The civil rights movement provided a significant chapter to the history of democracy in the United States (US), in that it enabled the empowerment of African-Americans towards freedom from discrimination. While much activity related to the movement is attributable to the string of protests undergoing in the US between 1955 and 1968, it also influenced uprisings in the United Kingdom and South Africa. The prevalence of discrimination against African-Americans has prompted activists to fight for the eventual recognition of their entitlement to civil rights. Race is the primary focus of discrimination, with the primary manifestation coming from the fact that African-Americans have no right to cast votes. With lack of representation, African-Americans have suffered from the lack of quality social services. Lack of quality educational and employment opportunities for African-Americans provided an ironic scene visualized by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments in the Constitution, within all of which they are ideally entitled to civil rights but face denial due to the unwillingness of state governments to implement positive legislation on the matter (Finkelman, 2009).
Several forms of struggles have characterized the entirety of the civil rights movement, with many in the form of boycotts, civil disobedience and civil resistance (Dunkel, 2012). Those struggles have forces the US into an untoward crisis, in which many businesses and communities have called for resolutions to curtail the harmful effects of dissent among African-Americans. A particular development noteworthy of reference is the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama during 1955 to 1956. Said incident involved a peaceful means of protest against racial discrimination on African-Americans, wherein Rosa Parks, considered as the “mother of the civil rights movement”, declined to make way for a white passenger on the bus through giving up her seat. With the law enforcers reprimanding Parks for her actions, leaders within African-American activist circles started to stage protests (Chafe, 2006).
The subsequent rise of struggles instigated by African-Americans have enabled the institution of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which recognized that discrimination on the following grounds: race, color, religion and national origin, is untenable for legislation (Find US Law, n.d.). Such is a landmark development that provides a compelling argument favoring the success of the civil rights movement. However, a deeper perusal of historical events raises the possibility that compelling failures may have emerged. Thus, this study poses a question on whether the civil rights movement has become successful or not. A citation of essential accounts related to the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1968 provides key insights related to the matter at hand.
The Years Prior To 1955
The Reconstruction era, which took over following the end of the 1861-1865 Civil War, has introduced a series of reforms that uplifted the sordid state of affairs of the African-Americans. The period served as a precursor to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as reforms therein have fostered the enactment of three constitutional amendments crucial to the campaign of enfranchising African-Americans. The 13th Amendment enabled the outlawing of slavery; the 14th Amendment granted citizenship and related rights to African-Americans; the 15th Amendment enabled male African-Americans to gain voting rights. While legislative recognition seemed to provide the perfect setting for African-Americans to finally realize their goals for full emancipation as duly recognized citizens of the US, the culture of discrimination still permeated state-level systems, hence leading to their post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement (Finkelman, 2009).
The revival of anti-African-American sentiments after Reconstruction has ignited the consciousness of activists on the need to fight for civil rights. Elements of the US government, particularly those at the state level, deliberately denied African-Americans their entitlements under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, with discrimination due to race being the main driving factor. During post-Reconstruction, African-Americans have experienced deprivation in many aspects of life, characterized by segregation, economic exploitation, denial of voting rights and deliberate acts of violence conduction by state and civilian elements alike (Finkelman, 2009). With those instances at play, African-Americans began to mobilize through legal pursuits, initiated with the formation of groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP has recorded remarkable successes in court, including the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which dissolved the establishment of school systems based on race.
The Emergence of Mass Action
The persistence of discrimination against African-Americans led to the emergence of mass action among civil rights advocates. The success of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) inspired African-Americans to engage in physical yet nonviolent forms of dissent, most notably boycotts and protest marches. African-American civil society groups including the NAACP instigated organized movements that created daunting impacts compared to dissent expressed through court actions (Finkelman, 2009).
A historical event that served as among those that marked the start of the civil rights movement in 1955 is the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks, a known proponent of the civil rights movement, denied her seat inside a commuter bus in favor of a white man - an outright disobedience of segregationist policies effective that time. With legal charges imposed on Parks followed successful efforts of African-Americans to boycott the city bus service, which eventually led to a federal court order allowing the removal of segregationist policies in buses. Another notable proponent, Dr. Martin Luther King, instigated a number of similar bus boycotts in different parts of the US. Soon, other leaders advocating civil rights for African-Americans have joined King in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, which engaged in nonviolent means of protest (Finkelman, 2009).
Another form of nonviolent protest used by African-Americans is the sit-in method, in which they gathered in strategic places to stay for as much as they could until state or private elements take them out of their venues by force. Some of the first recorded instances of sit-in protests happened in Kansas and Oklahoma. The protesters were members of the NAACP Youth Council, who engaged in sit-ins inside drugstores in said states. As a result, the protesters compelled the drugstores to change their segregationist policies (Morris, 1981).
Places such as Greensboro in North Carolina, Atlanta in Georgia and Nashville in Tennessee became hotbeds for sit-in protests instigated by African-American civil society groups. The year 1960 saw the height of the sit-in protests, with the movement spreading to more states including Illinois, Ohio and Nevada. While many of those protesters faced imprisonment, state authorities faced challenges in the form of costly consequences associated with the arrests. The sheer amount of protesters arrested in several sit-in protests have provided hardships for prison administrators, who had to struggle in providing prison space to those arrested (Killian, 1984; Morris, 1981).
The case of Boynton v. Virginia (1960) required owners of transportation modes engaged in interstate travel to stop segregationist practices. That served as a welcome development for African-Americans, who engaged in organizing journey protests called “freedom rides”. African-American protesters went on interstate journeys to test the effectiveness of the Boynton doctrine (1960), in which they took full advantage of bus spaces through desegregated seating arrangements and unrestricted usage of available in-transport facilities (Riches, 1997). Initially, the protests proved to be very dangerous, since buses used by protesters have become instant targets against those opposed to providing civil rights to African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, began going after buses with protesters aboard and harassed them physically, sometimes ending in fatal consequences (Arsenault, 2006).
Dr. Martin Luther King and Eventual Reforms
“I Have a Dream”
African-American protesters have long planned to stage a protest march that would call for the implementation of civil rights unto them. Whereas plans to stage a concerted mass protest in the past have been set aside in favor of compelling circumstances related to national security in light of World War II, the march finally took place in 1963. A. Philip Randolph and King stood as among the leaders of the march that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The march considered the following concerns: salient civil rights provisions, federal works, steady employment opportunities, proper housing programs, voting rights and cohesive education. Ultimately, the protesters wanted the passage of a comprehensive law granting them full civil rights entitled unto them by law (Hall, 2005). With an estimated 300,000 people in attendance, the marched proved successful. Several civil society groups calling for the extension of civil rights to African-Americans have successfully converged to engage in calls for reforms. For the event, the speech “I Have a Dream” by King served as the inspirational anthem for all participants. After the protests, Randolph, King, and other leaders of the protest have engaged in negotiations with Kennedy over the matter, although his assassination prompted President Lyndon Johnson to take over calls for legislation (Keith, 1984)
1964 Civil Rights Act
As early as the time of President John Kennedy, there has been a proposal to enact a comprehensive civil rights act covering African-Americans (Reeves, 1993). Whereas said development provided hope to protesting advocates especially in the midst of growing protests that time, members of Congress continued to oppose the development of such a law, thus leading to a cycle of filibustering that lasted several days. The assassination of Kennedy did not hamper any progress on the effort, as President Johnson provided for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The bill expressly provided for a complete ban on discrimination in any setting, based on race and ethnicity, among others. The nullification of state and federal-level laws allowing discrimination followed resulting from the new law (Find US Law, n.d.).
Winning the Nobel Peace Price
The success enjoyed by African-American activists due to the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act further propelled mass protests as a matter of emphasizing wider recognition for their entitlement to civil rights. King emerged as the seminal figure of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as his instrumental efforts at mobilizing the people proved crucial to the strength of the whole movement. He gained greater recognition when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – an achievement that enabled him to gain further recognition for his advocacy (Finkelman, 2009).
As King enjoyed the popularity his advocacy has invoked unto him, he went on to fight for the entitlement of African-Americans to civil rights. However, little did he know that the final episodes of his life would still come in the midst of a African-American support base that is becoming increasingly stronger at that time. While advocating for the welfare of sanitation workers in Tennessee, King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Yet, his assassination cut his delivery short, and his death has caused massive outrage from among the protesters. Riots started across many states in the US and the civil rights movement reached its strongest after the assassination. The death of King served as among the significant points of the civil rights movement. Shortly thereafter, state and federal-level officials have adopted the 1964 Civil Rights Act and used it in consonance to their forthcoming policies. In brief, King proved himself to be a charismatic leader of the civil rights movement, one that has served fully in the interest of emancipating them towards the fulfillment of their goal to achieve full entitlement to civil rights (King, 2008).
Synthesis: Was the Civil Rights a Success or Failure?
In many respects, the civil rights movement has become largely successful, primarily due to the institution of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Said law stood as a comprehensive one that has extended the coverage of civil rights to African-Americans. There is an understanding that there have been amendments to the constitution expressly providing for the importance of entitling civil rights to African-Americans, yet its activation has experienced a long delay due to dissenters among policymakers and implementers alike. The magnitude of the protests and the progressive movement of mobilizers eventually prompted policymakers to change their minds and stay away from tradition in favor of preserving harmony within the US society.
The success of the civil rights movement heavily relied on convincing policymakers to create a civil rights law formally that expressly provides coverage to African-Americans. While the constitutional amendments state that African-Americans have due entitlement to civil rights, the fact that many policymakers and executives at the state level does not support such forms of legislation has duly denied African-Americans their right to those rights. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are not self-activating, and even if it is, it could have faced the same amount of opposition coming from dissenters. Thus, African-American activists have settled for various forms of protest to compel policymakers and executives that providing them civil rights would result to greater peace and harmony and lesser warfare.
The success of the civil rights movement did not just entail unity among different civil society groups interested in implementing civil rights unto African-Americans. It also involved the heavy use of charisma to attract people to the movement. The success of King in bringing forth several protesters to gather at Washington, D.C. finds significant basis in the way he writes and delivers his speeches. At that time, his calls for the provision of civil rights on African-Americans proved highly successful in inspiring people in the movement to strive further. Up until the moment of his assassination, his popularity among the protesters stood high and inspirational to their eventual success.
The death of King gave a strong signal that the times have already changed. In other words, the immense sympathy given by several people on his death proved that there are now more people favoring giving civil rights to African-Americans than before. In previous years, the sheer amount of people disagreeing with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were higher in numbers, right to the point where policymakers deliberately denied their strongholds of those provisions. No activating law on civil rights prior to 1964 has transpired during those times, yet the growing civil rights movement gradually changed the scene as protesters became more progressive in influencing many more to their fold.
In sum, the civil rights movement proved to be a highly successful collective effort that involved not just the implementation of a comprehensive civil rights act favoring African-Americans but also the unification of various factions of people who want to end the era of unjust discrimination. A longitudinal historical approach to the topic would reveal that the civil rights movement has been very progressive as the years passed. Protesters have exhibited a consistent sense of innovativeness in instigating nonviolent forms of protest, which has become successful in eliciting sympathy while further incriminating the ones at fault. The use of charisma in convincing more people to support the civil rights movement became effective, largely due to the speeches and presentations provided by King. His death became a strong trigger that vastly reduced antagonism towards African-American civil rights welfare.
Arsenault, R. (2006). Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960).
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Chafe, W. (2006). The unfinished journey: America since World War II. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Civil Rights Act of 1964 - CRA - Title VII - Equal Employment Opportunities - 42 US Code Chapter 21. (n.d.). Find US Law. Retrieved from http://finduslaw.com/civil-rights-act-1964-cra-title-vii-equal-employment-opportunities-42-us-code-chapter-21
Dunkel, M. (2012). Aesthetics of resistance: Charles Mingus and the civil rights movement. Berlin, Germany: LIT Verlag.
Finkelman, P. (Ed.). (2009). Encyclopedia of African-American History. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Hall, J. (2005). The long civil rights movement and the political uses of the past. The Journal of American History, 91(4), 1233-1263.
Keith, D. (1984). What happens to a dream deferred: An assessment of civil rights law twenty years after the 1963 march on Washington. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 19(2), 469-495.
Killian, L. (1984). Organization, rationality and spontaneity in the civil rights movement. American Sociological Review, 49(6), 770-783.
King, C. (2008). The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York City, NY: Newmarket Press.
Morris, A. (1981). Black southern student sit-in movement: An analysis of internal organization. American Sociological Review, 46(6), 744-767.
Reeves, R. (1993). President Kennedy: Profile of power. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Riches, W. (1997). The civil rights movement: Struggle and resistance. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.