The discrimination and enslavement of African Americans by the whites dates back to the early years of European settlement. Even after the Civil War that ended slavery, there persisted a harsh system of white supremacy. In the struggle to end these oppressive practices, liberal reformers formed groups to champion their cause. Among these groups was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909 and the National Urban League formed in 1911. Septima Clark of South Carolina indeed established schools of citizenship that taught on civil rights. The 1950s were years of great success for the civil rights movement. This paper seeks to highlight the factors or the historical developments that made the civil rights movement to be successful in the 1950s and 1960s.
A major development was the overturning of the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson trial of 1896. This verdict had allowed for “separate equal rights” or put differently, racial segregation in the use of public facilities (Meier and Gutiérrez 30). By overturning the verdict, the Supreme Court made decisions with regards to civil rights that showed the government at times supported the blacks. Another contributing factor was the success of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. In this case, Brown had moved to court to petition the Board of Education because his daughter had to travel a longer distance to a black school while there was a school for the whites nearby. While representing Brown, Thurgood Marshall argued that segregation violated the Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution. It was a unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court that the Constitution was colorblind and did not allow for classes among citizens. This overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine won political, social and civil equality (Loevy 50).
The murder of Emmitt Till in 1955 equally galvanized the civil rights movement. The 14-year-old Till is claimed to have whistled at a woman, a Mrs. Carolyn Bryant. Till was consequently kidnapped and murdered by Roy Bryant with the aid of his brother-in-law J. Milam. They then dumped his body in a river. The horrific pictures of his body that were circulated in newspapers and magazine all over America brought attention and increased awareness of the racial violence rampant in Mississippi. The acquittal of Bryant and Milam provoked a nationwide outrage among African Americans. They became aware of the need to take action. This, therefore, galvanized many young African Americans to join the movement in fear of such an incident happening to them or their loved ones.
The aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycotts was another factor contributing towards this success. The boycotts began on December 5, 1955 and took 381 days. African Americans were protesting against the segregated seating in the city buses of Montgomery. The boycotts were provoked by the detention of a black, Rosa Park. A city ordinance required the blacks to occupy the back half and surrender seats if the white riders’ section was fully occupied. A federal court ruled on June 5, 1956 that segregated seating was a violation of the 14th Amendment Act of the Constitution, a verdict that was upheld by the Supreme Court. Montgomery was ordered to integrate its bus system (Kohl and Stokes Brown 57). These boycotts were, therefore, significant for two reasons. First, it set the stage for large-scale action. Secondly, it is from its leadership that Martin Luther King emerged to be an influential civil rights activist.
Equally important was the passing of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This was the first act to be approved by Congress from the time of the Reconstruction. Within the Justice Department, the bill created a Civil Rights Division with the mandate to carry out investigations into racial problems and give recommendations. It indeed gave federal officials the power to prosecute those who conspired to deny the citizens their right to vote. Additionally, it paved the way for the creation of a Civil Rights Commission that was tasked with carrying out investigations into voter infringement allegations. Therefore, this Act was paramount in that it signaled the commitment of the federal government to the fight for civil rights.
Another significant factor was the Little Rock Arkansas crisis of 1957. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas, defied the Supreme Court Ruling that illegalized racial segregation. On September 3, 1957, he used the National Guard to bar nine black students from learning at the all-white Central High School. The troops were removed after a federal judge ruled that the action was illegal. The students were consequently readmitted to the school, but through the back door, an action that caused massive outrage and angry crowds stormed the school. Thus, a conflict pitching the federal government and the states ensued, and it was feared that the situation could hearken to the 19th-century federal-state wars. President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to send in troops into Little Rock federalizing the National Guard of Arkansas to remove the soldiers from the governor’s control. Therefore, this was crucial to the movement as it sought to enforce a desegregation plan.
The signing into law of another Civil Rights Act was another prominent landmark in 1964. Its bill led to the establishment of a commission that would ensure equality in employment opportunities. The act indeed ended segregation in some public accommodations. Additionally, important was the fifty-mile demonstration that began in Selma and ended in the Montgomery capital in 1965. The violence that was meted on the men and women who joined the movement received public attention and was widely televised. That same year, the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress. This law was a supplement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It encouraged advocates to direct their attention to other critical issues such as the social and economic inequality.
Much as the civil rights movement was a success from the 1950s, it suffered many blows. The change from adhering to nonviolence and the forceful removal of whites from key positions in CORE and SNCC resulted in the withdrawal of financial support which was very vital for these groups. The situation was worsened by the brutal murder of Martin Luther King Jr, and by 1968, the organizations had collapsed. However, the civil rights movement did not achieve as much as the founders had anticipated. Having put in place essential civil rights act that ensured legal equality, it was the hope of the likes of Luther King that they could now shift the focus to social and economic inequalities. Even in the twenty-first century, these goals remain elusive.
Kohl, Herbert R., and Cynthia Stokes Brown. She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The New Press, 2007.
Loevy, Robert D., editor. The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law That Ended Racial Segregation. SUNY Press, 1997.
Meier, Matt S., and Margo Gutiérrez. Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.