Although the civil rights era would usually be identified between 1954-1965, starting with the introduction of the “Brown” decision, in truth its roots stems all the way back to post World War II period. During the War, many black Americans had committed themselves to the American army, and as a result, the black community as a whole expected greater civil and political rights. This was aided further by the emergence of liberal ideas, and the fear the US government felt of losing respect of other countries if they continued with segregation while hypocritically declaring themselves “the leader of the Free World”.
However it wasn’t until the infamous Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 that weight and emergency was given to racial issues of the time. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a 381 day-long protest in Montgomery, Alabama, that galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement and would see the involvement of 4200 African-Americans. Up to 1955, Montgomery, like other states, had laws and regulations that were discriminate towards the black community. With 60% black women working in domestics, and 50% black men working as domestics or laborers, it’s not surprising that black people earned half what their white counterparts did.
All facilities were segregated; School, public facilities, houses and transpost such as trains and buses. It was in one of these buses that Rosa Parks, a respectable 42 year old seamstress and member of the NAACP, caused a controversy that would act as a catalyst to the civil rights movement. It was on the 1st of December 1955 that Rosa Parks entered a city bus, and took her seat in the “black section” at the rear of the bus. When the seats had filled up and she was told to give her place to a white man, she adamantly refused declaring it a violation of her rights.
Subsequently, she was arrested, trialed and fined $10, but the outcry by the black community of her treatment was far more significant. E. D Nixon, leader of the Montgomery NAACP, wished to use Parks case against segregation, to which she was in agreement much to her decrement. Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council encouraged the Black community to boycott city busses the day of Parks trial. The co- operative response was enormous and strong from the start. With the introduction of the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Investigation) and its resident, 26-year-old Minister Martin Luther King, the cause could only get stronger. Deriving inspiration from leaders Mahatma Ghandi and Reinhold Niebuhr, King conceded a method off non-violent protest, a concept that united his followers in determination. Following the success of the first bus boycott, the MIA and King decided to continue the boycott until their demands concerning busses were met. This included the employment of colored drivers, the filling of seats on a first come basis and the requirement that driver be courteous to all passengers.
The boycott continued, with the colored community preferring to walk or use bikes, and the demands were ignored, despite the expense to bus companies. Car pooling became popular when Black leaders formed the Transport Committee, and money was collected to create a private taxi service that used Black churches as terminals. Inevitably, opposition came strong. The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) marched down streets, pouring acid on the black taxi- service, and churches were bombed. Authorities tried first to shut down the taxi service due to them charging the same fare as buses, and then by stopping taxis regularly for any reason.
The NAACP’s lawsuit soon reached the Supreme Court, who in 1956 declared city laws relating to buses unconstitutional. Similarly, the Brown v. Board of Education case found segregation of schools unconstitutional in 1954. However, desegregation was slow and received much opposition once again. When nine black students attempted to enter Arkansas Little Rock Central High School in 1957, they were stopped by national guardsmen. The Governor withdrew the guardsmen and the students entered under police protection.
However, an angry mob soon attacked the school, forcing President Eisenhower to send in 1,000 federal troops until tempers had cooled. Since schools were placed near certain housing estates, which were segregated, an attempt was made to make the bussing of students compulsory in order to achieve racial balance. This largely failed due to rioting and widespread resistance, and compulsory bussing was softened. By 1964, only 2% of black children attended multiracial schools and by the 80’s two thirds attended public schools even though they made up over 50% of students.
In 1960, a group of college students following King’s concept of “non-violent protest” led the Lunch counter protest. A sit in at white-only lunch counters which led to these counters being desegregated and thus, greater involvement from the student population. This would lead to significant events and groups such as the Freedom Riders in 1961. When Martin Luther King used school children during a protest in 1963, the police displayed excessive force to the world by using water cannons and dogs against the young protestors.
In August of the same year, a rally of 250,000 civil rights protestors marched in Washington, the highlight of the event being King’s trademark “I have a dream” speech. Later in 1965, Black leaders in Selma attempted to register black voters, but they were prevented doing so. A resulting march was organized from Selma to Montgomery to promote equal voting rights, but the protestors were attacked by state troopers. President Johnson sent national guards to protect the marchers, who were now joined by King.
The march, which started with 3000 people, increased to 25000 by the time they’d reached Montgomery. Support for the voting Rights Act was won, and the act came into Law by August. While the fight for civil rights and equality was an ongoing process, many sectors of the black community were continually frustrated at the slow progress. Out of these sectors came young radicals such as Malcolm X (from the Nation of Islam) and the Black panthers, who believed in Black Nationalism, black power and a separate black identity.
These new militant sectors considered “non-violent protests” largely unproductive and were prepared to achieve their aims “through the barrel of a gun”. Where popularity for Martin Luther king and his approach to the movement was decreasing (after he spoke out about the Vietnam War), increased support for these extreme groups was seen especially from the youth. It wasn’t long though before cracks started to emerge within these organizations. Malcolm X’s disagreements with Elijah Muhammad resulted in him quitting the Nation of Islam group, and his subsequent murder on February 21st 1965.
As for the Black panthers, they had been very successful through most of the 60’s; their downfall would come about in the 70’s. Some Panther leaders, such as Huey Newton and David Hilliard, favored a focus on community service coupled with self-defense; others, such as Eldridge Cleaver, embraced a more confrontational strategy. This division only served to confuse the black community and the black panthers party had fizzled out by 1975. In conclusion, the civil rights era left a permanent mark on America, and paved the way for other minority groups to thrive.
The most overt forms of racial discrimination came to an end, and racial violence declined immeasurably. Millions have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the many economic opportunities created, and a country that once wouldn’t allow coloured people to vote, today has a black president. If nothing else, the Civil rights movement achieved this; the profound change in people’s attitudes and the growing consciousness of society in relation to the rights of other ethnic groups.