The Expansion of the Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to U.S. social movements aimed at exposing institutional racism and achieving liberation for African Americans.
Outline the course of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
- The Civil Rights Movement against racial discrimination of African Americans grew out of key events of the 1950s, such as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the desegregation of Little Rock.
- Civil Rights protests expanded in the 1960s to include sit-ins and the famous March on Washington in 1963.
- The Black Power Movement pushed the wider action to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major legislative achievement for the Civil Rights Movement, banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in employment and public accommodations.
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was another legislative victory for the movement, restoring and protecting voting rights of African Americans.
- Voting Rights Act of 1965: Landmark legislation in the United States that outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the U.S.
- Civil Rights Act of 1964: Landmark legislation in the United States that outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women.
- Black Power Movement: A movement in the 1960s and 1970s among African descendants worldwide (but primarily in the U.S. ) that emphasized racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions.
Overview: The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the social movements led by African Americans in the United States aimed at exposing rampant (and often legalized) racial discrimination and achieving equal rights and liberation for African Americans. The emergence of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975, enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.
Most of the credit for progress toward racial equality in the Unites States lies with grassroots activists. Indeed, it was campaigns and demonstrations by ordinary people that spurred the federal government to eventually take legislative action. While Congress played a role by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the actions of civil rights groups such as CORE, the SCLC, and SNCC were instrumental in forging new paths, pioneering new techniques and strategies, and achieving breakthrough successes.
Increasing Political Resistance
The key civil rights events of the 1950s (Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-1956; and the desegregation of Little Rock in 1957) expanded into other forms of protest in the 1960s. For many people inspired by the victories of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the glacial pace of progress throughout the country was frustrating if not intolerable. In some places, such as Greensboro, North Carolina, local NAACP chapters had been influenced by whites who provided financing for the organization. This aid, together with the belief that more forceful efforts at reform would only increase white resistance, had persuaded some African American organizations to pursue a “politics of moderation” instead of attempting to radically alter the status quo. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational appeal for peaceful change in the city of Greensboro in 1958, however, planted the seed for a more assertive civil rights movement.
The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. During the 1960s, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, not to mention local businesses and communities, often responded immediately and violently to these situations in ways that highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans.
SNCC and Participatory Democracy
The 1960s brought sit-ins to Greensboro and Nashville, while Freedom Riders challenged segregation in interstate travel all over the South. Grassroots civil rights activist Ella Baker pushed for a “participatory Democracy” that built on the grassroots campaigns of active citizens instead of deferring to the leadership of educated elites and experts. As a result of her actions, in April 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed to carry the battle forward. Within a year, more than one hundred cities had desegregated at least some public accommodations in response to student-led demonstrations. The sit-ins inspired other forms of nonviolent protest intended to desegregate public spaces. “Sleep-ins” occupied motel lobbies, “read-ins” filled public libraries, and churches became the sites of “pray-ins.” SNCC spearheaded voter registration campaigns all over the South, particularly Mississippi in 1964.
Exposing State Violence
Other gatherings of civil rights activists ended tragically, and some demonstrations were intended to reveal the all-too-often hostile response from whites and the inhumanity of the Jim Crow laws and their supporters. In 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King mounted protests in some 186 cities throughout the South. The campaign in Birmingham that began in April and extended into the fall of 1963 attracted the most notice, however, when a peaceful protest was met with violence by police, who attacked demonstrators, including children, with fire hoses and dogs. The world looked on in horror as innocent people were assaulted and thousands arrested. King himself was jailed on Easter Sunday, 1963, and, in response to the pleas of white clergymen for peace and patience, he penned one of the most significant documents of the struggle—“Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In the letter, King argued that African Americans had waited patiently for more than three hundred years to be given the rights that all human beings deserved; the time for waiting was over.
The March on Washington
Perhaps the most famous of the civil rights-era demonstrations was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held in August 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Its purpose was to pressure President Kennedy to act on his promises regarding civil rights. The date was also the 8th anniversary of the brutal racist murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. As the enormous crowd gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial and spilled across the National Mall, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech. In “I Have a Dream,” King called for an end to racial injustice in the United States and envisioned a harmonious, integrated society. The speech marked a high point of the civil rights movement and established the legitimacy of its goals. However, it did not prevent white terrorism or dismantle white supremacy, nor did it permanently sustain the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights for African Americans that had been imposed upon since the Civil War, and the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 dramatically opened up entry into the U.S. for immigrants outside of traditional European groups. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and across the country young people were inspired to action.
The vision of whites and African Americans working together peacefully to end racial injustice suffered a severe blow with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968. King had gone there to support sanitation workers trying to unionize. In the city, he found a divided civil rights movement: older activists who supported his policy of nonviolence and younger African Americans who advocated a more militant approach. On April 4, King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, a white man from Illinois, while standing on the balcony of his motel. Within hours, the nation’s cities exploded with violence as groups of angry activists, shocked by his murder, retaliated by burning local inner-city businesses that were not owned by blacks and often targeted African American customers with hostility and discrimination. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, nonviolence gave way to more militant approaches by SNCC and the Black Power Movement (with its subgroup, the Black Panther Party).
The growing African-American civil rights movement also spawned civil rights movements for other marginalized groups during the 1960s. Each of these movements could hardly be considered self-contained; rather, they emerged from and encouraged one another. These other movements included a new wave of feminism and a sexual revolution, as well as calls for Native American, Latino, and gay and lesbian rights.
Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
Sit-ins and Freedom Rides were nonviolent civil rights actions used to challenge segregation and racial discrimination.
Examine the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement
- The Woolworth’s department store chain reversed its policy of racial segregation in the South as a result of student sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.
- The Nashville sit-ins, spurred by James Lawson’s nonviolent resistance workshops, challenged segregation in the face of violence, bringing national attention and inspiring other sit-ins across the nation.
- Freedom Rides were organized bus rides throughout the South used to test enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation and to protest segregated waiting rooms in southern terminals. Freedom riders faced extreme resistance in Alabama, where they were assaulted by mobs and Ku Klux Klan members.
- Various civil rights organizations banded together to address black voter registration in Mississippi, bringing together activists from all over and garnering national attention during the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
- Boynton v. Virginia: A 1960 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that overturned a judgment convicting an African American law student of trespassing for being in restaurant that was designated as “whites only.”
- freedom ride: In the United States during the 1960s, any one of a number of bus trips through parts of the southern United States, made by groups of civil rights activists demonstrating their opposition to racial prejudice and segregation.
- sit-in: A peaceful form of protest in which people occupy an area and refuse to leave, often to promote political, social, or economic change.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, students and other activists would “sit-in” at whites-only locations. In the first sit-ins, students would sit at whites-only lunch counters and refuse to leave until they had been served. Using this strategy of nonviolent resistance, the movement spread across the South. Local authorities often used brutal force and violence to physically remove and restrain the activists.
The Greensboro sit-ins were a series of nonviolent protests that led to the Woolworth’s department store chain reversing its policy of racial segregation in the southern United States. While these were not the first sit-ins, they were instrumental in increasing national awareness at a crucial period in U.S. history. This series of sit-ins started at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store.
On February 1, 1960, four students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina—Ezell Blair, Jr., Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, and Franklin McCain—sat down at the segregated lunch counter to protest Woolworth’s policy of excluding African Americans. They had specifically chosen Woolworth’s because it was a national chain, and was therefore believed to be especially vulnerable to negative publicity. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the African American men at the “whites only” counter, and the store’s manager asked them to leave. On the second day of the sit-ins, more than twenty African-American students who had been recruited from other campus groups came to the store to join the sit-in. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service. On the fourth day of the sit-ins, more than 300 people took part. Hostile whites responded with threats and taunted the students by pouring sugar and ketchup on their heads. Organizers agreed to spread the sit-in protests to include the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store.
As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. The sit-ins also spread to out-of-state towns such as Lexington, Kentucky, and Richmond, Virginia.
The Nashville sit-ins, which lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960, were part of a nonviolent direct action campaign to end racial segregation at lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. The first large-scale organized sit-in in Nashville occurred on Saturday, February 13. At about 12:30 pm, 124 students, most of whom were black, walked into the downtown Woolworths, S. H. Kress, and McClellan stores and asked to be served at the lunch counters. After the staff refused to serve them, they sat in the stores for two hours and then left without incident.
Tensions mounted over the following week as sit-in demonstrations spread to other cities and race riots broke out in nearby Chattanooga. On February 27, the Nashville student activists held a fourth sit-in at the Woolworths, McClellan, and Walgreens stores. Crowds of white youths again gathered in the stores to taunt and harass the demonstrators. However, this time, police were not present. Eventually, several of the sit-in demonstrators were attacked by hecklers in the McClellan and Woolworths stores. Some were pulled from their seats and beaten, and one demonstrator was pushed down a flight of stairs. When police arrived, the white attackers fled and none were arrested. Police then ordered the demonstrators at all three locations to leave the stores. When the demonstrators refused to leave, they were arrested and loaded into police vehicles as onlookers applauded. Eighty-one students were arrested and charged with loitering and disorderly conduct.
The arrests brought a surge of media coverage to the sit-in campaign, including national television news coverage, front page stories in both of Nashville’s daily newspapers, and an Associated Press story. The students generally viewed any media coverage as helpful to their cause, especially when it illustrated their commitment to nonviolence.
After weeks of secret negotiations between merchants and protest leaders, an agreement was finally reached during the first week of May. According to the agreement, gradual desegregation of the lunch counters would be implemented. Nashville thus became the first major city in the South to begin desegregating its public facilities.
The Movement Spreads
The successful six-month-long Greensboro sit-in initiated the student phase of the African American civil rights movement and, within two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states. Within a year, more than 100 cities had desegregated at least some public accommodations in response to student-led demonstrations. The sit-ins inspired other forms of nonviolent protest intended to desegregate public spaces. “Sleep-ins” occupied motel lobbies, “read-ins” filled public libraries, and churches became the sites of “pray-ins.”
Students also took part in the 1961 “ freedom rides ” organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The intent of the African American and white volunteers who undertook these bus rides was to test enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which prohibited segregation on interstate transportation and to protest segregated waiting rooms in southern terminals. During Freedom Rides, activists traveled through the Deep South to integrate seating patterns and desegregate bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains, which proved to be a dangerous mission.
From Washington to New Orleans
The first Freedom Ride of the 1960s left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white) left Washington, DC, on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana where a civil rights rally was planned. Most of the Riders were from CORE and two were from SNCC; many were in their 40s and 50s.
The freedom riders encountered little difficulty until they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina, where a mob severely beat John Lewis, a freedom rider who later became chairman of the SNCC. The danger increased as the riders continued through Georgia into Alabama, where one of the two buses was firebombed outside the town of Anniston. The second group continued to Birmingham, where the riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan as they attempted to disembark at the city bus station. The Birmingham, Alabama Police Commissioner Bull Connor and Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter) organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Ku Klux Klan chapters. Freedom riders were stopped and beaten by mobs in Montgomery, leading to the dispatch of the Alabama National Guard to stop the violence.
In response to the national and international attention brought on by the Freedom Rides, President Kennedy urged a “cooling off period” to avoid international embarrassment, which was ignored by riders. The remaining activists continued to Mississippi, where they were arrested when they attempted to desegregate the waiting rooms in the Jackson bus terminal.
Impact of the Freedom Rides
Despite being faced with severe violence, the freedom rides made an impact. In September of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) issued new policies that went into effect on November 1. After the new ICC rule took effect, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains; “white” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals; racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated; and the lunch counters began serving all customers, regardless of race.
Freedom Summer and Voter Registration
Jim Crow Barriers to Voting
Some of the greatest violence during this era was aimed at those who attempted to register African Americans to vote. Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it significantly affected the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down decades of isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers.
When Mississippi ratified its constitution in 1890, the constitution had placed barriers to black voting with provisions such as poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests. In the spring of 1962, SNCC began organizing voter registration in the Mississippi Delta area. Their efforts were met with fierce opposition from whites—arrests, beatings, shootings, arson, and murder. In addition, white employers fired blacks who tried to register to vote, and white landlords evicted them from their homes. Over the following years, the black voter registration campaign spread across the state.
SNCC had undertaken an ambitious voter registration program in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, but had made little headway. After local residents asked the SCLC for assistance, King came to Selma to lead several marches. On March 7, 1965, Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC led a march of 600 people to walk from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Only six blocks into the march, state troopers and local law enforcement, some mounted on horseback, attacked the peaceful demonstrators. The national broadcast of the lawmen attacking unresisting marchers provoked a national response.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Eight days after the first march, President Johnson delivered a televised address to support the voting rights bill he had sent to Congress. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subjective voter tests that contributed to the disenfranchisement of African Americans. The act authorized Federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. Johnson reportedly told associates of his concern that by signing the bill, he had lost the support of white southern Democrats for the foreseeable future.
When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only about 100 African Americans held elective office, all in northern states of the United States. By 1989, there were more than 7,200 African Americans in office, including more than 4,800 in the South.
Women of the Civil Rights Movement
Though often overlooked, many women played integral leadership roles in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Discuss the contributions of women in the Civil Rights Movement
- Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting rights activist, civil rights leader, and philanthropist. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for SNCC in 1964, and later became the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
- Grassroots civil rights activist Ella Baker was largely a behind-the-scenes organizer who championed the idea of participatory democracy, in which grassroots campaigns were led by active citizens rather than by the leadership of educated elites and experts.
- Daisy Bates played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957, organizing and aiding the ” Little Rock Nine ” African American students as they integrated the previously all-white school.
- Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women’s rights activist specifically focused on the issues of African-American women, including unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness; she was the president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957-1997.
- Viola Liuzzo was a white ally and Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist who participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics.
- Tuskegee Syphilis Study: An infamous clinical experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service studying the natural progression of untreated syphilis, in which rural African-American men with syphilis in Alabama were not told they had the disease nor given treatment, but instead studied under the guise of receiving free health care from the U.S. government.
- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: One of the most important organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, emerging from a student meeting organized by Ella Baker held at Shaw University.
- Bloody Sunday: The violent suppression of a peaceful civil rights march in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 by state and local law enforcement.
While their names all too often go unrecognized, many women were an integral part of the advancements made during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Among many others, key leaders of the movement included Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Dorothy Height, and Viola Liuzzo.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting rights activist, civil rights leader, and philanthropist. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1964, and later became the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
On August 31 of 1962, Hamer traveled on a rented bus with other activists to Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote. In what would become a signature trait of Hamer’s activist career, she began singing Christian hymns, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine”, to the group in order to bolster their resolve. The hymns also reflected Hamer’s belief that the civil rights struggle was a deeply spiritual one. That same day, upon Hamer’s return to her plantation, she was fired by her boss, who had warned her against trying to register to vote.
Mississippi Freedom Summer
On June 9, 1963, Hamer was arrested on false charges along with other activists and nearly beaten to death by police in the cell. Though the incident had profound physical and psychological effects, Hamer returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign,” a mock election, in 1963, and the Freedom Summer initiative in 1964. She was known to the volunteers of Freedom Summer — most of whom were young, white, and from northern states — as a motherly figure who believed that the civil rights effort should be multi-racial in nature. In addition to her Northern guests, Hamer played host to Tuskegee University student activists Sammy Younge Jr. and Wendell Paris. Younge and Paris grew to become profound activists and organizers under Hamer’s tutelage.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or “Freedom Democrats” for short, was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention, which failed to represent all Mississippians. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair. The Freedom Democrats’ efforts drew national attention to the plight of blacks in Mississippi and represented a challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for reelection. Their success would mean that other Southern delegations, who were already leaning toward Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, would publicly break from the convention’s decision to nominate Johnson — meaning in turn that he would almost certainly lose those states’ electoral votes. Hamer, singing her signature hymns, drew a great deal of attention from the media, enraging Johnson, who referred to her in speaking to his advisors as “that illiterate woman.”
In 1964 and 1965 Hamer ran for Congress, but failed to win. Hamer continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Hamer died of complications from hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977, aged 59. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Grassroots civil rights activist Ella Baker was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders and mentored many emerging activists of the time, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses. She was a critic of professionalized, charismatic leadership and a promoter of grassroots organizing and radical democracy. Baker instead pushed for a “participatory democracy” that built on the grassroots campaigns of active citizens instead of deferring to the leadership of educated elites and experts. As a result of her actions and direct organizing of students on campus at Shaw University, in April of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed to carry the battle forward. During the summer of 1964, Baker worked together with Hamer and Robert Parris Moses to formally organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.
Daisy Bates was an American civil rights activist, publisher, journalist, and lecturer who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. In 1952, Daisy Bates was elected president of the Arkansas Conference of NAACP branches. She became President of the Arkansas Conference of NAACP Branches in 1952 at the age of 38. She remained active and was on the National Board of the NAACP until 1970. Due to her position in NAACP, Bates’ life was threatened much of time.
In this role, Bates became deeply involved in the issue of desegregation in education. Bates and her husband published a local black newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, which publicized violations of the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings. The plan for desegregating the schools of Little Rock was to be implemented in three phases, starting first with the senior and junior high schools; then, only after the successful integration of senior and junior schools, the elementary schools would be integrated. After two years and still no progress, a suit was filed against the Little Rock School District in 1956. The court ordered the School Board to integrate the schools as of September 1957.
As the leader of NAACP branch in Arkansas, Bates guided and advised the nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, who were to integrate the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The students’ attempts to enroll provoked a confrontation with Governor Orval Faubus, who called the National Guard to prevent their entry. The guard only let the white students enter the gate; meanwhile, white mobs gathered to harass and threaten the black students. Bates used her organizational skills to plan a way for the nine students to get into Central High, speaking with parents and using ministers to escort the children.
Nevertheless, the chaos at Central High School caused superintendent Virgil Blossom to dismiss school that first day of desegregation, and the crowds dispersed. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and dispatching the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that the court orders were enforced. The troops maintained order, and desegregation proceeded. In the 1958-59 school year, however, public schools in Little Rock were closed in another attempt to roll back desegregation. That period is known as “The Lost Year” in Arkansas.
Dorothy Irene Height was an American administrator, educator, and civil rights and women’s rights activist specifically focused on the issues of African-American women, including unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957-1997, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding. Height was also a founding member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Height encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African-American women to positions in government. In the mid-1960s, she wrote a column called “A Woman’s Word” for the weekly African-American newspaper the New York Amsterdam News.
Height served on a number of committees, including as a consultant on African affairs to the Secretary of State, the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, and the President’s Committee on the Status of Women. In 1974, she was named the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which published the Belmont Report, a response to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and an international ethical touchstone for researchers to this day. In 1990, Height, along with 15 other African Americans, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
Viola Liuzzo was a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan. In March of 1965, Liuzzo, then a housewife and mother of 5 with a history of local activism, heeded the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. and traveled from Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated as a white ally in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was shot dead by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was 39 years old. In addition to other honors, Liuzzo’s name is today inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama created by Maya Lin.
Several important strides toward the advancement of civil rights were made during the Kennedy Administration.
Summarize the civil rights record of John and Robert Kennedy
- During his campaign and subsequent presidency, John F. Kennedy voiced support for racial integration and civil rights; on numerous occasions, he committed federal troops to quell racial tension.
- Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother and the U.S. Attorney General, led many of the civil rights initiatives of the administration.
- During the Freedom Rides, Robert Kennedy used his role as Attorney General to protect protesters through the dispatch of U.S. marshals and the National Guard.
- In response to James Meredith ‘s prevention from enrolling at the University of Mississippi, Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to escort Meredith and force the Governor of Mississippi to back down.
- The enrollment and escort of James Meredith precipitated riots on campus, leading President Kennedy to dispatch more troops and sign Executive Order 11063, which prohibited racial discrimination in federally supported housing and facilities.
- Following the commitment of federal troops to allow two African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy launched his initiative for civil rights legislation that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Executive Order 11063,: An act signed by President John F. Kennedy on November 20, 1962, that “prohibits discrimination in the sale, leasing, rental, or other disposition of properties and facilities owned or operated by the federal government or provided with federal funds.”
- James Meredith: (Born June 25, 1933) An American civil rights figure, writer, and political adviser, who in 1962 was the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, an event that was a flashpoint in the American Civil Rights movement.
- Robert Kennedy: (November 20, 1925–June 6, 1968) Attorney General during the administration of his brother John Kennedy, later a Democratic senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist.
John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights
The turbulent issue of state-sanctioned racial discrimination was one of the most pressing domestic issues for the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. John F. Kennedy verbally supported racial integration and civil rights in many instances. In a 1961 speech, Kennedy expressed the administration’s commitment: “We will not stand by or be aloof—we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.”
Robert Kennedy and Civil Rights
It has become commonplace to assert the phrase “the Kennedy Administration” or even “President Kennedy” when discussing the legislative and executive support of the Civil Rights Movement. However, between 1960 and 1963, many of the initiatives that occurred during President John F. Kennedy’s tenure were a result of the passion and determination of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose. Asked in May of 1962, “What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it crime or internal security?” Robert Kennedy replied, “Civil Rights.” The president came to share his brother’s sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the Attorney General’s insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.
Tentative Steps Toward Civil Rights
Cold War concerns, which guided U.S. policy in Cuba and Vietnam, also motivated the Kennedy administration’s steps toward racial equality. Realizing that legal segregation and widespread discrimination hurt the country’s chances of gaining allies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the federal government increased efforts to secure the civil rights of African Americans in the 1960s. During his presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy had intimated his support for civil rights, and his efforts to secure the release of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who was arrested following a demonstration, won him the African-American vote. Lacking widespread backing in Congress, however, and anxious not to offend white southerners, Kennedy was cautious in assisting African Americans in their fight for full citizenship rights.
His strongest focus was on securing the voting rights of African Americans. President Kennedy feared the loss of support from southern white Democrats and the impact a struggle over civil rights could have on his foreign policy agenda as well as on his reelection in 1964. However, he thought voter registration drives were far preferable to the boycotts, sit-ins, and integration marches that had generated such intense global media coverage in previous years. Encouraged by Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which permitted federal courts to appoint referees to guarantee that qualified persons would be registered to vote, Kennedy focused on the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing poll taxes, a tactic that southern states used to disenfranchise African-American voters. Originally proposed by President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, the idea had been largely forgotten during Eisenhower’s time in office. Kennedy, however, revived it and convinced Spessard Holland, a conservative Florida senator, to introduce the proposed amendment in Congress. It passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification in September 1962.
Robert Kennedy played a large role in the Freedom Riders protests. After the bus bombings in Anniston, Alabama, Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler, his administrative assistant, to Alabama to secure the riders’ safety. He also forced the Greyhound bus company to provide the Freedom Riders with a bus driver to ensure they could continue their journey.
While Kennedy offered protection to the Freedom Riders, he also attempted to convince them to end the rides. Kennedy’s attempts to end the Freedom Rides early were in many ways tied to broader international issues and an upcoming summit with Khrushchev and De Gaulle; he believed the continued international publicity of race riots would tarnish the president heading into international negotiations. This reluctance to advance and continue to protect the Freedom Rides alienated many of the Civil Rights leaders at the time who perceived him as intolerant and narrow-minded.
Despite this, Robert Kennedy intervened on behalf of the civil rights activists on numerous occasions. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice, and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws.
The Integration of Universities
In September of 1962, a student named James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi but was prevented from entering. He attempted to enter campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26. He was blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who said, “[N]o school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor.”
Robert Kennedy responded by sending 400 federal marshals, hoping that legal means, along with the escort of U.S. marshals, would be enough to force the governor to allow Meredith admission. On September 30, 1962, Meredith entered the campus under their escort. White students and other local whites began rioting that evening, throwing rocks and then firing on the U.S. marshals guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall. Two people, including a French journalist, were killed; 28 marshals suffered gunshot wounds, and 160 others were injured. After the violent turn of events, President John F. Kennedy sent 3,000 troops to quell the riot; once the situation was contained, Meredith finally enrolled in his first class. On November 20, 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 11063, prohibiting racial discrimination in federally supported housing or “related facilities.”
Similarly, on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy intervened when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending. President Kennedy sent a force to make Governor Wallace step aside.
That evening, Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio, launching his initiative for civil rights legislation—to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities and greater protection of voting rights. Kennedy proposed a bill that would give the federal government greater power to enforce school desegregation, prohibit segregation in public accommodations, and outlaw discrimination in employment. Kennedy would not live to see his bill enacted; however, it would become law as the 1964 Civil Rights Act during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Throughout this time, both Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy remained adamant concerning the rights of black students to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system.
Interventions in the Birmingham Campaigns, 1963-1964
In 1963, activists made plans to desegregate downtown Birmingham stores. The campaign used a variety of nonviolent methods of confrontation, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a drive to register voters. The city, however, obtained an injunction barring all such protests. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the campaign defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963.
Widespread public outrage led the Kennedy administration to directly and more forcefully intervene in negotiations between the white business community and the activists. On May 10, the parties announced an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters and other public accommodations downtown; to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices; to arrange for the release of jailed protesters; and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders.
Black Power emphasized racial pride, the creation of political and social institutions against oppression, and advancement of black collective interests.
Assess the significance of the Black Power movement
- Within the chorus of voices calling for integration and legal equality were many that more stridently demanded empowerment and supported the idea of Black Power.
- Black Power meant a variety of things to different people, among them the creation of black political and cultural institutions to promote black interests, resist oppression, and encourage racial pride.
- Stokely Carmichael became a powerful spokesman for the Black Power movement, often advocating armed self defense that broke from the nonviolent protest urged by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP.
- The Black Power movement influenced the development and strategies of other social justice movements, focusing on identity politics and structural inequality.
- The Black Power movement’s most public manifestation was the Black Panther Party, a group that followed the ideology of Malcolm X with a more militant edge.
- Initially forming for the protection of African-American neighborhoods from police brutality, the Black Panther Party evolved to provide social services to improve healthcare and alleviate poverty in the inner cities.
- Great Society: A set of domestic programs in the United States launched by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964–65. The main goal was the elimination of poverty and racial injustice.
- Black Power Movement: A movement among people of Black African descent throughout the world, though primarily by African Americans in the United States, that was prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s and emphasized racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests and advance black values.
- Stokely Carmichael: A Trinidadian-American black activist in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement who rose to prominence first as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later as the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party.
- Black Panther Party: An African-American revolutionary leftist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982, which through provocative rhetoric, militant posture, and cultural and political flourishes achieved national and international notoriety and permanently altered the contours of American identity.
“Black Power” is a term used to refer to various ideologies associated with African Americans in the United States, emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests and advance black values. Black Power expresses a range of political goals, from defense against racial oppression to the establishment of social institutions and a self-sufficient economy.
The episodes of violence that accompanied Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder were but the latest in a string of urban protests since the mid-1960s. Between 1964 and 1968, there were 329 protests in 257 cities across the nation. In 1965, a traffic stop set in motion a chain of events that culminated in violence in Watts, an African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. Thousands of businesses were destroyed and by the time the violence ended, 34 people were dead, most of them African Americans killed by the Los Angeles police and the National Guard.
Frustration and anger lay at the heart of these protests. Despite the programs of the Great Society, essentials such as good healthcare, job opportunities, and safe housing were abysmally lacking in urban African-American neighborhoods in cities throughout the country, including in the North and West, where discrimination was less overt but just as crippling. In the eyes of many protesters, the federal government either could not or would not end their suffering, and most existing civil rights groups and their leaders had been unable to achieve significant results toward racial justice and equality. Disillusioned, many African Americans turned to those with more radical ideas about how best to obtain equality and justice.
Within the chorus of voices calling for integration and legal equality were many that more stridently demanded empowerment and thus supported Black Power. Black Power meant a variety of things. One of the most famous users of the term was Stokely Carmichael, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who later changed his name to Kwame Ture. For Carmichael, Black Power was the power of African Americans to unite as a political force and create their own institutions apart from white-dominated ones, an idea first suggested in the 1920s by political leader and orator Marcus Garvey. Like Garvey, Carmichael became an advocate of black separatism, arguing that African Americans should live apart from whites and solve their problems for themselves. In keeping with this philosophy, Carmichael expelled SNCC’s white members. In 1966, Carmichael began urging African-American communities to confront the Ku Klux Klan armed and ready for battle; he felt it was the only way to ever rid the communities of the terror caused by the Klan. He left SNCC in 1967 and later joined the Black Panthers.
Long before Carmichael began to call for separatism, the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930, had advocated the same thing. In the 1960s, its most famous member was Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. The Nation of Islam advocated the separation of white Americans and African Americans because of a belief that African Americans could not thrive in an atmosphere of white racism. In a 1963 interview, Malcolm X, discussing the teachings of the head of the Nation of Islam in America, Elijah Muhammad, referred to white people as “devils” more than a dozen times. Rejecting the nonviolent strategy of other civil rights activists, he maintained that violence in the face of violence was appropriate.
In 1964, after a trip to Africa, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam to found the Organization of Afro-American Unity with the goal of achieving freedom, justice, and equality “by any means necessary.” His views regarding black-white relations changed somewhat thereafter, but he remained fiercely committed to the cause of African-American empowerment. On February 21, 1965, he was killed by members of the Nation of Islam. Stokely Carmichael later recalled that Malcolm X had provided an intellectual basis for Black Nationalism and given legitimacy to the use of violence in achieving the goals of Black Power.
This move toward Black Power and self-defense as a means of obtaining African-American civil rights marked a change from previous nonviolent actions. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not comfortable with the “Black Power” slogan, which sounded too much like black nationalism to him. SNCC activists, in the meantime, began embracing the “right to self-defense” in response to attacks from white authorities and disagreed with King for continuing to advocate nonviolence.
When King was murdered in 1968, Stokely Carmichael stated that whites murdered the one person who would prevent rampant rioting, and that blacks would burn every major city to the ground. Racial riots broke out in the black community in cities from Boston to San Francisco following King’s death. As a result, the white population fled from many areas in these cities and city crews were often hesitant to enter affected areas, leaving blacks in dilapidated cities.
The Black Power movement was given a stage on live, international television on October of 1968. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while being awarded the gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics, donned human rights badges and each raised a black-gloved Black Power salute during their podium ceremony. Smith and Carlos were immediately ejected from the games by the United States Olympic Committee, and the International Olympic Committee would later issue a permanent lifetime ban for the two.
The self-empowerment philosophy of Black Power influenced mainstream civil rights groups such as the National Economic Growth Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO), which sold bonds and operated a clothing factory and construction company in New York, and the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Philadelphia, which provided job training and placement—by 1969, it had branches in seventy cities.
The Black Panther Party
Black Power was made most public by the Black Panther Party, which was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed the ideology of Malcolm X using a “by-any-means necessary” approach to stopping inequality. Unlike Carmichael and the Nation of Islam, most Black Power advocates did not believe African Americans needed to separate themselves from white society. The Black Panther Party believed African Americans were as much the victims of capitalism as of white racism. Accordingly, the group espoused Marxist teachings and called for jobs, housing, and education, as well as protection from police brutality and exemption from military service in their Ten Point Program. Their militant attitude and advocacy of armed self-defense attracted many young men but also led to many encounters with the police, which sometimes included arrests and even shootouts, such as those that took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Carbondale, Illinois.
The organization’s official newspaper, The Black Panther, was first circulated in 1967. That same year, the Black Panther Party marched on the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest of a selective ban on weapons. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States. Peak membership was near 10,000 by 1969, and their newspaper had a circulation of 250,000.
Gaining national prominence, the Black Panther Party became an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s. They instituted a variety of community social programs designed to alleviate poverty, improve healthcare among inner city black communities, and soften the Party’s public image. The Black Panther Party’s most widely known programs were its Free Breakfast for Children program and its armed citizens ‘ patrols of the streets of African-American neighborhoods to protect residents from police brutality. However, the group’s political goals were often overshadowed by their confrontational, militant, and violent tactics against police.
Impact of the Black Power Movement on African-American Identity
White fear and racialized backlash to groups such as the Black Panthers led to a great deal of biased media coverage, and the Black Power movement gained a negative and militant reputation. Many people felt that this movement of “insurrection” would soon serve to cause discord and disharmony through the entire country, even though discord and disharmony had existed for African Americans since their early subjugation in the Americas.
Though Black Power at the most basic level refers to a political movement, Black Power was also part of a much larger process of cultural change. The 1960s composed a decade not only of Black Power but also of Black Pride. African- American abolitionist John S. Rock had coined the phrase “Black Is Beautiful” in 1858, but in the 1960s, it became an important part of efforts within the African- American community to raise self-esteem and encourage pride in African ancestry. Black Pride urged African Americans to reclaim their African heritage and, to promote group solidarity, to substitute African and African-inspired cultural practices, such as handshakes, hairstyles, and dress, for white practices.
The movement uplifted the black community as a whole by cultivating feelings of racial solidarity, often in opposition to the world of white Americans—a world that had oppressed blacks for generations. Through the movement, blacks came to understand themselves and their culture by exploring and debating the question “who are we?” in order to establish unified and viable identities. The respect and attention accorded to African-American history and culture in both formal and informal settings today is largely a product of the movement for Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s.