Back To CourseHistory 104: US History II
14 chapters | 111 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Adam has a master's degree in history.
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.
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 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.
A few other important events included the federal integration of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, after Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus blocked integration (the students were referred to as the 'Little Rock Nine'). Additionally, 1957 witnessed the rise of Malcolm X, who supported the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism and the separation of whites and blacks within society.
Equality for African Americans has always faced a form of severe opposition, but the 1950s (and 1960s) epitomized the effort of whites to enforce second-class citizenship on blacks. Throughout the 1950s, segregationists and white supremacists acted with reckless abandon throughout the South. Whites forced African Americans to flee to northern and western cities. Southern politicians in Congress passed the Southern Manifesto, which pledged support for states that resisted integration due to its questionable legality. Many states adopted anti-NAACP laws.
The decade witnessed the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan and birth of the White Citizens' Council. In a most heinous act, Emmett Till, a black 14-year old boy, was murdered by white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The violence and racism of Mississippi was accurately depicted by black civil rights activist Medgar Evers when he lamented, 'We fought during the war for America, Mississippi included. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn't killed us, it looked as though white Mississippians would.' The violence, domestic terrorism and anti-integration legislation continued to expand as the civil rights movement grew in strength. The 1960s became a heated battle over equality.
The American civil rights movement was revitalized during the Second World War. Early accomplishments for civil rights included the desegregation of the armed services, Major League Baseball and white universities. The 1950s witnessed several important turning points for the civil rights movement, including the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954, which argued that 'segregation violated the constitutional right of equal protection under the law', the desegregation of busing led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., the integration of Little Rock High School and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Upon completion of the lesson, students should be able to summarize key figures as well as events related to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s, including legislation related to desegregation.
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Back To CourseHistory 104: US History II
14 chapters | 111 lessons | 10 flashcard sets