history of the United States without acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the civil rights movement. From the beginning of United States history, the fate of blacks, in general, and their respective civil rights have been a disputed issue. In nearly every election throughout the history of the republic, race has been a central issue in some form but the change that has occurred in the country relative to the rights of blacks has occurred as a result of the attitudes of national elite, comprised of educated whites, instead of a response to the pressures of the majority (Dye, 2011). If the civil rights movement would have waited for the white majority in the United States to take action relative the civil rights of blacks, chances are that blacks would still be waiting for any change. The advancements that have occurred in civil rights in America have been the result of the actions of the elite and their ability to influence public policy. Once public policy was changed the white majority reacted and adopted their behavior accordingly.
The change in public policy and the attitudes of the white majority toward civil rights has been a slow and arduous journey and there have been ups and downs in the process. From the period immediately following the end of the American Revolution, the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, and the years leading up to the Civil War the nation endured one compromise after another in an attempt to satisfy the white majority in regard to the rights of American blacks. The Civil War was largely fought over the issue of slavery and brought into focus the civil rights of blacks. Reconstruction after the War brought a promise of major change but within a few years a new compromise was reached which resulted in the election of Rutherford Hayes and the end of any further attempt to transform the civil rights of blacks for almost eighty years.
Some minor advances were made by blacks and their efforts to advance their civil rights as they forced the issue of segregation. Various groups were organized such as the NAACP and the Urban League in an effort to provide organized opposition to the discrimination and segregation that blacks continued to endure in America. The most significant advance in the civil rights’ battle was the U.S. Supreme Court’s rendering of its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) that overturned the separate but equal standard that had been the law in the United States. In Brown, the Supreme Court recognized that the separate but equal standard was unreasonable and that blacks must be afforded equal access to the nation’s schools in order to be afforded true equal treatment.
Beyond Brown the civil rights movement stalled until the early 60s, when President Johnson’s Great Society, pushed through a number of significant civil rights bill including the 1964 Civil Rights Bill that brought major changes to the civil rights movement in the United States (Hall, 2005). The 1964 Civil Rights Bill began the process toward ending discrimination and segregation in the private sector in the areas of public accommodation, employment, housing, and a variety of other areas. Again, the Civil Rights Bill was not consistent with the wishes of the majority of Americans but instead was a response to the public policy and concerns of the elite. Over the next several years, the battle for civil rights and attempts to apply the rights guaranteed through the Civil Rights Bill took to the streets as American whites and blacks fought over the application of civil rights. As these battles ensured, American blacks were able to obtain great gains in opportunity but the actual results were extremely limited. Programs such affirmative action indicate the efforts made by politicians and government officials to balance affairs for blacks and whites but because the white majority continued to oppose actual equal treatment major advancements were slow in coming.
As the decades progressed, the civil rights of other groups came into question. The rights of unborn children and gender equality were primary as abortion and sex discrimination became as controversial as race had been throughout most of the nation’s history. As the debate of race has seemingly lessened, the debate over abortion and gender equality has emerged as civil rights remains a major political and social issue in America.
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (U.S. Supreme Court 1954).
Dye, T.R. (2011). Understanding Public Policy (13th Edition). Lebanon, in: Pearson .
Hall, J.D. (2005). The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past. The Journal of American History, 1233-1263.
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