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Essay: The Movement Continues: The History and Significance of the Civil Rights Movement in America

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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The Movement Continues

By Gentry Cox

After the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), “slavery” was officially abolished in the United States.  However, southern legislatures passed state and local laws known as “Jim Crow Laws” to allow the continuance of racial segregation in the South.  Blacks were being educated in underfunded and often inferior schools, voting requirements were overly stringent for blacks and the agricultural economy of the South denied upward mobility.  The Democratic Party in the South was very powerful and reigned supreme.  It was a party of white supremacists and controlled virtually every Southern state.  The Southern Democrats were so powerful that they were able to control Congress and kill any civil rights legislation.  This is why the Civil Rights Movement did not occur any earlier than it did.

However, after World War II, the demand for workers in the North caused a migration of African Americans to America’s industrial centers.  In fact, between 1940 and 1970, four million blacks moved to the cities (Power Point Presentation).   In addition, the influx of returning black World War II veterans citing the fact that they had fought for their country began to demand more voting rights.  Other pivotal moments were taking place in the country during this time as well leading to escalating discontent.  In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education case challenged the “separate but equal” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Henkin, pg. 777).  The following year the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy lynched by two white men who were later acquitted by an all white jury, contributed to additional racial discord (Power Point Presentation, Civil Rights Timeline).  All of these incidents were fueling the desire of the black community to rise up in protest.  However, they were waiting for the perfect moment in which to launch their movement.  In 1955, a well respected seamstress and member of the NAACP named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama (Henkin, pg. 777).  She was subsequently arrested and the African American community began a year long boycott of the city bus service (Montgomery Bus Boycott video clip).   Tensions continued to rise in the South but the African American community was gaining momentum, in large part due to the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was an outspoken proponent of nonviolent protest against segregation.  However, the South would not let go of segregation without a fight.   In 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” was photographed attempting to enter Central High School in Arkansas (Henkin, pg.n778, 781).  Elizabeth’s dignity, bravery, and composure while being removed and taunted by white students demonstrated the hatred between the races and further ignited the climate leading to the Civil Rights Movement.  Under similar circumstances, I fear I would have lacked the stamina and fortitude to stand up to the ridicule and humiliation that Elizabeth endured.

The conflict between civil rights leaders on how to accomplish the goals of the Civil Rights Movement is best illustrated by the contrast between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X.  King believed that peaceful disobedience and protest was the most effective way to force change.  He wrote that he “had come to see early that nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom” (Henkin, pg. 778).  On the other hand, Malcom X believed that “nonviolence was both poor strategy and morally suspect” (Henkin, pg. 807).  He instructed his followers to send anyone who “puts a hand on you. . . . . to the cemetery” (Henkin, pg. 807).  In an effort to minimize the influence of violence on the Civil Rights Movement, American history books prefer to concentrate on the methods advocated by King.  As demonstrated by King’s improvised portion of his “I Have A Dream” speech, the emotional appeal of an eloquent speaker should never be underestimated.  Malcolm X was himself charismatic.  King can be described as the spiritual leader of the movement and Malcolm X as the activist leader.  In my opinion, white people were scared of Malcolm X and resented his Muslim beliefs.  However, without the potent combination of civil disobedience advocated by King coupled with the militant and confrontational style of Malcom X, equal rights and the end of segregation may never have come to fruition.

In June of 1963, President John Kennedy delivered a speech on national television that was the legislative origin of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  President Kennedy’s speech was a response to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s refusal to allow two black students to be admitted to the University of Alabama.  Kennedy asked the country, “If an American, because his skin is dark, ………… cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” (JFK Civil Rights speech on video clip from June, 1963)  Kennedy’s legislation was not enacted until 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.  I believe the passage of this important legislation marked the turn of the South from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican stronghold.

While some believe that the Civil Rights Movement ended with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the passage of the Civil Rights Act, I believe the Movement continues today.  Much of the animosity that still exists in the Southern states is because of continued racial prejudice and fear that the white race is becoming a minority in America.  As President Eisenhower stated, it is impossible to “change the hearts and minds of men with laws or decisions” (Henkin, page 777).  And, as President John F. Kennedy stated, “law alone cannot make men see right” (JFK Civil Rights speech on video clip 1963).  The Movement must continue until more hearts and minds are changed.  

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