So did the Civil Rights movement work?

I’m defining the American Civil Rights Movement as the reform group in the United States aimed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring suffrage in the Southern states. I’m thinking of the era between 1954 and 1968. It attempts to evaluate the extent to which African Americans overcame the inequalities of American society prior to 1954 and how they attempted to amend problems seen before 1954 to create a better future. It discusses the phases of the movement between 1954 and 1968. By 1966, the emergence of black power movement enlarged the aims of the civil rights movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self sufficiency and freedom from oppression from whites. It also enlarged the method of protest from civil disobedience, associated with Martin Luther King Jr, to the use of violence, associated with Malcolm X. Thus we see three overlapping areas of discussion; legislative reform, civil protest and violent protest. This essay will attempt to measure the effectiveness of the movement in each of those areas of protest.
On one level, the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement can be measured by new anti-discrimination legislation. On a deeper level, however, the new legislation must be seen to create new opportunities, a real racial equality and a change of ethos towards racial justice. “All men are equal”[1], is what the Civil Rights Movement wanted to achieve because African Americans were seen as inferior to the white community. Something which had been fought for even before the 1950’s where Truman believed in “equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in out country’s defense.”[2] This same sense of equality had been said by President Abraham Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863,. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.” This essay will investigate how the Civil Rights Movement challenged segregation and discrimination through these strategies and how effective they were in achieving their goal.
March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks. Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, “all men are created equal,” Taney reasoned that “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . .”[3]
In the consideration of the progress of legislative reform, it can be argued that the movement was very effective in abolishing racial discrimination. The best example of this is the federal legal precedent case of Brown VS Topeka in 1954 that had the involvement of NAACP. It “found state imposed segregation of public schools in violation of the U.S constitution”[4] where Earl Warren argued segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” [5]This case saw segregation in public schools made unconstitutional where the Court stated that the “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group” and that segregation to be phased out over time, “with all deliberate speed”.[6]
The Court ruled that the previous precedent of Plessey VS Ferguson (1896) which set a “separate but equal” ruling where African Americans were to be kept separate as long as they got “equal provision” unconstitutional. The extent to which some may say this was effective would be immense as it ended a form of segregation which had been active and bought the Civil Rights Movement a step closer to gaining equality and abolishing racial discrimination. And so after the 1954 Brown VS Topeka desegregation decision, Little Rock school board officials decided to begin desegregation of Central High School in September 1957[7], where nine black students were allowed to attend what had previously been an all white school. This too could be argued to be effective, because of the involvement of President Eisenhower who ordered this desegregation but also attracted and received attention from the media which portrayed a positive look upon the Civil Rights Movement. This was effective as it emphasized desegregation in schools and had the support of a powerful white American which could cause other white American supporters of civil rights.
Desegregation also eventually took place in 1956 through the orchestrated civil disobedience of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where Rosa Parks, arrested in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, set off a train of events that generated a drive for the civil rights movement. With the support of most of Montgomery’s 50,000 African Americans, the boycott lasted for 381 days until segregation on public buses was lifted. Ninety percent of African Americans in Montgomery took part in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue by 80%. A federal court ordered Montgomery’s buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph. So by the end of 1956 the Civil Rights Movement had managed to remove two forms of segregation that had existed previously for years in three years in about three years by using only their first phase, legislative reform. So the extent to which this was effective many would argue would be vast.
However, the effectiveness of these legal reforms in abolishing racial discrimination and gaining equality was limited. Although Brown VS Topeka outlawed segregation, many schools defied the law by threatening African American students because laws could not so easily change opinion or worldview. Significantly, the Little Rock case saw “conditions [becoming]…pretty rough” for the nine students and “treatment of the children … getting steadily worse”[8] as they experienced things such as “kicking, spitting and general abuse” said by Mr. Roy Wilkins, with crowds shouting out “Niggers get back to the jungle” and “lynch her… tie her to the tree.”[9] The effect of Brown Vs Topeka can be argued as not effective: only one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, graduated; and after the 1957-58 school year was over, the Little Rock school system decided to shut the school completely rather than be forced to integrate. Other school systems across the South followed suit with the famous pronouncement: “No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor”[10]. Legislative reform, then, was shown to be only a beginning point. In desegregation and equality.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown in 1954 and yet increasingly frustrated by its lack of practical effect in places like Little Rock and Mississippi, the African American communities began to reject gradualist approaches and began to adopt a combined strategy of direct action with nonviolent resistance known as civil disobedience. The “Sit Ins” began with four African American students in Greensboro 1960, snowballing into mass protests across the southern states. These protests caused sales to drop and –eventually- segregation to end. Not only did this effectively challenge segregation in Greensboro, but by September 1961 70,000 black and white students used this tactic resulting in 810 towns being desegregated by 1961. So this one type of non-violent protest resulted in the desegregation of a huge range of urban communities.
This was very effective in its aim because not only did it desegregate, making it more racially equal, but publicity was gained which showed non-violent African Americans being faced with violent white Americans portraying the size of the issue to the new television generation. Significantly, white Americans could become aware of how African Americans were being treated and how unjust it was, shifting that worldview towards compassion and racial justice.
The “freedom riders” from 1961 followed the momentum of Montgomery and Greensboro, using a form of civil disobedience to test the effectiveness of federal legislation. The legislation, supported by Robert Kennedy, desegregated interstate transport depots. The “freedom riders” traveled though the southern states testing these new laws. Technically, all passengers were permitted to sit wherever they chose on the bus; restaurants, toilets and drinking fountains were available for all, irrespective of skin colour. In reality, however, state custom prevailed and local sheriffs often refused to accept Federal law, imprisoning “law breakers” in inhumane conditions.
Another protest by civil rights with the same aim was the March on Washington in 1963, led by Martin Luther King. It was evident the effectiveness of the civil rights movement in this event in abolishing racial discrimination had been great as it had the support of 80,00 white Americans and 250,000 demonstrators reflecting that the Civil Rights Movement had the support of white Americans now to help them gain equality in a white dominant country. The March on Washington indicated the wide range of support for change and racial justice.
In the same year the Birmingham campaign was focused on the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants. 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. Its huge attention from Television cameras broadcast to the nation showed scenes of water from fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and dogs attacking individual demonstrators. There was widespread public outrage that then forced the Kennedy Administration to intervene more forcefully.
One might question the effectiveness of “freedom riders” and the Birrningham crusade, however. The effectiveness was limited in view of the dreadful abuse offered by a newly resurgent KKK and the stubborn determination of local law agencies in defending their “state rights”. The sheer scale of the white response in the southern states made optimism about racial integration impossible. Similarly, the March on Washington saw African Americans being attacked by dogs and horses and many protestors arrested. In Birmingham, too, the movement faltered simply because they were running out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest or violence.
As suggested above, some of the success of the Civil Rights Movement can be attributed to the television coverage and not so much their strategies of the civil rights movement, but what they did that caused media attention . The taping and broadcasting of the images of civil rights workers, sit-ins, marches and clashes demonstrated the severe and inhumane treatment of African Americans by authorities in the South again building up more determination for African Americans and sympathy from white viewers.
Legislative reform continued at the same time, for though the NAACP increasingly distanced themselves from the more sensational civil disobedience of King and his followers, the two forms of protest worked together in creating legislative change. Clearly, civil disobedience can be seen as a more direct and potentially more rapid means of creating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges, but the fruit of both the new peaceful protest movement and the older-style lobbying of the NAACP can be seen in the key anti-discrimination legislation of the period. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations and made racial discrimination in public places, such as theatres, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. The Civil Rights Act also attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights which had lapsed since the Civil war. Frequently African American residents were barred from voting because, it was claimed, they were “incapable” of exercising the vote “with any sort of discretion, prudence or independence. In the same year, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. All of these pieces of legislation helped create a more racially equal society. Once again, however, this is only part of the picture. In many local communities across the south, the voting claims of African Americans were met with fierce opposition; arrests, beatings, shootings, arson, and murder. In addition, employers fired blacks who tried to register and landlords evicted them from their homes. So the efforts made through legislative reform were held back and so limited the effectiveness.
1965 saw the civil rights movement split into two directions. Where some wanted to continue to follow Martin Luther King’s peaceful methods .Others Malcolm X’, who wanted to use more violent methods and to face violence with violence. The effectiveness of these violent protests seemed to have high influence as Malcolm X’ group increased membership to 100,000. Malcolm X steered many black militants away from the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King and introduced more forceful direct approaches in bringing about equality.He encouraged his fellow black to be more confident and fight for their rights. The Civil Rights Movement wanted to address unfair discriminatory practices. Malcolm X, through his violent methods, brought to light the unfair treatment faced by African Americans when he was featured in a television special with Mike Wallace in 1959. Malcolm X did assist the Civil Rights movement by helping expose discriminatory practices which led to significant changes in what the legal system declared unlawful. Thus we see a causal connection between violent protest and legislative reform. So Malcolm X did impact the Civil Rights Movement positively by working with them to gain more effectiveness in abolishing racial discrimination and by helping to implement laws.

More importantly Johnson had his “great society” programme of reforms and more reforms to help civil rights were expected aslong as relationship between Johnson and King were maintained. However the escalation of the Vietnam War made this impossible leading to no reforms as King spoke out against the war as when it came to recruitment and the firing lines African Americans suddenly became equal to white soldiers. The Vietnam War became a dividing point among the Civil Rights activists. Generally speaking, the NAACP and the supporters of legislative reform backed the war in their efforts to be part of the country’s patriotic policies. King and the Black Power movement were outspoken in their opposition, however.
With black militancy on the rise, increased acts of anger were now directed at the police. Black residents growing tired of police brutality continued to rebel. Some young people joined groups such as the Black Panthers, whose popularity was based in part on their reputation for confronting abusive police officers. In Detroit, a comfortable black middle class had begun to develop among families of blacks who worked at well-paying jobs in the car industry. Blacks who had not moved upward were living in much worse conditions, subject to the same problems as blacks in Watts and Harlem. When white police officers shut down an illegal bar on a liquor raid and arrested a large group of patrons, furious residents rioted.

As a result of the riots, President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967. The commission’s final report called for major reforms in employment and public assistance for black communities. It warned that the United States was moving toward separate white and black societies. At the same time King was finding himself at odds with factions of the Democratic Party, he was facing challenges from within the Civil Rights Movement to the two key tenets upon which the movement had been based: integration and non-violence. Black activists within SNCC and CORE had chafed for some time at the influence wielded by white advisors to civil rights organizations and the disproportionate attention that was given to the deaths of white civil rights workers while black workers’ deaths often went virtually unnoticed.

Stokely Carmichael, who became the leader of SNCC in 1966, was one of the earliest and most articulate spokespersons for what became known as the “Black Power” movement .He began urging African American communities to confront the Ku Klux Klan armed and ready for battle. He felt it was the only way to forever rid the communities of the terror caused by the Klan. Several people engaging in the Black Power movement started to gain more of a sense in black pride and identity as well. In gaining more of a sense of a cultural identity, several blacks demanded that whites no longer refer to them as “Negroes” but as “Afro-Americans.” The afro, sometimes nicknamed the “‘fro,” remained a popular black hairstyle until the late 1970s. Black Power was made most public however by the Black Panther Party which founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed ideology stated by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam using a “by-any-means necessary” approach to stopping inequality. They sought to rid African American neighbourhoods of Police Brutality and had a ten-point plan amongst other things. Their dress code consisted of leather jackets, berets, light blue shirts, and an afro hairstyle. They are best remembered for setting up free breakfast programs, referring to police officers as “pigs”, displaying shotguns and a black power fist, and often using the statement of “Power to the people.”

Also in 1968, two athletes while being awarded the gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Summer Olympics, donned human rights badges and each raised a black-gloved Black Power salute during their podium ceremony. Despite a permanent lifetime ban for the two, the Black Power movement had been given a stage on live, international television. King 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 booed King for continuing to advocate non-violence. When King was murdered in 1968, Stokely Carmichael stated that whites had murdered the one person who would prevent rampant rioting and burning of major cities down and that blacks would burn every major city to the ground. Indeed, in every major city from Boston to San Francisco, race riots broke out in the black community following King’s death.

By 1968 the civil rights movement had achieved almost unimaginable success in a short period of time. The black population had gained legal equality and a sense of pride, the well publicised successes of the movement did however mask a continuing problem of discrimination and poverty in the black population. Ghettoism in the North and racial prejudice in the South had still not been solved. The South was inherently racist. Throughout the civil rights movements most states had actively opposed desegregation. Governor Faubus of Arkansas had closed schools rather than integrate them. States found loopholes in the laws and exploited the rights of the states over federal government to continue to discriminate against blacks. This was possible because many of those in positions of authority were racist so the black population had no protection. Politicians responded to public opinion in this case it was to segregate so they lacked political representation to change things as well. The KKK was a strong force in the South and violence and intimidation was frequent consequently however many campaigns for voter registration there were by the SNCC when they left the black population would be too scared to make a stand. It would take time for a new generation to control the South and for traditional ideas to be broken down.

The ghettoism in the North was a less obvious form of discrimination but equally difficult to solve and to some extent applied to the South as well. Here black people were discriminated against in socio-economic terms. Kennedy had promised that housing could be solved “at the stroke of a president’s pen” — as the Watts riots proved he had been unsuccessful. Black people had been discriminated against for so long that they lacked opportunities and skills to break out of the poverty cycle. Public opinion and the economic system in America could not be changed through legislation. By 1968 the majority of the civil rights legislation was fairly recent it had only been in place a decade or less, on such large issues as race relations it would take time, generations for education legislation to take effect. Children were getting better education but their parents still couldn’t get a better job. The new legislation was poorly enforced due to public opinion and often sounded more impressive than it was, a 100% rise in black employment could mean a rise from 1 black employee to 2 black employees. Even for poor white people the cycle of poverty is difficult to break out of but when faced with racial prejudice as well it would take time to change

.By 1968 the Civil Rights movement had to some extent backfired, the death of Malcolm X and the establishment of the Black Panthers followed by the death of MLK led to a far more militant movement. Rioting in Northern cities created a white backlash. People felt the black population was being ungrateful and responded accordingly. Some of the respect gained for the black population was being eroded. Despite the problems still facing the black population employment had improved as had education. Middle class black families enjoyed many of the privileges of the white population. The movement had exploded the myth of segregation and shown integration could work. The march on Washington showed that the black population did have a political voice. The position of black people could only improve with the legal protection they now had.

The black population was facing a barrier in 1968, they had achieved constitutional and limited de-jure change but de-facto change was proving much harder. It would prove that time was the only thing that could change this. Opinions and opportunities slowly changing, the racial problems that still exist in America show that these problems couldn’t, as Kennedy argued, be solved “at the stroke of a president’s pen” it was the people who decide and by 1968, though the situation had improved, full integration remained a future hope rather than a present reality.

It is interesting to reflect, in closing, that Barack Obama, born in 1961, into an America defined by discrimination, is now set to become its first African American president. The effectiveness and success of the Civil Rights Movement has perhaps never been so is apparent as in this anticipated event. And yet this note of optimism is cautious. It is only eight years since Alabama removed the legislation banning mixed marriages, and the forty dissenting judges remind how long ideas take to change.

[4] Article From :The Journal Of Negro Education Article Date: July 1, 2004 Author: Brown, Frank
[5] Civil Rights in the USA 1863-1980 Author: David Paterson, Doug and Susan Willoughby
[6] Brown 2004
[7] Bates, Daisy 1962: The Long Shadow of Little Rock New York- David McKay.
[9] Civil Rights in the USA 1863-1980 Author: David Paterson, Doug and Susan Willoughby
Books/ Articles
Bates, Daisy 1962: The Long Shadow of Little Rock New York- David McKay.
Brown, Frank 2004: The First Serious Implementation of Brown: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and Beyond in The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 73, No. 3; Brown v. Board of Education at 50 (Summer, 2004), pp. 182-190: Journal of Negro Education
Paterson, D. and Willoughby, D & S, 2002 Civil Rights in the United States 1863-1980, Eerdmans, Chicago.

Stable URL: Accessed: 11/10/2008 05:56

This entry was posted in A Level History, American History, Black power, History, Obama and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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