Throughout the course of history, many people turned to action in the face of discrimination and injustice, often forming social movements to achieve their goals. For the sake of making a difference, many social movements were formed, influencing various aspects of law and policy. Such movements had a large impact on the current progress of society and helped humans become more advanced not only technologically, but also morally. People-led social movements are often divided into 4 categories: redemptive, reformative, revolutionary, and alternative (Boundless Sociology). Although having different points of focus, most of these movements aim for systemic change in government policy to achieve their goals. Influencing the law is crucial, as the established rules are considered to be either outdated or in need of change in hopes of making the society more equal or delivering justice. One of the prime examples of a people-led social change movement is the Civil Rights Movement, active around 1954–1968 and aimed at making systemic change in policy to end discrimination of black people.
Before the civil war, the African-American citizens had been oppressed by slavery and faced constant discrimination due to their race. They did not enjoy the same rights as white people and did not have official citizenship. After the end of the civil war, slavery was officially abolished and the slaves were technically free. The period after the war saw the rise in social movements centered on race equality and rights (Civil Rights Movement). This fact, however, did not end the discrimination against the black population, as after the reformation period came the regression, with many southern states rejecting change and turning to lynching or other types of marginalization (Civil Rights Movement). Black people living there were legally segregated from the whites, including in transport and public facilities, even limited in education (Civil Rights Movement). The dissatisfaction with the present policy is what ignited the spark of the Civil Rights Movement. As stated by Candace Roy of the website Learning to give, “During this period, people rallied for social, legal, political and cultural changes to prohibit discrimination and end segregation” (Roy). The action was directed at lessening the discrimination black people suffered at the hands of both the law and other Americans.
A major part of the success of the Civil Rights Movement was due to the fact that it used entirely non-violent means to achieve its goals, making itself appear more moral and just than its opposition. The group was focused on organizing peaceful protests and economic boycotts, as well as acts of civil disobedience (Simkins). Their focus was on influencing policy and damaging the money flow of racist institutions, as the moral position was not very effective in the south. In turn, the protesters faced continuous backlash and violence, which painted a clear picture of who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Another important part was played by two organizations that helped with the movement coordination: S.C.L.C. and S.N.C.C. The first one, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, lead by Martin Luther King, Jr, had the goal of expanding the social effort and helping with the organization of protests using the assistance of independent black churches (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). The S.C.L.C. worked as an umbrella organization, used to manage the work of other organizations (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, on the other hand, was a more radical branch of the Civil Rights Movement, comprised of younger black people that wanted to have a bigger voice in the common cause (SNCC). The S.N.C.C. wanted to make faster, more radical change than what Martin Luther King Jr preached, and was mainly focused on desegregating buses and directing the black voter registration.
When discussing the Civil Rights Movement, it is imperative to describe the timeline of major events and the aims in more detail. The story of Rosa Parks can be considered one of the inciting incidents for the whole movement. On December 1, 1955, Rosa, a 42-year-old woman refused to leave her bus seat in accordance with segregation laws and was subsequently arrested (Civil Rights Movement). The event has caused an uproar of public support, effectively giving a start to the fight for black people’s rights. The Brown v. Board of Education court case in 1954 made segregation in public schools illegal which was also one of the steps to bring equal opportunities to black people (Civil Rights Movement). Following this case, some volunteers from all-black schools were allowed to attend a formerly segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and faced continuous backlash while trying to do so (Civil Rights Movement). In 1957, nine black children arriving to attend classes were met with violent opposition and could not make it inside (Civil Rights Movement). The situation was resolved only when president Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the children to and from school (Civil Rights Movement). Organized sit-ins and protests in the 1960s were arranged, also with the goal of calling attention to the problem of segregation and achieving equal rights.
The most well-known event in the history of the Civil Rights Movement is March on Washington, which took place on August 28, 1963. The event drew attention to the struggles and challenges of the black population that still persisted after their emancipation (Civil Rights Movement). Assembled and attended by the movement’s leaders, such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr, the march was advocating for job equality and the establishment of civil rights legislation (Civil Rights Movement). The iconic imagery and the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. quickly became the symbol of both freedom and equality (Civil Rights Movement). The main point of influence for the movement was to enact change in the federal government, as black people had to gain the same rights as white people on the level of policy, to start effectively changing their position in society.
As expected, while there were supporters of the movement, the were many detractors as well. Conservative politics and philosophers spoke in favor of segregation on national television and in newspapers, trying to minimize the impact of protests. The protestors faced violent opposition from government organizations, as well as racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (Resistance to Civil Rights). The law enforcement was often complacent or outright malicious and harmful to protesters, using tear gas and violence to suppress the movement (Resistance to Civil Rights). In the South of America, the states that supported the Jim Crow laws were particularly dangerous for black activists (Photo Essay – Jim Crow Justice). People who were in favor of segregation supported the racist laws by inflicting “street justice” upon the black citizens. Many were injured, beaten, or even hanged (Photo Essay – Jim Crow Justice). The activity of the KKK was also very prominent, with the Klan members forming harmful lynching mobs to actively hunt down and kill black people (Photo Essay – Jim Crow Justice). Blacks were also often accused of serious crimes and killed without trial (Photo Essay – Jim Crow Justice). Punishments for such treatment of black people were rare, with many criminals never facing any repercussions.
Speaking about the effectiveness of the movement, the introduction of television played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement. The peaceful protests were broadcasted across the country on national television, and the American people witnessed the horrible violence that the participants were subjected to, channeling their sense of justice and empathy (Thomas III). This stoic display helped the movement to gain more support and start to shift the public opinion towards black people’s rights (Thomas III). The Civil Rights Movement also used music and song to further their cause and boost morale (Songs and the Civil Rights Movement). The song, “We Shall Overcome”, rooted in the times of labor struggles, was often used as an unofficial anthem of the movement (Songs and the Civil Rights Movement). As stated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, “Music and singing played a critical role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement.” (Songs and the Civil Rights Movement). Many professional singers offered their talents to the movement, including Harry Belafonte and Mahalia Jackson (Songs and the Civil Rights Movement). Music helped to culturally awaken and mobilize people to support the common cause and persevere. The songs played by the activists were an inspiration and a symbol of hope and a brighter future.
The Civil Rights Movement had two major proponents, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, with differing philosophies in regards to dealing with racism and black people’s rights. Martin Luther King was a big contester of a non-violent approach to protest, trying to win over public support and find a way to exist together with white people on equal terms (Simkins). His way was compelling to masses, non-provocative and flexible, allowing him to appear determined and persuasive. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was more radical in thought and action alike. Establishing connections with black activists, Malcolm was a supporter of black nationalism and argued in favor of the separation of white and black people (Malcolm X). Not willing to compromise with racists, he sought out ways of taking immediate action to improve the situation of his people (Malcolm X). If I were to side with either of them, I would probably choose Martin Luther King, Jr, as I think that separating black and white people would only further radicalize both sides and create an ideological divide. White and black people need to find a way to co-exist without oppression or violence, with access to equal opportunities.
As the final note, it can be said that the Civil Rights Movement has made great advancements in the sphere of racial equality, bringing America a few steps closer to being just for everybody. The movement managed to overturn the “Separate but equal” doctrine, end bus segregation and helped legalize interracial marriages (Civil Rights Movement). They also persuaded the government to sign the Civil Rights Act, granting black people equal employment rights and opportunities, as well as the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting (Civil Rights Movement). With these changes, many blacks in America were now presented with more opportunities for both work and education, as well as their personal growth. The actions of protesters helped shape the public perception of black people and humanize their efforts and struggle, laying a path for further action. The Civil Rights Movement showed the power that organized masses and peaceful protests hold in the face of injustice, and provided the groundwork for many future movements to come.
“Malcolm X.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 2019.
“Photo Essay – Jim Crow Justice.” Oxford African American Studies Center.
“Songs and the Civil Rights Movement.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 2018.
“Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 2018.
Boundless Sociology. Web.
History.com Editors. “Civil Rights Movement.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009.
History.com Editors. “SNCC.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009.
Roy, Candace. “Civil Rights Movement, The.” Civil Rights Movement, The | Learning to Give.
Simkins, Chris. “Non-Violence Was Key to Civil Rights Movement.” Voice of America, 2014.
Thomas III, William. “Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle: The Views in Virginia and Mississippi.” Southern Spaces, 2004.