Civil Rights Civil Rights Movement in the United States, political, legal, and social struggle by black Americans to gain full citizenship rights and to achieve racial equality. The civil rights movement was first and foremost a challenge to segregation, the system of laws and customs separating blacks and whites that whites used to control blacks after slavery was abolished in the 1860s. During the civil rights movement, individuals and civil rights organizations challenged segregation and discrimination with a variety of activities, including protest marches, boycotts, and refusal to abide by segregation laws. Many believe that the movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though there is debate about when it began and whether it has ended yet. The civil rights movement has also been called the Black Freedom Movement, the Negro Revolution, and the Second Reconstruction. Segregation Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks.
Segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865), Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners, and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks.
By 1877 the Democratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, and these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during Reconstruction. To that end, they began to pass local and state laws that specified certain places For Whites Only and others for Colored. Blacks had separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crow signs went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to protect black voting rights.
These requirements included: the ability to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who were very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these hurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates because they were open only to whites in most Southern states. Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating all aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination in public accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. The ability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crow signs, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southern society. Segregation was an all encompassing system.
Conditions for blacks in Northern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent of blacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very few blacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, but there were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregated facilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually denied entrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usually integrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the most difficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination against blacks. They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants for job opportunities and almost always lost.
Early Black Resistance to Segregation Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blacks sued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states’ disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that separate but equal accommodations were constitutional.
In fact, separate was almost never equal, but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for the next 50 years. To protest segregation, blacks created new national organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara Movement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to help blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life. The NAACP became one of the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied mainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks.
An early leader of the NAACP was the historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 made powerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. NAACP lawyers won court victories over voter disfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to have lynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregation although they did little to change everyday life.
In 1935 Charles H. Houston, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, won the first Supreme Court case argued by exclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. This win invigorated the NAACP’s legal efforts against segregation, mainly by convincing courts that segregated facilities, especially schools, were not equal. In 1939 the NAACP created a separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that had a nonprofit, tax-exempt status that was denied to the NAACP because it lobbied the U.S. Congress. Houston’s chief aide and later his successor, Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant young lawyer who would become a justice on the U.S.
Supreme Court, began to challenge segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. World War I When World War I (1914-1918) began, blacks enlisted to fight for their country. However, black soldiers were segregated, denied the opportunity to be leaders, and were subjected to racism within the armed forces. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks migrated northward in 1916 and 1917 to take advantage of job openings in Northern cities created by the war.
This great migration of Southern blacks continued into the 1950s. Along with the great migration, blacks in both the North and South became increasingly urbanized during the 20th century. In 1890, about 85 percent of all Southern blacks lived in rural areas; by 1960 that percentage had decreased to about 42 percent. In the North, about 95 percent of all blacks lived in urban areas in 1960. The combination of the great migration and the urbanization of blacks resulted in black communities in the North that had a strong political presence. The black communities began to exert pressure on politicians, voting for those who supported civil rights.
These Northern black communities, and the politicians that they elected, helped Southern blacks struggling against segregation by using political influence and money. The 1930s The Great Depression of the 1930s increased black protests against discrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal of white-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons. Using the slogan Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work, these campaigns persuaded blacks to boycott those businesses and revealed a new militancy. During the same years, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protest discriminatory treatment of black children.
The black protest activities of the 1930s were encouraged by the expanding role of government in the economy and society. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the federal government created federal programs, such as Social Security, to assure the welfare of individual citizens. Roosevelt himself was not an outspoken supporter of black rights, but his wife Eleanor became an open advocate for fairness to blacks, as did other leaders in the administration. The Roosevelt Administration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciary away from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporations and toward the protection of individual rights, especially those of the poor and minority groups. Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the U.
S. Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights. As early as 1938, the courts displayed a new attitude toward black rights; that year the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide access to a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites-a new emphasis on the equal part of the Plessy doctrine. Blacks sensed that the national government might again be their ally, as it had been during the Civil War. World War II When World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded better treatment than they had experienced in World War I. Black newspaper editors insisted during 1939 and 1940 that black support for this war effort would depend on fair treatment.
They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military roles and that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries at home. In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union whose members were mainly black railroad workers, planned a March on Washington to demand that the federal government require defense contractors to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites. To forestall the march, President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it. The FEPC did not prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson to blacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitments to civil rights.
During World War II, blacks composed about one-eighth of the U.S. armed forces, which matched their presence in the general population. Although a disproportionately high number of blacks were put in noncombat, support positions in the military, many did fight. The Army Air Corps trained blacks as pilots in a controversial segregated arrangement in Tuskegee, Alabama.
During the war, all the armed services moved toward equal treatment of blacks, though none flatly rejected segregation. In the early war years, hundreds of thousands of blacks left Southern farms for war jobs in Northern and Western cities. In fact more blacks migrated to the North and the West during World War II than had left during the previous war. Although there was racial tension and conflict in their new homes, blacks were free of the worst racial oppression, and they enjoyed much larger incomes. After the war blacks in the North and West used their economic and political influence to support civil rights for Southern blacks. Blacks continued to work against discrimination during the war, challenging voting registrars in Southern courthouses and suing school boards for equal educational provisions.
The membership of the NAACP grew from 50,000 to about 500,000. In 1944 the NAACP won a major victory in Smith v. Allwright, which outlawed the white primary. A new organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation in public accommodations in the North. During the war, black newspapers campaigned for a Double V, victories over both fascism in Europe and racism at home. The war experience gave about one million blacks the opportunity to fight racism in Europe and Asia, a fact that black veterans would remember during the struggle against racism at home after the war.
Perhaps just as important, almost ten times that many white Americans witnessed the patriotic service of black Americans. Many of them would object to the continued denial of civil rights to the men and women beside whom they had fought. After World War II the momentum for racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination to have full civil rights.
President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policy favoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.S. Congress rejected his proposals. School Desegregation In the postwar years, the NAACP’s legal strategy for civil rights continued to succeed.
Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged and overturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equal educational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the Supreme Court decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school. Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge the Plessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal. The U.
S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary- and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was unconstitutional. White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shock and, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white opposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders.
It was believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order, it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed willingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather than desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. The White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation all over the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks who favored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation of private, all-white schools. Virtually no schools in the South were desegregated in the first years after the Brown decision.
In Virginia one county did indeed close its public schools. In Lit …