Handout 15: The Civil Rights Movement

World War II: Older patterns of racism continued during World War II. The armed forces remained segregated – the Red Cross even segregated blood. Between 1940-43 there were 17 lynchings in the U.S. and 1943 brought several major urban race riots, with the worst being in Detroit. But the war was a major turning point in race relations as well. Civil Rights leaders insisted on pursuing what they called a "Double V" campaign, fighting for victory abroad against America’s enemies and for victory at home against racism. A major victory for Civil Rights occurred when FDR signed an order outlawing racial discrimination in the defense industry. The war accelerated the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, which brought better economic and educational opportunities for many. African Americans who served in the military often came home from their service overseas determined to change the racial environment of their homeland. Finally, the Holocaust brought home to many white Americans the depths of inhumanity to which racism could lead. Educated whites – at least those outside the South – were increasingly willing after the war to support changes in the nation’s racial system.

The Supreme Court: The long period of Democratic control of the White House and Senate resulted in a Supreme Court that was more open to demands for racial equality. The courts would be the main federal ally of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. Between 1938 and 1950, responding to cases brought before the court by the NAACP, the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that narrowed the scope of Plessy v.Ferguson. The court ruled that separate was not equal in law schools. Separate law schools for blacks and whites would not be equal, the court stated, because black students would be denied access to the prestige, faculty, and alumni associations of the white schools, and would not be taught alongside the people they’d later be practicing law alongside. In other words, there were "intangible" factors that had to be considered when defining equality under the law. On May 17, 1954, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the court went much farther, unanimously outlawing segregation in the public schools by declaring that "in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place." Segregated schools denied African Americans the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the 14th Amendment – separate was "inherently" unequal. In 1955, in a follow-up decision known as Brown v. Board II, the court demanded that school systems desegregate "with all deliberate speed." President Eisenhower was publicly silent on – and privately critical of – the decision. In the South, U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia called for a policy of Massive Resistance, by which southerners and southern officials would use every means in their power to fight the Brown decision. By the end of 1955, moderate politicians in the South were being voted out of office, replaced by "segregationists" who were determined to prevent the desegregation of southern schools.

Montgomery Bus Boycott: At the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was being fought out in the courts, ordinary African Americans were joining together to protest segregation. This period of "mass protest" began in December 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. This sparked a boycott by African Americans of the city bus system that would last for more than a year. The boycott was led Martin Luther King, Jr., the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Influenced by Thoreau and Gandhi, King preached a philosophy of nonviolence, passive resistance, and civil disobedience in response to unjust laws. Montgomery’s black community achieved a striking level of unity during the boycott. At first, the boycotters’ demands were quite moderate: more courteous treatment by drivers, the hiring of black bus drivers, and a system in which blacks would fill the bus from back to front but could not be told to give up their seats. But when city officials proved completely intransigent, and after King’s house was bombed, the boycotters demanded complete desegregation of the system and took the case to court. In December 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the boycott, and the city buses were desegregated. The Boycott showed the potential for mass protest in support of civil rights. It made King a nationally known figure, and led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization led by King and made up of southern black ministers that would fight for equality using King’s philosophy of nonviolence and passive resistance.

Little Rock: In 1957 center stage of the movement shifted to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the federal courts had ruled that the city’s Central High School must admit black students. Nine students were chosen to integrate the school, but Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was determined to maintain segregation in the school. He used several forms of massive resistance to prevent integration. First, he ordered the state national guard to prevent black students from entering the school. When President Eisenhower informed him that this defiance of federal law was unacceptable, Faubus ordered an inadequate Little Rock police force to maintain order at the school. When the students arrived, mobs surged forward and began breaking past police barricades; the students had to be rushed out for their safety. Eisenhower immediately sent federal troops to Little Rock to get the black students into the school and protect them. Troops stayed at Central High for the entire 1957-58 school year. Then, at the beginning of the 1958 school year, Faubus ordered all Little Rock High schools closed to avoid integration. They were forced to reopen and integrate the following school year (1959-60) by the federal courts. But integrating schools throughout the South would be a long, slow process, with some states holding out another dozen years.

Sit-Ins: On Feb. 1, 1960, four black college students sat down and demanded service at a "whites-only" lunch counter at a Greensboro, NC Woolworth’s department store. Within a month, the sit-in movement was sweeping the South, as protestors sat quietly at segregated lunch counters, accepting without response whatever abuse angry mobs threw at them. In April 1960, black and white student protestors formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which was committed – for the time being in any case – to nonviolence and passive resistance.

Ole Miss: In 1962 the federal courts ordered that the segregated University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss") enroll black student James Meredith. Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor of the state, twice physically blocked Meredith from registering. This put President John Kennedy in a difficult position. As a Democrat who had been narrowly elected in 1960, he depended on the support of northern blacks and white liberals, but he also needed the support of southern white Democrats. He tried to work behind the scenes with Barnett to get Meredith into the school, but when Meredith was escorted onto the Oxford, Mississippi campus by federal marshals mobs gathered and rioting broke out. Two people were killed and JFK was forced to send in federal troops to restore order and protect Meredith.

Birmingham: When, in the spring of 1963, King led demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, AL, he ran up against rabid segregationist and public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, who arrested thousands of protestors, including children, and used high-pressure fire hoses, police dogs, and electric cattle prods against the demonstrators. These violent actions were photographed and filmed by the news media and then broadcast all over the country, producing outrage among many and growing support for federal government action against segregation in the South. For the first time since Reconstruction there seemed to be popular support for civil rights for African Americans.

On June 11, 1963, JFK went on national television to discuss civil rights. He became the first president to define civil rights as a moral – not just a legal – issue. He announced that he would be sending to Congress an ambitious Civil Rights Bill that would outlaw legal segregation. But the bill ran up against stiff southern opposition in Congress.

March on Washington: On August 28, 1963, King spoke before an audience of some 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in support of civil rights. He gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, in which he spoke of a color blind society in which individuals would be judged by their character and not by their skin color. The march showed that the Civil Rights Movement was building momentum and gaining mass support, and this day was a high point in the movement’s history. Just over two weeks after the march, however, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four black girls and showing how deep the hatred was that the movement was fighting against.

Civil Rights Act of 1964:On Nov. 22, 1963 JFK was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) became president. Despite his southern background (he was from Texas) LBJ ended up doing more for civil rights than any president in U.S. history. He used the atmosphere of mourning over JFK’s death and his own brilliant persuasive skills to get Kennedy’s civil rights bill approved by Congress. One of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodations, putting an end to the Jim Crow system that had been born at the turn of the century. (In addition to banning job discrimination on the basis of race, the law banned discrimination on the basis of sex as well, beginning a revolution in employment opportunities for women.)

Voting Rights Act: After vicious – and nationally televised – attacks by Alabama state troopers on voting-rights demonstrators in Selma, AL, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed devices and practices designed to prevent blacks from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are the great legislative achievements of Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement. The Voting Rights Act revolutionized politics in the South – by the end of 1965, 250,000 new black southern voters had already been added to the voter rolls.