Civil Rights Movement in the United States, political, legal, and social struggle
by black Americans to gain full citizenship rights and to achieve racial equality.
The civil rights movement was first and foremost a challenge to segregation, the
system of laws and customs separating blacks and whites that whites used to control
blacks after slavery was abolished in the 1860s. During the civil rights movement,
individuals and civil rights organizations challenged segregation and
discrimination with a variety of activities, including protest marches, boycotts,
and refusal to abide by segregation laws. Many believe that the movement began with
the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
though there is debate about when it began and whether it has ended yet. The civil
rights movement has also been called the Black Freedom Movement, the Negro
Revolution, and the Second Reconstruction.
Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every
sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often called
the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who was an old,
crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation
became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865), Republican
governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners, and some
sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws opening up
economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the Democratic Party had
gained control of government in the Southern states, and these Southern Democrats
wanted to reverse black advances made during Reconstruction. To that end, they
began to pass local and state laws that specified certain places "For Whites Only"
and others for "Colored." Blacks had separate schools, transportation, restaurants,
and parks, many of which were poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over
the next 75 years, Jim Crow signs went up to separate the races in every possible
The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as
disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing
requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of
the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been
designed to protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability
to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to
education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and
paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who were
very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these hurdles
could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates because they
were open only to whites in most Southern states.
Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from