1960s Civil Rights Movement: We Shall Overcome

The 1960s civil rights movement was more than a social cause-it was a continuation of the American Revolution, advanced by ordinary black men, women and children, many of who risked or gave their lives so that others might live with dignity and freedom.  In the face violence and terrorism, African Americans developed new forms of struggle, and empowered themselves to challenge the system of racism in America.  This Movement became a social force which changed the character and structure of American society, forcing a nation founded on the principles of “freedom and justice for all”, to face the contradiction of its professed principles and its practice of segregation. The civil rights movement brought together people of all races, breaking the barriers of legal segregation and creating greater capacity for both political and social change in America for all people, especially, those in the labor movement and the emerging women’s movement. The civil rights movement’s anthem, We Shall Overcome, was tribute to the will of those involved in the civil rights struggle to make profound social change.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King, was central to organizing the black churches into a political network and support structure for the civil rights movement. Bayard Rustin, one of the principal civil rights strategists, declared, “When judging the SCLC, one must place above all else it’s most magnificent accomplishment: the creation of a disciplined mass movement of Southern blacks.  There has been nothing in the annals of American social struggle to equal this phenomenon, and there probably never will be again.”  SCLC was the organizational force that developed the infrastructure of the civil rights movement.  It was the local movements that created a need for SCLC. It functioned as the decentralized arm of the black church.  SCLC organized the church on a scale equal to the task of confronting segregation. Because SCLC was a church-based movement organization, it was able to pull churches directly into the movement, making it a dynamic force.  The formation of SCLC stimulated the emergence of new local movements while coordinating those already established.

A missing chapter in the history of the civil rights movement is the organizing strategies and abilities of local communities by ordinary people which produced now forms of democratic leadership as evidenced by the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party which registered countless blacks and challenged the Democratic Party at its 1964 National Convention over the legitimacy of the all white delegation to represent Mississippi. The civil rights movement produced the student movement and a generation of social change leaders who went on to become elected officials, writers, scholars, and academic leaders.  One of the most influential student organizations in the history twentieth century- SNCC (Student Non violent Coordinating Committee) emerged out of the civil rights movement, organizing blacks in the Deep South,. SNCC established freedom schools, organizing voter registration drives, organizing citizen leadership models.

The 1960s civil rights movement had a profound impact on American society.  First it ended legally sanctioned segregation and the system of Jim Crow, the system of denial and deformation of black life and black humanity.  Prior to the movement, the system of segregation forced blacks to live in separate and limiting world, characterized by poverty, racial discrimination and exclusion, powerlessness, symbolic and real subordination, and the imperative ritual and  acts of deference to whites. Second, the move altered and expanded American politics by providing other oppressed groups with organizational and tactical models, allowing them to enter directly into the political arena through the politics of protest.  Third, the impact of the civil rights movement penetrated far beyond the black community.  Native Americans and other people of color, farmers, students, women senior citizens, were marginalized and their interest excluded from the centers of power.  The extent of their exclusion varied, but they were nevertheless marginalized.   The civil rights movement changed the landscape of American society, opening it to previously excluded groups and gave these groups model of protest and struggle. The civil rights movement demonstrated to those groups that organized “street protest” and struggle by “any means necessary” was a viable method of social change capable of bring about desired results.  The impact of the civil rights movement is not j just confined to the United States.  Its influence can be seen in the antinuclear movement in Europe.  The South Africa liberation movement drew from both the civil rights and black power movements. Reference: Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

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