The Civil Rights Movement sought to win the American promise of liberty and equality during the twentieth century. From the early struggles of the 1940s to the crowning successes of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that changed the legal status of African-Americans in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement firmly grounded its appeals for liberty and equality in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Rather than rejecting an America that discriminated against a particular race, the movement fought for America to fulfill its own universal promise that “all men are created equal.” It worked for American principles within American institutions rather than against them.
African-Americans endured racial prejudice that compelled them to fight racism in World War II while fighting in segregated units. It was particularly hard to accept because the war was fought against the racist Nazis who were attempting to eradicate the Jews grounded in racially-based totalitarianism. For black soldiers, the stark contradiction with American wartime ideals was as repulsive as their daily condition of fighting separately. Many black units—most famously the Tuskegee Airmen—fought just as courageously as their white counterparts. Fighting for the “Double V” for victory over totalitarianism and racism, returning black veterans were not keen on returning to the Jim Crow South with legal (de jure) segregation nor to a North with informal (de facto) segregation.
On the national level, African-Americans sought to overturn segregation with legal challenges up to the Supreme Court, pressuring presidents to enforce equality, and lobbying Congress for changes in the law of the land.
In the postwar years, civil rights leaders prepared a dual strategy of attacking all discrimination throughout American society. On the national level, African-Americans sought to overturn segregation with legal challenges up to the Supreme Court, pressuring presidents to enforce equality, and lobbying Congress for changes in the law of the land. On the local level, marches were held to demonstrate the fundamental immorality and violence of segregation and to change local laws.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was established by W.E.B. DuBois and other black and white, male and female reformers in 1909 to struggle for civil rights, helped lead the legal battle in the courts. The NAACP legal team, led by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the Supreme Court, scored the first major success of the Civil Rights Movement with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision that indirectly overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had set the precedent for legalizing segregation. New Chief Justice Earl Warren persuaded his fellow justices to issue a unanimous 9-0 decision for the moral force to overcome expected white southern resistance. The outcome was a landmark for black equality that initiated the Civil Rights Movement.
The good outcome led many to overlook the questionable legal reasoning employed in the decision. The Supreme Court shockingly admitted white and black schools were equal despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, the Court stated that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had “inconclusive” origins related to segregated schools and doubted whether it could be applied to this case. Instead, the Court turned to social science as the basis for its decision. It referred to experiments in which black children played with dolls of different races. Members of the Court misread the evidence because the results of the studies actually showed that the segregated black children chose to play with black dolls. The Court mistakenly reported that the black children played more with the white dolls and had a “feeling of inferiority.”
The Court settled for declaring the edict that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” based on dubious social science and missed an opportunity for a constitutionally-grounded precedent banning all racial discrimination.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote this powerful dissent: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of our civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” (John Marshall Harlan, Plessy v. Ferguson Dissenting Opinion, 1896).
By ignoring Harlan’s understanding of the equality principle in the Constitution and settling for the use of social science, Chief Justice Warren diminished the constitutional force of the decision, which, if read narrowly, did not exactly overturn Plessy.
Even with the unanimous decision that Chief Justice Warren sought, the case encountered opposition, and it took more than a decade of direct action by African-Americans and others to win equality. In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott initiated a decade of local demonstrations against segregation in the South. In December 1955, Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man because she was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. African-Americans applied economic pressure for more than one year to force concessions for desegregation at the local level, and a charismatic young Baptist minister, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., provided vision and leadership for the emerging movement at Montgomery.
As a result of the Brown decision, many white politicians and ordinary citizens engaged in what they called “massive resistance” to oppose desegregation. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to use the state National Guard to protect black children at Little Rock High School. President Dwight Eisenhower sent in troops from the 101st Airborne Division to compel local desegregation and protect the nine black students while federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to block Faubus. The Little Rock Nine attended school under the watchful eye of federal troops. The principles of equality and constitutional federalism came into conflict during this incident because the national government used the military to impose integration at the local level.
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to use the state National Guard to protect black children at Little Rock High School. President Dwight Eisenhower sent in troops from the 101st Airborne Division to compel local desegregation and protect the nine black students while federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to block Faubus.
In the early 1960s, African-Americans continued to press for equality at the local and national levels. In 1960, black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina started a wave of “sit-ins” in which they took seats reserved for whites at segregated lunch counters. The sit-ins led to applying the economic pressure of a boycott that successfully desegregated the local lunch counters.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. used his moral vision and rhetoric to achieve the greatest successes of the movement for black equality and the end of segregation. King helped to organize marches in Birmingham, Alabama, where police dogs and fire hoses were turned on the Birmingham marchers and caused shock and outrage across the nation when the violence was televised. King and hundreds of others were arrested for demonstrating without a permit.
From his jail cell, King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” defending the civil rights demonstrations by quoting the great Christian authority St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Employing the principles of America’s Founders, King explained that a just law is a “man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” King posited that just laws uplift the human person while unjust laws “distort the soul” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963).
He argued that just laws are rooted in human equality, while unjust laws give a false sense of superiority and inferiority. Moreover, segregation laws had been inflicted upon a minority who had no say in making the laws and thereby passed without consent, violating American principles of republican self-government.
King closed the letter by asserting that the Civil Rights Movement was “standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963).
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy responded and addressed the nation on television. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” he told the nation. For Kennedy, the question was “whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities” (John F. Kennedy, “Civil Rights Address,” June 11, 1963).
Kennedy was mindful of the historical significance of the year when he appealed to Lincoln’s Proclamation freeing the slaves: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free…And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free” (John F. Kennedy, “Civil Rights Address,” June 11, 1963).
On August 28, 1963, the greatest event of the Civil Rights Movement occurred with the March on Washington. More than 250,000 blacks and whites, young and old, clergy and laity, descended upon the capital in support of the proposed civil rights bill. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King evoked great documents of freedom when he said “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” August 28, 1963). The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves one hundred years before on January 1, 1863. Simultaneously, he also subtly referred to the other great document of 1863, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which was inscribed in the wall of the memorial, and begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863).
On August 28, 1963, the greatest event of the Civil Rights Movement occurred with the March on Washington. More than 250,000 blacks and whites, young and old, clergy and laity, descended upon the capital in support of the proposed civil rights bill.
King offered high praise for the “architects of our republic” who wrote the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” King began his evocative peroration “I Have a Dream” by declaring that his dream is “deeply rooted in the American dream.” “One day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal’” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” August 28, 1963).
African-Americans won the fruits of their decades of struggle for civil rights when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act legally ended segregation in all public facilities. The act had to overcome a Southern filibuster in the Senate and the fears of conservatives in both parties that it was an unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government upon the rights of the states and into local affairs and private businesses.
Although the Fifteenth Amendment had been ratified a hundred years before, African Americans still voted at low rates, especially in the Deep South. A number of devices—literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that prevented descendants of slaves from voting—severely curtailed black suffrage. Violence and intimidation were the main vehicles of preventing African-Americans from voting in the mid-1960s.
In March 1965, Martin Luther King and other leaders organized marches in Selma, Alabama, for voting rights. After enduring beatings by club-wielding mounted police officers on “Bloody Sunday,” the marchers eventually set out again several days later and reached Montgomery under the watchful eye of federal troops. Congress soon passed the Voting Rights of 1965, banning abridgment of the right to vote on account of race.
Yet in the wake of the great legislative triumphs for social and voting equality the summer of 1965 (and successive summers) witnessed the explosion of racial violence and rioting by black citizens in American cities. Despite gaining rights of equal opportunity African-Americans still lived under obvious economic disparities with whites. The passage of federal laws securing equal opportunity led to rising expectations of immediate equality, which did not happen. Young “Black Power” advocates also began advocating self-reliance as a race, a celebration of African heritage, and a rejection of white society. Forming groups like the Black Panthers, a minority of young African-Americans spoke in passionate terms advocating violence, leading to confrontations with police. Many white Americans were shocked and confused at the urban riots occurring just after legal equality for African-Americans had been achieved.
In the 1970s and 1980s, plans of “affirmative action” were introduced in college admissions and in hiring for public and private jobs that soon became controversial. Intended to remedy the historic wrongs of slavery and segregation, affirmative action policies established preference or quotas for the number of African-Americans (and soon women and other minorities) who would be admitted or hired. Its proponents sought to achieve an equality of outcome in society rather than merely equal opportunity in American society. Some whites complained that this was “reverse discrimination” against whites that tolerated lower standards for the benefited groups. The most notable Supreme Court case addressing the issue was the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) decision, in which racial preferences, but not racial quotas, were upheld.
The Supreme Court essentially agreed with the supporters of affirmative action who argued that “discrimination against members of the white ‘majority’ cannot be suspect if its purpose can be characterized as ‘benign’” (Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Opinion, 1978)