Tap to Read ➤

1960s' Civil Rights Movement in America

Prabhakar Pillai
The nonviolent civil rights movement in America was a major turning point in the shift in the prevalent approach towards segregation based on race.

Did You Know?

The Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War was the first military engagement where White and Black American soldiers fought together without racial segregation. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was responsible for this development, though the integration was brought about by a shortage of troops rather than the intention of bringing about racial equality.
The civil rights movement in America was a response to deep-seated racial prejudices in the US, particularly in the South. The movement brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 et al., formally ending segregation based on race.


Although the 13th (abolition of slavery) and 14th (equal protection for all) amendments had decreed the end of slavery in the US, segregation based on race was legal in most southern states. African-Americans were harassed, women sexually abused, and lynchings were not uncommon.
Blacks were deliberately kept in jobs requiring manual labor and very rarely, if ever, promoted. Black neighborhoods were chopped and changed to reduce the chances of amassing political significance, and to keep the better school districts exclusively white.
A code of conduct known as Jim Crow was enforced upon blacks, requiring them, in various ways, to acknowledge the supremacy of whites over themselves.
Under this social dictum, in no way was a black man to attempt to seek equality with his white counterpart; even a handshake between a white and a black man had to be initiated by the white party, since a black man offering a handshake to a white man would be viewed as a sign of them being equal.
The movement borne of such oppressive conditions finally bore fruit in the form of official banishing of racial segregation.

Plessy to Little Rock Nine

► 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson

Separate But Equal

An 1890 law in Louisiana legalizing separate railway carriages for the colored people was challenged by members of the newly formed Committee of Citizens.
In 1896, the Committee planned and brought about the arrest of Committee member Homer Plessy, who was only ⅛th black and had a fair complexion, in order to initiate a legal battle against the Separate Car Act.
The Orleans judge John Ferguson didn't find the Louisiana law unlawful, as long as, under the 14th amendment, it ensured that the 'colored' railway cars were equal in standard to the 'white' cars.The verdict was upheld in the Supreme Court of Louisiana and the Supreme Court of America, after the Committee of Citizens refused to give up on their pursuit.
The Separate but Equal standard established in this ruling set the precedent for the subsequent racial segregation in the South, and wasn't overturned until 58 years later. The court ruling was used to provide substandard facilities to blacks, while claiming equality.
Although the 'colored' railway cars were, in fact, very nearly as good as the 'white' cars, this was not the case in other establishments, where accessories reserved for use by blacks were invariably of a lesser grade than those used by the white population.

► 1954 Brown v. Board of Education

Separate Is Inherently Unequal

This case saw the 'Separate but Equal' custom set in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case overturned, noting that separate is inherently unequal. This signified the turning of the tide in the approach towards racist segregation in America.
A class suit was filed by 13 plaintiffs in total - although the name of Oliver Brown was chosen to represent the community - for integration (desegregation) of schools in Topeka, Kansas.
A representative complain from Brown was that his daughter had to walk six blocks just to get to the bus stop in order to get to her segregated black school, while the whites-only school was only seven blocks away.
Like in the proceedings against the Louisiana Car Act, the primary objection of the plaintiffs was not the quality of the segregated schools per se, which were found to be in excellent condition in matters of both infrastructure and staff, but segregation itself.
Brown v. Board of Education was presented in the Supreme Court as a compilation of 5 cases, including Brown itself, all against racial segregation in American schools.

► The Little Rock Nine

Enforcing Federal Policies of Desegregation By Force

After the 'Separate but Equal' standard was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) redoubled its efforts to gain equality for blacks.
Their efforts to enroll black children in all-white schools were initially met with determined social and administrative resistance. The Little Rock School Board was one of the very few to agree to the NAACP's demands, the Superintendent of Schools Virgil Blossom getting a plan of integration approved by the board in 1955.
The plan was to be effected two years later in Little Rock Central High, where nine students had been enrolled by the NAACP. However, the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who was a strict segregationist, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the school.
This unprecedented escalation of the situation and the public reaction to images of the nine children being blocked by a line of soldiers caused President Dwight Eisenhower to step in, federalizing the Arkansas National Guard - thus removing Faubus' authority over the corps - and sending the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock.
The nine children were escorted into the school by the 101st Airborne Division, who would remain in the school for the entire school year for the protection of the students. In spite of the Army's presence, numerous acts of physical and emotional abuse to the nine black students took place during the year.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

One of the pioneering incidents in the Civil Rights Movement came in 1955. Following several boycotts on various institutions for restricting or refusing its use to blacks, matters came to a head in the heart of Dixie, Montgomery, Alabama.
When, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat in favor of a white man, little did she know that her act would go on to become an enduring and inspirational symbol of the struggle the blacks had been forced to forge.
Montgomery's public bus system was, as was the norm at the time, segregated into 'white' and 'colored' sections.
The original law to this effect decreed the segregation, but did not specify that blacks had to get up in case white passengers needed more seats. The practice of removing blacks from their seats was one formed by custom and had become the accepted norm over time. The segregated sections were simply separated by a sign.
However, this sign was not fixed and could be moved at will - or removed altogether - by the conductor or the driver, usually to reduce the 'black' seating area. If more whites got on the bus, blacks had to get up and even get off the bus to accommodate the white passengers. Blacks were not allowed to sit next, or even opposite the aisle, to white men.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks took her seat directly behind the last 'whites-only' seats. As the bus filled up and more white passengers came on, Parks and three other blacks (the one next to her and the two opposite the aisle) were told to make way for the white passengers; the other three moved to the back accordingly.
Parks, however, stood her ground. After a verbal confrontation, the driver called the police and had Parks arrested. She was later bailed out by Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of NAACP after having spent a night in prison.
On the day of her trial, 5 December, the NAACP and the Women's Political Council (WPC) advocated the black community to boycott the Montgomery bus system, which, despite it raining that day, the black community backed.
The boycott carried on for more than a year (381 days), and marked the entry into the Civil Rights Movement of the iconic African-American leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa Parks was not the first black person to resist being forced to give up their bus seats, but, like in Brown v. Board of Education, she was chosen to represent the NAACP agenda due to her being considered a model citizen and having an untarnished reputation.

Following the success of Montgomery bus boycott, which ended on December 20, 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African-American activists like Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that would take the center in many subsequent African-American activities.

Greensboro Sit-ins

Four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College - Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, Jr. - ordered coffee on February 1, 1960. The waitress refused to serve them unless they drank it while standing, since the counter only served white customers.
The four students initiated a 'sit-in', wherein they sat at the counter peacefully, in nonviolent resistance to segregation that would become the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement in later years. The next day they returned with more students, and sat in peaceful protest until the counter closed for the day.
Students from other Southern colleges and universities followed with similar sit-ins, bringing about the desegregation of several student and public facilities. During the sit-ins, the young black protestors organized the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which became a focal point for black youngsters involved in the movement.

Freedom Riders

Many SNCC members joined forces with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which was founded in Chicago in the '40s. It organized the Freedom Rides of 1961.
The first group of Freedom Riders boarded two buses in Washington D.C. and embarked on a route through the South to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which had outlawed segregation in interstate transportation terminals.
Even though the Freedom Riders were arrested, beaten and, in one instance, had their bus burned down, they were eventually successful, prompting the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the ruling in Boynton.

"I Have a Dream"

After major protests in Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, AL - the latter of which led to his 13th arrest - King led a march in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. He was joined by representatives from other prominent institutions working, effectively, for the betterment of African-American people, viz.
~ Roy Wilkins from the NAACP
~ Whitney Young from the National Urban League
~ A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
~ John Lewis of the SNCC
~ James L. Farmer, Jr. of the CORE

It was here that King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, expounding on his idea of a peaceful world without discrimination.
Although more than a quarter of a million people of varying ethnicity participated in the march (at the time, the largest gathering of protestors in Washington D.C. ever), some black leaders, notably Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, opined that it presented a watered-down version of the anguish and anger of the black community.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The march on Washington, although criticized by a section of African-American leaders, had succeeded in bringing the issue of racist segregation to the forefront. President John F. Kennedy had talked about the need for a civil rights bill before the march on Washington, and the bill for an Act was drafted in June 1963.
After considerable strengthening from the House Judiciary Committee, which was headed by Emanuel Celler, the bill was halted in November by the segregationist Rules Committee chairman, Howard Smith.
After the unfortunate assassination of JFK in 1963, Lyndon Johnson, who supported the bill, called upon the senators to pass the bill to honor the legacy of the deceased Kennedy. In the light of the tragedy, Howard Smith, now faced with the embarrassment of having bottled the bill, let the bill pass.
The bill came before the Senate in March 1964 and was signed into law on July 2, 1964, despite heavy protestations from a Southern Bloc of Senators.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended segregation based on race, nationality and gender (Howard Smith, who was a feminist, although not in support of desegregation, had added the gender clause), but it took a lot of time before integration was accepted as the way of life, especially in the Southern states.
Racist segregation is now virtually absent in the United States, thanks to the tireless efforts of everyone associated with this inspiring movement.