U.S. Civil Rights Movement

U.S. Civil Rights Movement
U.S. Civil Rights Movement

When Harry Truman assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, he had more important concerns than civil rights. His first priority was finishing the wars in Europe and the Far East. He also confronted the decision over whether or not to use the atomic bomb. The end of World War II saw the onset of the cold war. Still, in 1945 and 1946, civil rights was not totally forgotten.

In 1945 the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC)—established by Roosevelt through executive order under pressure from A. Philip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington—was involved in trying to end discrimination in a Washington, D.C., transportation company. Truman was unable to convince Congress to finance the FEPC.

He did, however, establish a committee in 1946 to examine violence against African Americans. The committee, stacked with liberals Truman expected would develop a strong to shocking civil rights statement, issued “To Secure These Rights” in October 1947. The report called for the extension of full citizenship rights to all Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin.

In his State of the Union speeches of 1947 and 1948, Truman called for adoption of the committee’s recommendations. For Truman, it was a matter of justice in a world divided between free and communist states.

On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the armed forces, and Executive Order 9980, mandating fair employment in the civil service. After resisting the presidential order for two years, the military began implementing desegregation, but discrimination in the officer corps remained strong, and few blacks served as officers.

In the Korean War, many more blacks served in combat in integrated units than had served in World War II. A further executive order in 1951 established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC), which was to require that all potential suppliers of goods to the Department of Defense have an equal employment policy. The CGCC lacked enforcement powers.

For many, a major turning point in how African Americans were viewed by the country at large came with the ending of segregation in Major League Baseball in 1947. When he took the field on April 15 for the Brooklyn Dodgers that year, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play professional Major League Baseball in the modern era. While Robinson endured abuse from fans, other teams, and even his own teammates, he went on to win the first-ever Rookie of the Year award, and over the course of his career, was named to the All-Star team six times.

The American scene, however, was changing slowly. Murders and lynchings of African Americans still occurred in the 1950s, and commonly the murders went unpunished. Emmett Till, a teenager from Chicago, was visiting Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Till purportedly whistled at a white woman.

For that offense, he was murdered brutally. His mother had an open- casket funeral so the mourners could see the beating the boy had endured before his two white abductors threw him into the Tallahatchie River on August 28. Till’s murderers were quickly arrested and acquitted. This blatant disregard for justice fired northern sentiment for reform.

Before 1955 the Civil Rights movement had focused on the courts. Although the approach had won the landmark victory in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court had failed to provide any implementation target or tools. Local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters in the South attempted to register voters and protest discrimination, but their efforts were usually uncoordinated and unsuccessful in the face of intimidation and harassment by local authorities.

Rosa Parks further fired the impulse for change. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, she was arrested for failure to yield her bus seat to white passengers. Her trial and conviction for violating the local segregated transit ordinance catalyzed the local black community.

Fifty African-American leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott that resulted in the repeal of the ordinance. The success in Montgomery was followed by a successful boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, but its greater importance is that it brought national prominence to the minister brought in to lead it, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The successful boycott encouraged civil rights leaders to shift from the old civil rights tactic of litigation to a greater emphasis on direct action. Direct action required mass mobilization, led by local churches and community organizations, and nonviolent resistance as well as civil disobedience. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was an early success. Sit-ins, freedom rides, and other local action followed during the decade between 1955 and 1965.

After Montgomery, the Montgomery Improvement Association—veteran leaders of the Baton Rouge and Tallahassee boycotts—and other black activists created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The SCLC eschewed the chapter structure of the NAACP, instead providing ad hoc training to those who fought segregation at the local level.

In 1957, in the South Carolina Sea Islands, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins began the first Citizenship Schools to give blacks the literacy they needed to pass voting tests. The number of eligible voters on St. John Island tripled. The SCLC took over the program and spread it to Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

That same year, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board decided to integrate in accordance with Brown. The NAACP had put pressure on Little Rock because the civil rights organization thought a test case would have better success there than in the Deep South. Arkansas had desegregated a couple of small towns, including Fayetteville and Hoxie, and it had a progressive reputation. It also had a governor with a progressive reputation.

Orval Faubus, however, caved in to the conservative wing of the state Democratic Party and called the Arkansas National Guard to prevent desegregation of the high school. President Eisenhower was committed to preventing the usurpation of a federal power, so Faubus’s resistance in Little Rock led to a federal-state confrontation resulting in the nationalization of the National Guard. Eventually, after Faubus backed off and then shut down the schools, integration was pushed through.

The sit-in movement began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 and spread to Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; and elsewhere in the South—as well as to the North and West. The initial spark was the decision of local college students to eat where they shopped. Complying with local law, counter personnel refused to serve them.

The demonstrators suffered arrest and physical abuse, but they refused to post bail so that the local jails would feel the financial burden. When released from jail, civil rights activists returned to the lunch counters again and again until finally the counters desegregated. Sit-ins spread from lunch counters to beaches, libraries, and everywhere that blacks were denied access on account of race.

Some sit-in veterans created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. SNCC began freedom rides in 1961, which were bus trips through the Deep South to force desegregation of bus terminals as required by federal law. The riders faced a bus bombing in Anniston, Alabama; an attack by Klansmen in Birmingham; and a mob assault in Montgomery.

There were injuries—some serious—but the riders persisted. In Jackson, Mississippi, they were jailed in squalor—and occasionally beaten. Other riders had to do forced labor in 100-degree heat. Some ended up in Parchman Penitentiary.

In 1962 the movement shifted to Mississippi, where the SNCC representative, Robert Moses, united all the state civil rights organizations into the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) for the purpose of doorto-door voter education and student recruitment. While the COFO effort was underway, James Meredith won the legal right to attend the University of Mississippi.

Three times he tried to enter, and three times Governor Ross R. Barnett refused him. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found Barnett and his lieutenant governor in contempt, and U.S. marshals escorted Meredith onto the campus. White riots ensued. Two people died, 28 marshals were shot, and 160 others were injured. The Mississippi highway patrol withdrew from the campus, so President John F. Kennedy sent the army to control the campus and allow Meredith to attend classes.

In 1961 and 1962 King went to Albany, Georgia, to assist in the Albany Movement, which aimed at ending segregation in all phases of the city. The police in Albany reacted not with violence but with mass arrests, including King in December 1961. City leaders came to an agreement with local prominent African Americans: If King left Albany, the city would—among other things—desegregate the buses and set up a biracial committee.

King left, and the city did not fulfill its promises, forcing King’s return. He was arrested again in July 1962, and in August agreed to leave the city and stop the protests. He blamed the failure of the Albany Movement on its broad scope rather than a specific aspect of segregation and discrimination.

With Albany dogging him, King needed a victory. He went to Birmingham in 1963 with the Albany lessons in mind. Rather than total desegregation, the SCLC sought a more limited desegregation of downtown businesses. The local commissioner of public safety was Eugene “Bull” Connor. The SCLC used sit-ins, kneel-ins, marches, and other nonviolent techniques.

The city obtained an injunction, the SCLC refused to quit, and King and others were arrested on April 12, 1963. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16, but the campaign was faltering until organizers, desperate for bodies, decided to put high school students on the streets. On May 2, over 1,000 students demonstrated, and over 600 ended up in jail. The next day another 1,000 students appeared, and Connor ordered dogs and fire hoses to be turned on them. Television covered it all.

Kennedy forced the SCLC and local businesses to reach a settlement. On May 10 they agreed: Downtown public accommodations were to be desegregated and a committee established to end discrimination in hiring. Also, the prisoners were released, and black-white communications channels were established. Four months later, Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls.

The summer of 1963 saw George Wallace’s attempt to prevent desegregation of the University of Alabama and Kennedy’s sending sufficient force to enroll two students. The evening that the University of Alabama desegregated, on June 11, Kennedy made a major civil rights address on television and radio. The next day Medgar Evers, who had fought to desegregate the University of Mississippi law school, was murdered. On June 19, Kennedy submitted his long-awaited Civil Rights Bill.

In August A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin led the March on Washington—from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial—despite Kennedy’s efforts to get them to call the march off. All the major civil rights and progressive labor organizations were involved, as were other liberal leaders. The demands were “meaningful civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate integrated education.”

Most important was the new civil rights law, which was stalled in Congress. More than 200,000 gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and other speeches criticizing the administration’s failure to enact civil rights laws and to protect southern civil rights workers. After the march, Kennedy had King and other leaders over to the White House for a chat.

Political Weight

The Civil Rights Bill was going nowhere until Kennedy died on November 22, 1963, and Lyndon B. Johnson put all his political weight (and Kennedy’s martyrdom) behind its passage.

In 1964 COFO continued its dangerous work in Mississippi. “Freedom Summer” involved locals and northern students in voter registration and voter education (Freedom Schools), and the organization of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964.

An FBI investigation found not only the three bodies but also others of blacks who had disappeared over the years without attracting more than local attention. During the six weeks between the disappearance of the three and the discovery of their bodies, Johnson used the case to bring pressure for enactment of the Civil Rights Act, which passed on July 2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and education.

At Selma, Alabama, the SCLC intervened in 1965 after locals struggled to get voters registered through a SNCC campaign. Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC attempted to lead a march to Montgomery, but they were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state and local officers, who attacked with clubs, tear gas, and whips. National coverage matched that of the Birmingham children’s campaign.

Local reaction included a murder by whites. Johnson used the violence to push enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law on August 6, the act outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests and other devices to bar voting by blacks.

It provided for federal supervision of voter registration in states and districts with a pattern of discrimination. Within months, a quarter of a million new black voters were created, mostly by federal examiners who replaced local registrars. Voter registration in the South more than doubled in four years. Mississippi’s black turnout in 1965 was 74 percent. Black turnout in 1969 was 92 percent in Tennessee, almost 78 percent in Arkansas, and 73 percent in Texas.

Blacks began voting out those who had plagued them during their struggles against segregation. And they began voting in blacks they hoped were more sympathetic to their needs. In 1989 there were 7,200 elected black officials in the United States, more than 4,800 of them in the South. In 1965 about 100 were in elective office in all of the United States. Blacks were sheriffs, mayors, and county, state, and national officials.


Voting rights failed to provide jobs. As the nation turned from civil rights to the war in Vietnam, and as King and other civil rights leaders split with the Johnson administration over foreign policy and the failure of economic justice at home, the Civil Rights movement faded.

Blacks radicalized—SNCC threw out its white members, and the Black Panthers stressed not only Black Power but black self-help. Blacks rioted in American cities between 1965 and 1968. When King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support a sanitation workers’ strike, he was murdered.

By 1967 22 percent of black students in southern and border states were in integrated schools. Still, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders of 1968 reported that the United States was continuing to move toward a two-society status, separate and unequal. Housing segregation was addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Richard Nixon’s administration slowed integration by leaving it to the courts rather than his administration.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Miliken v. Bradley (1974) that cities could not expect to use suburbs to desegregate, white flight began resegregating America’s major cities. The absence of federal assistance and persistent residential segregation contributed to resegregation. By the late 1990s, a third of black students were in schools that were 90 percent nonwhite.

During World War II, many African Americans migrated north, following jobs in war industries, but most of the jobs they were able to get were menial and paid very little. This created greater racial problems in these northern cities; blacks were forced by de facto segregation into slums that were plagued by high unemployment and crime.

Additionally, the slum areas were patrolled by predominantly white police forces who many felt threatened rather than protected the neighborhood. The area schools tended to be all black and terribly underfunded. Frustrated by these conditions, urban African Americans rose in protest.

The first riot was in Harlem in the summer of 1964. A white policeman shot a black youth, and a mob demanded the suspension of the officer. When that did not happen, the mob rampaged through the neighborhood and destroyed Jewish-owned stores and much else that was not black-owned. Brooklyn’s black BedfordStuyvesant neighborhood and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had riots for similar reasons that year.

After passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, expectations were that there would be celebration. Instead there was violence. California was among the states that refused to implement the fair housing element of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 required fair housing. Malcolm X was killed in 1965. The black ghetto riots were the most prolonged period of civil disturbance in the United States since the Civil War. Tens of thousands of National Guardsmen were required to reestablish order.

Blacks began taking out their frustrations on police by murdering racist and brutal “honkies” and “pigs.” In 1966 nearly all major U.S. cities endured riots by blacks taking an independent “black power” stance, no longer following the white-black integrated approach of the NAACP and SCLC. Black power was the slogan of Stokely Carmichael, leader of the SNCC. Its approach was similar to that of the Black Panthers, formed in Oakland in 1966 and nationally prominent by 1968.

Racial stereotyping and simple personal racism remains. Interracial tension and social problems remain, which are especially pronounced in the inner cities. Sometimes the cities erupt, as in New Jersey in the late 1990s where racial profiling led to public controversy. And riots do still occur. Note the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict.