Useful Notes: Civil Rights Movement

Prominent figures of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Clockwise from top left: W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

"We Shall Overcome"

One of the most important events in American history, the Civil Rights Movement brought about progress towards racial equality under the law, after America largely spent the hundred years after the Civil War ignoring the fact that blacks and other minorities were still being treated like second class citizens with little to no rights in many parts of the country. The Southern states, despite losing the The American Civil War and the abolition of slavery (or possibly because of those occurrences), had found numerous loopholes to keep blacks down: "Jim Crow" laws were drafted following the end of reconstruction in many Southern states, while the hypocritical and inherently flawed concept of "Separate but Equal" segregation denied minorities in the South basic rights. Black people even found it difficult to vote, despite having the right to, since states could (and did) impose literacy tests (extremely difficult ones, which were often rigged by having answers that were either impossible to answer or deliberately ambiguous) and poll taxes.note Many other groups also faced discrimination by some.

The date when the civil rights movement started is not definitive and is still debated among historians; some credit the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, a few point to Franklin D. Roosevelt ending racial discrimination in the federal government, others say when Harry Truman forcibly integrated the US Army during his presidency. Most often though, two moments in the 1950s stand out as the turning points which brought the movement together as far as catalysts go. The first one was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a 1954 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the controversial 1896 Plessy v. Fergeson Supreme Court ruling which legalized segregation. "Brown" was a 9-0 ruling that basically called out the utter hypocrisy of segregation by way of pointing out that "separate but equal" was essentially code for "white people get nice things, but black people get barely functioning, barely usable versions of what white people take for granted." Famously, Chief Justice Earl Warren's ruling stated "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The second catalyst was a moment towards the end of 1955, when a woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, as was demanded by standard bus policy at the time in the city of Montgomery, Alabama and was arrested, gaining national attention and giving civil rights groups a chance to unify behind a symbol. Contrary to popular belief, the act was not an accidental act of protest; Parks was an activist affiliated with the NAACP and was selected to test the segregation laws in court. Additionally, she was not the first person to resist the segregated bus polices either but was the one the NAACP decide to use to draw attention to the issue.

After Rosa's publicized arrest, a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr., along with local NAACP head E. D. Nixon, decided to use her arrest as the rallying cry to unite and mobilize the black community of the south to end the busing discrimination issue via a mass boycott of the offending bus company. It was a long struggle, but King and the movement prevailed against the municipal government's frantic attempts to frustrate them and acts of violence by both natives and incoming thugs to try to intimidate them.

Meanwhile, the north had similar incidents, such as in 1957 when the African American family of Bill and Daisy Meyers attempted to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of the famed suburban projects created by William Levitt to be model communities—for whites only, that is. Although they and their supporters wanted no trouble, their very presences revealed that there was a lot of foul bigotry in them Little Boxes made out of Ticky-Tacky. Thus, their summer was a living hell, with angry mobs, destructive riots, and systematic racist harassment, aided and abetted by indifferent local police that finally prompted the State authorities to step in to stop it. Throughout it all, the Meyers and their friends stuck it out to become heroes who impressed Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson among others; Daisy was not called "The Rosa Parks of the North" for nothing.

These acts of heroism helped inspired similar styled boycotts and "sit-ins", which preached non-violent confrontation (inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's famous series of non-violent protests which helped win India its own independence) with the status quo of the south, a factor that made for a great deal of televised theater as peaceful black protesters and white sympathizers often found themselves being beaten or hosed down with fire hoses by local police departments, who thuggishly enforced the racist status quo.

Martin Luther King, Jr. became the most notable leader of the civil rights movement, and became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference upon its founding in 1957. The SCLC, along with the NAACP and ACLU, were at the head of the fight, using the boycott and non-violent protests to make their point. Their work would have such great success and influence that, by the 1960s, the anti-war movement (for the most part) adopted the same non-violence approach as the civil rights movement. King's Crowning Moment of Awesome can be said to have come on August 28, 1963, when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., which for many summed up the importance of the movement and the future that the movement was striving to achieve.

Other people found their own glory. The Freedom Riders, for example, tested out a favorable Supreme Court decision on intercity bus stations to challenge segregation in the face of vicious resistance. That resistance included outright terrorism—such as the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls—in the hopes of cowing African-Americans into submission. In 1964, the activists took it up still another level as they dared to enter the lion's mouth in Mississippi, the most virulently segregated state of them all, with "Freedom Summer". In that summer of Mississippi Burning, idealistic northern college students, following the lead of the local activist leadership, took on the racist establishment with education, while their enemies were so afraid that they loaded up on cops and even a tank to stop them.

Unfortunately for the bigots, they were stunned to see that, the more they frantically tried to intimidate and kill their "uppity" opponents, the more they shot their own cause in the foot as they drove national sympathy towards their non-violent enemies who refused to be intimidated. In the end, they learned to their horror that their foes would go down in history as heroes, while they would be remembered as violent, reactionary bullies.

Despite the gravitas of this movement, evidence of it was hardly seen in popular culture until later on in The Sixties. The mainstream media largely ignored the movements until the late 1950s, when the struggle and police violence against members of the movement began to be filmed, serving as ready-made fodder for the growing television news genre. In this case, this interest was sparked in part by FCC head Newton Minow's embarassing "Vast Wasteland" speech, excoriating TV's vapidity, which the TV networks were determined to prove wrong. To the networks, the civil rights movement was perfect material to present quickly: it was dramatic with the violence protesters were enduring, the sides were easy to distinguish with the good guys being predominately black and peaceful and the villains being all white who were acting like crazed brutes and the stories' theme of the state of human rights in America was a national issue no one was going to dispute as important to discuss.

For their part, Martin Luther King Jr. and company realized this media situation themselves and proved quick studies in media savvy to work the reporters well, taking advantage of the fact that their enemies were all but threatening them. Politically, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was infamously silent on the matter in public, though in private he supported desegregation and even authorized the use of the 101st Airborne to enforce desegregation in Arkansas, a state whose governor (Orval Faubus, not George Wallace as most people think) tried to use the National Guard to prevent black students from attending white schools. Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson supported the movement, culminating in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made illegal the "Jim Crow" trickery that kept minorities from being able to vote. Harry Truman also publicly supported equal rights for African Americans (famously saying "My forebears were Confederates... but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten."), but Congress practically ignored his proposals.

However, the movement still had much to do and, by the end of the 1960s, had major problems. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and radical "Black Power" leaders and groups such as Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam began to attract angry black recruits who had lost patience with King's non-violent philosophy. Unlike the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, Black Power rejected integration, feeling that white society was corrupt and decadent, and declared that black people should voluntarily segregate themselves from white society. The rise of Black Power at the end of the '60s, combined with a series of race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere, ultimately provided a flawed excuse for white backlash against civil rights and led to the election of Richard Nixon on a platform of "returning to normalcy". This ended up backfiring, as Nixon ended up desegregating more schools than any president before him, and implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.

As of this writing, the Civil Rights Movement is still within living memory, and many of the participants on both sides are still alive, with the deceased ones like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as great leaders and heroes of American history. Those who were on the racist side are often, today, deeply ashamed of their former attitudes (Hazel Massery is one example). Others are finally being prosecuted for their crimes (Edgar Ray Killen, one of the men who organized the mob that killed three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964, was one of them). And racism still exists in many forms (beyond the overt cross-burning and men in white hoods), but these days the civil rights movement is fractured and has no clear leader.

In the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election, many looked at the election as the ultimate litmus test towards whether or not the civil rights movement had succeeded, as the idea of Americans having the chance to elect an African-American to the Presidency would be the ultimate way to see if the movement's successes had any impact upon the generations who came afterwards. Needless to say, Barack Obama's election not only proved that the movement did indeed bring progress — in a scant 53 years, America had gone from needing a law to let black people vote at all to a majority of all Americans freely casting their votes for a black man as the President of United States, and even re-elected him with a greater margin — but also proved that there was still more work to be done.

The Civil Rights Movement itself is also being introduced to the modern generation through the current debates on whether marriage between homosexuals ought to be legal. In addition to the debate being, essentially, a civil-rights issue to begin with (that label is historically associated with anti-racism measures, and it's too late to change the name now), many commentators are drawing the easily-made comparisons between the arguments against giving gay and non-European people rights under the law —many of them unflattering to boot.

Depictions in fiction:


  • In The Dark Tower series, Susannah was a Civil Rights activist.
  • In The Full Matilda, David is in the Black Panther Party and gets shot at a protest.
  • Noughts & Crosses depicts the Civil Rights movement, depicting both peaceful and violent acts of protest- while existing in an Alternate Universe where it is the white (the 'naughts') discriminated against by the blacks (the 'crosses').
  • Like many other great historical moments, the Movement is turned on its head by The Onion in Our Dumb Century, especially in the "transcript" of King's renowned speech, "I Had A Really Weird Dream Last Night."

Newspaper Comics
  • Robert (Granddad) Freeman of The Boondocks had an involvement in the movement. He still held a grudge against Rosa Parks for "stealing his thunder" (he was sitting next to her on that bus and likewise refused to give up his seat, but the bus driver was only offended by Rosa's unwillingness to move, not his), and once showed up late to a march because he knew they would bring out the hoses and figured he'd bring a raincoat.


Alternative Title(s):

Martin Luther King Jr