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The Civil Rights Movement

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement is the name for the post-World War II campaign for the rights that African Americans had been granted on paper during and after the Civil War, but had all too often been denied in reality. Society had already taken some important first steps toward equality. President Kennedy supported the Civil Rights movement; his successor, President Johnson, passed substantial federal Civil Rights legislation. Both were frequently obliged to send federal troops to the South to deal with outbreaks of savagery between the police and the protesters.

In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This association of black churches adopted the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that King had learned from studying the writings of Mohandas Gandhi of India. Young followers of King and the SCLC formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”). Jesse Jackson, who would later run for president of the United States, played a major role in SNCC activities.

The SNCC launched a campaign of sit-ins in 1958. Small groups of black students would go to whites-only lunch counters and sit down. When waitresses refused to serve them, they replied that they would not leave until they had been served. They remained until closing, studying their books, and returned the next day. Onlookers taunted them, poured ketchup and sugar over their heads, and threw food at them; the students continued to sit, not responding to the provocation. The sit-ins continued into 1960 and made national headlines. In the end, the students’ determination and perseverance paid off; restaurants all across the South began serving black customers.

Participation in the Civil Rights movement was dangerous. Southern police officers and segregationists were frequently guilty of brutal beatings and other acts of violence. In the first years of school desegregation, armed guards had to protect black students from possible harm. NAACP secretary Medgar Evers is an example of a Civil Rights champion who was shot down and killed.

The nonviolent protests advocated by King worked because they provoked segregationists into behaving violently and thus alienating the general public. It was clear to most of the country by this time that the era of segregation had come to an end, and that Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional.

In 1963, the SCLC began concentrating its nonviolent protests on the city of Birmingham, Alabama. One protester described Birmingham as “the hardest and most mean-spirited establishment in the South.” Many school-age children took part in the demonstrations, which drew a great deal of newspaper and television coverage. Americans across the country were horrified at the photographs and film of armed policemen setting dogs on crowds of peaceful protesters, or spraying fire hoses at large groups that included small children. Public opinion was quickly won over to the side of the protesters.

In the summer of 1963, the protesters gained one of their most important objectives. President Kennedy asked Congress to pass a bill that would make segregation in public places illegal. To celebrate this success and to keep the movement in the public eye, Civil Rights leaders organized a series of speakers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Marian Anderson had sung her historic concert in 1939 (see Chapter 24). In the most famous speech of his career, King described his dream of what the United States might become when it finally lived up to its promise of liberty and equality for all:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. . . . But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

. . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

. . . when we let [freedom] ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gen- tiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

King alluded to the text of the Gettysburg Address (which begins “Fourscore and seven years ago”) and quoted from the Declaration of Independence. He quoted the lyrics of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” the song Marian Anderson had used to begin her historic concert. He reminded everyone that African Americans had had full civil rights legally for the past 100 years, and that making that law into everyday fact was long overdue.

One year later, as King looked on, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2. The act had the following provisions:

  • Banned racial, gender, religious, and ethnic discrimination in employment
  • Made segregation illegal in all public places
  • Allowed the federal government to sue public school systems that did not obey desegregation laws
  • Removed certain voter-registration restrictions

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The New Frontier and the Civil Rights Movement Practice Test

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