The Civil Rights Movement was a struggle for social justice that took place primarily during the 1950s and 1960s for African-Americans seeking constitutional equality at the national level. It was the greatest mass movement in modern American history as black demonstrations swept the country. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was rooted in the struggle of African Americans to obtain basic rights of citizenship.
More than a century before, antislavery initiatives had gradually abolished slavery in the Northern states by the 1830s but free blacks were not accorded full citizenship rights. In the South, the political and economic dominance of slaveholders hindered any discussion of abolition. Discord between the North and South ultimately led to the Civil War, and finally, to the emancipation of slaves. However, this didn’t end discrimination against blacks — they continued to endure the devastating effects of racism, especially in the South.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Northern Congressional Republicans proposed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that granted newly freed slaves freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote, respectively. Several civil rights acts were also passed in an attempt to protect the freedom of former slaves. During the Reconstruction era, African American men participated in electoral politics as voters and as public officials. But, the three constitutional amendments that granted legal status to African Americans, was poorly enforced and members of white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries. Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 to end such violence, including military force to protect African Americans, but this too was a failure.
In 1870, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced a new civil rights bill to provide African Americans with equal access to such public accommodations as churches, theaters, trains, ships, jury boxes, and public schools. The bill died in committee in 1870, and again in 1871, but Sumner persevered, despite failing health. Sumner died on March 11, 1874, and after years of delay, the Civil Rights bill was finally signed into law in March of 1875. However, the bill as passed was a mere shadow of Sumner’s vision.
Federal protection of the rights of blacks was dealt a major defeat with the Compromise of 1877 when Southern Democrats conceded the closely contested 1876 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Blacks, however, continued to attend schools and churches, participate in politics, and exert their rights as citizens as much as possible in the face of growing white resistance and violence.
Despite the legislation and constitutional amendments passed during the era of Reconstruction that extended federal protections to African Americans, many states adopted a variety of methods to disenfranchise black voters and instituted “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws mandating the separation of the races in practically every aspect of life. Debt peonage (involuntary servitude of laborers), sharecropping and tenant farming often reduced blacks to generational poverty.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist organizations engaged in lynchings, beatings, and burnings to enforce the new racial order and to keep African American voters away from the polls or any type of political activity. Beginning in the 1870s, blacks migrated in increasing numbers from the South to northern and western regions, a phenomenon that would ultimately transform the racial geography of the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court was inclined to agree with these segregation policies and set the stage for even more Jim Crow Laws with several of its decisions. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit individuals and private organizations from discriminating on the basis of race. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision of “separate but equal” accommodations in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, ruling that racial segregation was constitutional. This paved the way for more racial segregation, which continued well into the 20th century.
Afterward, more Jim Crow laws were established. Blacks couldn’t use the same public facilities as whites, couldn’t live in the same neighborhoods, or go to the same schools. Interracial marriage was illegal, and most blacks couldn’t vote because they were unable to pass voter literacy tests. Jim Crow laws weren’t adopted in northern states; however, blacks still experienced discrimination at their jobs or when they tried to buy a house or get an education. To make matters worse, laws were passed in some states to limit voting rights for blacks.
In the meantime, violence towards black people continued throughout the nation, despite legislation such as the Enforcement Acts. The issue of lynching became particularly explosive in the early 20th century. Senator Robert Wagner of New York and his allies repeatedly attempted to confront such violence through anti-lynching legislation, but opponents successfully blocked all such measures, often through the use of the filibuster.
Popular black leader Booker T. Washington advised African Americans to focus on education and economic self-improvement, strategies he deemed necessary to acquire on the road to civil rights in the face of racism. However, as segregation tightened and racial oppression escalated across the United States, some leaders of the African American community began to reject Washington’s conciliatory approach. W.E.B. Du Bois and other black leaders channeled their activism by founding the Niagara Movement in 1905. Later, they joined white reformers in 1909 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which used the federal courts to challenge disenfranchisement and residential segregation. Job opportunities were the primary focus of the National Urban League, which was established in 1910.
During the Great Migration of 1910-1920, African Americans by the thousands poured into industrial cities in the North to find work and later to fill labor shortages created by World War I. Though they continued to face exclusion and discrimination in employment, as well as some segregation in schools and public accommodations, Northern black men faced fewer barriers to voting. As their numbers increased, their vote emerged as a crucial factor in elections. The war and migration bolstered a heightened self-confidence in African Americans that manifested in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the NAACP lobbied aggressively for a federal anti-lynching law.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided more federal support to African Americans than at any time since Reconstruction. Even so, New Deal legislation and policies continued to allow considerable discrimination. During the mid-1930s the NAACP launched a legal campaign against segregation, focusing on inequalities in public education. By 1936, the majority of black voters had abandoned their historic allegiance to the Republican Party and joined with labor unions, farmers, progressives, and other ethnic minorities in assuring President Roosevelt’s landslide re-election. The election played a significant role in shifting the balance of power in the Democratic Party from its Southern block of white conservatives towards this new coalition.
In the spring of 1941, hundreds of thousands of whites were employed in industries mobilizing for the possible entry of the United States into World War II. At this time, most blacks were low-wage farmers, factory workers, domestics or servants, and were discouraged from joining the military. Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a mass march on Washington unless blacks were hired equally for those jobs, stating: “It is time to wake up Washington as it has never been shocked before.” To prevent the march, which many feared would result in race riots and international embarrassment, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in June 1941 that opened national defense jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or national origin. This order also established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices to receive and investigate discrimination complaints and take appropriate steps to redress valid grievances.