposed by Kennedy by planning a March on Washington for August 1963. Despite worries that few people would attend and that violence would erupt, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the historic event that would come to symbolize the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a moving address to an audience of more that 200,000 civil rights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the giant sculpture of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, became famous for how it expressed the ideas of the civil rights movement.

The year 1964 was the culmination of SNCC’s commitment to civil rights activism at the community level. Starting in 1961 organized voter registration campaigns in heavily black, rural counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia took place. SNCC worked to register black to vote by teaching them necessary skills–such as reading and writing–and the correct answers to the voter registration application.

In early 1965, SCLC employed its direct-action techniques in a voting rights protest initiated by SNCC in Selma, Alabama. When protests at the local courthouse were unsuccessful, protestors began a march to Montgomery, the state capital. As the demonstrators crossed the bridge leading out of Selma, they were ordered to disperse, but the troopers did not wait for their warning to be heard. They immediately attacked the crowd of people who had bowed their heads in prayer. Using tear-gas and batons, the troopers chased the demonstrators to a black housing project who had not been at the march, where they continued to beat the demonstrators as well as residents of the housing project who had not been at the march.

Bloody Sunday received national attention, and numerous marches were organized in response. Martin Luther King led a march to the Selma Bridge that Tuesday, during which one protestor was killed. Finally, with President Johnson’s permission, Dr. King led a successful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25. President Johnson gave a rousing speech to congress concerning civil rights because of Bloody Sunday, and passed the Voting Rights Act within that same year.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the focus of the civil rights movement began to change. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to focus more on poverty and inequality in the north. In 1965, King joined protests against school discrimination in Chicago. The next year he led marches against housing discrimination in the same city. It was in 1968 that Dr. King, who was at the time supporting striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated.

For many activists and some scholars, the civil rights movement ended along with the loss of Dr. King. Others have said it was over after the Selma march because the movement ceased to achieve significant change. Some especially blacks, argue that he movement is not yet over because the goal of full equality has not been achieved.

Being able to give first hand experience about the Civil Rights Movement is a wonderful privilege. However, being only 19 does not give many that honor. Along with all of the reading through encyclopedias and periodicals and surfing the internet, an opportunity to arose to interview someone who experienced the Civil Rights Movement first hand.

Those engaged in the struggle before 1954 used many different means of protest, from petitions and pickets to boycotts and lawsuits–many of the same tactics that gained widespread use and acceptance in the mid-twentieth century. Faith inspired what often seemed a struggle without end, as black citizens sought education, employment, respect, and freedom in a discriminatory society. The history of African Americans in this country is one of tragedy and violence, but it is also one of courage and strength, filled with determination and hope.


“Civil Rights Movement 1955-1965: The Montgomery Bus

Boycott.” (1994, April). Chicago: The

University of Chicago Press.

“Civil Rights Movement in Selma.”

www.myselma.com/civil rights.

Norrell, Robert J. “Civil Rights Movement in the

United States.” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia.


Smith, Suzanne E. “Civil Rights: A Status Report.”

Washington, Thomas. “A Time Line of the Civil Rights

Movement” www.wmich.edu

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