The struggle for equality for Americans of African descent continues despite significant advances made during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Since then, African Americans have acquired equality and desegregation. But these rights have not come easily as there was much hatred and mistreatment by many whites.
With the success of the Montgomery boycott, Black leaders charted a new path for the struggle for Civil Rights. In January of 1957, southern Black ministers met and established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rev. Martin Luther King became the first president of the organization. After conferring with the NAACP, a decision was made to follow-up on the suggestion made by A. Philip Randolph sixteen years earlier; a march on Washington to highlight the struggle for Blacks. Some twenty-five thousand people gathered during the first march seeking more Civil Rights legislation for all.
Many of the protests initiated during the 1950’s and 1960’s were spontaneous reactions to White mistreatment. One such incident occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina when a black student was refused service at a bus terminal lunch counter. After the incident, Joseph McNeil and three other students decided to go to the local Woolworth store and remain there until they were served. The waitress refused to serve them, so the four young men just sat there until they were arrested. Each day, the protesters would return and grow in numbers and as such many were arrested. This was one of the first examples of non-violent civil disobedience.
Black adults soon joined in, and a boycott of downtown area stores began. When many of the stores were near financial ruin, the decision was made to break the tradition and desegregate the lunch counters. When the success of the boycott spread around the country, other Black students spontaneously formed organizations to initiate similar non-violent protests around the country. In October of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. Future Washington DC mayor Marion Barry was the first chairperson of the organization. Students led protests that were showing up in virtually every city in the South. As the protesters grew in numbers, so did the violence that was perpetrated against them.
Throughout the South, Blacks were still in the majority, but had absolutely no political power. Black leaders knew that the key to passage towards any effective civil rights legislation would rely on the ability to vote. To date, White politicians and White supremacist groups had been fairly successful in keeping the Black voter rolls to a minimum. The numerous non-violent protests throughout the South were, however, beginning to show positive results. In 1957, the U.S. Congress passed the 1957 Civil Rights Act which made it a federal crime to interfere with a citizen’s right to vote. It also established the Civil Rights Commission to investigate violations of the law. With the passing of this legislation, most of the Southern White politicians became even more enraged.
In 1960, another bill was past to ensure everyone’s right to vote. The 1960 Civil Rights Act called for supervision of voter registration. Blacks were routinely denied permission to register. They were often made to wait for hours for an application to vote. Most of the applications were lost or discarded for various reasons. It was hoped that this legislation would stop these practices, however, it did not. Individual States had every right under the law to establish whatever rules they deemed necessary. The rules, however, were different for Blacks and Whites.
For the next few years, tens of thousands of protesters were beaten and jailed. Some lost homes, jobs, and even their lives. In 1962, two journalists were killed in Oxford, Mississippi. They were there covering the riots that erupted after a young black man named James Meredith’s admittance into the University of Mississippi. Mississippi State officials did everything possible to deny Meredith admittance, but in the end they allowed him in. On Sunday, September 30, 1962, 123 federal marshals, 316 U.S. border patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards escorted Meredith onto the college campus. Within hours, they were under assault by a White mob of over 2,000 men and women. President Kennedy had to send in sixteen thousand troops to protect Meredith and restore order at the university. Twenty-eight of the marshals were shot and another 160 police officers were injured. Federal troops remained at the university for over a year to protect one, James Meredith.
After waiting years for meaningful Civil Rights legislation to come forth, A. Philip Randolph and other Black leaders felt that it was time for a march on Washington. As Black leaders organized the march, White politicians in Washington were afraid that there would be violence. U.S. Congress tried to convince President Kennedy to call up the troops; however, Kennedy saw it as opportunity to gain political mileage with his support.
One of the primary reasons for the march was to bring attention to pending Civil Rights legislation. Several Black leaders argued about the tone of the speeches that would be delivered, and aimed at lending support to Kennedy. John Lewis, Chairman of SNCC, was forced to tone down his speech. He reluctantly did so, but still delivered the most controversial speech of the day. Lewis wanted to discuss his opposition to Kennedy’s proposals, because they did not include the right to vote. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 men, women, and children gathered on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a defining moment in history. Some felt that nothing was gained by the march. However, the world was introduced to Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream”. It was a great speech that defined America, or what America should be. Many believe that it was one of the most inspirational speeches ever heard.
The year 1963 was a horrible year. There were many bombings, assassinations, and violent opposition to civil rights protesters. With each violent action perpetrated against them, the nation became more receptive to their demands. King and others knew that they had a friend in President Kennedy. Although he was initially one who felt the movement should accept incremental changes, by 1963, he was behind the movement almost 100%. Unfortunately while he was driving down a Dallas area street, he was assassinated. The president was dead and the United States mourned his lost.
Unknown to the Civil Rights leaders was the support they would receive from his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. By this time, the Civil Rights movement had captured the nation. The vast majority of Whites supported legislation presented by Kennedy, and congress was more then willing to pass them.
Years of sacrifice ended in the passing of legislation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When the bill was introduced, there was lengthy debate of its contents. Southern congressmen fought against it with every breath. However, the public was ready for change, and change is what was received with the passing of this bill.
The act included 11 titles that covered a variety of issues:
I. Outlaws arbitrary discrimination in voter registration and
expedites voting rights suits;
II. Bars discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels
III. & IV. Authorized the national government to bring suits to
desegregate public facilities and schools;
V. Extends the life and expands the power of the Civil Rights
VI. Provides for federal financial assistance to be terminated
or withheld from educational institutions and programs that
practice racial discrimination;
VII. Prohibits private employers from refusing to hire or from
firing or discriminating against any person because of race,
color, sex, religion, or nation origin.
Title VII was the most significant of all the sections. However, when originally introduced by Kennedy prior to his death, it was only to apply to government employment. After much debate and revision before congress, it was changed to private sector employment only. Federal, state, and local government employment were excluded from the law. Southern congressmen tried to sabotage the bill by adding “sex – gender” to the original bill. They thought that this would surely kill the bill. To their dismay, the bill was passed with the gender specification intact. This was the most significant piece of legislation to date, and it has had a lasting effect in the elimination of discrimination and segregation.
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Following the assassination, riots erupted in over 150 U.S. cities.
African-Americans have had a hard time gaining the same rights whites have always had. Not until recently in the 1950’s and 1960’s had any advances towards equal rights and desegregation. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there has been much hatred towards the African-Americans from many whites. This has been shown through the mistreatment of African-Americans.
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Hampton, Henry and Fayer, Steve. Voices of Freedom. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
Lindsey, Howard O. A History of Black America. Connecticut: Brompton Books Corp., 1994.
Long, Richard A. Black Americana. New Jersey: Chartwell Books Inc., 1985.
McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. The Civil Rights Movement in America: from 1865 to the Present. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1991.