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Essay: The Fight for Civil Rights: Martin Luther King and The Movement to Achieve Equality

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Michael Jackson

Professor Bush

History 1302

6 December 2015

The Fight for Civil Rights

The Civil Rights movement occurred at a turbulent time in American history. The Cold War and the search for communists had the government’s attention, forcing civil rights activists to change their tactics. The ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, making segregation in public schools unconstitutional, was met with massive resistance. Civil rights leaders took action calling for nonviolent protests to push for civil rights legislation while facing the threat of violent retaliation for their efforts.

Leaders of the civil rights movement used civil disobedience as a form of peaceful protest. This civil disobedience took many forms throughout the movement, such as boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, in response to the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, a secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. This particular event was set up by NAACP leaders in Montgomery, Alabama, in an attempt to give the civil rights movement a face to inspire outrage in the African-American community (Cozzens). Word spread through flyers and word of mouth inspiring many people to participate in this boycott, drawing it out for a year. Businesses owned by whites were also subjected to boycotts (Patterson). These boycotts caused disruptions to businesses, causing loss of income.

Another strategy used by civil rights activists was the sit-in. Beginning in 1958, sit-ins were used as a means to challenge segregated seating at lunch counters and other public establishments (“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968)”). One notable sit-in took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, when, on February 1, 1960, four African-American college students were denied service at a lunch counter in an F.W. Woolworth store. In response, these students sat at the lunch counter until they were forced to leave at the closing of the store. These students believed that if they could purchase supplies from the store, they should be able to receive service at the lunch counter (Cozzens). The students returned with more people every day for five months before the store allowed African-Americans to be served (Foner 972). This event inspired many similar protests in the South through the early 1960s, with African-American students practicing peaceful protest sometimes meeting violent resistance from whites.

Marches helped to bring the civil rights movement to the nation’s attention. A. Phillip Randolph’s March on Washington on August 28, 1963, gathered 250,000 people, both white and black, in Washington, D.C., to speak out for stronger civil rights legislation, and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While this protest was met with peace, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 7, 1965, was met with violent resistance.  During the march, protesters, calling for equal voting rights, were attacked by state police. This attack caused the government to act after it was broadcast on television (Foner 985). This violence was seen across the country, as well as around the world, making it something that could no longer be ignored.

The federal government was unable to fully support the civil rights movement in the beginning. The movement was taking place during the Cold War, and the government was concerned with Americans’ loyalty to their country. Anyone speaking out against government policy, or holding an unpopular political opinion, could be considered a communist. Investigators searching for people loyal to communism considered civil rights activists communists due to the cooperation between blacks and whites (Foner 923). President Eisenhower had to act, despite his beliefs, to keep the peace when he sent federal troops to enforce the desegregation law at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eisenhower did not believe schools needed to be desegregated (Foner 967). Still, other leaders did not understand the civil rights movement. President Kennedy had very little knowledge of the civil rights movement (“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968)”).  Kennedy pushed for a civil rights legislation to be passed, but was assassinated before it could be. Lyndon B. Johnson ensured the passage of Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act into law in 1964.

Once the civil rights movement gained the nation and the government’s attention through peaceful protest and violent reaction, laws were passed that paved the way for equality.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for employers and public businesses to discriminate based on race or sex. Noting the lack of popularity of the law with whites, President Johnson believed the law’s passing may have “delivered the South to the Republican Party” (Foner 982). The passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforced the right for every American citizen to vote, in response to the attack on protesters marching in Selma, Alabama was a major victory for the civil rights movement. This ensured that African-Americans would be able to have a say in elections and vote for people that would represent them. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed, allowing all American citizens to own or rent a home without discrimination.

While these victories helped civil rights to achieve their initial goals for the movement, there were other issues to address. Poverty was a large issue. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on race when hiring, but many African-Americans were unable to find jobs. The unemployment rate was twice as high for blacks as it was for whites (Foner 990). Riots broke out in poverty stricken neighborhoods around the nation. In Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood, blacks rioted due to police brutality, causing $30 million in damage over six days (“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968)”). The various organizations participating in the civil rights movement wanted different things. While civil rights leaders were fighting for equality between blacks and whites, many in the Black Power movement pushed for autonomy (“Black Power”). They wanted to make their own laws and their own decisions. They wanted to address poverty in African-American communities.

As the civil rights movement wound down, the activists had achieved many positive things for the African-American community.  They fought peacefully for racial equality and won. The Civil Rights movement helped ensure that African-Americans would receive the same rights as the rest of the nation. Still, there were many things left to fight for that are still being fought for today.

Works Cited

“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

“Black Power” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Cozzens, Lisa. “The Civil Rights Movement 1955-1966.” African American History. Lisa Cozzens, 24 June 1998. Web. 5 December 2015.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014. Print.

Patterson, James T. “The Civil Rights Movement: Major Events and Legacies.” History Now: American History Online. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

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