The Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s

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  • 0:05 The Early 1960s
  • 1:56 Historic Success
  • 3:52 The Fracturing of the Movement
  • 7:10 Lesson Summary
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Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was an extension of the progress made during the 1950s. Learn about the movement's landmark achievements, its fracturing and its legacies.

The Civil Rights Movement in the Early 1960s

The Civil Rights Movement did not take long to gain momentum at the turn of the decade. In 1960, four African American males attempted to place an order at a diner located inside the Woolworth shopping center in Greensboro, North Carolina. The men were refused service due to their color, and they immediately staged a sit-in at the lunch counter. The action not only encouraged Woolworth to integrate its dining facilities, but spurred the Civil Rights Movement onward.

The year also witnessed the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which attempted to alleviate racial discrimination in the South, and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 was passed. It guaranteed criminal penalties for obstructing an African American's right to vote.

From 1961 to 1963, the Civil Rights Movement continued to pressure the United States for an end to discrimination and racial inequality. The events of these years were the backdrop to the monumental years of 1964 and 1965, which will be discussed shortly.

In 1961, SNCC and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) formed the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregated busing in the South. In 1962, black student James Meredith attempted to become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. While opposition was raised by white southerners, President John F. Kennedy ordered federal marshals to the university, and James Meredith was registered for classes. You will see that this set an extremely important precedent, because in 1963, Kennedy sent more federal officials to integrate the University of Alabama after Alabama Governor George Wallace attempted to block African Americans Vivian Jones and James Hood from enrolling at the institution.

The year 1963 also witnessed two major marches in Birmingham, Alabama and Washington D.C. The latter, known as the March on Washington, was where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Historic Success

Now, because of the Cold War, the United States was the figurative 'fishbowl' of the world, with every nation watching its moves. The violence and racism committed against both black and white civil rights activists and southern blacks in general (especially during the Birmingham marches) were magnified in international eyes. The United States realized that action needed to be taken.

Therefore, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which officially prohibited discrimination based on race as well as sex (yes ladies, you were a part of this legislation too). This was a watershed piece of legislation in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. It was then succeeded by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) gaining two at-large seats during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. While the at-large seats were a compromise between MFDP members and President Lyndon B. Johnson, the success in the event was not in being recognized as a party. The real success for the MFDP came when it managed to magnify the violence against blacks, especially voters, in the South through the painful testimony of individuals such as Fannie Lou Hamer.

Then, in 1965, Congress acted again in order to prevent the United States' international image of 'protector of liberty and freedom' from being tarnished. During the early part of the year, Martin Luther King Jr. organized civil rights activists and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for the sake of voting rights. The non-violent activists experienced the utmost brutality and violence on their pilgrimage to Montgomery.

As a result, and largely due to the international response, President Johnson took it upon himself to pursue voting rights for African Americans. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, which prohibited literacy tests from being used to prevent voters from registering and casting a ballot. This was another landmark achievement for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Fracturing of the Movement

The successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not come without a violent response from white segregationists throughout the 1960s. In 1961 and 1962, 'Freedom Riders' were physically assaulted in states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Birmingham, Alabama, proved to be a mecca of race-related violence. In 1963, Birmingham police cracked down on nonviolent protesters during the SCLC's Birmingham campaign to integrate African Americans. Several months later, segregationists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four African American girls.

The assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and the murder of three freedom riders in Mississippi the following year cast a black cloud over the monumental achievements of 1964. Similarly, in 1965, the assassination of Malcolm X, the violence against the voting rights marches and the police brutality against blacks in Watts, Los Angeles forced many to question whether the Civil Rights Movement was actually helping or hurting the United States.

The years 1966 to 1968 were plagued with violence and a division within the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, James Meredith organized the March Against Fear campaign in order to register voters under the newly passed Voting Rights Act. During his march from Tennessee to Mississippi, Meredith was the target of an attempted assassination by a white segregationist. Fortunately, he was able to recover and continue his campaign.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the Civil Rights Movement:

Timeline Prompt:

Make a timeline that shows significant events in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.

Example: In 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Poster Prompt:

Pretend that you are a member of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Make a poster that promotes the Freedom Rides.

Example: The poster could illustrate black people being forced to stand crowded together in the back of a bus, while white people sit comfortably in the front.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least one to two pages that addresses the following questions: What was the role of the Cold War in the federal government's response to the Civil Rights Movement? What was the purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Why did Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and why was it significant?

Example: In the midst of the Cold War, Lyndon Johnson wanted to promote the image of the United States as the protector of human rights, so he signed the Voting Rights Act after seeing the violence that African American voting rights activists suffered on their march from Selma to Montgomery.

Essay Prompt 2:

In at least three to four paragraphs, write an essay that describes the kinds of backlash that activists in the Civil Rights Movement faced. Provide specific examples.

Example: White supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama, bombed a black church, killing four African American girls.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of approximately one to two pages that explains the setbacks experienced in the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s.

Example: The movement was becoming increasingly divided, due to the rise of the Black Panther Party.

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