The Civil Rights Movement
Main Years: mid-1950s to the late 1960s / Main anthem of the movement: “We Shall Overcome”
Truman and Civil Rights
1. After WWII, social unrest persisted. Many blacks, particularly those who had served in the armed forces
during the war, demanded their rights as citizens.
2. Truman, a Democrat from Missouri, supported civil rights and put his presidency on the line for the
cause. Many southerners opposed Truman’s emphasis on civil rights, and some Southern Democrats,
later called Dixiecrats, formed their own political party (the States’ Rights Democratic Party) in the
1948 presidential election and nominated the governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond.
3. After WWII Congress refused to pass civil rights measures, including one to integrate the armed forces,
so Truman took action. The outstanding record of many blacks in the military during the war, along with
the determination of many black ex-soldiers to achieve freedom for themselves at home after fighting for
freedom abroad, contributed to Truman’s decision to take action. The president is the commander-in-
chief of the armed forces, so in July 1948 he issued an executive order for integration of the
4. Truman also ordered an end to discrimination in the hiring of federal government employees.
5. The Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts could not bar blacks from residential neighborhoods.
6. The actions by Truman and the Supreme Court represented the beginnings of a federal commitment
to dealing with racial issues. **So…logically…it was the federal government that was largely
responsible for actions and laws changing segregation and discrimination…the southern states were not
going to change on their own!!**
7. Why were many white southerners so resistant to civil rights for blacks?
White southerners felt threatened by any effort that would give full rights to African Americans, as this
challenged their ideas of racial superiority and their political control.
8. Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball
During Truman’s presidency major league baseball was integrated. In 1947 Jackie Robinson joined the
Brooklyn Dodgers, angering some fans but winning the hearts and respect of many others. Robinson
dealt with insults and death threats, which he endured with poise and restraint. He said that he
had to stay composed because he was “an experiment.” In 1949 Robinson was voted the National
League’s Most Valuable Player, and later he became the first black in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Terms and Ideas
*civil rights---the political, economic, and social rights of a citizen; particularly, those guaranteed under
the U.S. Constitution, such as the right to vote and the right to equal treatment under the law
*segregation---separation; the enforced separation of racial groups in schooling, housing, and other
*integration (desegregation)---joining together; policy ending the separation of groups
*Jim Crow laws---laws enacted by Southern state and local governments to separate white and black people
in public and private facilities
*relationship between the Cold War’s policy of containment & the civil rights movement:
The U.S. wanted third world countries on our side so they wouldn’t turn communist; most people in these
countries were non-whites, so we needed to treat our non-whites more fairly to obtain third world support.
The Beginnings of the Movement in the 1950s / Challenging Segregation
**Three major catalysts of the civil rights movement:
---the Brown case
--- Emmett Till’s murder
---Montgomery Bus Boycott
Before the civil rights movement began, segregation was a fact of American life---and law. Through
most of the South and parts of the North, blacks and whites attended separate schools, ate in separate
restaurants, rode in separate sections of buses, and drank from separate water fountains. Courts of law
used separate Bibles for black and white witnesses, and in many department stores, blacks were not
allowed to try on clothing. The state of Florida required “Negro” and “white” textbooks, while
South Carolina’s black and white cotton-mill workers were not allowed to look out the same window.
1. The events of WWII set the stage for the civil rights movement:
*the demand for soldiers in the early 1940s created a shortage of white male laborers, which
opened up job opportunities for minorities
*about 1 million blacks served in the armed forces; many returned from the war determined to fight
for their own freedom now that they had helped defeat fascist regimes overseas
*during the war, civil rights organizations actively campaigned for black voting rights and challenged
Jim Crow laws (especially CORE, or the Congress of Racial Equality)
2. The desegregation campaign was led largely by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People), which had fought since 1909 to end segregation.
*NAACP’s legal strategy---focus on the inequality between the separate public schools
*black lawyer Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP lawyers won 29 out of 32 cases argued before the
Supreme Court between 1938 and 1961, the biggest of which was Brown vs. Board of Education.
3. 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson --- the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for
blacks and whites did not violate the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all Americans
equal treatment under the law (so… the Jim Crow laws separating the races were passed)
4. 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ---this case reversed the Plessy ruling
*the Supreme Court unanimously struck down segregation in schooling as an unconstitutional
violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (“No state shall…deny to any person
within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”)
*Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, “…to separate them [children] …solely because of their race
generates a feeling of inferiority …that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely
ever to be undone.”
5. Impact of the Brown case:
*in a series of cases after Brown, the Supreme Court prohibited segregation in housing, in
public beaches, at recreation facilities, and in restaurants
*the decision encountered fierce resistance and awakened the old battle cry of states’ rights;
directly following Brown, some Congress members circulated the “Southern Manifesto,”
claiming the right of the states to ignore the ruling (3 southerners didn't sign it, including LBJ)
*the Brown case strengthened the civil rights movement and paved the way for the end of Jim Crow
*Americans got the strong message that the federal government now took civil rights seriously
6. Reaction to the Brown case:
*in Kansas and Oklahoma, state officials said they expected segregation to end with little trouble;
in Texas the governor promised to comply but warned that plans might “take years” to work out;
in Georgia and Mississippi, officials vowed total resistance
*in some places, the KKK reappeared and White Citizens Councils boycotted businesses that
*within a year of Brown, more than 500 school districts had desegregated their classrooms
*a follow-up case: Brown II (1955):
---the Supreme Court was well aware that its decision would be difficult to enforce
---in Brown II in 1955, the Court required that integration take place “with all deliberate speed”
---to some this meant quickly; others interpreted deliberate to mean slowly
7. Crisis in Little Rock (Arkansas) / a major example of resistance to the Brown decision
*in Sept. 1957, Arkansas’s governor, Orval Faubus, publicly showed support for segregation when he
ordered the National Guard to turn away the “Little Rock Nine,” or the 9 black students who had
volunteered to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School
*a federal judge ordered Faubus to let the students into the school
*one of the black students, Elizabeth Eckford, did not get the NAACP’s telephone call to drive to
school, so she walked and faced an abusive crowd outside the high school; a famous photograph
shows her entering the high school as whites jeer at her
*President Eisenhower was forced to act; he placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control
and ordered a thousand paratroopers into Little Rock
*the nation watched the televised coverage of the event
*under the watch of soldiers, the 9 black teenagers attended classes
*at the end of the year Faubus shut down Central High rather than let integration continue
8. The Murder of Emmett Till (NOTE: chronologically, this is before the crisis in Little Rock and
several months after the Brown decision)
*Till was a 14-year-old Chicago native who visited his grand-uncle, Mose Wright, in Mississippi
in the summer of 1955. Two white men were arrested and accused of killing the boy for talking fresh
to a white woman in a grocery store. Although Wright received threats to his life, he took the witness
stand and pointed to the two white men when asked to identify Till’s killers.
*The men were found not guilty by an all-white jury, but Wright’s bold stand marked the beginning of
a profound change in black attitudes toward the social system. Three months later, in Montgomery,
Alabama, Rosa Parks took another bold stand and sparked a highly effective challenge to
9. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 1955—December 1956)
*buses had sections for blacks at the back
*Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man and was arrested / remember, segregation was
the law and had to be obeyed
*the NAACP suggested a nonviolent bus boycott and formed the Montgomery Improvement
Association with the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King,
Jr., as its leader
*in Dec. 1956 the Supreme Court outlawed bus segregation / a major victory!!
King and Nonviolence / the SCLC and the SNCC
1. King advocated nonviolence and civil disobedience, or purposefully disobeying unjust laws; many of
his ideas came from Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi
2. formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) / 1957
*King joined with ministers and civil rights workers to form this group
*its purpose was “to carry on nonviolent crusades against the evils of second-class citizenship”
*African-American churches were used as bases
*first executive director of the SCLC -- Ella Baker
3. formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) / 1960
*1960 --- Ella Baker helped students at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC to organize this
national protest group
*by 1960 it had been 6 years since the Brown decision, and many students viewed the pace
of change as too slow
*SNCC adopted King’s ideas in part, but many members called for a more confrontational
strategy and set out to reshape the civil rights movement
4. SNCC used the earlier idea of sit-ins used in 1942 by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality);
students held sit-ins at lunch counters all across the country; the first one was held at a Woolworth’s
in Greensboro, NC; television crews brought coverage of the protests into homes throughout the U.S.;
the protestors endured beatings, arrests, suspension from college, tear gas, and fire hoses
Freedom Riders and JFK’s Response
1. In 1961 Supreme Court decisions banned segregated seating on interstate bus routes and
segregated facilities in bus terminals. Freedom riders, including blacks and whites, took a two-bus
trip across the South to test the decisions. They hoped to provoke a violent reaction that would
convince the Kennedy administration to enforce the law.
2. Bus One riders were attacked in Alabama, and the trip ended in Birmingham.
3. Bus Two riders were attacked in Annistown, Alabama, and a mob followed the activists out of town.
When one of the tires blew, the mob smashed a window and tossed in a fire bomb. The Freedom Riders
got out just before the bus exploded. This ended Bus Two’s ride.
4. SNCC volunteers in Nashville formed a new round of Freedom Riders and went to Birmingham,
where the police beat them and drove them into Tennessee. The riders returned, however, and went on
to Montgomery. Although Alabama officials had promised Kennedy that the riders would be protected,
a mob of whites beat up the riders. A Justice Department official on the scene called the
Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, to report on what was happening.
5. The violence provoked exactly the response the Freedom Riders wanted. Newspapers throughout the
nation and abroad denounced the beatings.
6. President Kennedy arranged to give the Freedom Riders direct support. The Justice Department sent
400 U.S. marshals to protect the riders on the last part of their journey to Jackson, Mississippi.
In addition, the Attorney General and the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in
all interstate travel facilities, including waiting rooms, restrooms, and lunch counters.
Integrating Colleges in the South and Kennedy’s Support of Civil Rights
1. Sept. 1962 / integration of the University of Mississippi
*Air Force veteran James Meredith won a federal court case that allowed him to register at
the all-white University of Mississippi, nicknamed Ole Miss. The governor refused to let
him register, and President Kennedy ordered federal marshals to the school.
*On Sept. 30, riots broke out and 2 people were killed. It took thousands of soldiers, 200 arrests,
and 15 hours to stop the rioters. Federal officials accompanied Meredith to class in the months
2. June 1963 / “Stand at the Schoolhouse Door” / integration of the University of Alabama
*On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama fulfilled a campaign pledge he had made
earlier by standing at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in a symbolic
attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the school.
*The year had begun with Wallace vowing “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, and
Segregation Forever!” in his inaugural speech.
*Only the deployment of National Guard troops, placed under federal control by President Kennedy,
ensured the students’ safety and their peaceful admission into the University of Alabama. (Wallace
stepped aside when the officials came.)
*The incident catapulted Wallace into the national spotlight and he went on to make four runs at the
*This was a defining moment for JFK. In staring down the South’s most defiant segregationist
(Wallace), President Kennedy aligned himself solidly with the civil rights movement. The realities of
international Cold War politics pushed Kennedy to become a firm supporter of civil rights. On
June 11th, Kennedy went on national television and offered his personal endorsement of the
civil rights activism: “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the
rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not
ask for whites only…Are we to say to the rest of the world, and much more importantly, to each other,
that this is a land of the free except for Negroes?” The next week Kennedy asked Congress to pass a
civil rights law. (Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, eventually pushed civil rights laws through
3. A tragic event just hours after Kennedy’s speech highlighted the racial tension in much of the South.
Shortly after midnight, a sniper murdered Medgar Evers, a Mississippi NAACP field secretary and
World War II veteran. Police arrested a white supremacist, Byron de la Beckwith, but he was released
after 2 trials ended in hung juries. His release brought a new militancy to African Americans, many
of whom demanded, “Freedom Now!”
Trouble in Birmingham / King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”/ Power of Television
1. Birmingham had a history of racial violence, experiencing 18 bombings from 1957 to 1963.
2. King and the SCLC came to help desegregate the city. After days of demonstrations, King and some
marchers were arrested on April 12, 1963. While in jail, King wrote a powerful open letter to white
religious leaders who felt that he was pushing too fast (excerpt on p. 918 of text; we will read more of
the letter in class). King wrote his letter on scattered scraps of paper that a friend smuggled out of jail.
3. Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s police commissioner, was a racist. Cops arrested almost a
thousand black children during a march on May 2, and on May 3 a second children’s crusade came face
to face with a helmeted police force. Police swept marchers off their feet with high-pressure fire hoses,
set attack dogs on them, and clubbed those who fell. TV cameras captured all of it, and millions of
viewers heard the children screaming. Bull Connor offended the conscience of a nation. Several
commentators noted that the pictures of his use of police dogs and fire hoses did much to advance the
cause of civil rights among Americans who previously had been undecided or uncaring about the issue.
4. Birmingham Church Bombing (movie called 4 Little Girls)
*On Sept. 15, 1963, the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was one of the most
abhorrent crimes of the civil rights movement. Four young girls attending Sunday School, aged
11 to 14, were killed when a bomb exploded in the church. 20 others were injured. The church was
a center for civil rights meetings, and just a few days earlier, courts had ordered the desegregation of
*Four white supremacists were under investigation for the bombings, but were let off. In the 1970s the
case was reopened and the ringleader was convicted of murder. (He died in prison.) Another suspect
had died, but in 2001 and 2002 the other 2 suspects were sentenced to life in prison (1 has since died.)
5. Continued protests, an economic boycott, and negative media coverage finally convinced Birmingham
officials to end segregation. This stunning civil rights victory inspired blacks across the nation.
Civil Rights Bill / the March on Washington / “I Have a Dream” speech
1. To support Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill, two veteran civil rights organizers summoned
Americans to a march on Washington, D.C.
2. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people, including about 75,000 whites, came to the nation’s
capital. At the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in which he
appealed for peace and racial harmony (we will watch a tape of King giving this speech).
Civil Rights Legislation: Civil Rights Act of 1964
Fighting for Voting Rights: Freedom Summer
Selma Campaign (3 marches)
Voting Rights Act of 1965
1. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson pledged to carry on Kennedy’s work. An expert at
working with Congress, Johnson persuaded it to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most important
of all the laws passed. It prohibited discrimination in employment and in public accommodations based
on race, religion, national origin, and sex and granted the federal government powers to enforce the
provisions. It established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
2. Freedom Summer: in 1964, civil rights workers tried to register as many blacks as they could. They
hoped their campaign would influence Congress to pass a voting rights act. The project was focused in
*College students, mostly white northerners, were recruited and trained in nonviolent resistance. It
was a dangerous undertaking, and in June 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared in Neshoba
County. It was later learned that Klansmen and local police had murdered the two white men and
one black man. Throughout the summer, the racial beatings and murders continued, along with
the burning of businesses, homes, and churches.
3. Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP): SNCC organized this party so blacks could gain
seats in Mississippi’s all-white Democratic party. Fannie Lou Hamer was their voice at the 1964
Democratic National Convention. She described how she was jailed and beaten for registering to
vote in 1962. President Johnson arranged a compromise in which the MFDP would get 2 votes in
1964 and a promise to end discrimination in the 1968 convention.
4. Selma Campaign: SCLC workers were harassed and arrested in Selma, Alabama for registering blacks
to vote. After a demonstrator was shot and killed, King announced a 50-mile march from Selma to
Montgomery, the state capital. On March 7, 1965 about 600 protestors set out for Montgomery. That
night, mayhem broke out. Television cameras captured the scene as state troopers used tear gas and
batons to disperse the crowd. The second march occurred on March 9 and was called “Turnback
Tuesday” because marchers were forced to turn back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The final
march took place between March 21 and 25 and was successful (it had federal protection).
5. Voting Rights Act (summer 1965): eliminated literacy tests; stated that federal examiners could
enroll voters who had been denied suffrage by local officials
Challenges to King’s Ideas of Nonviolence: Nation of Islam ( Black Muslims) / Malcolm X
Black Power / Stokely Carmichael
1. A split in the civil rights movement had occurred by the mid-1960s. More militant groups
challenged King’s ideas of nonviolence, and some advocated black separatism instead of
integration into white society.
2. Some blacks were angry that change was slow in coming and by continued poverty. New leaders
emerged as the movement turned its attention to the North, where African Americans faced not legal
segregation but deeply entrenched and oppressive racial prejudice. In the North blacks faced
de facto segregation (“in fact”)---segregation that exists by practice and custom. De facto segregation
can be harder to fight than de jure segregation (“by law”), because eliminating it requires changing
people’s attitudes rather than repealing laws. Activists in the mid-60s would find it much more difficult
to convince whites to share economic and social power with blacks than to convince them to share
lunch counters and bus seats.
3. “White flight” from the inner cities had contributed to poor conditions for blacks in the mid-60s, and the
police often harassed urban blacks. In the mid-60s, clashes between white authority and black civilians
spread like wildfire. Between 1964 and 1968, more than 100 race riots erupted in major American
cities. The worst included Watts in Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.
4. The riots pointed out that blacks wanted economic equality. President Johnson had announced his
War on Poverty in 1964, but the flow of money needed to carry out Johnson’s Great Society was soon
redirected to fund the war in Vietnam. In 1967, King said, “The Great Society has been shot down
on the battlefields of Vietnam.”
5. New Voices of Discontent: Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam
*New leaders like Malcolm X urged blacks to take complete control of their communities, livelihoods, and culture.
*After leaving jail, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) became an Islamic minister. The brilliant
thinker and engaging speaker preached the Nation of Islam’s ideas that whites were the cause of
the black condition and that blacks should separate from white society (black separatism).
He also advocated armed self-defense. Obviously these ideas scared whites and angered King
and the mainstream civil rights activists.
*After a trip to Mecca, where he worshipped alongside people of many countries, Malcolm’s
ideas on whites softened, and his new slogan in 1964 was “Ballots or Bullets,” meaning blacks
should try voting to change conditions so they won’t have to use bullets (violence).
*Because of his split with the Black Muslims, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the
Nation of Islam while giving a speech in Harlem on February 21, 1965.
6. Tensions between civil rights groups in Mississippi---in June 1966, James Meredith (who had
integrated Ole Miss) was shot on a march. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the SCLC, Floyd McKissick
of CORE, and Stokely Carmichael of SNCC decided to lead their followers in a march to finish
what Meredith had started. But it soon became apparent that SNCC and CORE members were
militant, as they began to shout slogans similar to those of the black separatists who had followed
Malcolm X. When King tried to rally the marchers with the refrain of “We Shall Overcome,” many
SNCC workers---bitter over the violence they’d suffered during Freedom Summer---began singing,
“We shall overrun.” Carmichael later gave a speech in which he advocated Black Power, or a “call for
black people to begin to define their own goals…and to lead their own organizations.” King urged
him to stop using the phrase because he believed it would provoke blacks to violence and
antagonize whites. Carmichael refused and urged SNCC to stop recruiting whites and to focus on
developing African American pride.
7. Black Panthers / further radicalism
*formed in October 1966 in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton
*was a political party to fight police brutality in the ghetto / members wore black leather jackets, black berets, and sunglasses
*advocated self-sufficiency for black communities, full employment, decent housing, and exemptions for
blacks from the draft; also preached self-defense, so scared whites and angered King supporters;
several shootouts occurred between the Black Panthers and the police
*won support in the ghetto because of daycare centers, free breakfast programs, free medical clinics, etc.