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The Civil Rights Movement During the 1950s

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  • 0:05 Historical Context
  • 0:31 Revitalizing the Movement
  • 2:13 The Civil Rights…
  • 5:29 Opposition During the 1950s
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The 1950s witnessed a rejuvenation of the civil rights movement. Learn about the transformation of the movement, its important events and the impact it had on the 1960s.

Historical Context

This lesson on the civil rights movement comes at a period in contemporary America where the spotlight is once again on racial equality and racial discrimination. Issues such as racial profiling, voting rights and hate crimes serve as a grim reminder that the past occasionally repeats itself. Let's take a closer look at the civil rights movement of the 1950s, and the struggle that African Americans endured in order to end racial discrimination and achieve a greater equality.

Revitalizing the Movement

The civil rights movement within the United States dates back to the 18th century. The movement went through various periods of inertia and repackaging throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, but then a major revitalization occurred between the years of 1938 and 1943. The catalyst for the rejuvenation of the civil rights movement was the Second World War.

Simply put, the war exposed the plight of African Americans in the United States as no better than the tactics used by that of Adolf Hitler. Think of a fishbowl; the United States was the figurative fish and the world was watching its every move. At that point, the United States realized it could not continue a practice of gross inequality and discrimination.

Now, you must remember that this was still the Jim Crow Era, which was a period where blacks were segregated from whites under the concept of 'separate, but equal.' Therefore, many American leaders had to tread carefully to prevent causing social and political backlash from white Southerners. Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, successfully introduced Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player, into Major League Baseball in 1947. Faced with a difficult political battle, President Harry Truman successfully desegregated the armed services in 1948.

Yet the largest accomplishment, and maybe most significant in terms of jump starting the civil rights movement, was the Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter, 1950. The ruling nullified the notion of 'separate, but equal' when the Court ordered the University of Texas to admit a black law student into an all-white law school.

Unfortunately, as you will see, the Sweatt v. Painter decision does not receive the same attention as future landmark civil rights cases. This is largely due to the issue being regional in nature as compared to national. Nonetheless, the civil rights movement was full steam ahead.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s

The 1950s opened with President Dwight Eisenhower's appointment of pro-civil rights advocate Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, as well as a massive bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, both in 1953. Why are these two issues important? Because the Warren Court became synonymous with the civil rights movement as you will see, and the bus boycott in Louisiana set the precedent for future non-violent protest while being the first bus boycott in civil rights history.

Now, 1954 marked a significant year for the civil rights movement. This was the year in which the Supreme Court ruled, via Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954, that segregation in public facilities, in this case a public school, violated African Americans' constitutional right of equal protection under the law.

The Court encouraged states that enforced Jim Crow laws to begin integration at an 'all deliberate speed.' Unfortunately, at the time, the Court could only encourage segregationists to abide by the federal ruling, and states believed that an 'all deliberate speed' was left to interpretation.

Nineteen fifty-five was another pivotal year for the civil rights movement for two reasons. First, Rosa Parks challenged segregation on public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama when she refused to vacate her seat to a white rider. Parks was eventually arrested for her defiance, which touched off a major bus boycott. Eventually, in June 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gale that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Second, Martin Luther King Jr. gained national notoriety as a prominent voice and leader within the civil rights movement. This was largely attributed to his assistance in creating the Montgomery Improvement Association, which encouraged a massive bus boycott in Alabama following the Rosa Parks incident.

There are numerous additional events that were associated with the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Let's take a look at just a few. In 1956, two important organizations were created: the Inter-Civic Council in Tallahassee, Florida, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in Birmingham, Alabama.

Speaking of important associations, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under the leadership of Martin Luther King in 1957 was a nationally important organization that focused on desegregation and registering black votes. The Crusade for Citizenship, launched in late 1957, was the SCLC's first major effort in enfranchising blacks.

Another hallmark to the movement in the 1950s was the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This was the first piece of federal civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (that is over 80 years!). The legislation expedited African American claims of voter abridgement and established the Commission on Civil Rights, which investigated voter violations and recommended remedies to the federal government.

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