A summary of the Civil Rights Movement in America

The White House, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X.

Slavery in the USA was abolished in 1865, which marked the beginning of a period called Reconstruction (1865-1877).

Reconstruction saw black American men vote for the first time. Black people attempted to gain better paying jobs and seek a social life that was more equal. Despite these gains, black Americans did not have equality. Many of the equalities granted in theory such as voting rights were quickly taken away again in practise.

  • Many black people living in the Northern States faced informal methods of racial discrimination, while Southern States passed laws called ‘black codes’, which tried to keep black people working as farmers or servants for little pay.
  • In the Southern States local governments passed laws preventing black people from using white public facilities such as schools and parks. These were called ‘Jim Crow’ laws.
  • The Ku Klux Klan was established in the Southern states after the American Civil War. The KKK aimed to promote 'white supremacy' by intimidating, attacking and lynching black people.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment to the US constitution granted newly freed enslaved people equal citizenship to white people However, in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated facilities if 'separate but equal' did not violate the constitution. This was called segregation, and in reality, black people's facilities were almost always worse than those of white people.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution established that neither race nor slavery could prevent black people from voting. However, state leaders used poll taxes and created impossible- to- pass literacy tests to limit the ability of African Americans to vote.
  • Through a system called ‘convict lease,’ black Americans serving prison terms, sometimes for trivial or unproven crimes, were forced to work against their will and without pay.

There had been successful attempts to improve the status of black people before the 1950s:

  • The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was set up in 1909. They funded lawyers for black people who were treated very badly by the courts.
  • In 1941 there was a plan for a march on Washington, DC to protest segregation, but it was called off when President Roosevelt signed an executive order banning discrimination in the defence industry.
  • During the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, black American activists such as Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois engaged in many kinds of protests against lynching, police brutality, and poor economic conditions faced by black people.

The Civil Rights Movement was another phase of black political protest, rather than something entirely new in the history of the United States, which is why the Civil Rights Movement is sometimes called ‘The Second Reconstruction’. Today many consider the Civil Rights Movement to have been led by Martin Luther King Jr, but key events make clear that it was the actions of everyday people - men, women, and children - that helped make the movement successful:

  • In 1954, Rev Oliver Brown won the right to send his child to a white school. In the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, the Supreme Court finally ruled that segregation could not ever be equal.
  • In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • In 1957, nine black students, with military protection, attended a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • In 1963, after campaigns of restaurant sit-ins, ‘Freedom Rides’ on interstate buses and civil rights marches – a quarter of a million people marched in the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ to hear King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.
  • In 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) formed in Oakland, California. Along with Malcolm X, the BPP represented strands of civil rights activism that drew attention to experiences of racial inequality happening in the cities of the north and California. Martin Luther King until 1968 had largely focused on southern issues.

Martin Luther King Jr explains the philosophy and aims of non-violent protest

The Civil Rights Movement challenged legal inequality:

  • The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places or jobs.
  • The Voting Rights Act (1965) outlawed racial discrimination in voting.
  • The Fair Housing Act (1968) outlawed discrimination in housing.

However, despite these laws, black Americans did not achieve economic equality. Although there has been significant progress since the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans still remain a socially disadvantaged group.