The Civil Rights Movement: Successes & Limitations

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  • 0:04 The Civil Rights Movement
  • 2:28 Gains
  • 4:45 Limitations
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Civil Rights Movement was responsible for many gains for Blacks across the nation; however, there were many things the movement couldn't accomplish. In this lesson we will examine some of the successes and limitations of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement

In December of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White person in violation of state law in Montgomery, Alabama. This event is noted for starting what would become the Civil Rights Movement, where Blacks in the South protested peacefully for an end to de jure segregation, otherwise known as 'lawful segregation'.

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks

The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed Mrs. Parks' actions until the City of Montgomery was forced to integrate their public transportation. This boycott also brought Martin Luther King into the spotlight as the reluctant leader of the protest. By the time the boycott ended, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and non-violent protests led by Dr. King and his new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Organization (SCLC), exploded across the South.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had also attracted young Black college students into the Civil Rights Movement and its non-violent protest to end de jure segregation. However, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been on the battlefield for civil rights dating back to the early 1900s.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessey v. Ferguson that segregation was lawful as long as segregated facilities were ''separate but equal''. The NAACP formed as a direct answer to this case. Many more Supreme Court cases were held by the NAACP to pick apart the Plessey case; however, it was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1955), case that made the ''separate but equal'' doctrine unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court's ruling in 1955 didn't change anything. De jure segregation continued and precipitated the need for the Civil Rights Movement. The NAACP, the SCLC, the SNCC, and CORE, as well as other organizations, all worked towards finding peaceful methods of forcing the government to act and end de jure segregation for good.

These organizations realized after the end of legal segregation that ending de facto segregation, also known as segregation by custom or fact, would be much harder. It was a bittersweet realization that placed limitations on what the Civil Rights Movement could accomplish.


Dr. King left Montgomery in 1956, setting on a course that would make him renowned for his dedication to peaceful protest in defiance of unjust laws. King and other ministers began the SCLC to continue the movement throughout the South. The SCLC accomplished the following gains:

  • 1957: the ''Crusade for Citizenship'' that registered thousands of Black voters across the South and held voter clinics to educate Blacks on the law and politics; this continued through the 1960s.
  • 1963: ''Birmingham Campaign'' that ended segregation in the city of Birmingham. This occurred after a spring and summer of peaceful protests that ended in violence wrought by Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner Eugene ''Bull'' Connor and his city police.
  • 1963: ''March on Washington'' brought worldwide attention to the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in Dr. King's ''I Have a Dream Speech''.

March on Washington
March on Washington

Ella Baker and John Lewis, joined by many other young college students, started the SNCC in April 1960. Here are some of the gains they were able to win for civil rights:

  • 1960: Sit-ins in North Carolina led by early members that would form SNCC integrated lunch counters in the state.
  • 1960: Freedom Riders forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to integrate interstate buses and public facilities, like waiting rooms that accommodated them.
  • 1963 -1964: Freedom Summer registered countless Mississippians and worked to end ''All White Primaries'' in the state.
  • 1964-1965: Voter registration drives in Alabama (centered on Selma) which also included the SCLC and Dr. King, culminating in the tragedy of ''Bloody Sunday'' and a march from Selma to Montgomery.

Bloody Sunday
Bloody Sunday

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