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United States civil rights movement

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The United States civil rights movement was a United States political movement for equality before the law. Most events were between 1865 and 1980. Many times, it used civil resistance and nonviolent forms of resistance. In some situations it was accompanied, or followed, by civil unrest and armed rebellion. The process was long and uneven. The groups targeted for discrimination included African-Americans (blacks), immigrants, Jews, Catholics, women, and other minorities.

The movement reached national prominence between 1954 and 1968, particularly in the South. The aims of the civil rights movement expanded beyond legal rights to include human dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by prejudiced people.

During the period 1955–1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced tense relationships between activists and government authorities. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts; "sit-ins"; marches; occupations such as Alcatraz Island (1969); and a wide range of other nonviolent activities. The results was actions by the federal government to outlaw discrimination and a change in public attitude toward discrimination.

The movement united people from many different backgrounds to help a wide variety of groups gain civil rights.

Ethnicity equity issues


Immediately after the Civil War federal troops sought to enforce the civil rights of freed slaves in the South. The goal was to bring blacks and whites together into a single American society. After 1890, the system of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, and second-class citizenship hurt the citizenship rights of African Americans, especially in the South. There were three main points:

The combination of law, public and private acts of discrimination, marginal economic opportunity, and violence directed toward blacks in the southern states became known as "Jim Crow". At this time, discrimination was widely accepted throughout the U.S. against immigrants and religious minorities as well as blacks. Women could not vote and had limited educational and job opportunities.

Prior to 1955, people sought to change these by challenging the Jim Crow laws in court and by lobbying for small changes in laws. However, by 1955, blacks became frustrated by gradual approaches to implement desegregation by federal and state governments and by the "massive resistance" by whites. Civil rights leaders adopted a combined strategy of civil disobedience (direct action with nonviolent resistance) Civil disobedience produced crisis situations for segregationists. Some of the different forms of protests and/or civil disobedience employed included boycotts, as successfully practiced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) in Alabama which gave the movement one of its more famous icons in Rosa Parks; "sit-ins", as demonstrated by the Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; and marches, as exhibited by the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama. Attitudes changed around the country, particularly in public opinion polls.

Jesse Jackson has fought for civil rights as his life's work.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the best known demonstration. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech. Many compromises were made in order to unite the followers of so many different causes into one protest. The leaders of the march, informally named the Big Six, were A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer and John Lewis. Although they came from different political horizons, these leaders were intent on the peacefulness of the march, which even had its own marshal to ensure that the event would be peaceful and respectful of the law.[1] Later, the march was criticized for not featuring women and their issues in a prominent role.[2]

Noted achievements of the civil rights movement in this area include:

Black Power

By 1965, the growth of the Black Power movement (1966–1975) began to overpower the original "integrated power" aims of the civil rights movement that had been pushed by Martin Luther King, Jr.. Advocates of Black Power wanted black self-determination, and asserted that the assimilation inherent in integration robs Africans of their common heritage and dignity.

At the 1968 Olympics, two black athletes stood on the podium doing a Black Power salute.

Chicano Movement

The Chicano Movement, also known as the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement and El Movimiento, sought political empowerment and social inclusion for Mexican-Americans. The Chicano movement blossomed in the 1960s and was active through the late 1970s in various regions of the U.S. The movement had roots in the civil rights struggles that had preceded it, adding to it the cultural and generational politics of the era.

When the movement dealt with practical problems in the 1960s, most activists focused on the most immediate issues confronting Mexican-Americans; unequal educational and employment opportunities, political disfranchisement, and police brutality. In the late 1960s, the Chicano movement brought about more or less spontaneous actions, such as the mass walkouts by high school students in Denver and East Los Angeles in 1968 and the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles in 1970.

The movement was particularly strong at the college level, where activists formed MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, which promoted Chicano Studies programs and a generalized ethno-nationalist agenda.

American Indian Movement

Flag of the American Indian Movement

At a time when peaceful sit-ins were a common protest tactic, the American Indian Movement (AIM) takeovers in their early days were noticeably violent. Some appeared to be spontaneous outcomes of protest gatherings, but others included armed seizure of public facilities, such as in the Wounded Knee incident.

The Alcatraz Island occupation of 1969, although commonly associated with AIM, pre-dated the organization, but was a catalyst for its formation.

In 1970, AIM occupied abandoned property at the Naval Air Station near Minneapolis, Minnesota. When activists took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs Headquarters in Washington D.C. in November 1972, they sacked the building, and 24 people were arrested. Activists occupied the Custer County, South Dakota Courthouse in 1973, Police ended the occupation after a riot took place.

In 1973 activists and military forces confronted each other in the Wounded Knee incident. The standoff lasted 71 days, and two men died in the violence.

Later, AIM led the "Longest Walk 2", which arrived in Washington in July 2008. This 8,200-mile (13,200 km) walk had started from the San Francisco Bay area. More than 100 American Indian nations, and other indigenous participants, such as Māori participated. It also had non-indigenous supporters. The walk highlighted the need for protection of American Indian sacred sites, tribal sovereignty, environmental protection and action to stop global warming. This included the ability to have careers in addition to motherhood, or the right to choose not to have children. It also addressed the rights of female minorities.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution to guarantee equal rights to women. Alice Paul first wrote the ERA. In 1923, it was introduced in the Congress for the first time. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress on the condition that a number of states also agree by a June 30, 1982 deadline. Political campaigns worked for its passage in most states. But, the ERA died when less than 38 states agreed.[4] Twenty-one states have a version of the ERA in their state constitutions. In the United States, the homophile movement of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s also took this approach. With the rise of secularism in the West, an increasing sexual openness, women's liberation, the 1960s counterculture, and a range of new social movements, the homophile movement underwent a rapid growth and transformation. They used consciousness raising and direct action. By the start of the 21st Century, the movement focused on equal rights including same-sex marriage.

Prison reform

At the beginning of the twentieth century, policy makers adopted psychiatric interpretations of social deviance. By 1926, 67 prisons employed psychiatrists and 45 had psychologists. The language of medicine was used. A goal of prisons became to "cure" offenders of their criminality. In fact, little was known about the causes of their behaviour and prescriptions were not much different from the earlier reform methods.[5] A system of probation began, but often used simply as an alternative to suspended sentences, and the probation officers appointed had little training. Each officer had to watch several hundred people making assistance or surveillance practically impossible. Yet, a probation officer could revoke a client's probation status without going through another trial or other fair process.[6]

In 1913, Thomas Mott Osborne became chairman of a commission for the reform of the New York prison system and introduced a Mutual Welfare League at Auburn Prison with a committee of 49 prisoners appointed by secret ballot from the 1400 inmates. He also removed the striped dress uniform at Sing Sing Prison and introduced recreation and movies. Progressive reform resulted in the "Big House" by the late twenties - prisons averaging 2,500 men with professional management designed to eliminate the abusive forms of corporal punishment and prison labor used at the time.

The American prison system was shaken by a series of riots in the early 1950s triggered by deficiencies of prison facilities, lack of hygiene or medical care, poor food quality, and guard brutality. In the next decade, courts recognized that prisons had rights in all these areas.[5] In 1954, the American Prison Association changed its name to the American Correctional Association and the rehabilitative emphasis was formalized in the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

In segregated prisons in southern states, black prisoners had very bad living conditions. Some states contracted with farms or companies to provide prisoners as laborers. In integrated correctional facilities in northern and western states, blacks represented a disproportionate number of the prisoners, in excess of their proportion of the general population. Blacks were often mistreated by white correctional officers. Blacks also represented a disproportionately high number of death row inmates. Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice was written from his experiences in the California correctional system; it contributed to black militancy.[7]


The struggle for civil rights and for the end of discrimination in the United States started before the nation began and continues today. The American Civil War grew out of concerns for voting rights, economic exploitation by Great Britain, and religious freedom. During the first half of the 19th century, the abolistionists sought an end to slavery. Following the end of the American Civil War, the Federal government sought to incorporate freed slaves and whites into a single society under a Reconstruction policy. Several amendments were added to the Constitution to protect the rights of all citizens, including former slaves. Following the end of Reconstruction in 1876, Southern states adopted Jim Crow laws which imposed racial segregation on blacks and took away their right to vote or to hold office. The Klu Klux Klan used violence against blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

Women demonstrated and marched demanding the right to vote and to hold office. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.

In the 1940s and 1950s, civil rights leaders used lawsuits to challenge Jim Crow laws as being contrary to the Constitutional Amendments that were adopted after the Civil War. In response, local governments claimed that they were providing "separate but equal" facilities that met the Constitutional test. (In fact, the facilities and services for blacks and minorities were inferior to those for whites.) In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas ruled that "separate but equal" could not be used to justify segregation of public schools.

In the 1960s, civil rights leaders lead boycotts, sit-in protests, marches, and other non-violent demonstrations. This resulted in the adoption of Federal Civil Rights legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, employment, voting rights, and housing. It outlawed discrimination based on an "individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;"[8] Also, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage differentials based on sex. This was followed by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (Pub. L. 111-2) to provide financial remedies for past wage differences.

American Jewish community and the civil rights movement

American Jews were one of the most actively involved non-black groups in the civil rights movement. Many Jewish students worked in concert with blacks for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as full-time organizers and summer volunteers during the Civil Rights era. Jews made up roughly half of the white northern volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project and approximately half of the civil rights attorneys active in the South during the 1960s.[9]

Jewish leaders were arrested while heeding a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964, that was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a writer, rabbi and professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York was outspoken on the subject of civil rights. He marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in the 1965 March on Selma. In the Mississippi Burning murders of 1964, the two white activists killed, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were both Jewish.

Brandeis University, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college university in the world, created the Transitional Year Program (TYP) in 1968, in part response to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. The program increased minority enrollment at Brandeis.

The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and Anti-Defamation League actively promoted civil rights.

While Jews were very active in the civil rights movement in the South, in the North, many had experienced a more strained relationship with blacks. In communities experiencing "white flight" to the suburbs, Jewish Americans were more often the last remaining whites in the inner city neighborhoods. With black militancy and the Black Power movements on the rise, Black Anti-Semitism increased leading to strained relations between blacks and Jews in Northern communities. In New York City, most notably, there was a major socio-economic class difference in the perception of blacks by Jews.[10] Jews from better educated upper middle class backgrounds were often very supportive of black civil rights activities while the Jews in poorer urban communities that became increasingly minority were often less supportive largely in part due to more negative and violent interactions between the two groups.[source?]

See also: African-American – Jewish relations and Brownsville, Brooklyn

Documentary films

  • Freedom on My Mind, 110 minutes, 1994, Producer/Directors: Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, 1994 Academy Award Nominee, Best Documentary Feature
  • Eyes on the Prize (1987 and 1990), PBS television series; released again in 2006 and 2009.
  • Dare Not Walk Alone, about the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, Florida. Nominated in 2009 for an NAACP Image Award.
  • Crossing in St. Augustine (2010), produced by Andrew Young, who participated in the civil rights movement in St. Augustine in 1964. Information available from AndrewYoung.Org.
  • Freedom Riders (2010), 120 min. PBS, American Experience.

Key figures



  1. Barber, Lucy. "In the Great Tradition: The March on Washington for Jobs ans Freedom, August 28, 1963," in Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition. (Berkeley: U of California Press, 2002), 141–178.
  2. Height,Dorothy. "We wanted the voice of a women to be heard": Black women and the 1963 March on Washington", in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. Eds. Collier. Thomas, Bettye and V.P. Franklin. (New York: NYU press, 2001), 83–91.
  3. Civil Rights Act of 1964
  4. Idaho v. Freeman, U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, Civ. No. 79-1097, 529 F. Supp. 1107, December 23, 1981
  5. 5.0 5.1 Morris & Rothman 1995, p. 178
  6. Morris & Rothman 1995, p. 182
  7. Cleaver, Eldridge (1967). Soul on Ice. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  8. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 Retrieved December 16, 2011
  9. From Swastika to Jim Crow—PBS Documentary
  10. Cannato, Vincent "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and his struggle to save New York" Better Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-00843-7

Further reading

Sources addressing 1955-1968

Other websites