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, 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, which were often rigged by having questions that were either impossible to answer or deliberately ambiguous, poll taxes, or even making people guess the number of jellybeans inside a jar.note Note that discrimination was not exclusive to African Americans; Hispanics, Natives, Asians, Jews, Irish, and others were oppressed in varying ways as well, to say nothing about the LGBT community who had to had to hide their true natures hidden for fear of their well being and often their lives.
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, and others point to the role of Soviet and Maoist funding, cultural contacts, moral support (even after the Sino-Soviet Split and border wars in 1960 it remained an issue they could agree on) and agitation on the behalf of African-Americans and Africans in general in the U.N. and off-the-books. 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 a spur-of-the-moment act of protest;note 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.note
After Rosa's publicized arrest, a young reverend 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 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 (SCLC) upon its founding in 1957. Dr. King had previously been a moderate figure, who favored maintaining segregation but making it more lenient towards black Americans; however, his association with the Civil Rights Movement led to an increasing amount of death threats that resulted in a crisis of faith for the reverend, resulting in him taking a more radical stance of abolishing segregation altogether. Dr. King would use his skills as a preacher to act as the biggest public voice of the civil rights movement, delivering powerful speeches and letters advocating for the end of segregation and for the integration and acceptance of black Americans. Dr. King, a devout Christian, believed that doing so would help create what he dubbed a "Beloved Community," in which all human beings could transcend boundaries of race and come together in God.
Regarding organizations relevant to the Civil Rights Movement, 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, on August 28, 1963, 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, hopped aboard Greyhound and Trailways buses to test 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 savagely fighting to defend a social order that history has condemned as evil.
Despite the gravitas of this movement, evidence of it was hardly seen in popular culture until later on in The '60s. 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 embarrassing "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. In fact, King would select certain southern cities, gambling that the authorities there were such bullying racist knuckleheads that it would create dramatic footage of them going berserk at peaceful protesters that no one could ignore. As it happened, most municipal figures like Commissioner of Public Safety "Bull" Connor in Birmingham, Alabama got suckered into that trap with bloody crackdowns that were condemned around the world.
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 were initially apprehensive about the movement, much of the Democratic Party's power base was in the South and neither wanted to alienate those supporters. However, King and company, using the tactics described above, were able to force the issue to the point where the White House had to act. Furthermore, remember that all this happened during The Cold War and the USA became painfully aware that they were hardly going to be able to claim to be morally superior to the Communist Bloc when this racist brutality was being exposed around the world (the universal Soviet answer of "And you are lynching Negroes" has become and remains one of the most famous and lasting Soviet memes).
So, those Presidents managed to massage the issue in Congress with not just intense lobbying, of which Johnson, a proud Southerner himself, was a master, but also helping King and Company organize major events like the 1963 March on Washington. This culminated 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. Nonetheless, he desegregated the armed forces, as that was in his control.
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 viewed 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). On a much darker note, however, racism still exists in many forms, and have become far more subtle and reliant on dogwhistling compared to the overt cross-burning, white hoods, and public lynchings of the past. What's more, the Civil Rights Movement today is fractured and has no clear leader, preventing it from making the same levels of headway it did in 1955-1968.
However, to the further consternation of the forces of social privilege and unjust dominance, the African-Americans' crusade proved to be just the beginning. Other oppressed communities in North America were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to rise up and demand their own equal rights and a fair shake in their society as well such as women, Native Americans, the LGBT community, Asians, religious minorities and the disabled. With these communities striving with their own eyes on the prize, they all contributed to a great combined social phenomenon that would be called The Rights Revolution that would challenge and redefine the definition of justice around the world.
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 half-black man (a man whose parents could not have legally married in several states at the time of his birth) as the President of United States, and even re-elected him— but also proved that there was still more work to be done, with Obama's election being met with heavy pushback from white supremacists, culminating in the rise of the alt-right as a distinct political movement during Obama's second term. The amount of unfinished business still left was most notably signified in May 2020, when the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by white police officers led to protests against still-omnipresent institutional racism and systemically-ingrained white supremacy, with people supporting the cause not only in the United States, but all around the world.
Depictions in fiction and the arts:
- Mississippi Burning
- Malcolm X
- The Butler
- Remember the Titans
- Crazy In Alabama
- In the Heat of the Night (made while it was still current)
- The Help, based on a book and set in 1962, it focuses on the lives of two African American maids and their white friend.
- Alluded to in Back to the Future when Marty declares that a certain black busboy will someday be mayor and the response is, "a colored mayor, that'll be the day!" Obviously, the Civil Rights Movement is what happened between 1955 and 1985 to make that possible.
- Also alluded to in Dirty Dancing, when Neil Kellerman tells Baby that after the summer ends he and some friends will be going down south to freedom ride a bus. Also alluded to even earlier in the film when the Houseman family pulls into Kellerman's and Lisa sees a guy and laments that she should have brought a certain pair of shoes along to impress him, and Dr. Houseman replies to her, "This is not a tragedy, Lisa. A tragedy is three men trapped in a mine or police dogs used in Birmingham" and which Baby also adds "Monks burning themselves in protest", a reference to another major American historical event, The Vietnam War.
- The Long Walk Home - Film starring Sissy Spacek, Whoopi Goldberg and Dwight Schultz about the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) with civil rights at the core of it.
- Loving- tells the story of Mr. and Ms. Loving and how the ruling of their supreme court case, "Loving vs. Virginia" legalized interracial marriage in 1967.
- Hidden Figures, taking place in the early 1960s', tells the story of the main protagonists, four African-American women, as they worked as human calculators in a time when NASA was still racially segregated.
- Since The Shape of Water, takes place in early 1960s' Baltimore, the subject of institutional racism (and homophobia) comes up a few times.
- 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."
- The Selma Massacre is an Alternate History story that begins with the titular march being gunned down, and the entire movement takes an extremely violent turn.
- The PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize is a highly-acclaimed history of the movement from 1954 to the mid-1980's.
- The Doctor Who episode "Rosa" concerns itself with the Montgomery Bus Boycott started by Rosa Parks. Same subject matter as The Long Walk Home, but now with the Doctor and her companions fighting to stop the interference of a racist time-traveler.
- "Strange Fruit", written by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol and most famous in Billie Holiday's version, is one of the most famous civil rights anthems, explicitly protesting the practice of lynching. It was named as the song of the century by Time'' magazine.
- Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" is regarded as a central song of the civil rights movement, explicitly responding to the murder of Medgar Evers and the September 1963 bombing of a black Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. Several other songs of hers also have pro-civil rights themes.
- Bob Dylan wrote several songs explicitly in support of the civil rights movement. "Blowin' in the Wind" is probably the most famous of them (Civil rights activist Mavis Staples expressed astonishment that a young white man could write a song that so eloquently captured the frustrations and aspirations of black people), although other songs such as "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" address the subject even more explicitly.
- Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", which he wrote after hearing "Blowin' in the Wind" and being ashamed that he hadn't yet written anything addressing the subject, also became a civil rights anthem.
- "We Shall Overcome", though it has a long history that predates the civil rights movement, was adopted by the movement as an anthem. It has perhaps become most associated with the folk singer Pete Seeger.
- The Beatles' "Blackbird" has been interpreted as a pro-civil rights song, and its author Paul McCartney has confirmed that this is one intended interpretation.
- The Rolling Stones' "Sweet Black Angel", one of the band's few overtly political songs, was written in support of civil rights leader Angela Davis.
- 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 firehoses and figured he'd bring a raincoat. A Whole Episode Flashback in Season 4 shows that he was one of the Freedom Riders, but his participation was completely involuntary.
- This was explored in Our Friend Martin during one of Miles' time travels.