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African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968)


Martin Luther King is perhaps most famous for his "I Have a Dream" speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) was a biblically based movement that had significant social and political consequences for the United States. Black clergymen such as the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Wyatt T. Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and numerous others relied on religious faith strategically applied to solve America's obstinate racial problems. Black Christian leaders and their white allies joined together to challenge the immoral system of racial segregation. The movement sought to address and rectify the generations-old injustices of racism by employing the method of nonviolent resistance which they believed to be modeled after the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The founding fathers of the United States had written of humanity's inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but many did not believe this should apply to black slaves or women. The American Civil Rights Movement put up a decade of struggle long after slavery had ended and after other milestones in the fight to overcome discriminatory, segregationist practices. Racism obstructs America's desire to be a land of human equality; the struggle for equal rights was also a struggle for the soul of the nation.


From its birth in 1776 until the year 1955, the “American Experiment”-despite its many wonderful qualities-still suffered from racial inequality and injustice. These realities contradicted the equality and religious language at the root of the nation's founding. Finally, in 1955, progress toward racial equality took a great leap compared to the slow and gradual progress seen prior to this time. The champions of the Civil Rights Movement always included religious language in their battle for justice and wholesome race relations.

With the defeat of the Confederate States of America at the end of the Civil War, the nation entered a 12-year period (1865-1877) known as the Reconstruction. But from 1877 through to the end of the century, there arose a tragic proliferation of racially discriminatory laws and violence targeted at American blacks. Scholars generally agree that this period stands as the nadir of American race relations.

Even though Congress had adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee equal protection of blacks, in the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia (state), Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kansas, there emerged elected, appointed, and/or hired government officials who began to require and/or permit flagrant discrimination by way of various mechanisms. These included:

  1. racial segregation-upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896-which was legally mandated, regionally, by the Southern states and nationally at the local level of government;
  2. voter suppression or disfranchisement in the Southern states;
  3. denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide; and
  4. both private and public acts of terroristic violence aimed at American blacks-violence that was often aided and abetted by government authorities.

Although racial discrimination was present nationwide, it was specifically throughout the region of the Southern states that the combination of legally sanctioned bigotry, public and private acts of discrimination, marginalized economic opportunities, and terror directed toward blacks congealed into a system that came to be identified as Jim Crow. Because of its direct and relentless attack upon the system and thought of Jim Crow, some scholars refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the “Second Reconstruction.”

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968, conventional strategies employed to abolish discrimination against American blacks included efforts at litigation and lobbying by traditional organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These efforts had been the hallmarks of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1896 to 1954. However, by 1955, due to the policy of "Massive Resistance" displayed by the intransigent proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression, conscientious private citizens became dismayed at gradualistic approaches to effectuate desegregation by governmental fiat. In response, civil rights devotees adopted a dual strategy of direct action combined with nonviolent resistance, employing acts of civil disobedience. Such acts served to incite crisis situations between civil rights proponents and governmental authorities. These authorities-at the federal, state, and local levels-typically had to respond with immediate action in order to end the crisis scenarios. And the outcomes were increasingly deemed as favorable to the protesters and their cause. Some of the different forms of civil disobedience employed included boycotts, as successfully practiced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) in Alabama; "sit-ins," as demonstrated by the influential Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; and protest marches, as exhibited by the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama.

Noted achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are:

  1. the legal victory in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case that overturned the legal doctrine of "separate but equal" and made segregation legally impermissible
  2. passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations
  3. passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that safeguarded blacks' suffrage
  4. passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which dramatically changed U.S. immigration policy
  5. passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that banned discrimination in the sale and/or rental of housing

Approaching the boiling point: Historical context and evolving thought

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Main article: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision regarding the case dubbed Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas), in which the plaintiffs charged that the practice of educating black children in public schools totally separated from their white counterparts was unconstitutional. In the court's ruling, it was stated that the "segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."

In its 9-0 ruling, the Court declared that Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the "separate but equal" practice of segregation, was unconstitutional, and ordered that established segregation be phased out over time.

The Murder of Emmett Till (1955)

Murders of American blacks at the hands of whites were still quite common in the 1950s and still went largely unpunished throughout the South. The murder of Emmett Till-a teenage boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955-was different, however. During the pre-dawn hours of August 28, the youngster was brutally beaten by his two white abductors, who then shot Till and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. The boy's age; the nature of his crime (allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store); and his mother's decision to keep the casket open at his funeral, thereby displaying the horrifically savage beating that had been inflicted on her son; all worked to propel into a cause célèbre what might otherwise have been relegated into a routine statistic. As many as 50,000 people may have viewed Till's body at the funeral home in Chicago and many thousands more were exposed to the evidence of his maliciously unjust slaying when a photograph of his mutilated corpse was published in Jet Magazine.

His two murderers were arrested the day after Till's disappearance. Both were acquitted a month later, after the jury of all white men deliberated for 67 minutes and then issued their "Not Guilty" verdict. The murder and subsequent acquittal galvanized Northern public opinion in much the same way that the long campaign to free the "Scottsboro Boys" had done in the 1930s. After being acquitted, the two murderers went on record as blatantly declaring that they were indeed guilty. They remained free and unpunished as a consequence of the judicial procedure known as "double jeopardy."

Mass Action Replaces Litigation

After Brown v. Board of Education, the conventional strategy of courtroom litigation began to shift towards "direct action"-primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and similar tactics, all of which relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience-from 1955 to 1965. This was, in part, the unintended outcome of the local authorities' attempts to outlaw and harass the mainstream civil rights organizations throughout the Deep South. In 1956 the State of Alabama had effectively barred within its boundaries the operations of the NAACP, by requiring that organization to submit a list of its members, and then proscribing it from all activity when it failed to do so. While the United States Supreme Court ultimately reversed the prohibition, there was a period of a few years in the mid-1950s during which the NAACP was unable to operate. During that span, in June 1956, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth began the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to act as a fill-in.

Churches and other, local, grassroots entities likewise stepped in to fill the gap. They brought with them a much more energetic and broad-based style than the more legalistic approach of groups such as the NAACP.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956)

Quite possibly the most important step forward took place in Montgomery, Alabama, where long-time NAACP activists Rosa Parks and Edgar Nixon prevailed on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.

Did you know?The Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a seminal event in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks (the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement"), while riding on a public bus, refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, after being ordered to do so by the bus driver. Mrs. Parks was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted of disorderly conduct and of violating a local ordinance. After word of this incident reached Montgomery, Alabama's black community, fifty of its most prominent leaders gathered for dialogue, strategizing, and the crafting of an appropriate response. They finally organized and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to protest the practice of segregating blacks and whites in public transportation. The successful boycott lasted for 382 days (1956 was a leap year), until the local ordinance legalizing the segregation of blacks and whites on public buses was vitiated.

Activists and black church leaders in other communities, such as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had used the boycott methodology relatively recently, although these efforts often withered away after a few days. In Montgomery, on the other hand, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was birthed to lead the boycott, and the MIA managed to keep the effort going for more than a year, until a federal court-order required the city to desegregate its public buses. The triumph in Montgomery propelled Dr. King to nationally known, luminary status and triggered subsequent bus boycotts, such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida boycott of 1956-1957.

As a result of these and other breakthroughs, the leaders of the MIA, Dr. King, and Rev. John Duffy, linked with other church leaders who had led similar boycott efforts (such as Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee and Rev. T.J. Jemison of Baton Rouge; and other activists, such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levison) to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, did not attempt to create a network of chapters as did the NAACP, but instead offered training and other assistance for local efforts to confront entrenched segregation, while raising funds, mostly from Northern sources, to support these campaigns. It made the philosophy of non-violence both its central tenet and its primary method of challenging systematically condoned racism.

In 1957 Septima Clarke, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, with the help of the Highlander Research and Education Center began the first Citizenship Schools on South Carolina's Sea Islands. The goal was to impart literacy to blacks, thereby empowering them to pass voter-eligibility tests. An enormous success, the program tripled the number of eligible black voters on St. John Island. The program was then taken over by the SCLC and was duplicated elsewhere.

Desegregating Little Rock (1957)

Crowds protesting the integration of Little Rock schools

Following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock, Arkansas school board voted in 1957 to integrate the school system. The NAACP had chosen to press for integration in Little Rock-rather than in the Deep South-because Arkansas was considered a relatively progressive Southern state. A crisis erupted, however, when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent the enrollment into Little Rock's Central High School of the nine American black students who had sued for the right to attend a "whites-only" facility. On the opening day of the school term, only one of the nine students showed up, because she did not receive the phone call warning of the danger of going to school. Whites at the school grounds harassed her and the police had to whisk her away to safety in a patrol car. Following this, the nine black students had to carpool to the campus and had to be escorted by military personnel in jeeps.

Faubus himself was not a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist, but after his Brown decision, he had been significantly pressured to rescind that promise by the more conservative wing of the Arkansas Democrat Party, which controlled politics in that state at the time. Under duress, Faubus took a stand against integration and against the federal court order that required it.

Faubus' rescission set him on a collision course with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the Federal courts' orders, his own ambivalence and lukewarmness on the issue of school desegregation notwithstanding. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and ordered them to return to their barracks. The president then deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.

The nine students were able to attend classes, although they had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to take their seats on their first day and had to endure harassment from fellow students for the entire year.

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides


The Civil Rights Movement received an infusion of energy when students in Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia, began to "sit-in" at the lunch counters of a few of their local stores, to protest those establishments' refusal to desegregate. These protesters were encouraged to dress professionally, to sit quietly, and to occupy every other stool so that potential white sympathizers could join in. Many of these sit-ins provoked local authority figures to use brute force in physically escorting the demonstrators from the lunch facilities.

The "sit-in" technique was not new-the Congress of Racial Equality had used it to protest segregation in the Midwest in the 1940s-but it brought national attention to the movement in 1960. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns throughout the South. Probably the best organized, most highly disciplined, the most immediately effective of these was in Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of 1960, the sit-ins had spread to every Southern and border state and even to Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio. Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but also on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places. Upon being arrested, student demonstrators made "jail-no-bail" pledges, to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest, thereby saddling their jailers with the financial burden of prison space and food.

Freedom Rides

In April of 1960, the activists who had led these sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to take these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further. Their first campaign, in 1961, involved conducting freedom rides, in which activists traveled by bus through the deep South, to desegregate Southern bus companies' terminals, as required by federal law. CORE's leader, James Farmer, supported the freedom-rides idea, but, at the last minute, he backed out of actually participating.

The freedom rides proved to be an enormously dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed and its passengers forced to flee for their lives. In Birmingham-where an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor had encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to attack an incoming group of freedom riders "until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them"-the riders were severely beaten. In eerily quiet Montgomery, Alabama, a mob charged another busload of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life Magazine photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded Jim Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth.

The freedom riders did not fare much better in jail, where they were crammed into tiny, filthy cells and were sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended from the walls by "wrist breakers." Typically, the windows of their cells were tightly shut on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.

The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, the single-minded activist who "kept on" despite many beatings and harassments; James Lawson, the revered "guru" of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Robert Parris Moses, pioneer of voting registration in Mississippi the most rural-and most dangerous-part of the South; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer and facilitator. Other prominent student activists were Charles McDew; Bernard Lafayette; Charles Jones; Lonnie King; Julian Bond (associated with Atlanta University); Hosea Williams (associated with Brown Chapel); and Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture.

Organizing in Mississippi

In 1962, Robert Moses, SNCC's representative in Mississippi, brought together the civil rights organizations in that state-SNCC, the NAACP, and CORE-to form COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations. Mississippi was the most dangerous of all the Southern states, yet Moses, Medgar Evers of the NAACP, and other local activists embarked on door-to-door voter education projects in rural areas, determined to recruit students to their cause. Evers was assassinated the following year.

James Meredith walking to class accompanied by U.S. marshals

While COFO was working at the grassroots level in Mississippi, Clyde Kennard attempted to enter the University of Southern Mississippi. He was deemed a racial agitator by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, was convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and was sentenced to seven years in jail. He served three, and then was freed, but only because he had intestinal cancer and the Mississippi government didn't want him to die in prison.

Two years later, James Meredith successfully sued for admission to the University of Mississippi in September 1962, and then attempted to enter the campus on September 20, on September 25, and again on September 26, only to be blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett. Barnett proclaimed, "No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor." After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held both Barnett and Lieutenant Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. in contempt, with fines of more than $10,000 for each day they refused to allow Meredith to enroll. Meredith, escorted by a band of U.S. marshals, entered the campus on September 30, 1962.

White students and non-students began rioting that evening, first throwing rocks at the U.S. marshals who were guarding Meredith at Lyceum Hall and then firing on them. Two persons, including a French journalist, were killed; 28 marshals suffered gunshot wounds, and 160 others were injured. After the Mississippi Highway Patrol withdrew from the campus, President Kennedy sent the regular Army to the campus to quell the uprising. Meredith was able to begin classes the following day, after the troops arrived.

The Albany Movement (1961-1967)

In November 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which had been criticized by some student activists for its failure to participate more fully in the freedom rides, committed much of its prestige and resources to a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been bitterly aspersed by some SNCC activists for his distance from the dangers that local organizers faced-and was subsequently dubbed with the derisive nickname "De Lawd"-intervened personally to assist the campaign led by both SNCC organizers and local leaders.

The campaign was a failure, due to the wily tactics of local Police Chief Laurie Pritchett. He successfully contained the movement without wreaking the sort of violent attacks on demonstrators that inflamed national opinion, and that sparked outcries from within the black community. Pritchett also contacted every prison and jail within 60 miles of Albany and arranged for arrested demonstrators to be taken to one of these facilities, allowing plenty of room to remain in his own jail. In addition to these arrangements, Pritchett also deemed King's presence as a threat, and forced the leader's release to avoid his rallying the black community. King departed in 1962 without achieving any dramatic victories. The local movement, however, continued the struggle and achieved significant gains over the next few years.

The Birmingham Campaign (1963-1964)

The Albany movement eventually proved to have been an important education for the SCLC when the organization undertook its Birmingham Campaign in 1963. This effort focused on one short-range goal-the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown business enterprises-rather than on total desegregation, as in Albany. It was also helped by the brutally barbaric response of local authorities, particularly that of Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety. Connor had lost a recent mayoral election to a less rabidly segregationist candidate, but he refused to accept the new mayor's authority.

The voting-rights campaign employed a variety of nonviolent confrontation tactics, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to designate the beginning of a drive to register voters. The city, however, obtained an injunction, barring all such protests. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the campaign defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. Dr. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963.

While in jail on April 16, King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of a newspaper, since he had not been granted any writing paper by jail authorities during his solitary confinement. Supporters, meanwhile, pressured the Kennedy administration to intervene and obtain King's release or, at the least, improve conditions. King was eventually allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and he was finally released on April 19.

The campaign, however, was faltering at this time, as the movement was running out of demonstrators who were willing to risk being jailed. SCLC organizers came up with a bold and highly controversial alternative: calling on high school students to take part in the protest activity. When more than a thousand students walked out of school on May 2 to join the demonstrations in what would come to be called the Children's Crusade, more than six hundred ended up in jail. This was newsworthy, but during this initial encounter the police acted with restraint. On the next day, however, another thousand students gathered at the church, and Bull Connor unleashed vicious police dogs on them. He then mercilessly turned the city's fire hoses-which were set at a level that would peel bark from a tree or separate bricks from mortar-directly on the students. Television cameras broadcasted to the nation the scenes of battering-ram waterspouts knocking down defenseless schoolchildren and of dogs attacking unarmed individual demonstrators.

The resultant widespread public outrage impelled the Kennedy administration to intervene more forcefully in the negotiations between the white business community and the SCLC. On May 10, 1963, the parties declared an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters and other public accommodations downtown, to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, to arrange for the release of jailed protesters, and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders.

Not everyone in the black community approved of the agreement. Fred Shuttlesworth was particularly critical, since he had accumulated a great deal of skepticism about the good faith of Birmingham's power structure from his experience in dealing with them. The reaction from certain parts of the white community was even more violent. The Gaston Motel, which housed the SCLC's unofficial headquarters, was bombed, as was the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.|King's brother, the Reverend A.D. King. Kennedy prepared to federalize the Alabama National Guard, but did not follow through. Four months later, on September 15, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls.

The summer of 1963 was also eventful. On June 11, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, attempted to block the integration of the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy dispatched enough force to make Governor Wallace step aside, thereby allowing the enrollment of two black students. That evening, Kennedy addressed the nation via TV and radio with an historic civil rights speech.1 The next day in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was assassinated.2 The following week, as promised, on June 19, 1963, Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.3

The March on Washington (1963)

Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963Civil Rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963

Back in 1941, A. Philip Randolph had planned a March on Washington in support of demands for the elimination of employment discrimination in defense industries. He called off the march when the Roosevelt administration met that demand by issuing Executive Order 8802, barring racial discrimination and creating an agency to oversee compliance with the order.

Randolph and Bayard Rustin were the chief planners of the second March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which they proposed in 1962. The Kennedy administration vigorously pressured Randolph and King to call it off, but to no avail. The march was held on August 28, 1963.

Unlike the planned 1941 march, for which Randolph included only black-led organizations on the agenda, the 1963 March was a collaborative effort of all of the major civil rights organizations, the more progressive wing of the labor movement, and other liberal groups. The March had six official goals: "meaningful civil rights laws; a massive federal works program; full and fair employment; decent housing; the right to vote; and adequate integrated education." Of these, the March's central focus was on passage of the civil rights bill that the Kennedy administration had proposed after the upheavals in Birmingham.

The March was a stunning success, although not without controversy. More than 200,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While many of the rally's speakers applauded the Kennedy Administration for the (largely ineffective) efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation to protect voting rights and to outlaw segregation, John Lewis of SNCC took the administration to task for how little it had done to protect Southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South. While he toned down his comments under pressure from others in the movement, his words still stung:

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here-for they have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages… or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses when engaging in peaceful demonstrations. This bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges like those in Americus, Georgia, where four young men are in jail, facing a death penalty, for engaging in peaceful protest.

I want to know: which side is the federal government on? The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. Listen Mr. Kennedy, the black masses are on the march for jobs and for freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a 'cooling-off period.'

After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House. While the Kennedy administration appeared to be sincerely committed to passing the bill,