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Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education

Roots of the Movement

African American leaders laid the foundations for the civil rights movement with their push for racial equality throughout the Great Depression.

The American civil rights movement is best known for ending segregation laws that separated white people and black people (and other minorities) in public places. Many people assume the movement began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its roots actually go further back to the 1930s and the Great Depression.

Though the Civil War (1861–65) ended the institution of slavery in the United States, it failed to end racism. Segregationist legislation, known as Jim Crow laws, became common in the South following post–Civil War Reconstruction in the 1870s. "Jim Crow" was a derogatory term for black people adopted from a minstrel show caricature of a dimwitted slave. African Americans found themselves treated as second-class citizens, particularly in the post-Reconstruction South. They were subject to state and local Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation of schools, public transportation, parks, cemeteries, restaurants, and public restrooms. Poll taxes and literacy tests were among the legal requirements used to keep them from voting. Racist employment practices ensured African Americans were hired only for the most menial tasks, despite their education level or qualifications for a better job.

The job market became even worse for African Americans during the Great Depression (1929–38). Black people were the first to be laid off when a business or farm hit tough times. Unemployed African Americans received little, if any, public assistance, and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal plan to create jobs and boost the economy was biased in favor of white people. In truth, most of Roosevelt's programs discriminated against black people, for example by offering white people the first chance at jobs and lowering pay rates for black people. Such inequities were deemed necessary by President Roosevelt. In order to get congressional approval for his New Deal legislation, he needed the support of southern Democrats and could not afford to antagonize them by promoting equality.

As early as 1929, African American leaders began fighting back. The St. Louis Urban League led a national boycott of chain stores that catered primarily to black customers but hired only white people to work there. In 1930 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started an urgent campaign speaking out against lynching, the savage hanging of black people without a legal trial or authority. Their goal was to secure federal anti-lynching legislation. Their efforts failed to gain support from President Roosevelt, who feared to fight southern Democrats over the race issue. The NAACP also sought to influence American politics and campaigned to prevent the election of racist political nominees.

Struggle for Equality during the War Years

During World War II the struggle for racial equality continued in both civilian life and the armed forces.

The industrial boom that preceded U.S. involvement in World War II ended the Great Depression. Yet white employers still refused to hire black workers. In 1941 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters arranged a protest march in Washington, DC, specifically to highlight and protest segregation in industries mobilizing for possible war. Prior to the scheduled march, an alarmed Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government" and establishing a committee to investigate violations. Though the march did not take place, African Americans now had more opportunities for better-paying jobs across a wider range of occupations.

African Americans' struggle for equality also took place on the battlefront. Black men who were drafted into the armed services championed the "Double V" movement—victory over discrimination and dictatorship abroad, and victory over racism and Jim Crow in the United States. It was a long battle for both. Although black soldiers were allowed in most of the armed forces, they were generally relegated to service rolls, such as cooks and janitors. Yet it eventually became clear that such segregation was impractical and unnecessary. Black civil rights leaders challenged the government to establish all-black combat units—to give the men a chance to prove equal to the task of fighting as well as equal in their patriotism and desire to win the war. Groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen—the first Air Force–trained black pilots—more than proved their worth. A few years after the war's end, President Harry S. Truman approved Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the U.S. military.
The Tuskegee Airmen took on more than 15,000 individual missions during World War II. For their outstanding performance, the aviators were awarded over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-13262

Brown v. Board of Education

In the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the accepted policy of "separate but equal" was "inherently unequal" when it came to public education.

In 1896 the United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson determined that race-based segregation laws for public facilities were legal as long as white people and black people were provided facilities of equal quality. For example, the quality of black schools would need to equal that of white schools, or train cars reserved for black passengers would not be inferior to those reserved for white passengers. Despite the ruling, "separate but equal" facilities for African Americans did not exist. This was particularly true in the public school system, where there were enormous disparities in the quality of the facilities, school supplies, and education provided for white and black students.

This disparity was challenged in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. This case brought together four separate lawsuits filed by the NAACP representing African American elementary school students. The students had been barred from attending all-white schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The NAACP and attorney Thurgood Marshall (who would be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court) argued racial segregation in public schools was in violation of the Constitution's 14th Amendment. In addition to citizenship, this amendment, ratified in 1868, granted equal civil and legal rights to African Americans.

The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and therefore illegal. Chief Justice Earl Warren, a President Eisenhower appointee, wrote the court's decision. He argued that even if the tangible, or physical, aspects of a black school mirrored those of a white school, black students would still feel inferior because their skin color dictated they attend a different school. On the other hand, integrating public schools and having black children learning alongside white children would provide equal levels of opportunity and motivation to succeed. As Warren wrote, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Brown v. Board of Education is among the Supreme Court's most important rulings. Across the country, elementary schools, high schools, and even colleges and universities were compelled to open their doors, however unwilling they were, to students of all races. The process was slow and resistance fierce in some communities. There were legal attempts to delay or prevent desegregation. Violence erupted in some areas as mobs of white pro-segregationists took to the streets in protest or patrolled them armed and ready to stop black children from registering for school. One notable incident took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Nine students known as the "Little Rock Nine" had to be escorted into the high school by federal troops deployed by President Eisenhower. Rather than weakening the growing civil rights movement, this resistance strengthened the determination of its leaders and participants.

The impact of the court's decision extended beyond the American education system. Though the ruling legally applied only to public schools, it demonstrated that the premise of "separate but equal" was unjust because of the mental and emotional effects on victims of racial discrimination. By extension, enforced use of separate water fountains or bathrooms could be just as damaging as forced attendance at separate schools. This meant such laws should be abandoned, too. Moreover, the support of the highest court in the nation emboldened African American leaders to push for reform in other areas of American life.

Civil Rights Organizations

In the first half of the 20th century, four civil rights organizations led the charge for racial equality: CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC. All employed methods of nonviolent protest.
During the first half of the 20th century there were many regional and local organizations dedicated to ending segregation and racial discrimination in the United States. Those small chapters often collaborated with or were offshoots of larger organizations, such as Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The first three of these continue their mission today. The SNCC disbanded by the early 1970s.

History, Goals, and Accomplishments of CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC

Organization Founder(s)/Year Goal Notable Actions
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) James Farmer; 1942 Advance race relations and eradicate discriminatory policies through direct, nonviolent action.
  • First sit-in to protest public segregation (1942)
  • First Freedom Ride (1946)
  • Voter registration drives in the South
  • Freedom Rides (1961)
  • Freedom Summer project (1964)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary White Ovington; 1909 Ensure the rights of all people and end race-based discrimination.
  • Sued for equal treatment of black people in education, employment, housing, and public facilities
  • Sponsored the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1951–54)
  • Founded The Crisis (1910–present), a magazine regarded as the oldest black publication in the world
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1957 Coordinate nonviolent demonstrations and support local groups striving to achieve complete equality of African Americans in the United States
  • Was a key participant in the 1963 March on Washington
  • Registered voters throughout the South
  • Pushed for the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Ella Baker, 1960 Bring together people of all races to nonviolently protest white racism in the South. The group's mission changed in 1966 to one of greater militancy in association with the "black power" movement.
  • Organized sit-ins in Southern college towns
  • Supported the Freedom Rides (1961) and the March on Washington (1963)
  • Advocated for the Civil Rights Act
  • Protested the Vietnam War