The seeds of the American civil rights movement were planted during the post-Civil War Reconstruction. Following the abolition of slavery and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, blacks were nominally entitled to the same rights and protections as whites. Racial discrimination in the form of social prejudice, segregation, and selective law enforcement ensured that reality fell short of this ideal. In the Reconstruction era and afterward, blacks were routinely denied the right to vote, given inferior access to education, and exposed to violence without recourse to law. Protests against this state of affairs were frequent despite widespread and typically brutal suppression. The civil rights movement usually refers to the most successful of those protest movements, which took place in the 1950s and 1960s. It commenced after decades of relative silence, reflecting pent-up tension and changing circumstances (Jeffries 4). The movement’s success derived in large part from its ability to engage with mainstream American society. Violent and non-violent strains in the movement all pursued the goal of persuading society to implement reforms. The principal consideration affecting the movement’s evolution was the imbalance in power between blacks and whites.
Almost a century had passed between the Civil War’s conclusion in 1865 and the start date of the civil rights movement in 1954. During that time, blacks repeatedly attempted to defend their rights against encroachments. Those attempts were met with intensified violence against blacks, including murder and rape, which the authorities generally overlooked (McGuire 908). Due to their limited resources, blacks could seldom successfully counter white violence without government support. The fear of physical reprisal convinced most black activists to be more cautious, fighting for better treatment within the framework of white supremacy (Jeffries 2). Tellingly, many Mississippi blacks were afraid of the NAACP in the early 1950s (Green and Harold 83). Nevertheless, radical opposition to white supremacy flared up occasionally due to the persistence of extreme abuses. The 1954 movement was distinguished by the high morale of black activists after successful campaigns against white-on-black crimes in the wake of World War II (McGuire 911). No less significant was the subtle shift in white public opinion against blatant racial injustice, such as the Emmett Till case (Thornton 102). Those developments gave the movement a decisive advantage compared to its predecessors.
Like earlier challenges to white supremacy, the civil rights movement pursued desegregation, equal justice, and equal voting rights. Its participants were keenly aware of the power imbalance between them and the defenders of white supremacy. In addition to their superior financial resources and political influence, the latter could often count on the support of local authorities and law enforcement (Green and Harold 93). While radical in their opposition to Jim Crow laws, black activists recognized the need to work with mainstream society and the establishment to achieve change. Thus, the campaign to desegregate education focused on the politically acceptable claims about the psychological damage of segregation, rather than riskier arguments about material inequality (Gadsden 23). Out of several women arrested on buses, Rosa Parks became a cause célèbre for the movement because she seemed to embody conventional middle-class ideals of propriety (McGuire 913). The success of such tactics can be seen in the defeat of segregation laws and more frequent convictions of whites for crimes against blacks (McGuire 930). However, the persistence of racial discrimination meant that the movement had to continue.
Even though federal authorities and mainstream opinion increasingly came down on the side of equal rights, the movement faced considerable white resistance. Dissenters framed its accomplishments as the results of radical meddling aimed at the downfall of the white race and the Southern way of life (McGuire 929). Such fear-mongering helped incite frequent and vicious physical attacks on activists and bystanders, including whites (Green and Harold 96). As the movement continued to grow and evolve, a split developed concerning the proper response to such violence. Religious and philosophical ideas, as well as strategic considerations, encouraged the adoption of non-violent tactics (Green and Harold 89). Others advocated meeting violence with violence, both for self-defense and out of the belief that armed resistance would improve the movement’s bargaining position (Green and Harold 100). Despite differences of principle between those two strains, they shared the goal of forcing local and federal authorities to act by drawing their attention to violence and injustice. Ultimately, both approaches put sufficient pressure on the government to pave the way to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968.
The considerations of relative power informed the civil rights movement throughout its existence. Like earlier black protest movements, it faced an uphill struggle in advocating for real equality due to the often violent resistance of white society, which was typically overlooked or even supported by the authorities. Nevertheless, it had a historic chance to achieve radical social change due to the revitalization of black community activism following World War II and a favorable shift in mainstream white opinion. The movement was careful to engage popular and elite white support by appealing to conventional values and beliefs. Violent resistance precipitated an ideological schism on whether the activists should respond to violence with violence. However, both sides of the divide pursued the goal of influencing the authorities and society by drawing their attention to racial injustice. By leveraging protests and engaging public opinion to negate the power imbalance, the movement attained substantial results, including legal desegregation and the Civil Rights Act.
Gadsden, Brett. “”He Said He Wouldn’t Help Me Get a Jim Crow Bus”: The Shifting Terms of the Challenge to Segregated Public Education, 1950-1954.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 90, no. 1/2, 2005, pp. 9-28.
Green, Robert P., and Harold E. Cheatham, editors. The American Civil Rights Movement: A Documentary History. Manchester University Press, 2009.
Jeffries, Hasan Kwame. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. NYU Press, 2010.
McGuire, Danielle L. “‘It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped’: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 3, 2004, pp. 906-931.
Thornton, Brian. “The Murder of Emmett Till: Myth, Memory, and National Magazine Response.” Journalism History, vol. 36, no. 2, 2010, pp. 96-104.