Black men and women served heroically in World War II, despite suffering segregation and discrimination during their deployment. Yet many were met with prejudice and scorn upon returning home. The fight against fascism during World War II brought to the forefront the contradictions between America’s ideals of democracy and equality, its treatment of racial minorities, and dramatically altered opinions and expectations. African American veterans led a “double victory” campaign, declaring that those who fought to end fascism abroad would not tolerate discrimination at home.
President Harry Truman appointed a special committee to investigate racial conditions that detailed a civil rights agenda in its report. In 1948, Truman issued an executive order that abolished racial discrimination in the military. The NAACP won important Supreme Court victories and mobilized a mass lobby of organizations to press Congress to pass civil rights legislation. These events helped set the stage for grass-roots initiatives to enact racial equality legislation and incite the civil rights movement.
During this time, African Americans achieved notable firsts — Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, and civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser led black and white riders on a “Journey of Reconciliation” to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses.
The NAACP’s legal strategy against segregated education culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which African Americans gained the right to study alongside their white peers in primary and secondary schools. The decision fueled an unwilling and violent resistance in the Southern states which used a variety of tactics to evade the law.
In the summer of 1955, a surge of violence against blacks included the kidnapping and brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a crime that provoked widespread and assertive protests from black and white Americans. By December 1955, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., began a protracted campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to protest segregation that attracted national and international attention. In 1956, a group of Southern senators and congressmen signed the “Southern Manifesto,” vowing resistance to racial integration by all “lawful means.”
Resistance heightened in 1957-1958 during the crisis over the integration at Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School. In the meantime, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration sought to strengthen enforcement mechanisms and sent a civil rights bill to Congress in 1957. The House passed the measure on June 18 and later, the Senate approved a scaled-down version of the bill with amendments. Although not as strong as originally proposed, this law created a Commission on Civil Rights, established a civil rights division within the Department of Justice, provided for jury trials in the case of criminal civil rights violations, allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting, and created a commission to investigate voter fraud.
Despite making some gains, blacks still experienced blatant prejudice in their daily lives. In February 1960, North Carolina college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in a Greensboro department store that refused to serve them because of their race. Over the next several days, hundreds of people joined their cause. After some were arrested and charged with trespassing, protestors launched a boycott of all segregated lunch counters until the owners caved and the original four students were finally served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter where they’d first stood their ground.
Their efforts spearheaded peaceful demonstrations in dozens of cities throughout the nation as civil rights organizers led demonstrations to protest segregation, discrimination, and voting restrictions. Though these efforts were nonviolent, these protests frequently faced fierce opposition.
Nonviolent direct action increased during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, beginning with the 1961 Freedom Rides, where civil rights activists rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States.
Hundreds of demonstrations erupted in cities and towns across the nation. National and international media coverage of the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against child protesters precipitated a crisis in the Kennedy administration, which it could not ignore. The bombings and riots in Birmingham, Alabama on May 11, 1963, compelled Kennedy to call in federal troops. On June 19, 1963, the president sent a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress.
In August 1963 a coordinated March on Washington D.C. brought more than 200,000 black and white people to demand “Jobs and Freedom.” The highlight of the march was Martin Luther King’s speech in which he continually stated, “I have a dream…”
Congress and President John Kennedy responded by introducing legislation in 1963 to deliver on the long-awaited promises of civil and legal protections for all Americans. After the president’s assassination on November 22, the fate of Kennedy’s bill was in the hands of his vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the United States Congress.
President Lyndon Johnson made the passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill his top priority during the first year of his administration. He enlisted the help of the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and key members of Congress to secure the bill’s passage. On July 2, 1864, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, which prohibited discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, public facilities, and agencies receiving federal funds, and strengthened prohibitions on school segregation and discrimination in voter registration. It also granted the federal government strong enforcement powers in the area of civil rights, continued the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
On March 7, 1965, the civil rights movement in Alabama took an especially violent turn as 600 peaceful demonstrators participated in the Selma to Montgomery march to protest the killing of a black civil rights activist by a white police officer and encourage legislation to enforce the 15th amendment. As they neared the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were blocked by Alabama state and local police. Refusing to stand down, protestors moved forward and were viciously beaten and teargassed by police and dozens of protestors were hospitalized. The entire incident was televised and became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Some activists wanted to retaliate with violence, but Dr. Martin Luther King pushed for nonviolent protests and eventually gained federal protection for another march.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 expanded protections to voting and housing, and provided new protections against racially motivated violence. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and President Johnson’s War on Poverty complemented these civil rights milestones by attacking the economic inequalities that had so long accompanied racial discrimination and exclusion.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which barred employment discrimination based on sex as well as race, color, religion, and national origins, energized the women’s movement and led to the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Activists also convinced Congress to protect such groups as older Americans, people with disabilities, and pregnant women so that they could participate fully in public and private life.
On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on his hotel room’s balcony. Emotionally-charged looting and riots followed, putting even more pressure on the President Johnson administration to push through additional civil rights laws.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, April 2019.