The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement

The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement

The United States in the 1950s and ’60s witnessed the dramatic development of the Civil Rights Movement, which at the time accomplished a series of its goals through acts of civil disobedience, legal battles, and promoting the notion of Black Power.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the U.S. African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Civil Rights Movement  encompasses social movements in the United States whose goals were to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law. The most popular strategies used in the 1950s and first half of the 1960s were based on the notion of non-violent civil disobedience and included such methods of protest as boycotts, freedom rides, voter registration drives, sit-ins, and marches.
  • A series of critical rulings and laws, from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation and unequal application of voter registration requirements.
  • A wave of inner city riots in black communities from 1964 through 1970 undercut support from the white community. The emerging Black Power movement, which lasted from about 1966 to 1975, demanded political and economic self-sufficiency.
  • During the March Against Fear in 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality fully embraced the slogan of Black Power to describe these trends toward militancy and self-reliance.
  • While most popular representations of the movement are centered on the leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement was too diverse to be credited to one person, organization, or strategy.

Key Terms

  • Voting Rights Act of 1965: Landmark U.S. legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: Landmark U.S. legislation that outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national, and religious minorities, and women.
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott: A legal and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the Montgomery, Alabama public transit system. It lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, until December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, leading to the Supreme Court decision declaring segregated busing in Alabama and Montgomery unconstitutional.
  • The Greensboro sit-ins: A series of nonviolent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which led to the Woolworth department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the southern United States. While not the first sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, they were an instrumental action, and also the most well-known sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • March on Washington: One of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history, it demanded civil and economic rights for African Americans. It took place in Washington, D.C., with thousands of participants making their way there on Tuesday, August 27, 1963.
  • Selma to Montgomery marches: A series of three 1965 marches that were part of the voting rights movement underway in Selma, Alabama. By highlighting racial injustice in the south, they contributed to passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Brown v. Board of Education: A landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students as unconstitutional.
  • Black Power: A political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African descent. In the United States, it was particularly prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests and advance black values.

Background

The Civil Rights Movement or 1960s Civil Rights Movement (sometimes referred to as the African-American Civil Rights Movement, though the term “African American” was not widely used in the 1950s and ’60s) encompasses social movements in the United States aimed at ending racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and securing legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law. While black Americans had been fighting for their rights and liberties since the time of slavery, the 1950s and ’60s witnessed critical accomplishments in their civil rights struggle.

Civil Resistance

The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to these situations that highlighted the discrimination African Americans faced. Actions included boycotts such as the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, sit-ins such as the influential Greensboro sit-ins, marches such as the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama and the march on Washington, as well as a wide range of other nonviolent activities.

The Montgomery bus boycott was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the Montgomery, Alabama public transit system. The campaign lasted from December 5, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect and led to a Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional. Many important figures in the Civil Rights Movement took part in the boycott, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.

The Greensboro sit-ins  were a series of nonviolent protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which led to the Woolworth department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the southern United States. While not the first sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action, and the most well-known sit-ins of the movement. They led to increased national sentiment at a crucial period in U.S. history. The primary event took place at the Greensboro Woolworth store; a site that is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

The March on Washington was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history. It demanded civil and economic rights for African Americans. Thousands of participants headed to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, August 27, 1963. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he called for an end to racism.

The three Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 were part of the voting rights movement underway in Selma, Alabama. By highlighting racial injustice in the south, they contributed to passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. Activists publicized the three protest marches to walk the 54-mile (87-km) highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery as showing the desire of African American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression.

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March on Washington: This United States Information Agency photograph of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, shows civil rights and union leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph L. Rauh Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Walter Reuther.

Legislation

A critical Supreme Court decision of this phase of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1954 ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. In the spring of 1951, black students in Virginia protested their unequal status in the state’s segregated educational system. Students at Moton High School protested the overcrowded conditions and failing facilities. Some local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had tried to persuade the students to back down from their protest against the Jim Crow laws of school segregation. When the students did not budge, the NAACP joined their battle against school segregation. The NAACP proceeded with five cases challenging the school systems; these were later combined under what is known today as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that mandating, or even permitting, public schools to be segregated by race was unconstitutional. However, the new law raised controversy. As late as 1957, which was 3 years after the decision, a crisis erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Arkansas Governor Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent entry to the nine African American students who had sued for the right to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High School. The nine had been chosen to attend because of their excellent grades. Faubus’ resistance received the attention of President Dwight Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the federal courts. Critics had charged Eisenhower was lukewarm, at best, on the goal of desegregation of public schools, but he federalized the National Guard in Arkansas and ordered them to return to their barracks. He also deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.

Other noted legislative achievements during this critical phase of the civil rights movement were:

  • Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public (known as “public accommodations”).
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which restored and protected voting rights. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the south. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the act is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
  • The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which dramatically opened entry to the United States for immigrants other than traditional European groups.
  • The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

Black Power Movement

During the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, numerous tensions within the Civil Rights Movement came to the forefront. Many black Americans in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; one of the major organizations of the movement) developed concerns that white activists from the north were taking over the movement. The massive presence of white students was also not reducing the amount of violence that the SNCC suffered; instead it seemed to be increasing it. Additionally, there was profound disillusionment with Lyndon Johnson’s denial of voting status for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Meanwhile, during the work of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Louisiana that summer, that group found the federal government would not respond to requests to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or to protect the lives of activists who challenged segregation. For the Louisiana campaign to survive it had to rely on a local African American militia called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who used arms to repel white supremacist violence and police repression. CORE’s collaboration with the Deacons was effective against breaking Jim Crow in numerous Louisiana areas.

In 1965, the SNCC helped organize an independent political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, in the heart of Alabama Klan territory, and permitted its black leaders to openly promote the use of armed self-defense. Meanwhile, the Deacons for Defense and Justice expanded into Mississippi and assisted Charles Evers’ NAACP chapter with a successful campaign in Natchez. The same year, the Watts Rebellion took place in Los Angeles, and seemed to show that most black youth were now committed to the use of violence to protest inequality and oppression.

During the March Against Fear in 1966, the SNCC and CORE fully embraced the slogan of Black Power to describe these trends toward militancy and self-reliance. In Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael, one of the SNCC’s leaders, declared, “I’m not going to beg the white man for anything that I deserve, I’m going to take it. We need power.” Black Power was made most public, however, 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, a former member of the Nation of Islam, using a “by-any-means necessary” approach to stopping inequality. They sought to rid African American neighborhoods of police brutality and created a 10-point plan among other efforts.

A wave of inner-city riots in black communities from 1964 through 1970 undercut support from the white community. The emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from about 1966 to 1975, challenged the established black leadership for its cooperative attitude and its nonviolence, and instead demanded political and economic self-sufficiency.

Many popular representations of the movement are centered on the leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the movement. However, historians note that the movement was too diverse to be credited to one person, organization, or strategy.

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Civil Rights Leaders Meet with President Johnson: President Lyndon Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer on January 18, 1964.

The March on Washington: Scenes from Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C., in August 1963.

The Brown Decision

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

Learning Objectives

Explain the background, ruling, and effects of Brown v. Board of Education on the practice of racial segregation in schools

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
  • Prior to the Brown decision, white Americans opposing desegregation had used the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 to justify legal segregation.
  • The case was instigated by a lawsuit from 13 parents against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas, and the NAACP aided the plaintiffs in bringing and arguing the case. The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education.
  • The case of Brown v. Board of Education heard before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington, D.C.).
  • The Supreme Court decided the case unanimously, with key support coming from Chief Justice Earl Warren.
  • Many resisted the ruling and the 1957 Little Rock Crisis serves as a symbolic case of the resistance and consequent enforcement of the law.

Key Terms

  • Plessy v. Ferguson: A landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
  • Little Rock Nine: A group of nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. They would successfully attend after the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower.
  • “Separate but Equal”: A legal doctrine in United States constitutional law that justified systems of segregation. Under this doctrine, services, facilities, and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group’s public facilities be equal. The phrase was derived from a Louisiana law from 1890.
  • Warren Court: A term used to refer to the Supreme Court of the United States between 1953 and 1969, when Earl Warren served as chief justice. Warren led a liberal majority that used judicial power in dramatic fashion, to the consternation of conservative opponents. The Warren Court expanded civil rights, civil liberties, judicial power, and federal power in dramatic ways.
  • Brown v. Board of Education: A 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, in which the court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

Background

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. During the decades preceding Brown, segregation had dominated race relations in the United States. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Plessy confirmed a legal doctrine in U.S. constitutional law known as “separate but equal.” According to this, racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed equal protection under law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.

The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate-but-equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans.

The Case

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were 13 Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children. The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted, but did not require. districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in 12 communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were Chairman McKinley Burnett, Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter, and Lucinda Todd. The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was an African American parent, a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad, and an assistant pastor at his local church. Brown’s daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school 1 mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks from her house.

The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had upheld a state law requiring separate-but-equal segregated facilities for blacks and whites in railway cars. The three-judge District Court panel found that segregation in public education had a detrimental effect on black children, but denied relief on the ground that the black and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.

The Supreme Court

Brown v. Board of Education, as heard before the Supreme Court, combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.). All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools’ physical plant, curriculum, or staff. Conversely, in the Delaware case, the district court judge in Gebhart ordered that the black students be admitted to the white high school because of the substantial harm of segregation and the differences that made the separate schools unequal.

In spring 1953, the court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in the fall of 1953, with special attention given to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.

While all but one justice personally rejected segregation, the judicial restraint faction questioned whether the Constitution gave the court the power to order its end. Chief Justice Earl Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of African Americans. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion. Despite the initial opposition from Justices Robert Jackson and Stanley Reed, the final decision was unanimous.

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William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, 1960: U.S. marshals escorting a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school. Bridges was the first black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, and was escorted both to and from the school while segregationist protests continued.: Many resisted the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1960, the New Orleans school desegregation crisis ensued. As soon as Bridges entered the school, some white parents pulled their own children out. All the teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Ruby, Barbara Henry from Boston, who for over a year taught her alone.

The Aftermath

The decision’s 14 pages did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, which offered room to those who resisted the decision. In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In their decision, which became known as “Brown II,” the court delegated the task of carrying out school desegregation to District Courts with orders that desegregation occur “with all deliberate speed.” “All deliberate speed” was seen by critics as too ambiguous to ensure reasonable haste for compliance with the court’s instruction. Many southern states and school districts interpreted Brown II as legal justification for resisting, delaying, and avoiding significant integration.

Little Rock Nine

As late as 1957, which was 3 years after the decision, a crisis erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent entry to the nine African American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, who had sued for the right to attend the integrated Little Rock Central High School. The nine students had been chosen to attend Central High because of their excellent grades. Faubus’ resistance received the attention of President Dwight Eisenhower. Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann asked the president to send federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students. Critics had charged Eisenhower was lukewarm, at best, on the goal of desegregation of public schools. However, he federalized the National Guard in Arkansas and ordered them to return to their barracks. He also deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.

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Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957, National Archives.:The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. They then attended after the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Montgomery and Protests

The Montgomery bus boycott was a protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama.

Learning Objectives

Describe the roles of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other protesters in the Montgomery bus boycott

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Black activists had begun to build a case to challenge state bus segregation laws around the arrest of a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from a public bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white person. The Montgomery bus boycott began on December 1, 1955, some 9 months after Colvin’s arrest, when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white person. It lasted until December 20, 1956.
  • One of the figures that had a critical impact on the boycott was Edgar Daniel Nixon, an African American civil rights  leader and union organizer in Alabama. In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in Browder v. Gayle, which declared segregated buses unconstitutional.
  • The boycott attracted national attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., who supported and participated it, and who became the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The Montgomery bus boycott resounded far beyond the desegregation of public buses; it triggered the national civil rights movement and launched King into the national spotlight as a leader.

Key Terms

  • Rosa Parks: An African American civil rights activist (1913–2005). On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, she refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger; an action that triggered the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • Montgomery Improvement Association: An association formed on December 5, 1955, by black ministers and community leaders in Montgomery, Alabama. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Edgar Daniel Nixon, it was instrumental in guiding the Montgomery bus boycott, a successful campaign that focused national attention on racial segregation in the south and catapulted King into the national spotlight.
  • Browder v. Gayle: A case heard before a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on Montgomery and Alabama state bus segregation laws. The panel consisted of Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Northern District of Alabama Judge Seybourn Harris Lynne, and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Rives. The District Court ruled 2–1, with Lynne dissenting, on June 5, 1956, that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment protections for equal treatment.
  • Claudette Colvin: (Born September 5, 1939) A pioneer of the African American civil rights movement, and the first person to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, preceding the better known Rosa Parks incident by 9 months.

Background: Claudette Colvin

The Montgomery bus boycott, a seminal episode in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama. The campaign officially started on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person. However, Parks was not the first person to do so. Black activists had begun to build a case to challenge state bus segregation laws around the arrest of a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from a public bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white person. At the time, Colvin was an active member in the NAACP Youth Council, a group to which Rosa Parks served as adviser. The decision to choose Parks and not Colvin as the symbol of the boycott was political. Montgomery’s black leaders did not publicize Colvin’s pioneering effort because she was a teenager who was pregnant by a married man. Words such as “feisty,” “mouthy,” and “emotional” were used to describe her, while her counterpart Parks was viewed as calm, well-mannered, and studious. Although Colvin was not alone in her efforts and other women also protested segregation in a similar manner prior to Parks’ protest, because of the social norms of the time, the NAACP leaders chose Parks as the symbol.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913 to October 24, 2005) was a seamstress by profession and also the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Twelve years before her history-making arrest, Parks was stopped from boarding a city bus by driver James F. Blake, who ordered her to board at the back door and then drove off without her. Parks vowed never again to ride a bus driven by Blake. As a member of the NAACP, Parks was an investigator assigned to cases of sexual assault. In 1945, she was sent to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate the gang rape of Recy Taylor. The protest that arose around the Taylor case was the first instance of a nationwide civil rights protest, and it laid the groundwork for the Montgomery bus boycott.

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the frontmost row for black people on the bus. When a white man boarded the bus, the bus driver told everyone in her row to move back. At that moment, Parks realized that she was again on a bus driven by Blake. While all of the other black people in her row complied, Parks refused, and was arrested for failing to obey the driver’s seat assignments, as city ordinances did not explicitly mandate segregation but did give the bus driver authority to assign seats. Found guilty on December 5, Parks was fined $10 plus a court cost of $4, but she appealed.

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Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested for boycotting public transportation, Montgomery, Alabama, February, 1956.: Although Parks was not the first woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus in Montgomery, she became the symbol of the boycott.

E. D. Nixon

One of the figures who had a critical impact on the boycott was Edgar Daniel Nixon (July 12, 1899 to February 25, 1987), known as E. D. Nixon, an African American civil rights leader and union organizer in Alabama. Before the activists could mount the court challenge, they needed someone to voluntarily violate the bus seating law and be arrested for it. Nixon carefully searched for a suitable plaintiff. He rejected Colvin, whose protest was spontaneous, because she became an unwed mother; another woman who was arrested because he did not believe she had the fortitude to see the case through; and a third woman, Mary Louise Smith, because her father was allegedly an alcoholic. The final choice was Rosa Parks, the elected secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and someone for whom Nixon had been a boss.

Between Parks’ arrest and trial, Nixon organized a meeting of local ministers at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. Though Nixon could not attend the meeting because of his work schedule, he arranged that no election of a leader for the proposed boycott take place until his return. When he returned he caucused with Ralph Abernathy and Rev. E. N. French to name the association to lead the boycott. They selected the Montgomery Improvement Association to the city and King (Nixon’s choice) to lead the boycott.

Boycott

On the night of Parks’ arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council, printed and circulated a flyer throughout Montgomery’s black community which read as follows:

Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped… We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.

On Saturday, December 3, it was evident that the black community would support the boycott, and very few African Americans rode the buses that day. That night a mass meeting was held to determine if the protest would continue, and attendees enthusiastically agreed. The boycott proved extremely effective, with enough riders lost to the city transit system to cause serious economic distress. Instead of riding buses, boycotters organized a system of carpools, with car owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves, driving people to various destinations. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd’s of London.

King and 155 other protesters were arrested, under a 1921 ordinance, for “hindering” a bus. He was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending 2 weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest.

Victory: Browder v. Gayle

Pressure increased across the country as the federal district court ruled that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional, in Browder v. Gayle—a case heard before a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The panel consisted of three judges and ruled 2–1 on June 5, 1956, that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment protections for equal treatment. The state and city appealed and the the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956, summarily affirmed the decision. Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanette Reese, Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the case.

The boycott officially ended December 20, 1956, after federal marshals handed Mayor Gayle official written notice, after 381 days. The boycott resounded far beyond the desegregation of public buses; it triggered the national civil rights movement and launched King into the national spotlight as a leader.

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The bus Rosa Parks rode before being arrested: The National City Lines bus, No. 2857, on which Rosa Parks was riding before she was arrested (a GM “old-look” transit bus, serial number 1132), is now a museum exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a U.S. clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African American Civil Rights Movement.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the life, ideologies, activist strategies, and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. is the icon of the Civil Rights Movement, best known for his practice of nonviolent civil disobedience.
  • King’s first involvement in the Civil Rights Movement that attracted national attention was his leadership over the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. He also co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in pursuit of civil rights reform.
  • King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. Many of these rights were successfully enacted into U.S. law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • King was among the leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech there electrified the crowd.
  • Later in his career, King’s message highlighted more radical social justice questions (e.g., poverty and opposition to the Vietnam war), which alienated many of his liberal allies.
  • King’s main intellectual influence was the Christian gospels and the notion of nonviolence. He criticized both major parties for their approaches to civil rights.

Key Terms

  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference: A civil rights organization created in 1957 to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the pursuit of civil rights reform. It is closely associated with its first president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and had a large role in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • “I Have a Dream” Speech: A 17-minute public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which he called for racial equality and an end to discrimination; considered a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Civil Rights Movement: A political, legal, and social movement for equality before the law, which included noted legislation and organized efforts to abolish public and private acts of racial discrimination against African Americans and other disadvantaged groups, from 1954 to 1968, particularly in the southern United States.
  • March on Washington: A major civil rights march of 250,000 that took place on August 28, 1963, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Overview

Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 to April 4, 1968) was a U.S. clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his practice of nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. Later in his career, King’s message highlighted more radical social justice questions, which alienated many of his liberal allies.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson: President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966.

Early Life

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King. Growing up in Atlanta, he attended Booker T. Washington High School. As a teenager, he was already known for his public speaking ability, joined the school’s debate team, and became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal at age 13. A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades of high school. It was during King’s junior year that Morehouse College announced it would accept any high school juniors who could pass its entrance exam. At that time, most of the students had abandoned their studies to participate in World War II. Because of this, the school became desperate to fill in classrooms. At age 15, King passed the exam and entered Morehouse. The summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, an eighteen-year-old King made the choice to enter the ministry.

In 1948, King graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a B.Div. in 1951. In 1953, he married Coretta Scott on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. They became the parents of four children. During their marriage, King limited Coretta’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, expecting her to be a housewife and mother. In 1954, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and a year later, received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. However, an academic inquiry concluded in October 1991 that portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly.

National Prominence

King’s first involvement in the Civil Rights Movement that attracted national attention was his leadership over the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in pursuit of civil rights reform. King led the SCLC until his death. In December 1961, King and the SCLC became involved in the Albany Movement—a desegregation coalition formed in Albany, Georgia. The movement mobilized thousands of citizens for a broad-front nonviolent attack on every aspect of segregation within the city, and attracted nationwide attention.

After nearly a year of intense activism with few tangible results, the movement began to deteriorate. King requested a halt to all demonstrations and a “Day of Penance” to promote nonviolence and maintain the moral high ground. Divisions within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated efforts. Though the Albany effort proved a key lesson in tactics for Dr. King and the national civil rights movement, the national media was highly critical of his role in the defeat, and the SCLC’s lack of results contributed to a growing gap between the organization and the more radical SNCC. After Albany, King sought to choose engagements for the SCLC in which he could control the circumstances, rather than entering into pre-existing situations.

In April 1963, the SCLC initiated a campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign used nonviolent but intentionally confrontational tactics, developed in part by Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. Black Americans in Birmingham, organizing with the SCLC, occupied public spaces with marches and sit-ins, openly violating unjust laws.  King was arrested and jailed early in the campaign—his 13th arrest of 29. From his cell, he composed the now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which responded to calls for him to discontinue his nonviolent protests and instead rely on the court system to bring about social change.

King, representing the SCLC, was among the leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963. Originally, the march was conceived as a very public opportunity to dramatize the desperate condition of African Americans in the southern United States and present organizers’ concerns and grievances directly to the seat of power in the nation’s capital. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech there electrified the crowd.

On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. In the following years leading up to his death, he expanded his focus to include poverty and the Vietnam War—alienating many of his liberal allies, particularly with a 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” The speech reflected King’s evolving political advocacy in his later years. He frequently spoke of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation, and expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. He guarded his language in public to avoid being linked to communism  by his enemies, but in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism.

In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. King traveled the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would march on Washington to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol until Congress created an “economic bill of rights” for poor Americans. King and the SCLC called on the government to invest in rebuilding U.S. cities. The Poor People’s Campaign was controversial even within the Civil Rights Movement.

Assassination and Legacy

On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of black sanitary public works employees, who had been on strike for 17 days, in an effort to attain higher wages and ensure fairer treatment. While standing on the second floor balcony of a motel, King was shot by escaped convict James Earl Ray. One hour later, King was pronounced dead at St Joseph’s hospital.

King’s main legacy was securing progress on civil rights in the U.S. Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VIII of the Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability). This legislation was seen as a tribute to King’s struggle in his final years to combat residential discrimination in the United States. King’s legacy in the United States, and internationally, continues to be that of a human rights icon.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

Influences and Political Stances

As a Christian minister, King’s main influence was the Christian gospels, which he would almost always quote in his religious meetings, speeches at church, and in public discourses. Veteran African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was King’s first regular adviser on nonviolence. King was also advised by white activists Harris Wofford and Glenn Smiley. Rustin and Smiley came from the Christian pacifist tradition, and Wofford and Rustin both studied Gandhi’s teachings. In 1959, King, inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India. This trip profoundly affected King, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and reinforcing his commitment to the U.S. struggle for civil rights.

As the leader of the SCLC, King maintained a policy of not publicly endorsing a U.S. political party or candidate. King did praise Senator Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) as being the “greatest of all senators” because of his fierce advocacy for civil rights causes over the years, but critiqued both parties’ performances on promoting racial equality. He supported the ideals of democratic socialism, although he was reluctant to speak directly of this support because of the anti-communist sentiment arising throughout the U.S. at the time, and the association of socialism with communism. King believed that capitalism could not adequately provide the basic necessities of many Americans, particularly the African American community.

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Dr. Martin Luther King (1964): King giving a lecture on March 26, 1964.

The Role of Religion in the Civil Rights Movement

In the Civil Rights Movement, religious leaders, thousands of black churches, and anonymous members, as well as religious rhetoric, played major roles.

Learning Objectives

Describe the role of religious institutions in the Civil Rights Movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Religion and religious institutions had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Major denominations financially and intellectually supported the movement, its many leaders were passionate ministers, and black churches served as sites of organization, education, and community engagement for the hundreds of thousands of anonymous supporters of the movement.
  • The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established in 1957 to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in pursuit of civil rights reform. The SCLC’s belief churches should be involved in political activism against social ills was also deeply controversial. Many ministers and religious leaders thought that the church’s role should not be political.
  • Local churches played major role during the 1963 Birmingham campaign. Its success led to more violence against African Americans, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by four Klansmen.
  • The support of U.S. rabbis for the civil rights fighters in St. Augustine, Florida, serves as one of the symbolic examples of inter-religious alliances in support of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Thousands of religious leaders and ordinary Americans went to demand voting rights for all in Selma, Alabama.
  • The Ku Klux Klan used religious arguments and imagery in their terrorist actions against the Civil Rights Movement.

Key Terms

  • Martin Luther King, Jr: (1929–1968) An American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world using nonviolent methods.
  • 16th Street Baptist Church: A church in Birmingham, Alabama, where on Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the front steps. The bombing killed four young girls and injured 22 other individuals.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965: A landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. It suspended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subjective voter registration tests. It authorized federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used.
  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): A civil rights organization established in 1957 to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protest in the pursuit of civil rights reform It is closely associated with its first president, Martin Luther King, Jr., and had a large role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Overview

Religion and religious institutions had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement. On the one hand, major denominations financially and intellectually supported the movement, and its many leaders were passionate ministers with superb oratory skills and who were critical to conveying the inspiring message of the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, black churches served as sites of organization, education, and community engagement for the movement’s hundreds of thousands of anonymous supporters. Historians also note that churches were places where many anonymous black women, so often excluded from the narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, organized and supported the civil rights struggle.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is an African American civil rights organization that was central to the Civil Rights Movement. The group was established in 1957 to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protest in pursuit of civil rights reform. During its early years, the SCLC struggled to gain footholds in black churches and communities across the south. Social activism faced fierce repression from police, the White Citizens ‘ Council, and theKu Klux Klan (KKK). Only a few churches defied the white-dominated status quo by affiliating with the SCLC, and those that did risked economic retaliation, arson, and bombings.

The SCLC’s advocacy of boycotts and other forms of nonviolent protest was controversial. Traditionally, leadership in black communities came from the educated elite—such as ministers, professionals, and teachers—who spoke for and on behalf of the laborers, maids, farmhands, and working poor who made up the bulk of the black population. Many of these traditional leaders were uneasy at involving ordinary African Americans in mass activities such as boycotts and marches. The SCLC’s belief that churches should be involved in political activism against social ills was also deeply controversial. Many ministers and religious leaders—both black and white—thought the church’s role was to focus on the spiritual needs of the congregation and perform charitable works to aid the needy. To some of them, the socio-political activity of Martin Luther King, Jr. (the SCLC’s first president) and the SCLC amounted to dangerous radicalism that they strongly opposed.

Birmingham Campaign

The 1963 SCLC campaign was a movement to bring attention to the integration efforts of African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama. Led by figures such as King, James Bevel, and Fred Shuttlesworth, the campaign of nonviolent direct action culminated in widely publicized confrontations between young black students and white civic authorities, and eventually led the municipal government to change the city’s discrimination laws. Unlike the earlier efforts on Albany, which focused on desegregation of the entire city, the campaign focused on more narrowly defined goals: desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown stores, fair hiring practices in stores and city employment, reopening of public parks, and creation of a biracial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham’s public schools. The brutal response of local police, led by Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor, stood in stark contrast to the nonviolent civil disobedience of the activists. After weeks of various forms of nonviolent disobedience, the campaign produced the desired results. In June 1963, the Jim Crow signs regulating segregated public places in Birmingham were taken down.

Three months later, on September 15, 1963, four KKK members planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the front steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church was one of the most important places of organization and protest during the campaign. The explosion at the church killed four girls and injured 22 others. Although the FBI had concluded in 1965 that the bombing had been committed by four known Ku Klux Klansmen and segregationists, no prosecutions took place until 1977, with two men sentenced to life imprisonment as late as 2001 and 2002, respectively, and one never being charged.

March on Washington

After the Birmingham campaign, the SCLC called for massive protests in Washington, D.C., aiming for new civil rights legislation that would outlaw segregation nationwide. Although the march originated in earlier ideas and efforts of secular black leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the overall presence of religious values that shaped the Civil Rights Movement also marked the 1963 march. Its crowning moment was King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he articulated the hopes and aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement rooted in two cherished gospels—the Old Testament and the unfulfilled promise of the American creed. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 participated in the march.

St. Augustine Protests

When civil rights activists protesting segregation in St. Augustine, Florida, were met with arrests and KKK violence, the local SCLC affiliate appealed to King for assistance in the spring of 1964. The SCLC sent staff to help organize and lead demonstrations, and mobilized support for St. Augustine in the north. Hundreds were arrested during sit-ins and marches opposing segregation—so many that the jails were filled and the overflow prisoners had to be held in outdoor stockades.

White mobs attacked nightly marches to the Old Slave Market, and when African Americans attempted to integrate “white-only” beaches they were assaulted by police who beat them with clubs. On June 11, King and other SCLC leaders were arrested for trying to have lunch at the Monson Motel restaurant, and when an integrated group of young protesters tried to use the motel swimming pool, the owner poured acid into the water. King sent his “Letter from the St. Augustine Jail” to a northern supporter, Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, urging him to recruit others to participate in the movement. This resulted, a week later, in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in U.S. history—while conducting a pray-in at the Monson. Television and newspaper stories about St. Augustine helped build public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being debated in Congress.

Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery

When an illegal injunction blocked voter registration and civil rights activity in Selma, Alabama, the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) asked the SCLC for assistance. King, the SCLC, and the DCVL chose Selma as the site for a major campaign that would demand national voting rights legislation in the same way that the Birmingham and St. Augustine campaigns won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nonviolent mass marches demanded the right to vote, and the jails filled up with arrested protesters, many of them students. On February 1, King and Abernathy were arrested. Voter registration efforts and protest marches spread to the surrounding Black Belt counties—Perry, Wilcox, Marengo, Greene, and Hale.

On February 18, an Alabama state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson during a voting rights protest in Marion, county seat of Perry County. In response, on March 7, close to 600 protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery to present their grievances to Governor George Wallace. Led by Reverend Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC, the marchers were attacked by state troopers, deputy sheriffs, and mounted possemen who used tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips to drive them back to Brown Chapel. King called on clergy and people of conscience to support the black citizens of Selma. Thousands of religious leaders and ordinary Americans came to demand voting rights for all.

After many more protests, arrests, and legal maneuvering, a federal judge ordered Alabama to allow the march to Montgomery. It began on March 21st and arrived in Montgomery on the 24th. On the 25th, an estimated 25,000 protesters marched to the steps of the Alabama capitol, where King spoke on the voting rights struggle. Within 5 months, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson responded to the enormous public pressure generated by the Voting Rights Campaign by enacting into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A quotation by MLK, Jr. appears below the portrait. It reads: "I don't know what will happen now. We have got difficult days ahead, but it doesn't matter with me because I've been to the mountain top. Like anybody else I would like to live a long life. But I'm concerned with that. I just want to do God's will and he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. I see the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

SCLC Fundraising Poster Depicting Martin Luther King, Jr.: Shortly after King’s death, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used this poster—issued in an edition of 100—for a fundraising drive. The portrait was based on a drawing by Ben Shahn, commissioned for Time magazine’s March 19, 1965 cover. Time’s publisher noted that Shahn, “as famed in his own medium of protest as King is in his,” greatly admired the civil rights leader and felt that King had “moved more people by his oratory” than anyone else. After the artist’s friend Stefan Martin made a wood engraving based on the drawing, Shahn authorized its use in support of various causes. This 1968 poster included two additions to the portrait: the orange seal or artist’s “chop” that Shahn had made in Japan, incorporating the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and an excerpt from King’s famous “mountaintop” speech in the artist’s own distinctive lettering.

Ku Klux Klan’s Use of Religion

Similarly to the arguments used by earlier proponents of slavery, many segregationists used Christianity to justify racism and racial violence. The KKK remains the most illustrative example of this trend. A religious tone was present in the KKK’s activities from the beginning. Historian Brian Farmer estimates that during the period of the Second Klan (1915–1944), two-thirds of the national KKK lecturers were Protestant ministers. Religion was a major selling point for the organization. Klansmen embraced Protestantism as an essential component of their white supremacist, anti-Catholic, and paternalistic formulation of U.S. democracy and national culture. Their cross was a religious symbol, and their ritual honored Bibles and local ministers. The 1950s–’60s KKK drew on those earlier symbols and ideologies.

Beginning in the 1950s, individual KKK groups in Birmingham, by bombing houses in transitional neighborhoods, began to resist social change and blacks’ efforts to improve their lives. There were so many bombings in Birmingham of blacks’ homes by KKK groups in the 1950s that the city was sometimes referred to as “Bombingham.” During the tenure of Bull Connor as police commissioner in the city, KKK groups were closely allied with the police and operated with impunity. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Connor gave KKK members 15 minutes to attack the riders before sending in the police to quell the attack. When local and state authorities failed to protect the Freedom Riders and activists, the federal government established effective intervention.

In states such as Alabama and Mississippi, KKK members forged alliances with governors’ administrations. In Birmingham and elsewhere, the KKK groups bombed the houses of civil rights activists. In some cases they used physical violence, intimidation, and assassination directly against individuals. Continuing disfranchisement of African Americans across the south meant that most could not serve on juries, which were all white.

Legislative Change

The consistent struggle of the Civil Rights Movement and efforts of hundreds of thousands anonymous African Americans forced legislators to enact a slate of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the gains and limitations of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill, was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. Yet by 1960, black voters had only increased by 3%.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1960 addressed some of the shortcomings of the 1957 act, but it was also deemed ineffective for firm establishment of civil rights.
  • After passing the largely ineffective acts of 1957 and 1960, the black struggle for civil rights continued. The increasing number of the acts of black civil disobedience and violence against African Americans put pressure on legislators.
  • After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act remains a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was critical to securing not only the civil rights of African Americans but also women.
  • The Voting Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments  to the United States Constitution, the Act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country.
  • Of all the pieces of legislation that were enacted as a result of the civil rights struggle, the Voting Act of 1965 is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

Key Terms

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: A landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public (known as “public accommodations”).
  • The United States Commission on Civil Rights: A bipartisan, independent commission of the U.S. federal government, created in 1957, that is charged with the responsibility for investigating, reporting on, and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues the nation faces.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1957: The first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. It was primarily a voting bill.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965: An act that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1960: A piece of legislation that expanded the authority of federal judges to protect voting rights. It required local authorities to maintain comprehensive voting records for review so that the government could determine if there were patterns of discrimination against certain populations.
  • Little Rock: Capital city of Arkansas, and place of violence against African Americans following the historic Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which eventually led to integration of public schools. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered in federal troops to protect nine students integrating into a public school. This was the first time the federal government had sent troops to the south since the Reconstruction Era.
  • “Massive Resistance”: A strategy declared by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia on February 24, 1956, to unite other white politicians and leaders in Virginia in a campaign of new state laws and policies to prevent public school desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Civil Rights Act of 1957

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill, was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress in the United States since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. It was also Congress’s show of support for the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Following that ruling, white southerners in Virginia began “Massive Resistance”—a strategy declared by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., of Virginia, along with his brother-in-law as the leader in the Virginia General Assembly, Democratic delegate James M. Thomson of Alexandria, to unite white politicians and leaders in Virginia in a campaign of new state laws and policies to prevent public school desegregation. Violence against African Americans increased. For example, in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower had ordered in federal troops to protect nine students integrating into a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas; the first time the federal government had sent troops to the south since the Reconstruction era. There had been continued physical assaults against suspected activists, and bombings of schools and churches in the south.

The goal of the 1957 Civil Rights Act was to ensure that all Americans could exercise their right to vote. By 1957, only about 20% of African Americans were registered to vote. Despite black Americans comprising the majority population in numerous counties and congressional districts in the south, discriminatory voter registration rules and laws had effectively disfranchised most of them in those states since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Civil rights organizations had collected evidence of discriminatory practices, such as administration of literacy and comprehension tests, and poll taxes. The law, which focused exclusively on voting rights, set up a six-member Civil Rights Commission in the Executive Branch to gather information on deprivation of citizens ‘ voting rights based on color, race, religion or national origin, legal background, and federal laws and policies. It was set up to take testimony or written complaints from individuals about difficulties in registering and voting.

Although passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 seemed to indicate a growing federal commitment to the cause of civil rights, the legislation was limited. Because of the ways in which it had been changed, the government had difficulty enforcing it. By 1960, black voting had only increased by 3%. However, the passage of the bill showed the willingness of national leaders to support, to varying degrees, the cause of civil rights.

Civil Rights Act of 1960

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 addressed some of the shortcomings of the 1957 act. It expanded the authority of federal judges to protect voting rights. It required local authorities to maintain comprehensive voting records for review so that the government could determine if there were patterns of discrimination against certain populations. The act was later deemed ineffective for firm establishment of civil rights. The later legislation had firmer ground for enforcement and protection of a variety of civil rights, where the acts of 1957 and 1960 were largely limited to voting rights. The 1960 law dealt with race and color but omitted coverage of those discriminated against for national origin, although Eisenhower had called for it in his message to Congress.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Movement continued to expand, with protesters leading nonviolent demonstrations to mark their cause. President John F. Kennedy called for a new bill in his civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, in which he asked for legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments,” as well as “greater protection for the right to vote. ” Kennedy delivered this speech following a series of protests from the African American community, the most concurrent being the Birmingham campaign, which concluded in May 1963.

In the summer of 1963, various parts of the Civil Rights Movement collaborated to run voter education and voter registration drives in Mississippi. During Freedom Summer in 1964, hundreds of students from the north went there to participate in voter drives and community organizing. The media coverage and violent backlash, with the murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, contributed to national support for civil rights legislation.

After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act remains a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public (known as “public accommodations”). Powers given to enforce the act were initially weak, but were supplemented during later years. Congress asserted its authority to legislate under several different parts of the U.S. Constitution; principally its power to regulate interstate commerce under Article One (section 8), its duty to guarantee all citizens equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and its duty to protect voting rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. Johnson signed the act into law on July 2, 1964, at the White House.

Just 1 year prior, the same Congress had passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage differentials based on sex. The prohibition on sex discrimination was added to the Civil Rights Act by Howard W. Smith, a powerful Virginia Democrat who chaired the House Rules Committee and who strongly opposed the legislation. Smith’s amendment was passed by a teller vote of 168 to 133. Historians debate Smith’s motivation as to whether it was a cynical attempt to defeat the bill by someone opposed to both civil rights for African Americans and women, or an attempt to support their rights by broadening the bill to include women. Historians speculate that Smith was trying to embarrass northern Democrats who opposed civil rights for women because the clause was opposed by labor unions.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X at the United States Capitol on March 26, 1964.: Both men came to the Capitol to hear the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was the only time the two ever met. Their meeting lasted only 1 minute.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

In January 1965, civil rights leaders organized several demonstrations in Selma that led to violent clashes with police. These marches received national media coverage and drew attention to the issue of voting rights. With the nation paying increasing attention to Selma and voting rights, Johnson reversed his decision to delay voting rights legislation, and on February 6, he announced he would send a proposal to Congress.

On February 18, in Marion, Alabama, state troopers violently broke up a nighttime voting-rights march during which officer James Bonard Fowler shot and killed young African American protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was unarmed and protecting his mother. Spurred by this event, and at the initiation of James Bevel, on March 7, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in which Selma residents proceeded to march to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, to highlight voting rights issues and present Governor George Wallace with their grievances. In the wake of the events in Selma, Johnson called on legislators to enact expansive voting rights legislation.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress 2 days later while civil rights leaders, now under the protection of federal troops, led a march of 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery. The act prohibited racial discrimination in voting and Congress later amended the act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the south. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country. After enactment, the law immediately decreased racial discrimination in voting. The suspension of literacy tests and assignments of federal examiners and observers allowed for high numbers of racial minorities to register to vote.

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Alabama police in 1965 attack voting rights marchers participating in the first of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.”: With the nation paying increasing attention to Selma and voting rights, President Lyndon Johnson reversed his position and announced he would send a proposal of voting rights legislation to Congress.