The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)

by: History SparkNotes

Key People

key-people Key People

Stokely Carmichael

Black leader who called for independence, self-reliance, and black nationalism in his 1967 book Black Power. Carmichael became tired of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s theory of “love and nonviolence” and expelled its white members in 1966. He condoned the use of violence to achieve revolution and independence and even envisioned splitting the United States into separate black and white countries.

W. E. B. Du Bois

Harvard-educated black historian and sociologist who pushed for both equal economic and social rights for African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Du Bois disagreed with other black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, who fought only for economic equality. Du Bois also worked to develop a “black consciousness, promoting black history, religious heritage, art, music, and culture. He also helped found the NAACP in 1909.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The least supportive president of the civil rights movement in the mid–twentieth century. Eisenhower refused to endorse or comment publicly on the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and even privately admitted that he regretted appointing Chief Justice Earl Warren to the bench. Although Eisenhower did dispatch federal troops to oversee the integration of Central High School during the Little Rock crisis, he did so only because Arkansas governor Orval Faubus had defied a federal court order, not because he believed in integration. Moreover, Eisenhower had also opposed President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces in 1948. Eisenhower did sign the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but only as a political gesture and only after assuring southerners that the act would have little impact on day-to-day life.

Marcus Garvey

A Jamaican immigrant and black activist who promoted black nationalism and the idea of the “New Negro” in black communities in New York during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association encouraged blacks to become independent and self-sufficient and to do more business within the black community. He also led a movement to resettle blacks in Africa. In 1927, however, the federal government deported Garvey after he was indicted on charges of mail fraud. Still, his message influenced future black leaders, including Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Thirty-sixth U.S. president and one of the civil rights movement’s greatest supporters after he assumed the presidency in 1963. Even though Johnson had opposed the movement in the 1940s and 1950s, he changed his mind and decided to use the issue of civil rights to establish himself as the leader of the Democratic Party in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson also hoped to stem the racial violence in the South before it intensified beyond his control. He therefore pressured Congress to pass an even more potent civil rights bill than Kennedy had asked for in 1963. Thanks to an enormous effort on Johnson’s part, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Ironically, Johnson later ordered the FBI to investigate Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X for suspected ties to Communist organizations.

John F. Kennedy

Thirty-fifth U.S. president and a leading supporter of the civil rights movement. Even though black voters helped him win the election in 1960, Kennedy supported the civil rights movement only tacitly during his first two years in office. He feared that more explicit support on his part would alienate conservative southern Democrats in Congress. The violence of the Birmingham campaign, however, convinced Kennedy to endorse the civil rights movement publicly, even at the risk of losing the next election. He had plans to push a stronger civil rights bill through Congress but was assassinated in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr.

A civil rights leader during the 1950s and 1960s who fought to protect the rights of blacks in the South. King rose to national fame after he took charge of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. An amazing speaker, he quickly became the de facto leader of the civil rights movement. He hoped to desegregate the South and protect blacks’ political rights through “love and nonviolence” and peaceful protest. In 1957, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) to rally southern churches behind the movement. On countless occasions, he purposefully incited violence by racist southerners against blacks in order to win sympathy from moderate white Americans. A talented writer, King penned many of the finest essays about the movement, including his 1963“Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, which boosted global awareness of the civil rights movement and put pressure on the federal government to address racial inequality in the United States. However, King’s efforts were cut short when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis in 1968.

Thurgood Marshall

Chief counsel for the NAACP who worked to rid America of the “separate but equal” doctrine that the Supreme Court had upheld in the 1896Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Marshall won key victories in Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950), but his greatest achievement was convincing the Warren Court to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision (1954). Marshall later went on to become the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rosa Parks

A college-educated seamstress who effectively launched the first peaceful protest of the civil rights movement. The peaceful protest began when Parks boarded a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus on December 1, 1955, and refused to give up her seat to a white man who was looking for a seat because the “white” section was full. Police arrested her for defying the city’s law, prompting outraged blacks to start the Montgomery bus boycott later that year.

Earl Warren

Supreme Court justice appointed by conservative president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Warren proved to be surprisingly liberal during his tenure as chief justice. He fully supported the quest of many blacks to end racial segregation, for example, and worked hard to get the Court to deliver a unanimous verdict in Brown v. Board of Education to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954.

Booker T. Washington

President of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama who pushed blacks to achieve economic equality with whites. Washington did not advocate immediate social equality but rather believed that economic equality would eventually bring social equality. Other black leaders, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, disagreed sharply with Washington’s views.

Malcolm X

Prominent civil rights leader who quickly became the national voice for the black nationalist Nation of Islam in the early 1950s. The son of a civil rights leader, Malcolm Little converted to Islam while serving a prison term in the 1940s. He then changed his surname to “X” to represent the heritage and identity of the black people lost during centuries of slavery. A dynamic speaker, Malcolm X espoused self-reliance, militancy, and independence for blacks, in contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctrine of love, nonviolence, and integration. Malcolm X’s view of the civil rights movement changed, however, while he was on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. When he returned, he broke away from with the Nation of Islam and, with nonviolent organizations such as the SNCC, began working toward racial integration. In a tragic turn of events, rivals within the Nation of Islam assassinated him in 1965. Although his career was cut short, Malcolm X’s early views and opinions greatly influenced the “black power” movement that began in the late 1960s.

The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970): Popular pages