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Chapter 30: The Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968

TIMELINE

1944

Black troops drive tanks in the Battle of the Bulge

1948

President Truman desegregates the Army

1954

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decided

1955

Montgomery bus boycott occurs

1957

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded  • Little Rock Central High School integrated for one year

1960

Sit-ins take place in Greensboro, North Carolina  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) founded

1961

Freedom Rides take place

1962

James Meredith enters University of Mississippi protected by 5,000 federal troops

1963

Birmingham desegregation campaign launched  • Martin Luther King, Jr. writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail  • March on Washington occurs  • 16th Street Baptist Church (Birmingham) bombed by Ku Klux Klan  • Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP, assassinated  • John F. Kennedy assassinated

1964

Civil Rights Act passed  • “Freedom Summer takes place”  • Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) denied seats at Democratic Party Convention

1965

Voting rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery  • Voting Rights Act passed  • Watts Riot takes place  • SNCC split by Black Power advocates  • Malcolm X assassinated

1967

Urban riots take place

1968

Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated  • Robert F. Kennedy assassinated  • Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed

IMPORTANT PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS, AND CONCEPTS

13th Street Baptist Church

Civil Rights Acts

de jure segregation

Andrew Goodman, Micheal Schwerner, James Chaney

Ku Klux Klan (KKK)

march from Selma to Montgomery

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)

National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission)

Voting Rights Act

Birmingham desegregation demonstrations

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

Medger Evers

Fannie Lou Hamer

Letter from Birmingham Jail

March on Washington

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks

Earl Warren

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Eugene “Bull” Connor

Freedom Rides

“I Have a Dream” speech

Little Rock Central High School

Thurgood Marshall

Bob Moses

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

“We Shall Overcome”

Stokely Carmichael

de facto segregation

Freedom Summer

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcom X

James Meredith

NAACP

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

“But the one thing we did right

Was the day we started to fight,

Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on, hold on.”

—From traditional freedom song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”

INTRODUCTION

The Civil Rights Movement set the stage for the progress and turmoil of the 1960s. Despite the American creed of “equality for all,” segregation and other forms of discrimination reigned in the South and in many places in the North from the 1870s to the late 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement—the collective action of masses of ordinary people—was the key force in eliminating Jim Crow. The federal government enacted reforms, but it was African Americans and their white allies who kept their “eyes on the prize” of equality, who forced changes in government and society, and who changed themselves in the process. This was the Second Reconstruction after the defeat in 1877.

ROOTS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

The modern Civil Rights Movement had its roots largely in the ideas of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and A. Phillip Randolph and the experiences of soldiers and workers in industrial plants during World War II. Douglass was the leader of forthright post–Civil War protest, DuBois was a founder of the NAACP, and A. Phillip Randolph was an activist who called for mass marches to end discrimination.

World War II

After participating as fighter pilots and fighting against the Nazis in key tank units in the Battle of the Bulge, African American soldiers found it demeaning and infuriating to return to the state laws that segregated everything from schools to water fountains in the South. Activist Randolph had forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to employ blacks in the defense industries during the war, and President Harry Truman had desegregated the armed forces by 1948.

Brown v. Board of Education

The NAACP began bringing school discrimination cases to the Supreme Court in the 1930s and 1940s, the most important of which was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). Linda Brown had been denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka because she was black. NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall (who would later become the first black Supreme Court Justice) successfully argued the case using the results of psychological and sociological studies showing that segregation affects the ability of African American children to learn. Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Court to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), concluding “that the doctrine of separate but equal has no place” in public schools. What seemed like a clear federal stand encouraged civil rights workers to press for equality.

School Desegregation

In the course of school desegregation, African Americans faced the same resistance from whites and the federal government as they had in their attempts to integrate public facilities. The Brown decision had called for change, but the Court was unwilling to rush, and the ex-Confederate states stalled as much as they could. In 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas, nine black students entered Central High School only after President Eisenhower sent in the Army to protect them. They spent that school year in class with whites, but the next year, Governor Orville Faubus closed down the school to prevent further integration. In 1962, President Kennedy sent 5,000 federal troops to protect James Meredith when he entered the University of Mississippi. A majority of the public schools in the South were not desegregated until the 1970s. Brown only set the stage for demonstrations; it did not ensure change.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The groundbreaking work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader began in Montgomery, Alabama, in the winter of 1955. As a new pastor in Montgomery with a PhD in theology from Boston University, King inspired confidence and determination in the 40,000 African Americans who refused to ride city buses on a segregated basis. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a committed activist for many years, was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man. By the next day, no African American person rode the public buses, as the Women’s Political Council had distributed 30,000 leaflets calling for a boycott. For 11 months, the African American community either walked or arranged carpools to get to work, thereby financially devastating the public transit system. After suffering bombings, arrests, and direct threats by the Ku Klux Klan, the Montgomery Improvement Association succeeded when the Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the buses in Montgomery. In 1957, King helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate action against segregation after the success in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As the name implies, the SCLC, like much of the movement, used the church as an organizational base.

Birmingham Desegregation Demonstrations

In 1963, King led a campaign to force the city government of Birmingham, Alabama, to take down the “whites only” signs. When Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety, used fire hoses and attack dogs to disperse demonstrating students, the conflict was shown on national television, shocking the nation. During these demonstrations, King was arrested. He wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained that waiting for segregation to end would only prolong the suffering of his people. The nonviolent demonstrations were justified, he said, because they hurried the achievement of equal rights. Activists were breaking unjust laws for morally right reasons and were prepared to serve time in jail for their beliefs.

Marches in Washington and Selma

On August 28, 1963, King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech to the March on Washington, where 250,000 people had gathered to demonstrate for jobs and freedom. Echoing his abolitionist ancestors who stood on the premise of the Declaration of Independence, King called for America to fulfill its promise of equality for all.

In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize, but in the next years, he met some of the bloodiest opposition of all. The pictures on television of the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 showed a war zone, with state police using tear gas, billy clubs, and guns. This publicity produced a response from President Johnson: He called for a Voting Rights Act (1965) to ensure that all citizens could register and have their votes counted. When he introduced the bill to Congress, Johnson quoted the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

King’s Assassination

King was assassinated in 1968 while leading demonstrations in Memphis, Tennessee, for higher pay for sanitation workers. He had come to the realization that job discrimination and de facto neighborhood housing discrimination were at least as important as the Jim Crow (de jure) segregation he had been battling since 1955. Similarly, he had turned publicly against the war in Vietnam (1967), partially because the expenses for the war were draining money needed for social programs.

STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE

In 1960, following student-led sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, SCLC member Ella Baker helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By October of that year, more than 112 sit-ins took place in Southern cities.

Freedom Rides

SNCC had black and white student members who participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer, organized a campaign to desegregate bus stations and rest stops from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans that had “whites only” waiting rooms, bathrooms, and lunch counters. The activists were beaten so severely that CORE was ready to give up. SNCC completed the ride despite more beatings and fire bombings. John Lewis, currently a congressman from Atlanta, was a leader in the Freedom Rides and at the Selma march, where SNCC provided the “shock troops” to bear the brunt of the attacks during the demonstrations.

Freedom Summer

In the Freedom Summer of 1964, SNCC organized a group of 300 students from the North and South to come to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. SNCC brought many people to the polls who had never registered before due to poll closings, literacy tests, and fear of retribution.

Black Power

In 1966, SNCC split along racial lines when Stokely Carmichael began to advocate black power in economic and political terms. He said there was no room for whites in SNCC because blacks had to make decisions for themselves. Not all blacks followed the separation, but it created a significant rift in the Civil Rights Movement.

VIOLENCE

The violence during this period was one of the most divisive factors. It was perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, the police, the FBI (who were sometimes allied with the Klan) and by African Americans in reaction to police attacks and the lack of socioeconomic equality. The violence created white flight from the cities, leaving the inner cities even more impoverished.

Violence by the Klan and Its Allies

Medgar Evers, a leader of the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot in 1963. Two weeks after the peaceful March on Washington, the Klan threw a bomb into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four teenage girls. Three students who were working to register black votes, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, disappeared at the beginning of Freedom Summer; their bodies turned up in a river, where Klansmen had thrown them after lynching them. Numerous other bodies were discovered in the weeks that followed. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper participant in the Freedom Summer, was beaten severely for registering to vote. Finally, during the same summer, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit, was shot while riding in her car with an African American man in Mississippi.

Urban Riots

Civil disturbances, variously called urban riots or rebellions, took place in Harlem, Watts (Los Angeles), and Detroit. In 1966, 43 cities experienced riots; in 1967, the number rose to 167 cities. Attacks centered on businesses in black neighborhoods and the police and firefighters who tried to protect them. Social inequality and the expectations that the civil rights victories had raised fueled the anger of the disadvantaged. The 1968 National Advisory (Kerner) Commission on Civil Disorders convened to discover why there was so much violence; it stated that America was “two societies separate and unequal” and that the plight of African Americans was largely unknown to whites. It concluded that the richest nation on earth could correct these inequalities. In the next month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, spawning more riots.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, was a complex figure who evolved through many political positions. He is most famous for his statement “by any means necessary,” which referred to African American self-defense. In his career, he became successively a thief, a Black Muslim (Nation of Islam), an orthodox Muslim, and, finally, a fighter for human rights who wanted to bring the United States before the United Nations on charges of racism. Malcolm did not believe in turning the other cheek, but, despite his reputation, he also did not want to initiate violence. After he left the Black Muslims, Malcolm called for the ballot, and said that if denied this right, African Americans would use the bullet. He was assassinated by followers of the Black Muslims in 1965.

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

In general, the federal government reacted to pressure from the grass roots: SNCC, SCLC, NAACP, and CORE. The two Civil Rights Acts (in 1957 and in 1960) were unenforceable calls for voting rights and desegregation, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed after a 57-day filibuster by Southern senators, did include strong provisions for integration of public accommodations, as well as an unnoticed clause for women’s rights. Kennedy had been unable to pass the bill, but Johnson forced it through, using his considerable political skills and trading on sympathy for the assassinated president.

During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy had claimed that he would end discrimination in housing with “the stroke of a pen.” Only after thousands of pens had been sent to the White House did he issue the order. The 24th Amendment, outlawing poll taxes, was passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act (1965) was passed in response to the demonstrations in Selma, which had provoked so much violence.

Johnson’s “Great Society” was in large part a civil rights program. The Office of Economic Opportunity (1964) was part of the War on Poverty. A series of executive orders banned discrimination and called for affirmative action. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1965) was designed to enforce civil rights laws. Congress passed the last major piece of civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, against housing discrimination, but it could not obtain a majority without an antiriot amendment attached, signalling the end of liberal dominance on civil rights.

SUMMARY

The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are evident in every aspect of American life—from an increasing acceptance of black leaders in politics, sports, the arts, and intellectual pursuits to a change in the language from negro to black to African American, to an acceptance of the rights of minorities to be represented on television. Regardless of what business leaders have thought about discrimination, they had to pay attention to diversity. The Black Power Movement laid the basis for a widespread acceptance of black pride, which changed hairstyles and self-images. Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow Coalition, ran a serious primary campaign for president in 1984, gaining the respect of the more established leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Most white Southerners reacted against the Second Reconstruction by switching to the Republican Party, helping to elect Republican presidents from Nixon and Reagan to G. H. W. Bush and G. W. Bush. The backlash against the gains of blacks and other minorities began a culture war, which is still being fought today, even after the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

•  Black power: This is the political advocacy of black-owned businesses and independent black political action. Stokely Carmichael first used the term in a position paper for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965.

•  Civil Rights Movement: The organizations and events in the 20th century that collectively pressured federal, state, and local governments and businesses to grant equal rights to blacks and other minorities

•  Culture wars: The political events of the 1960s divided the country in many ways. There were pro-Vietnam hawks and anti-Vietnam doves, those who supported the counterculture of liberated sex and drugs and those who did not, those who favored American involvement in anti-communist foreign interventions and those who did not, and those who favored the civil rights revolution and those who did not. The conflicts within American culture between groups promoting competing views of American social and political values have been called cultural wars.

•  Jim Crow: These were a series of laws designed to create separation between the races. These were by and large Southern state laws made constitutional by the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

•  Second Reconstruction: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was called the “Second Reconstruction” because the first Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s had not brought equality for blacks.

•  Sit-ins: There were a form of nonviolent protest used by antiwar and antisegregation activists. Protesters would take over buildings, camp out in front of administration offices, or sit at lunch counters and demand to be served on an integrated basis. The first sit-ins were civil rights demonstrations at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960.

•  Urban riots: The series of violent reactions to police brutality, poor living conditions, assassinations, and high unemployment from 1964–1968 were known as the urban riots. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) called them a reaction to the rising expectations of the Civil Rights Movement. They were a cause of white flight from the cities to suburbia.

REVIEW QUESTIONS

1.   Which organization was not involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

(A)    SNCC

(B)    UFW

(C)    CORE

(D)    SCLC

(E)    NAACP

2.   Place these Civil Rights milestones in chronological order.

1)    Montgomery bus boycott

2)    Birmingham desegregation demonstrations

3)    voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery

4)    Brown v. Board of Education

5)    Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins

Answer choices:

(A)    1, 4, 2, 5, 3

(B)    4, 1, 5, 2, 3

(C)    4, 5, 1, 2, 3

(D)    5, 2, 4, 1, 3

(E)    1, 5, 4, 3, 2

3.   The goal of the Freedom Rides was to desegregate

(A)    lunch counters.

(B)    school buses.

(C)    bus stations.

(D)    interstate buses.

(E)    trains.

4.   The landmark Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision on school desegregation was based on

(A)    the 14th Amendment equal protection clause.

(B)    the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery.

(C)    the 5th Amendment due process clause.

(D)    the Bill of Rights.

(E)    the doctrine of strict scrutiny.

ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS

1.    B

The United Farm Workers (UFW) was a mainly Chicano union of lettuce and grape workers and not a Civil Rights organization for black equality, as the other choices were.

2.    B

Brown vs. the Board of Education, 1954; Montgomery bus boycott, 1955; sit-ins at lunch counters in Greensboro, 1960; Birmingham desegregation demonstrations, 1963; Selma march, 1965.

3.    C

Blacks and whites rode interstate buses together in 1961 and integrated bus stations and highway rest stops from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. CORE and SNCC both participated.

4.    A

The Warren Court’s unanimous decision in 1954 was based on psychological studies on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court relied on sociological and psychological studies that showed that African American children had feelings of inferiority and that separation was harmful and prevented blacks from equal opportunity in society. Strict scrutiny (a highly rigorous level of evaluation of a rule) was not mentioned. The 13th Amendment and the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) had no relevance to this case.

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