The Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

The 1960s Civil Rights Movement brought to fruition the notion of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg. This great movement which resulted in expanded citizenship for all Americans employed multiple tactics to overcome and knock down the political and social apparatus of segregation in the South- legal challenges, boycotts, protest marches, sit-in demonstrations, freedom rides, and institutional building.
Legal Challenges
In 1909, the NAACP commenced what has become its legacy of fighting legal battles to win social justice for African-Americans and indeed, for all Americans. The most significant of these battles were fought and won under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and his student and protégée, Thurgood Marshall.
After training the first generation of Civil Rights lawyers during his years as Dean of Howard University’s Law School, Houston was appointed in 1935 to be the first Special Counsel of the NAACP. Often referred to as the “Moses of the civil rights movement,” Houston was the architect and chief strategist of the NAACP’s legal campaign to end segregation.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” principle. In a study commissioned by the NAACP in the 1930s, Nathan Margold found that under segregation, the facilities provided for blacks were always separate, but never equal to those maintained for whites.

After joining the NAACP, Houston, developed a strategy, and implemented a battle plan. Under Houston’s “equalization strategy,” lawsuits were filed demanding that the facilities provided for black students be made equal to those available to white students, carefully stopping short of a direct challenge to Plessy. Houston predicted that the states that practiced segregation could not afford to maintain black schools that were actually equal to those reserved for whites.

In 1954, Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP attorneys won Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that segregation in public education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Brown decision inspired the marches and demonstrations of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. These wide-spread protests ultimately led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The First Civil Rights Bus Boycott
The Baton Rouge bus boycott started the direct action phase of the modern Civil Rights Movement. It occurred in 1953, before the celebrated Montgomery bus boycott from 1955-56. In 1953, Baton Rouge, Louisiana was under the Jim Crow system of segregation of the races. Public buses had a “colored section” in the back and a “white section” in the front. African Americans had to stand when the colored section was full, even if there were seats in the white section. The humiliation of tolerating such a system was compounded by the fact that African Americans accounted for about two-thirds of the Baton Rouge bus company’s revenue. After African American leaders in Baton Rouge were successful in having the City Council pass an ordinance which permitted them to be seated on a first-come-first-served basis, all of the white bus drives refused to accept the ordinance. They continued to demand that African Americans not occupy front seats that were reserved for whites.
The defiance of the white bus drivers resulted in the Ordinance was ruled illegal because it conflicted with the segregation laws of Louisiana. In response to this, the black community began a mass boycott of the buses in June of 1953. A free car lift was established to transport the black work force. After eight days, the white power structure of Baton Rouge capitulated and agreed to a compromise. It stipulated that the two side front seats of buses were to be reserved for whites and the long rear seat was for African Americans. The remaining seats were to be occupied on a first-come-first-served basis.
The boycott demonstrated a powerful lesson: the Jim Crow system could be challenged by mass struggle. The blueprint of the Baton Rouge boycott was shared with African American leaders in other communities throughout the South. The Montgomery bus boycott drew important lessons and strategies from the Baton Rouge boycott. Subsequent anti- protests against segregation were modeled after the Baton Rouge boycott, which opened the direct action phase of the modern civil rights movement.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The bus situation in Montgomery Alabama epitomized the dehumanizing and humiliating and racist character of segregation in the South. As Martin Luther King observed, “If a visitor had come to Montgomery before the bus boycott, he would have heard bus operators referring to [blacks] as “niggers,” “black apes,” and “black cows.” Hence, more than just the right of blacks to ride in the front of the bus or not have to give up their seats to a white person, the Montgomery Bus Boycott a collective act of self-respect and self-determination. The bus boycott as keen said was the “chronicle of fifty thousand [blacks]…who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.”

For a year, black walked in dignity rather than participate in their own humiliation and dehumanization. King put it best when he said: I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation form an evil system…The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil.” In Montgomery, there emerged a new collective personality among African Americans.  The struggle in Montgomery marked a turning point for blacks in that they acquired a new sense of dignity and destiny, of self-respect and self-determination to achieve dignity and freedom at whatever cost.

Sit-in Demonstrations

In 1960 black students shock the system of segregation in the South by sitting-in at segregated lunch counters in defiance of the Jim Crow system.  Fittingly, the first sit-in demonstration started February 1st, the start of what would become known as Black History Month. On February 1, 1960, four black students ignited the sit-in demonstrations by sitting at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworths department store in Greensboro, North Carolina and asking to be served. The students were refused but continued to sit at the counter. The next day a larger group of black students came to the Woolworths’ counter but they also were refused service. The next day hundreds of students were drawn into the protest.  Black students in nearby colleges followed suit and began to organize sit-in demonstrations.  The sit-in demonstrations accomplished the desegregation of public facilities in hundreds of communities across America. Martin Luther King would say that the “sit-ins” represented more than a demand for service; it represented a demand for respect.”

Never before in the United States had so many students become involved in political struggle that would change identity and consciousness of students all across America and would become one of the most significant developments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Freedom Rides

In 1961 CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) undertook a new tactic aimed at desegregating public transportation throughout the south. These tactics became know as the “Freedom Rides”. The first Freedom Ride took place on May 4, 1961 when seven blacks and six whites left Washington, D.C., on two public buses bound for the Deep South. They intended to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. In the first few days, the riders encountered only minor hostility, but in the second week the riders were severely beaten. The extreme violence and the indifference of local police prompted a national outcry of support for the riders, putting pressure on President Kennedy to end the violence.

By the end of the summer, the protests had spread to train stations and airports across the South, and in November, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued rules prohibiting segregated transportation facilities. However, the significance of the “Freedom Rides” was not merely that it was a tactic which led to the desegregation of southern transportation facilities, but one which contributed to the development of a self-conscious radical southern movement that was prepared to direct its struggle toward other concerns. Put another way, the “Freedom Riders” had great impact on the nation and the political consciousness of the student who became aware of their collective capacity to provide crisis and change.

Institutional Building

In 1964 SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began to question the viability of relying on the federal government or the good will of liberals to deliver change that would improve the lives of poor blacks in the South.  Using their organizational skills and their emerging vision of what need to be done at this stage of the movement, SNCC launched new institutions and mounted a powerful challenge to the national Democratic leadership.  In the summer of 1964 SNCC organized the Mississippi Freedom Schools. The schools were developed as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights project, a massive effort that focused on voter registration drives and the building or alternative institutions controlled by poor blacks.
The Freedom Summer civil rights project was essentially a statewide voter registration campaign, and the framers called for one thousand volunteers to assist in the undertaking. Activists made plans to conduct a parallel Democratic primary election , because the systematic exclusion of black voters resulted in all-white delegations to presidential primaries. These efforts culminated in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Both the official delegation and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Over the course of Freedom Summer, more than 40 Freedom Schools were set up in black communities throughout Mississippi. The purpose was to try to end political displacement of African Americans by encouraging students to become active citizens and socially involved within the community. Over 3,000 African American students attended these schools in the summer of 1964. Students ranged in age from small children to the very elderly with the average approximately 15 years old. Teachers were volunteers, most of whom were college students themselves. The Freedom Schools were conceptualized with both political and educational objectives. Freedom School teachers would educate elementary and high school students to become social change agents that would participate in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, most often in voter registration efforts. SNCC and the Freedom Summer civil rights project would lay the basis for what would emerge as a call for “Black Power” by SNCC advocates.


The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr: Clayborne Carson
In Struggle: SNNC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s: Clayborne Carson
Freedom Riders: Raymond Arsenault
The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Aldon D Morris
All Deliberate Speed: Charles J Ogletree, Jr.
A People’s History of the United States: Howard Zinn


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