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The struggle for civil rights for African Americans is one which has spanned centuries. After emancipation from slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment which granted them citizenship, African Americans were still denied basic civil rights guaranteed by the US constitution. In the South, Jim Crow was a system of segregation that was institutionalized after the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision which stated that ”separate but equal public facilities were constitutional. In practice however, public spaces for African Americans were almost always inferior to those of whites.
Prior to the modern Civil Rights Movement African American hopes for racial equality rested in integrated education. A series of lawsuits filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sought to overturn Plessey. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated schools in the South and proved that Jim Crow could be challenged and defeated. This was a monumental legislative achievement but more was needed to dismantle racial segregation in all aspects of public life.
In 1955 the Montgomery Bus Boycott was started when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. This act of defiance had occurred before but because of Mrs Parks standing in the community she was considered the perfect symbol on which to launch a boycott to protest segregated seating. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other local black leaders established the Montgomery Improvement Association which organized the boycott that lasted for a year and successfully integrated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established shortly after to organize non-violent desegregation efforts elsewhere. In what Dr. King called the zeitgeist or ”the spirit of the times, non-violent protests quickly spread to other Southern cities.
In the early 1960s students began to wage their own protests against segregation. Sit-ins, such as those started by college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparked non-violent direct action protest. Other forms of non-violent direct-action protests such as wade-ins, pray-ins, and read-ins followed. These students formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a separate organization in the movement devoted to the younger generations of activists. Following the sit-ins, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, sent black and white youth on Freedom Rides throughout the South to test the Supreme Court ruling against segregation in interstate travel terminals. These youth were met with incredible violence that the media displayed to the world. In 1963 hundreds of thousands of people marched on Washington to call the government s attention to the neglect of the rights of African Americans. This display of mass support pushed President Kennedy toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed racial discrimination in public schools, government, and employment.
While civil rights organizations denounced racism in society, within their organizations they maintained gender and sexual identity inequities. Male ministers were often the visible and hierarchical leadership of the movement while women such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, who were equally talented grassroots leaders, were expected to stay behind the scenes. Furthermore, differences in gender and sexual orientation were muted in place of achieving a shared experience of living in a racist society. Gay activists such as Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin faced homophobia within the movement and were admonished to keep quiet about the oppression of homosexuals so that their sexual orientation could not be used against the movement.
As a social movement, the Civil Rights Movement created disruption and generated the power needed by African Americans to overturn institutionalized segregation. As a rational and well-planned movement, the Civil Rights Movement provided a precedent for movements that followed led by students, women, Latinos, American Indians, gays and lesbians, anti-war activists, farm workers, environmentalists, and others. The Civil Rights Movement also illustrated the importance of faith as an impetus for social justice movements. Black churches as religious institutions provided organizational centers, resource mobilization, and movement leadership which contributed to the success of the movement.
On a global scale, the Civil Rights Movement exposed the world to the shortcomings of democracy in the USA. While the Civil Rights Movement illegalized de jure racism, it did not eliminate de facto racism. The institutional barriers removed by the Civil Rights Movement allowed for the growth of the black middle class, and helped to racially integrate many public institutions, yet the dilemma of racial inequality has persisted.
- Morris, A. D. (1984) The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Free Press, New York.
- Robnett, B. (1997) How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press, New York.