The Civil Rights Movement: an introduction (article) | Khan Academy (2024)

Learn about the origins, strategies, and unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Overview

  • The Civil Rights Movement is an umbrella term for the many varieties of activism that sought to secure full political, social, and economic rights for African Americans in the period from 1946 to 1968.

  • Civil rights activism involved a diversity of approaches, from bringing lawsuits in court, to lobbying the federal government, to mass direct action, to black power.

  • The efforts of civil rights activists resulted in many substantial victories, but also met with the fierce opposition of white supremacists.

The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in the twentieth century. Efforts to improve the quality of life for African Americans are as old as the United States. By the time of the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century, abolitionists were already working to eliminate racial injustice and bring an end to the institution of slavery.1 During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was codified into law as the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment officially outlawed slavery and went into effect in 1865.

After the Civil War, during the period known as Reconstruction, the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments established a legal foundation for the political equality of African Americans. Despite the abolition of slavery and legal gains for African Americans, racial segregation known as Jim Crow arose in the South.2 Jim Crow segregation meant that Southern blacks would continue to live in conditions of poverty and inequality, with white supremacists denying them their hard-won political rights and freedoms.3

The twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement emerged as a response to the unfulfilled promises of emancipation, partly as a result of the experiences of black soldiers in the Second World War. African Americans fought in a segregated military while being exposed to US propaganda emphasizing liberty, justice, and equality. After fighting in the name of democracy in other countries around the world, many African American veterans returned to the United States determined to achieve the rights and prerogatives of full citizenship.4

The Civil Rights Movement involved many different strategies and approaches, including legal action, nonviolent civil disobedience, and black militancy.

Civil rights and the Supreme Court

One of the earliest approaches was centered in the courts. Spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this strategy initiated lawsuits to undermine the legal foundation of Jim Crow segregation in the South. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling held that separate facilities were inherently unequal and thereby declared segregation in public education to be unconstitutional.5

While the Supreme Court decision was a major victory for civil rights, white supremacists in the South pledged "massive resistance" to desegregation. In response to Brown v. Board, a group of Southern congressmen issued the “Southern manifesto,” denouncing the court’s decision and pledging to resist its enforcement. Ultimately, federal intervention was required to implement the ruling.

Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience

With authorities in the South actively resisting court orders to desegregate, some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement turned to direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience. Civil rights activists launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, after Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat on the bus for a white person. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a leader of the boycott, which was the first mass direct action of the contemporary Civil Rights Movement and provided a template for the efforts of activists across the country.

Religious groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), student organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), all took part in massive protests to raise awareness and to accelerate the momentum for passage of federal civil rights legislation. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest civil rights protest in US history, and contributed to the successful implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Mass direct action was highly effective, particularly due to widespread news media coverage of nonviolent protestors being harassed and physically beaten by law enforcement officers.

Black Power

Although comprehensive civil rights legislation represented a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement, the obstinacy of the white power structure in the South convinced some black activists that nonviolent civil disobedience was insufficient. Some African Americans were also concerned about the presence of so many northern middle-class whites in the movement. The Freedom Summer of 1964, during which northern white college students joined black activists in a voter registration drive in the South, was seen by some as an attempt to impose white leadership onto the Civil Rights Movement.

As a response to the continued power of whites, both within and outside of the movement, a more militant variety of civil rights activism emerged. One of its most influential proponents was Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, who advocated black self-reliance, cultural pride, and self-defense in the face of racial violence. The approach that Malcolm X spearheaded came to be known as Black Power, and it gained many adherents after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 at the hands of James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and white supremacist. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party were among the most vocal proponents of Black Power after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.6

The unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement racked up many notable victories, from the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation in the South, to the passage of federal legislation outlawing racial discrimination, to the widespread awareness of the African American cultural heritage and its unique contributions to the history of the United States. The 2008 election of the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, was a striking indication of just how far the struggle for equality has come.7 Yet other indicators reveal that there is still much work to do.

The goal of full social, economic, and political equality still has not been reached. African Americans continue to be incarcerated at a rate greatly disproportionate to their percentage of the population.8 Black men are the most frequent victims of police brutality, while poverty rates among black children and families are higher than among either whites or Latinos. Stereotypical portrayals of African Americans remain prevalent in popular culture. Many black Americans suffer from poor access to social services and from systemic inequalities in institutions like public education.9 As successful as the Civil Rights Movement was, there still remains unfinished business in the struggle for full equality.

What do you think?

Why did the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement emerge?

Which of the strategies employed by civil rights activists do you think was most effective?

What do you think was the most significant achievement of the Civil Rights Movement? Did civil rights activists achieve all of the goals of the movement?

Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Notes

  1. See Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  2. See C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

  3. See Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

  4. See Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State during World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Stephen Tuck,Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  5. See Michael J. Klarman, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  6. See Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).

  7. See Michael Eric Dyson, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

  8. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

  9. See Tavis Smiley, ed., The Covenant with Black America: Ten Years Later (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2016).

The Civil Rights Movement: an introduction (article) | Khan Academy (2024)

FAQs

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In the middle of the 20th century, a nationwide movement for equal rights for African Americans and for an end to racial segregation and exclusion arose across the United States.

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The civil rights movement was a social movement and campaign from 1954 to 1968 in the United States to abolish legalized racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisem*nt in the country.

What led to the civil rights movement in the USA Class 10? ›

The pursuit of civil rights for Black Americans was also inspired by the traditional promise of American democracy and by the Declaration of Independence's assumption of the equality of all people and of the unalienable rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in spite of a constitution that ...

What is the civil rights movement across the globe? ›

Civil rights movements are a worldwide series of political movements for equality before the law, that peaked in the 1960s. In many situations they have been characterized by nonviolent protests, or have taken the form of campaigns of civil resistance aimed at achieving change through nonviolent forms of resistance.

What is the Civil Rights Movement quizlet? ›

Civil Rights Movement. Social movement to demand equal rights for African Americans and other minorities. People worked together to change unfair laws. They gave speeches, marched in the streets, and participated in boycotts.

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Civil rights refer to the fundamental rights and freedoms granted to individuals by a government and are protected by law. Civil rights are an expansive and significant set of rights designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment.

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A civil right is a right to freedom and equality that's guaranteed to every citizen. Your civil rights protect you against discrimination.

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The Civil Rights Movement was an era dedicated to activism for equal rights and treatment of African Americans in the United States. During this period, people rallied for social, legal, political and cultural changes to prohibit discrimination and end segregation.

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Examples of civil rights include the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to government services, the right to a public education, the right to gainful employment, the right to housing, the right to use public facilities, freedom of religion.

Who led the civil rights movement? ›

Martin Luther King Jr.

What major event led to the civil rights movement? ›

The Montgomery bus boycott, sparked by activist Rosa Parks, was an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.

What was the impact of the civil rights movement? ›

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 hastened the end of legal Jim Crow. It secured African Americans equal access to restaurants, transportation, and other public facilities. It enabled blacks, women, and other minorities to break down barriers in the workplace.

What are the three major civil rights acts? ›

8 Key Laws That Advanced Civil Rights
  • 13th Amendment. Play Video. ...
  • Civil Rights Act of 1866. ...
  • 14th Amendment. ...
  • 15th Amendment. ...
  • Civil Rights Act of 1871. ...
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964. ...
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965. ...
  • Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Jan 26, 2022

What are the three most important civil rights? ›

Our country's Constitution and federal laws contain critical protections that form the foundation of our inclusive society – the right to be free from discrimination, the freedom to worship as we choose, the right to vote for our elected representatives, the protections of due process, the right to privacy.

How did the civil rights movement change the world? ›

The Civil Rights Movement racked up many notable victories, from the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation in the South, to the passage of federal legislation outlawing racial discrimination, to the widespread awareness of the African American cultural heritage and its unique contributions to the history of the United ...

What was the civil rights movement in response to? ›

In the mid-1950s, the modern civil rights movement arose out of the desire of African Americans to win the equality and freedom from discrimination that continued to elude them nearly a century after slavery was abolished in the United States.

What was the major goal of the civil rights movement answer? ›

Expert-Verified Answer

The main goals of the civil rights movements are to end the racial segregation, Social control against African Americans, and to secure legal recognition.

What was the civil rights movement for dummies? ›

The Civil Rights Movement was a social and political movement where Black Americans fought to gain equal rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Spearheaded by leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement sought to end forced segregation, injustice, and discrimination.

What was the purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? ›

In 1964, Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as, race in hiring, promoting, and firing.

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