Black Americans’ quest for official racial equality began the moment Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s. Even though Radical Republicans had attempted to aid blacks by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Ku Klux Klan Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment and Fifteenth Amendment, racist whites in the South ensured that blacks remained “in their place.” The black codes, for example, as well as literacy tests, poll taxes, and widespread violence kept blacks away from voting booths, while conservative Supreme Court decisions ruined any chances for social equality. The Compromise of 1877 effectively doomed southern blacks to a life of sharecropping and second-class citizenship.
In 1896, in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the conservative Supreme Court upheld the racist policy of segregation by legalizing “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. In doing so, the court condemned blacks to more than a half century more of social inequality. Black leaders nonetheless continued to press for equal rights. For example, Booker T. Washington, president of the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, encouraged African Americans first to become self-sufficient economically before challenging whites on social issues. W. E. B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated black historian and sociologist, however, ridiculed Washington’s beliefs and argued that blacks should fight for social and economic equality all at once. Du Bois also hoped that blacks would eventually develop a “black consciousness” and cherish their distinctive history and cultural attributes. In 1910, he also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to challenge the Plessy decision in the courtroom.
Between World War I and World War II, more than a million blacks traveled from the South to the North in search of jobs, in what became known as the Great Migration. The Harlem neighborhood of New York City quickly became the nation’s black cultural capital and housed one of the country’s largest African-American communities, of approximately 200,000 people. Even though most of Harlem’s residents were poor, during the 1920s, a small middle class emerged, consisting of poets, writers, and musicians. Artists and writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston championed the “New Negro,” the African American who took pride in his or her cultural heritage. The flowering of black artistic and intellectual culture during this period became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant and businessman, worked hard to promote black pride and nationalism. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which emphasized economic self-sufficiency as a means to overcome white dominance. He also encouraged blacks to leave the United States and resettle in Africa. Although most of Garvey’s business ventures failed and he was eventually deported back to Jamaica, his message influenced many future civil rights leaders.
More than a million black men served in the Allied forces during World War II, mostly in segregated noncombat units. At home, black leaders continued to push for racial equality and campaigned for the “Double V”—victory both at home and abroad. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the president of the National Negro Congress, threatened to lead thousands of black protesters in a march on Washington to demand the passage of more civil rights legislation. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, afraid that the march might disrupt the war effort, compromised by signing Executive Order 8802 to desegregate war factories and create the Fair Employment Practices Committee. As a result, more than 200,000 blacks were able to find top jobs in defense-related industries. After the war, President Harry S Truman created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and desegregated the military with Executive Order 9981 .
In 1954, after decades of legal work, Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief counsel, finally managed to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine (established in Plessy v. Ferguson) in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas . Sympathetic Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren convinced his fellow justices to declare unanimously that segregated public schools were inherently unequal. The Brown decision outraged conservative southern politicians in Congress, who protested it by drafting the Southern Manifesto.
In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus chose to ignore a federal court order to desegregate the state’s public schools and used the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally opposed the Brown decision, he sent federal troops to integrate the high school by force and uphold federal supremacy over the state.
In 1955, the modern civil rights movement was effectively launched with the arrest of young seamstress Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama. Police arrested Parks because she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus. After the arrest, blacks throughout the city joined together in a massive rally outside one of the city’s Baptist churches to hear the young preacher Martin Luther King Jr. speak out against segregation, Parks’s arrest, and the Jim Crow law she had violated. Blacks also organized the Montgomery bus boycott, boycotting city transportation for nearly a year before the Supreme Court finally struck down the city’s segregated bus seating as unconstitutional.
In 1957, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to rally support from southern churches for the civil rights movement. Inspired by Indian political activist Mohandas Gandhi, King hoped the SCLC would lead a large-scale protest movement based on “love and nonviolence.”
Although the SCLC failed to initiate mass protest, a new student group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) accomplished much. The SNCC was launched in 1960 after the highly successful student-led Greensboro sit-in in North Carolina and went on to coordinate peaceful student protests against segregation throughout the South. The students also helped the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organize Freedom Rides throughout the Deep South. In 1961, groups of both black and white Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses, hoping to provoke violence, get the attention of the federal government, and win the sympathy of more moderate whites. The plan worked: angry white mobs attacked Freedom Riders in Alabama so many times that several riders nearly died. Still, many of the students believed that the media attention they had received had been worth the price.
The overwhelming public support from the North for Freedom Riders prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to launch more peaceful protests, hoping to anger die-hard segregationists. In 1963, King focused all of his energy on organizing a massive protest in the heavily segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of blacks participated in the rally, including several hundred local high school students who marched in their own “children’s crusade.” Birmingham’s commissioner, “Bull” Connor, cracked down on the protesters using clubs, vicious police dogs, and water cannons. King was arrested along with hundreds of others and used his time in jail to write his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explain the civil rights movement to critics.
The violence during the Birmingham protest shocked northerners even more than the violence of the Freedom Rides and convinced President John F. Kennedy to risk his own political future and fully endorse the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, in 1963, King and the SCLC joined forces with CORE, the NAACP, and the SNCC in organizing the March on Washington in August. More than 200,000 blacks and whites participated in the march, one of the largest political rallies in American history. The highlight of the rally was King’s sermonic “I have a dream” speech.
Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, honored his predecessor’s commitment to the civil rights movement. Johnson actually had opposed the movement while serving as Senate majority leader but changed his mind because he wanted to establish himself as the leader of a united Democratic Party. He therefore pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , an even tougher bill than Kennedy had hoped would pass. The act outlawed discrimination and segregation based on race, nationality, or gender.
The same year, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, outlawing poll taxes as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections. Furthermore, SNCC activists traveled to Mississippi that summer on the Freedom Summer campaign to register more black voters, again hoping their actions would provoke segregationist whites.
Violent opposition to the Freedom Summer campaign convinced Martin Luther King Jr. that more attention needed to be drawn to the fact that few southern blacks were actually able to exercise their right to vote. Springing into action, King traveled to the small town of Selma, Alabama, in 1965, to support a local protest against racial restrictions at the polls. There, he joined thousands of blacks peacefully trying to register to vote. Police, however, attacked the protesters on “Bloody Sunday,” killing several activists in the most violent crackdown yet. The same year, an outraged Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress responded by passing the Voting Rights Act to safeguard blacks’ right to vote. The act outlawed literacy tests and sent thousands of federal voting officials into the South to supervise black voter registration.
However, a growing number of black activists had begun to oppose integration altogether by the mid-1960s. Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam was the most vocal critic of King’s nonviolent tactics. Instead, Malcolm X preached black self-sufficiency, just as Marcus Garvey had four decades earlier. He also advocated armed self-defense against white oppression, arguing that bloodshed was necessary for revolution. However, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam after numerous scandals hit the organization, and he traveled to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on a religious pilgrimage in 1964. In the course of his journey, he encountered Muslims of all nationalities who challenged his belief system and forced him to rethink his opinions regarding race relations. When Malcolm X returned to the United States, he joined forces with the SNCC in the nonviolent fight against segregation and racism. However, he was assassinated in early 1965.
Despite Malcolm X’s untimely death, his original message of race separation (instead of integration) lived on and inspired many students in the SNCC, who also expressed dissatisfaction with the gains made through peaceful protests. Although the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were landmark laws for the civil rights movement, young activists such as Stokely Carmichael felt they had not done enough to correct centuries of inequality. In 1967, Carmichael argued in his book Black Power that blacks should take pride in their heritage and culture and should not have anything to do with whites in the United States or anywhere else. In fact, Carmichael even promoted one plan to split the United States into separate black and white countries.
Frustrated activists in Oakland, California, responded to Stokely Carmichael’s “black power” theories and formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panthers, armed and clad in black, operated basic social services in the urban ghettos, patrolled the streets, and called for an armed revolution. Although the Black Panthers did provide valuable support to the community, their embrace of violence prompted a massive government crackdown on the group, leading to its dissolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Black revolutionaries such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers, along with the scores of race riots that rocked America between 1965 and 1970, frightened many white Americans and alienated many moderates who had supported peaceful protest. President Lyndon B. Johnson had also become suspicious of civil rights activists and ordered the FBI to begin investigations of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and even Martin Luther King Jr. himself for their alleged ties to Communist organizations. Then, in 1968, a young white man named James Earl Ray shot and killed King as he addressed a crowd gathered in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death, combined with the increasing amount of violence, effectively ended the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.