Fifty years ago civil rights activists arrived in the town of Selma, Alabama. Amongst their numbers was the noted campaigner, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who had arrived in the town, alongside other members of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to fight against the discrimination facing black American voters. It was a moment in history. It was a moment when American society changed.
In 2015 the story of Selma has been immortalised in film and it had bought the history of Civil Rights to a new generation. But Civil Rights is still relevant to the modern era, particularly within an America that is questioning its relationship with race and the violence that has become associated with the most disenfranchised communities in the USA.
Civil Rights has had a long and complicated history, but from the earliest years of the movement in the 1950’s to the modern legacy of Civil Rights in 2015, this has been a history of drama, change and most importantly inspiration.
Montgomery to Birmingham
- Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56)
- Little Rock Central High (1957)
- Freedom Rides (1961)
- Albany Movement (1961-62)
- Birmingham (1963)
Civil Rights had roots that stretched back to the mid-19th century and the American Civil War, when the issue of slavery was at the centre of government policy. However, the ideological starting point for the modern movement was the simple act of resistance demonstrated by Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery. When she refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of the bus to a white person she put into motion a series of events that would forever change the status of black Americans. The Montgomery Bus Boycott saw campaigners combat the racial segregation that existed in nearly every aspect of society in Southern USA by following in the footsteps of Rosa Parks. They refused to obey segregation laws on the buses and as a consequence of their action the US Supreme Court ruled the laws as unconstitutional.
The Civil Rights moved on from transportation to target other areas of American society, most notably education. In 1957 the Little Rock Nine (nine African-American students) were denied access to Little Rock High School, Arkansas by angry mobs who defied the Supreme Court ruling that established integrated schools in the country. Violence escalated and, as the world watched the events unfold, the US government had to step in to resolve the issue. The incident highlighted the deep seated prejudices within American societies and the violence that campaigners would face to not just defy the status quo, but actually implement the legally approved changes.
The Civil Rights Movement would grow rapidly in the years following Little Rock. Organisations developed and figures, such as Martin Luther King, stepped to the forefront of the movement. Freedom Rides set out from Washington DC with black Americans challenging those in the Southern States who refused to acknowledge that segregation on buses and in restaurants had been outlawed. The movement had spread from Alabama and Arkansas to affect all Southern states and from Albany, Georgia to universities in Mississippi campaigners were fighting against black discrimination.
These early movements all led to one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement; the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most heavily segregated cities in the country and it was governed by a police force, under Bull Connor, who used ever increasingly violent methods of control to end the protests. In this deeply divided society arrived Martin Luther King and the SCLC who advocated peaceful protest as the only effective way to end segregation in the city. Sit-ins and marches were organised to protest but every march ended in mass arrests, including King himself. Students were encouraged to turn out, again and again, to march in support of Civil Rights but Connor had ramped up the controls, using dogs and water hoses on the protesters.
It was the biggest fight Civil Rights had ever faced but ultimately they won the battle. King’s reputation grew, desegregation was implemented and in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, banning racial discrimination in hiring and public services.
Washington to Memphis
- March on Washington (1963)
- Rise of Black Power (1964-65)
- Selma (1965)
- Memphis (1968)
Following the Birmingham Campaign the Civil Rights Movement was riding a peak and, in 1963, the most iconic moment of the movement took place in Washington DC. The leaders of the movement wanted to capitalise on the global momentum and organise a march of thousands at the heart of the capital. The march had six key goals:
- Meaningful civil rights laws
- A massive federal works program
- Full and fair employment
- Decent housing
- The right to vote
- Adequate integrated education.
However, it became an iconic and defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement because of a single speech that has resonated through every community and generation ever since; Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream…” speech. In front of 200,000-300,000 people King delivered his declaration for an America that ended racial discrimination and for an America that was united in its desire to bring about progress in the state. This speech caught the attention of millions of people around the world, turning King into an international statesman and even today it is quoted by politicians, activists and academics who have been inspired by the words of Martin Luther King.
But despite the success of the movement there were many who criticised Dr King and his supporters. They argued that their peaceful protests were not bring about meaningful, effective or quick results for the black community. One of these critics was Malcolm X.
For many years Malcolm X had been a leader in the Nation of Islam where he supported policies of black supremacy and a separation of black and white communities, in complete opposition to Dr King’s promotion of integration. In their pursuit of black supremacy they and other movements, such as the Black Panther Party, were prepared to use violence to achieve their aims. Their actions split the Civil Rights Movement and threatened to undermine all the efforts that King and his followers had made in securing real change for black Americans.
However, after he left the Nation of Islam he tried to integrate himself within the wider Civil Rights Movement, meeting Martin Luther King in a famous, one-off encounter. But his move away and criticism of the Nation of Islam garnered multiple death threats from the organisation and in 1965 he was assassinated in Manhattan by several members of the Nation of Islam. It was a moment that humbled America for Malcolm X was considered an highly influential leader within the movement and, despite his controversial views, an inspiration for millions.
1965 was also the year that the Civil Rights Movement arrived in Selma, Alabama. Arguably, for many, the work had already been done with the passing of the Civil Rights Act but the SCLC believed there was more to do and in Selma it was focused on the right to vote. Black Americans had the right to vote, but the restrictions placed on how they could vote and the voter intimidation that existed meant that there was much work to be done. People clamoured to the town in support of Dr King, who began a series of peaceful protests in Selma.
However, the protesters soon came up against police violence, led by Jim Clark. They were beaten, gassed and two people; a young black teenager and Rev. James Reeb (a white preacher who came to support Dr King) died during the campaign. The police violence was televised to an audience of millions, many of whom flocked to Selma to challenge the segregation and brutality. The protests, some of the biggest in the entire movement, were successful and with the passing of the Voting Rights Act black Americans had the freedom to vote without any restrictions.
With the victory in Selma it felt like the Civil Rights Movement had fought the biggest battles, but in 1968 the Civil Rights Movement would lose its most iconic figure. Martin Luther King was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting a worker’s strike when he shot by James Earl Roy in the hotel he was staying in. The assassination caused riots to break out in over 100 cities across the United States and the entire country was thrown by the murder of Civil Rights’ guiding figure.
What had become clear was that without Dr King the Civil Rights Movement lacked the same momentum that had resulted in such great change. A new Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968 that ended discrimination in housing, but this legislation has traditionally been seen as the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights in the Modern Era
Officially Civil Rights ended in the late 1960’s. Segregation had been outlawed, discrimination in jobs and housing had been ended, voting restrictions had been lifted and intimidation, brutality and violence against black Americans had been challenged.
But the issue of race in America has remained at the heart of American identity. In 2014 a young, black American; 18 year old, Michael Brown was shot dead by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident sparked riots across the city and plunged America into deep seated anger over police treatment of black Americans and the states’ failure to tackle these problems.
There is a belief that despite progress achieved by Civil Rights campaigners, the change they affected was largely a legal one and black Americans now face a fight to change the very culture of the United States. There exists, in parts of America, institutionalised racism that had segregated black society and led to disenfranchised communities across the country that are often forgotten by the police.
This has all occurred despite a black American rising to the position of President and it had shown that even when the movement had reached a peak there is still much more work to be done. So despite many claiming that Civil Rights is a remnant of American history it’s a legacy that still centres itself at the heart of black American culture.