Civil Rights Movement: Learning Freedom
The plight of African-Americans is one of the most challenging in history because of the plight of these people. When the first African-Americans arrived in this country, they were slaves and they belonged to someone else. They were treated as property and this behavior continued for years. Racism became a mentality that would prove to be difficult to eradicate. The Civil Rights Movement is generally understood to be the years between 1955 and 1968 and it refers to the movements in America focused on eradicating discrimination against African-Americans while giving them voting rights and other freedom. The Civil Rights Movement is significant because it demonstrated how people of a like mind band together and make a difference for future generations.
The Civil Rights Movement was the direct response to unequal treatment. African-Americans suffered from discrimination when they looked for jobs, houses, transportation and public accommodations available to other citizens. From its earliest beginnings, the Civil Rights Movement sought change. From the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling on, change was inevitable. Yet, African-Americans needed to reach out and grab it because no one was going to give anything to them. The ruling intended to end segregation but what no one saw coming was the inspiration it sparked in African-Americans and the fierce intent among segregationists. The ruling was necessary to end the historical maltreatment of African-Americans and it ushered in a new society that could finally work toward equality — whether or not everyone agreed with the idea or not. At the time of the ruling, 21 states still operated segregated schools. The ruling demanded attention from all, as they were directed by the court to act with “deliberate speed” (Davidson 1144). The Deep South was the most difficult area for African-Americans at this time. In response to the ruling and new attitude toward African-Americans, “Southern Manifesto” (1144) materialized, commanding segregationists to use “lawful means” (1144) to restore the South to the way it was before the ruling. In his essay, “Black Power,” Stokely Carmichael writes to continue make a difference “We must begin to think politically and see if we can have the power to impose and keep the moral values that we hold high. W must question the values of this society” (439). He believed winning the crusade against inequality began with a “psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as the see fit” (440). He knew it would take more than law to change minds.
Displacement and discrimination are two things African-Americans have battled since their arrival on American soil. The Civil War helped improve relations but one of the most revealing things to emerge from the fighting is the fact that slavery is a problem that begins in the mind and mindsets would not change simply because laws were passed. Racism was alive and well in America at this time and the law of the land had little effect on it. The Civil Rights Movement grew from a small idea and from the minds of a few people that knew how to make their ideas work. Before the 1960s, two organizations that pushed for civil rights were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League were the two primary associations that worked for civil rights. The NAACP “pushed doggedly to dismantle the legal underpinnings of segregation” (Bailey 911) and it was the first organization to see the fruits of its labor. When the Supreme Court declared separate but equal was unconstitutional, people across the country declared their own cause and started fighting for their rights. In a sense, they were simply responding to the court’s ruling within their own communities. From the passion people felt in their hearts came the Civil Rights Movement and it is important to remember that without the intention of a few determined individuals, the movement might have taken much longer to see results. For example, Rosa Parks might be one of the most famous people to ever speak up and speak out against racial inequality and yet she is just one person. However, in 1955, she decided she would not endure what she felt was unfair treatment. She was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus that day but that single arrest “served notice throughout the South that blacks would no longer submit meekly to the absurdities and indignities of segregation” (Bailey 912). It was in the heart of one woman and that same passion was experienced by many thousands who realized that they needed to fight for what belonged to them. People with similar ideas get together and create ideas and work toward the same goal and that is how the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. All were focused on securing freedom and equality for African-Americans.
Recognition and equality were positive outcomes from the movement. In 1964, the most powerful civil rights since Reconstruction act was passed by Congress. With the Civil Rights Act, restaurants and hotels were ordered to serve all patrons equally, regardless of their race. Employers could also not discriminate against workers because of race. A year later the Voting Rights Act ended poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods to keep African-Americans from voting in elections. One of the most powerful causes of the movement was the action of the people. They were upheld by great leaders devoted to their cause and this allowed them to hang on through tough times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a powerful, compelling and inspirational leader. A pastor, he became a strong voice during the Civil Rights Movement. He became the “driving force” (History) behind many controversial events in favor of equality for African-Americans. The Civil Rights Movement owes much to King, who elevated awareness for civil liberties. He uses language to convince African-Americans to:
Make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. (King)
He wishes to remind them of what belongs to them but he wants them to claim it through non-violent measures. In his Birmingham letter, he points out the difference between non-violent and passivity. He states that nonviolence is passive only in the sense that it is not “physically aggressive toward his opponent” (King 265) and his or her “mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong” (265). Nonviolence does not “seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding” (265) and it is aimed at a specific evil “rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil” (265). King brought a sense of calm to a tense and nervous nation. He wrote a letter about non-violent measures from jail after he was arrested. He demonstrated the kind of attitude all men should have when they are looking for truth.
Freedom was an obvious positive outcome of the Civil Rights movement but another was education. Septima Clark explains the significance of having an education and being literate in her essay, “Literacy and Liberation.” The movement, as large as it was, was the combination of several smaller events working toward the same whole. Clark mentions programs raising awareness about education in her essay and one such movement occurred in Georgia, where hundreds of African-Americans participated in a monthly educational program. The program educated people about what it meant to be a citizen in the United States. In addition to focusing on education, the program also trained individuals with “teaching methods to stimulate voter registration back in their home towns” (Clark 277). From this program, several workshops were established that focused on “community service, services and segregation, registration and voting, and community development” (278). These were seemingly small movements and might not seem to have much of an impact when looking at the country as a whole. However, many small movements like this one created a groundswell of awareness that spread across the country and, as a result, hundreds of illiterate African-Americans became educated, active and responsible citizens.
The power of people became evident through the protest of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement hit the generation with the notion that it could “generate social change through the widespread use of social protest” (524). The notion of social protest evolved over time but this era of the movement demonstrated how big groups of people could mobilize and engage in protest that lasted indefinitely. The Montgomery bus protest endured for more than one year and it demonstrated if protest were to be successful the “central role that would be played by social organizations and a Black culture rooted in a protest tradition” (524). Protests energized the African-American community and church and successful protests emerged as a result. Protests occurred in the Southern United States and sit-ins were also popular among an “important mass base” (Morris 525). During the mid 1960s, “highly public demonstrations” (525) became more popular and gained momentum among the community because popular and significant individuals close to the cause supported them. The power and attention these protest garnered illustrated just how serious African-Americans were in achieving their goals. The protests proved to the people that they could do more than they thought they could. They could accomplish things even though they were not in power and even while they suffered at the hand of oppression. Confidence and hope in one’s generation was something very positive that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement.
The protests were good in that they empowered the people but this does not mean that they were without negative effects. Violence was one of the negative outcomes of the civil rights movement. Violence was never the goal during any civil rights gatherings or protests. Morris believes that from the beginning of the movement, African-Americans attempted to avert violence and that Emmett Till’s lynching is important because a “generation of young Blacks who would lead the student wing of the modern civil rights movement was coming of age precisely at the time of Till’s lynching” (Morris 522). The event and the trial’s result “radicalized” (522) them, in Morris’ opinion. While King and others tried to teach others about the importance of non-violence, there was too much tension in the air to expect no violence at all — especially after King’s murder. The Detroit riots in 1967 were some of the worst the country has seen. They represent the amount of tension and strife in the air during this time in the country. King was dead and the country was experiencing the “most sensational expression of an ugly mood of nihilism and anarchy that has ever gripped a small but significant segment of America’s Negro minority” (Time). “Some Negroes, to be sure, were among the most insistent in demanding that the police start shooting looters. But the eruption, if not a “civil rights” riot, was certainly a Negro riot. It was fed by a deep well of nihilism that many Negroes have begun to tap. They have despaired finally — some this summer, others much earlier — of hope in white America” (Time). Violence always emerges from mob mentality and it is incredibly difficult to avoid when tensions run high. While violence did overtake some demonstrations and lives from this movement, it should be realized that violence never controlled this movement.
The Civil Rights Movement was one marked with hardship and victory. African-Americans understood what it meant to be enslaved and they also knew what it was like to live in a country where all men were said to be free but treated very differently. Their struggle demonstrates the very strength of the human spirit. Because they did not give up, they were able to realize their dream. What we learn from their plight is that things take time. We also learn that one person can make a huge difference — even when it does not look that way. Rosa Parks was simply making a stand for what she knew was right in her heart. Had she not followed that inclination, many may have missed that inspiration. The Civil Rights Movement brought Americans together and it shows how deep the yearning for freedom runs in our American veins.
Bailey, Thomas and Kennedy, David. The American Pageant. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company. 1994.
Carmichael, Stokely. “Black Power,” Black Protest. Joanne Grant, ed. New York:
Ballentine Books. 1968. Print.
“Cities: The Fire This Time.” Time Magazine Online. Web. February 2, 2011.
Clark, Septima. “Literacy and Liberation.” Black Protest. Joanne Grant, ed. New York:
Ballentine Books. 1968. Print.
“Detroit Race Riots 1943 .” Public Broadcasting Service. Web. February 2, 2011.
Davidson, James, et al. Nation of Nations. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. 1990.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 1963. University of Pennsylvania online.
Information Retrieved October 26, 2008.
“Martin Luther King, Jr.”://www.history.com/topics/martin-luther-king-jr
King, Martin Luther. “Nonviolence and the Montgomery Boycott,”
Morris, Aldon D. “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual
Landmarks.” Annual Review of Sociology. 1999. JSTOR Resource Database.
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