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The Beginning of Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Essay

“Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.1” These were the words of Martin Luther King Jr.. For nearly 80 years after being freed from slavery, African-Americans suffered under the discrimination and segregation of their fellow Americans. After World War II, African-Americans were ready for change and the nation could feel the inevitable Civil Rights Movement coming. With nonviolence and motivation the Civil Rights wheels were set in motion led by determined leaders and brave youth, which would have a permanent effect on American society. After the Civil War ended on June 22nd, 1865 and the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in the last states that still had slaves. With the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African-Americans had for the first time in history the privileges of citizenship and the right to vote.

Unfortunately, with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, the situation for African-Americans, all across the nation, would only deteriorate until the Civil Rights Movement starting in 1954, keeping most African-Americans unable to vote making them “economically and politically powerless”.2 Many unsuccessful attempts for civil rights, unsupportive presidents, and violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan made Civil Rights progress nearly impossible for nearly 80 years, even under the support from organizations such as the NAACP. African-Americans had to abide by Black Codes and Jim Crow laws in many parts of America and faced daily discrimination. Segregation under Black Codes and Jim Crow laws became a part of daily life for African-Americans all over America. The “separate but equal” reasoning was backed by the US Supreme court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case after a Louisiana Law stated that railroads must provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, race.”3 African-Americans tried to push Civil Rights on different occasions such as World War II, where the idea of a “Double V” (spreading democracy abroad and at home for African Americans) began after James G. Thompson wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942; “let colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory.”4 Though somewhat successful with the passing of the Fair Employment Act, most consider the Civil Rights Movement to begin after the Brown v. Board of Education case5 in 1954, ruling segregated schooling unconstitutional.

The Brown v. Board of Education was a major step in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the first attempts to integrate a school in Little Rock, Arkansas received national attention after the nine black students who were selected to join a previously white high school were met by an angry mob. President Eisenhower had to send troops in just so that these students could go to school unharmed, a headliner that shocked the nation.6 This would not be the only violent reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. The majority of Civil Rights activists, though, believed in nonviolence.7 Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who was a supporter of nonviolence, said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a sword that heals. (It) cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”8 This nonviolent approach to Civil Rights could be seen in the way African-Americans used Buses to break down segregation; both in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the Freedom Rides in 1961. Claudette Colvin was 15 years old when she was arrested for refusing to move to the black section of a bus.

Nine months later, a more famous bus arrest happened to Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the opportunity to start a mass boycott coordinated the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), of which he was president of.9 The boycott lasted 13 months and was a major success, when bus segregation was abolished in Montgomery. This proved that peaceful methods could be used to successfully achieve change for Civil Rights. Another popular nonviolent method of civil disobedience were the “Sit-ins.” One famous “sit-in” was lead by the “Greensboro Four” a group of four African-American college students who sat at the lunch counter of a segregated store, sparking a wave of similar sit-ins around the country.10 The nonviolent mindset of many Civil Rights activists was often not reflected in the resistance they met, particularly in Southern states. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were originally led by thirteen college students, seven black and six white, who traveled with interstate Greyhound buses from the North to the South to defy the segregated busing system and segregation at the interstate transportation facilities.11 As the movement grew in numbers and recognition, so did the violence that met them when the buses rolled into the South.

Angry white mobs, mainly made up of KKK members, threw firebombs and beat and tortured the students as they stumbled out of the burning buses. As media caught wind of this and images began circulating, the nation was shocked. The eventual desegregation on the interstate buses was pushed in most part by the newly elected President John F. Kennedy and his brother, the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.12 In the election of 1960, the two candidates were Richard Nixon for the Republican Party and John F. Kennedy for the Democratic Party, though he was part of a more liberal part of the Democratic party, causing much of the South to be somewhat hesitant in their support.13 The election ended up being one of the closest elections of US history, and Kennedy won mainly due to the first-ever televised presidential debate. Kennedy was good-looking, and charismatic whereas Nixon was nervous and sweating; unprepared for the media.14 He appointed his brother, Attorney General shortly thereafter. President Kennedy was a supporter of civil rights, but had to choose between the support of the South and his belief in civil rights, so he started taking only small steps towards progress. His brother was also a supporter of Civil Rights and helped by integrating the government.

Many Civil Rights activists, who were hoping Kennedys would kick the Civil Rights Movement into motion were disappointed by the slow process. Kennedy changed his cautious approach after violence escalated in the town of Birmingham, Alabama as a result of a peaceful protest led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 was located in Birmingham, Alabama, considered at the time to be “America’s most segregated city.” Martin Luther King Jr. took up the challenge of desegregating this town believing that if he could successfully desegregate the town of Birmingham, he could desegregate any town in America. A court order was obtained by the city against the protests, though Martin Luther King Jr., along with the other leaders of the movement decided to disobey the order and continue.

King was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for eight days.15 The campaign leader came up with the idea to bring young people and even children into the protest, representing innocent and pure intentions of young Civil Rights activists.16 On May 2nd, thousands of young people protested and hundreds were arrested. Images of policemen clubbing, shooting with high powered hoses, and releasing dogs on the youth flooded the media, causing once again, a very outraged nation. Pressure mounted on the government and President Kennedy. Kennedy, who had only been dipping his feet in the Civil Rights Movement until that moment, now cannonballed his way into full-fledged support of Civil Rights after giving a very clear message in his Civil Rights Address on June 11th, 1963, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”17 In this speech he also declared that he was going to propose an act allowing all Americans to use public facilities without facing discrimination or segregation, continuing the integration of schools, and other features, such as more protection for voters. This would be known as the Civil Rights Act, and would be passed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Though the government had proved supportive in this case, many in the government tried to suppress the Civil Rights Movement, such as J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972.

Many of the direct attacks on the Civil Rights Movement came from groups like the Ku Klux Klan and policemen, but the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover led a much more invasive attack on the movement and Dr. King in particular. J. Edgar Hoover was a white supremacist with no sympathy for Civil Rights and spent much of his time trying to discredit the movement and Dr. King. Even as the Red Scare died down in the 1950’s, being accused of communism or affiliations with communism was often a serious blow to a person’s career and reputation.18 The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were also responsible for investigations against communist activities. Hoover used an allegation of communism to keep Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement under constant investigation and surveillance. He used tapes of Kennedy affairs as blackmail, so that President Kennedy would allow him to wiretap King’s phones in October 1963. What he found though, were not communist activities, but affairs King had. The FBI then mailed the tapes to him, encouraging him to commit suicide to spare him public embarrassment.19 The FBI continued investigating King even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, when the FBI’s responsibility of investigating crimes against civil rights greatly increased.20 After King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967, the FBI saw this as proof that he was being influenced by communist advisers.

However when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the FBI launched a successful investigation finding his killer. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I have a dream,” was given at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963, the largest peaceful rally of the time with around 250,000 people of all ages, races, and walks of life. The march had been planned in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph for equality in the jobs market, but never happened after Randolph threatened the 100,000 strong march to President Roosevelt and Roosevelt passed the Fair Employment Act.21 The event was sponsored by numerous organizations and people. There were also a variety of speakers (among them a rabbi representing the overwhelming proportion of Jewish supporters of the civil rights movement22) and musicians including Bob Dylan.23 The most memorable moment, was of course, the speech of Martin Luther King Jr. towards the end of the event. This historical speech was not only on Civil Rights, but also of the dream that King had of a nation where blacks and whites would live together in friendship and acceptance.

24 After the historical march, King and other Civil Rights leaders met with President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson to discuss the necessity the complete support of Civil Rights.25 Some of the terms discussed in the aftermath of the March on Washington were reflected the the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act after Kennedy was assassinated. President Kennedy was the hope and inspiration of many young Americans of the Baby Boomer generation, especially African-Americans. In the midst of campaigning for his second term, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald. This stunned the American people and caused a wave confusion and grieving. The resulting mood was one of grief and apprehension of the future of the American government. Kennedy’s vice president was Lyndon B. Johnson, an avid supporter of Civil Rights and social justice, but also known for his “arm-twisting” methods of getting things through Congress and being a drunkard, was somewhat of a love-hate figure of American Politics. He used his questionable methods to push Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964. The Act made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate, effectively destroying the Jim Crow system and making Civil Rights crimes a matter of the federal court, not the state court.

The act was a huge step forward, but did not address voting rights. Voting rights were passed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after a wave of violence in the town of Selma, Alabama when a nonviolent campaign to register African-American voters led by Martin Luther King Jr. and many Civil Rights leaders marched it’s way from Selma to Montgomery. Things began escalating about a month in on February 2nd, 1965 when a young African-American was shot to death by a state-trooper after trying to protect his mother from the police.26 This sparked the Selma to Montgomery March on March 7th, 1965. The march met a police blockade in Selma with clubs and tear gas and that day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” sparking national outrage. The march continued and was continually met by police and KKK brutality and added deaths. On August 6th, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act; the events in Selma greatly impacting the act. This is considered the “political and emotional peak of the American civil rights movement.”27 The movement began to stray from the nonviolent tradition in the late 1960’s and especially after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Many African-Americans in the North felt left out from the successes of the Civil Rights.

The suburb culture of the 1950’s and 60’s led to a flood of rich white Americans moving out of the cities, leaving the poor African-Americans in the North, stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime. The more militant movement challenging Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas was led by Malcolm X, formally part of the Nation of Islam. He promoted the idea of black pride and that African-Americans should defend themselves against white aggression.28 Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, but his ideas of black pride led to the Black Power movement, empowering African-Americans and instilling a sense of pride among them. Unfortunately it also promoted a very “macho” culture, which was not very women’s rights friendly. Many consider the Civil Rights Movement to have ended in 1968, and may believe that racism is a thing of the past and that this generation has learned, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “not be judge by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”29 Unfortunately, discrimination for many minorities is a very real part of their life in America today.

There is statistical data showing that problems like discrimination in the workplace30, wealth gaps between races31, and disproportionately high crime and incarceration rates for minorities exist. A study done in 2000 to 2002, showed that most employers called back applicants with resumes with white-sounding names (versus black-sounding names) more often than not.32 Nonwhite families earned approx. 65% of what white families earned in 2012.33 This gap between whites and minorities is a battle still being fought today. Many believe that the minorities are also unrepresented in the government, thus hindering any major progress for minorities. The Civil Rights movement was a movement against hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination. It was a movement that swept the country and changed the culture and politics of America forever, led by determined, courageous leaders whose names will always be remembered. It opened the economic, political, and social doors that African-Americans had never had the privilege to explore in the days of segregation and discrimination. Though racism will probably always be present in some form, the impact of the civil rights movement was a necessary and undeniable step for all of mankind.


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