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PinkMonkey Study Guide - American History

11. 9 The Civil Rights Movement and the Question of Desegregation

The Civil Rights Movement

Civil Rights are the rights that a person has as a member of a community, state or nation. These rights include freedom of speech, of the Press and Religion. It also includes the right to own property, to receive equal treatment from the government, private groups and other individuals. Besides, laws exist in many countries (including the U.S.) to give equal rights to all men and women regardless of their race or religion.

In most countries these laws were not given as part of the constitution. Legislations were passed only after bitter struggles and campaigns. In the U.S., the black Americans led one of the bitterest Civil Rights campaigns. Their struggle for an identity and equal rights can be traced back to the 1800s, with the anti-slavery movement. The Campaign had gathered momentum during the late 1800s when the Civil Rights Act was passed. It was only in the ’50s and the 60s under the leadership of Martin Luther King and Malcolm. X that these protest movements produced definite results. These protest movements forced the Congress to pass several important Civil Rights Legislations in an attempt to end discrimination against black Americans.


Black Americans won important gains in their fight for equal rights during the Reconstruction Period. The 13th amendment, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the U.S. This was followed by the 14th amendment in 1868 which gave citizen rights to former slaves. It further provided that the states must grant all people "equal protection of the laws." Later, in 1870, the 15th amendment, prohibited the states from denying people the right to vote because of their race. However, during the 1870s, white Americans began ignoring the new acts won by the Afro-Americans. The Government itself was partly responsible for denying the blacks their rights. For instance, in 1885, the Supreme Court had ruled that Congressional Acts to prevent racial discrimination by private individuals were unconstitutional.

Further, in 1896, in the case of Plessy V. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law requiring separate but equal accommodation for blacks and whites in railroad cars. For 50 years since this case, many southern states used the "separate but equal" rule in public schools, transportation, recreation and other public establishments like restaurants and hotels. The 1930s saw blacks getting a better deal in the courts vis-a-vis Civil Rights Cases. A landmark judgment was passed in 1954 in the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka. In this Case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools unconstitutional. This decision nullified the ’separate but equal’ principal.

The following year, the Supreme Court ordered that public school desegregation be carried out quickly. However, many schools in the South continued to have segregated schools.

In 1969, the Courts once again ordered that desegregation of schools be done ’at once.’ The 1960s also witnessed an increased protection of black voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 provided for the appointment of referees to help blacks register to vote. In 1964, the 24th amendment made to the Constitution, barred poll taxes in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act (1965) put a bar on literacy tests in many southern states. In 1970, a law made literacy tests illegal in all the states.

[Literacy tests: Black Americans were made to take these tests to deprive them of their voting rights. ]

The 1960s also saw the legislation of 2 significant Acts namely, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) was by far the strongest Rights Bill in U.S. history. This Act ordered restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that serve the general public to offer services to everyone without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. Further, it barred discrimination by employers and Unions and set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce fair employment practices. The Act also made a provision that federal funds would be canceled from any program or activity that allowed racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was aimed at ending discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

These tough legislations vis-à-vis Civil Rights were passed in the ’50s and the ’60s due to a strong Civil Rights Movement led by charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Supreme court order against segregation in schools

The supreme court in 1954 had ordered that state should gradually desegregate its schools. In the famous Brown v/s. Board of Education case in Topeka, the court stated that segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment, thus, reversing the "Separate but equal doctrine put forth in the Plessy v/s Ferguson case. [The supreme court’s famous decision of 1896 (Plessy v/s Ferguson) it held that the states could fulfill the provision of the 14th amendment requiring the Negroes must enjoy "equal protection of the laws" by providing them "separate but equal facilities".] In the Brown v/s Board of Education, Topeka ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren gave the unanimous decision: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of minority group of equal educational opportunities. We believe that it does ... To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone ... We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ’separate but equal facilities’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal ..."

The decision, the court realized was to make a profound a social impact on the states. Thus, it stated that it would admit briefs from interested parties on the question of how and when to implement it.

The result of this historic decision was that some communities, including the District of Columbia promptly decided to desegregate their schools, while some states refused to comply with the court’s orders. Once again a fierce debate ensued between pro and anti segregationists with editorials, speeches and rallies, all on the issue taking place everywhere. During the period after the court’s decision, several upper south and in border cities, including Baltimore, Louisville, Washington etc. implemented the desegregation orders in their schools. But in the other southern states, all kinds of legal questions and objections were raised to prevent desegregation of schools.

This supreme court decision came as a shot in the arm of the Civil Rights activists all over the country. Sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters and ’freedom riders’ in interstate buses were events that hit the headlines during the 1960s. In more and more cities, Blacks were protesting against segregation. Segregation had been removed on almost all interstate buses and trains. 45 city bus lines in 11 states no longer demanded that Blacks should sit in the rear of the buses. And President Eisenhower removed the remnants of segregation in the armed forces, by declaring that "There must be no second - class citizens in this country".

The Congress in 1957 passed, after years of debate and struggle for Black rights, passed the Civil Rights Act. This law formed a 6-member commission on Civil Rights which had the power to investigate cases involving deprivation of the right to vote and of equal protection laws because of color, religion, race or national origin. The commission had the power to make legal cases and move the courts with regard to the complaints and the grievances received by it.

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Table of Contents

11.0 - Chronology of Major Events in this Period
11.1 - Conditions at Home
11.2 - The Employment Act
11.3 - The Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act
11.4 - The Truman's Civil Rights Program
11.5 - The McCarthy Period
11.6 - The Cold War Abroad
11.7 - The Korean War
11.8 - The Eisenhower Administration
11.9 - The Civil Rights movement and the question of Desegregation
11.10 - The Labor Reform act
11.11 - The Budget
11.12 - The Economy in the 60s
11.13 - The Communist Threat Abroad
11.14 - The Threat of Nuclear War
11.15 - The Exploration of Outer Space
11.16 - The Geneve Conference on Disarmament
11.17 - Our WorldToday





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