Civil Rights

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The term Civil Rights movement has taken on almost brand name recognition as the organized grassroots struggle during the 1950's and 1960s for justice and equality for African-Americans. The term evokes familiar cultural images: Martin Luther King, protesters, lunchcounter sitins, vulnerable children and large white police, violence and civil unrest. Most schoolchildren know that Martin Luther King gave the I Have a Dream speech, and most adults have heard of the Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education.

But popular images leave the scope and significance of the movement for racial equality largely untouched. What is the time frame of the Civil Rights Movement? What was it? Who was involved? The answers are interrelated.

Clearly, the King years have occupied scholars of the civil rights movement. Certainly the mass action, grassroots characteristics of the movement of the sixties enable it to be set apart from earlier and later civil rights activism. Yet that activism built upon earlier efforts in World War II as African-Americans argued with the Roosevelt administration for equality. In fact, civil rights groups, the black press, church, labor and political leaders demanded equality in the name of the democracy that was a keynote of World War II. The black press called it the Double V campaign for victory against facism abroad and racism in America. Membership in the NAACP burgeoned, the Congress for Racial Equality came into being, and students at Howard university in conjunction with interracial groups began sitins and other forms of direct protest.

Backtracking further in the twentieth century, the 1930s marked the beginnings of organized legal assault on Jim Crow—a battle promulgated by Charles Henry Houston through the NAACP staffed by both black and white legal minds. Houston’s initial battle was the creation of a credible law school at Howard University establishing curriculum paralleling his early legal studies in social jurisprudence under Roscoe Pound at Harvard University. Under Houston, Howard's law school focused on the development of a new branch of law and legal precedent: civil rights.

The timing of the civil rights movement, as with any issue of chronological parameters, generates questions about who was involved, how they were involved and at what point. The movement reflects shifting parameters of race, class, and gender Comprehensive analysis of the civil rights movement demonstrates shifting institutional and organizational involvement as well. Civil rights expanded from a black-white paradigm to include other ethnic and racial groups and the women's movement.

In the books below, Mary Dudziak and Brenda Gayle Plummer analyze the relationship between American racial policy and foreign policy and diplomacy during the post-World War II era through the mid-sixties. International attention to racial violence, injustice, and inequalities damaged America's image and forced the government, not only to develop a counternarrative, but to take concrete action against racism. Michael Klarman examines the effect various Supreme Court rulings have had on the struggle for equality under the law and the societal pressures facing the Supreme Court during the decision-making proces. He begins with Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 and ends with Brown II. Harvard Sitkoff provides a synthetic narrative of civil rights.

Harry Ashmore provides a highly personal account from the viewpoint of a liberal white newspaper editor in the South. Aldon Morris relates events in the crucial time period from 1953-1963 when the modern civil rights movement began. Taylor Branch picks up in 1965-1968 and shows how Martin Luther King struggled to balance the larger national movement with local grass roots groups.

Freedom North, a collection of essays, looks at the civil rights movement outside the South. The essays present a much more complex and nuanced version of the movement than is often given. It is suggested that the traditional history is overly focused on the South, voting rights, and Martin Luther King. It is claimed that this limited version of the civil rights movement ends with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and diminishes the importance of the black power and separatism movements. Though the individual essays address specific parts or areas of the civil rights movement, taken together one gets a version of a complex and hard-to-define events.

  • Ashmore, Harry S. Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics 1944-1996, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).
  • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Harvard, 1981
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Jason Sokol. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. Knopf, 2006.
  • Whalen, Charles and Barbara. The Longest Debate A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1985.
  • Taylor Branch. At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
  • Brenda Gayle Plummer, ed. Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Local studies

The historiography of the civil rights movement began with a focus on the national struggle and national leaders, examining legislative and judicial breakthroughs. They provided a framework, and As Steven Lawson writes in Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiograhy of the Civil Rights Movement (American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 2, April 1991, 456-471), that evidence was most accessible through the papers of presidential libraries and civil rights organizations. As social history gained prominence and as research into the movement went deeper, shifting to local communities and grassroots organizations, from national leaders to local men and women. The local and regional focus demonstrates that the priorities of local struggles varied according to needs for political rights and economic reform. For instance, Gary May's book describes the violence in Alabama as perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan while Lassiter and Lewis describe how moderates in Virginia eased the process of school desegregation.

Included in Freedom North are a number of local studies. Beth Bates’ “’Double V for Victory’ Mobilizes Black Detroit, 1941-1946” chronicles the rise of the black power movement in Detroit and ties black militancy to Detroit’s history of labor struggles. Angela Dillard also writes about Detroit. Her essay looks at the influence of Reverend Albert Cleage, Jr. who sought to redefine Christianity in a way that supported black separatism. Chicago’s Black Panther Party is the subject of Jon Rise’s essay “The World of the Illinois Panthers.” Rise argues that the unique political and social climate of Chicago resulted in a distinctive Black Panther Party. Unlike Panthers in Oakland, the Chicagoans eschewed violence and were not interested in Pan-African Unity. Jeanne Theoharis looks at the traumatic and complex desegregation of Boston Schools. There is also a fascinating study of the Young Lords Organization (YLO) in New York. The YLO was a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers. Finally, Komozi Woodward has an essay that looks at the Black Power movement in Newark. Taken together, these essays demonstrate that each locality had its own version of the civil rights movement.

How were ordinary citizens, both black and white, affected by the civil rights movement? How did these working-class citizens respond to the events which unfolded around them? In Civil War On Race Street by Peter B. Levy provides a bottom-up, micro-historical perspective of the civil rights movement based upon the events which unfolded on Maryland's Eastern Shore town of Cambridge during the 1960s. According to Levy, "Looked at from the bottom up, the civil rights movement was a mass movement that empowered hundreds of thousands of ordinary people" (183). Unlike national civil rights groups which had male leadership, the Cambridge Non-violent Action Committee operated under the strong leadership of Gloria Richardson, a middle-aged, college educated woman. Richardson, unlike women in national organizations led by example rather than remaining behind the scenes. Richardson empowered working class blacks by selecting CNAC leaders from among them. Levy's research shows how ordinary citizens were affected by and responded to the civil rights movement in Cambridge, Maryland.

Some historians have begum to expand the history of the civil rights movement beyond the borders of the American South. For example Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty investigates the North during this time and Kevin Gaines assesses the participation of black expatriates in Ghana in American Africans in Ghana.

  • Chafe, William Henry.Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
  • Dittmer, John. Local People The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. University of Illinois Press, 1994.
  • Kevin K. Gaines. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Smith, Suzanne. Dancing in the Street. Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. "Sweet Land of Liberty:The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North" (New York: Random House, 2008).
  • Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds. Freedom north: Black freedom struggles outside the South, 1940-1980. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xiv, 326 p. $29.95
  • Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis, eds. The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1998.
  • Gary May. The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Peter B. Levy. Civil War On Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement In Cambridge Maryland. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. 2003.
  • John T. McGreevy "Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. (Chicato: University of Chicago Press, 1996).


  • Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
  • Chafe, William Henry. Never stop running : Allard Lowenstein and the struggle to save American liberalism. New York, NY : BasicBooks, 1993
  • Tyson, Timothy. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. UNC, 2000.
  • Matthew C. Whitaker.Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia. 1968. 403 pages. $40.00

Effects of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement happened within the context of other changes in America that both influenced the movement and were effected by the movement. The authors below have documented two areas that were impacted by the black struggle for equality--the women's movement and the media.

How were women affected by the civil rights movement? How did women respond to the civil rights movement and use the issues and ideologies to initiate a new feminist movement? Sara Evans has studied how women, who were often central participants in the civil rights movement, used this experience to reassess their role as women and become more focused on issues of inequality affecting females. Personal Politics provides an analysis of the civil rights movement and the emerging women's liberation movement of the 1960's from the perspective of middle and upper class, college educated women.

  • Sara Evans. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Sasha Torres looked at the relationship between TV and the black equality movement. She not only examined the use of television by black leaders to win sympathy to their cause but also studied how the media was used in later decades to portray blacks in a negative way.

The civil rights movement drastically changed the political landscape. The Dixicrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South:1932-1968 explores the relationship between politics and civil rights from FDR to Eisenhower. Though African Americans had won the right to vote in the aftermath of the Civil War a combination of Jim Crow Laws and fear tactics kept most from voting (especially in the South). World War II changed this. Returning African Americans demanded civil and political rights previously denied. This put the two major parties in a political bind. To support civil rights was the lose the support of many white Southerns but the African American vote could potentially make-up for any votes lost. The Democratic Party, which had for years been ruled by the South, took the initiative. Calculating that the South would still vote Democratic, President Harry Truman took up the civil rights banner in 1947. Southerners were outraged and when the national party re-nominated Truman and adopted a civil rights platform, they made the decision to form their own party. The States' Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats, nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President and began a campaign to deny Truman a chance to win the Presidency on his own. Despite fiery rhetoric the Dixiecrats proved to be far from a unified Party and failed to prevent Truman's election. Their movement was not without consequence however. The Democrats' control of the South was in the decline and by 1952 Republicans were making significant inroads.

Mark Oppenheimer in "Knocking on Heaven's Door: The American Religion in the Age of Counterculture." New Haven, CT. Yale University Press, 2003 shows how the civil rights movement affected the counterculture movement and its effect on American religion.

  • Coski, John. The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

Symbols play a huge part in collective memory, and the Confederate Battle Flag is one such symbol whose meaning has meant various things to various people over the years.

Coski begins his tale during the Civil War, when Confederate leaders discussed which emblem would symbolize the nascent nation. In the years that followed, the Confederate Battle Flag (not the Stars and Bars, which was actually the national flag) became a symbol of veneration, and many in the South tried to erase the memory of the slave system that undergirded the South during the Civil War. Fastforward to the 1950s--Strom Thurmond has led delegates from the 1948 Democratic convention, troops in Korea are hoisting the Confederate Battle Flag, supposedly to symbolize regional differences, and Southern colleges and universities are singing Dixie, trying to show their northern counterparts just who's dominant. But is flag fag all regional pride, or does the flag hold deeper racist meanings? Coski examines both sides of the arguement from the 1950s to the 1990s.

  • Nancy MacLean. Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. New York: Russell Sage; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. xii + 454 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

Further study

Other areas integral to understanding the black civil rights movement remain for exploration including black activism in the World War II period, white response to the civil rights movement, the black power movement, Black Islam and Malcolm X.

The timeline of the civil rights movement extends beyond the sixties and expands its boundaries. By the end of the decade, other racial and ethnic groups moved under the civil rights umbrella. Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans adapted became visible, although their struggles were not new.

A recent book by James T. Patterson, (New York: Basic Books, 2010)Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama is an excellent history of the decline of liberalism in the nineteen sixties and ideological contention over America's race issues during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Other readings

The University Press of Florida publishes several intriguing titles on the Civil Rights movement.

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