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Better Day Coming: Civil Rights in America in the 20th Century

By Professor Adam Fairclough
The Civil Rights Movement

American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat for a white man was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott
American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat for a white man was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott ©
Emboldened by a feeling that history was finally going their way, blacks in the South did what had once been unthinkable. They openly rebelled against racial discrimination. This new civil rights movement began in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Mrs Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver who ordered her to surrender her seat to a white man. Her arrest prompted 50,000 blacks to boycott the city buses for more than a year, until seating was finally integrated. Not only was the protest a triumphant success, garnering worldwide sympathy, but it also threw up a inspiring and eloquent leader, a young Baptist clergyman called Martin Luther King, Jr.

'... by strictly adhering to non-violent tactics, blacks claimed the moral high ground ...'

The civil rights movement was bold and brave. In the South, whites outnumbered blacks by four-to-one and monopolised state power. But by strictly adhering to non-violent tactics, blacks claimed the moral high ground and gained the tactical advantage. Modelled partly on the tactics used by Gandhi in India, but mainly inspired by Christian faith and optimism about America's democratic promise, the civil rights movement tried to make racial segregation unworkable, even if it meant ignoring judges and defying policemen. Blacks now willingly went to jail rather than submit to racial segregation.

As blacks in the South became increasingly confident about the sympathy of the outside world, their protests snowballed. In 1960, black college students staged 'sit-ins' at cafeterias that served only whites. In 1961 integrated teams of black and white travellers staged bus journeys, or 'Freedom Rides', across the South, challenging segregation laws along the way.

'... the world was sickened by the sight of white mobs and club-wielding policemen attacking non-violent, hymn-singing marchers.'

In the face of these challenges, whites often reacted by arresting the protesters, and sometimes by attacking them. The Ku Klux Klan revived: it set off bombs and killed civil rights workers. But the leaders of the civil rights movement refused to be deterred by prison: King went to jail 13 times. And by maintaining a discipline and a spirit of non-violence, the movement turned the violence of its opponents to its own advantage. Newspaper reporters and television cameras inadvertently aided the movement: the world was sickened by the sight of white mobs and club-wielding policemen attacking non-violent, hymn-singing marchers.

Civil rights protests reached a crescendo in 1963-5, with dramatic confrontations in Birmingham and Selma. After the Birmingham protest, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial segregation. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, guaranteed the right to vote - a right that had already been granted in 1868, but that had been abridged in 1900.

Published: 2003-04-01



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