How were the NAACP, the SCLC, and the SNCC different? How were they similar? Which organization had the most success in desegregating the South?

Though the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC were all committed to nonviolence and peaceful means of protesting racial inequality, they used different strategies to desegregate the South. Despite the fact that the SCLC and SNCC received more media attention in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the NAACP’s legal victories that were most successful in fundamentally overturning the South’s system of Jim Crow laws.

In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate peaceful protests—akin to the Montgomery bus boycott that had taken place two years earlier—against southern Jim Crow laws. He hoped that the peaceful-protest movement would gather momentum and that he would be able to rally the support of black churches—a tactic that worked well, because of the central role that the church played in the southern black community. King found his inspiration in the nonviolent protest tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and hoped, ironically, that “passive resistance” would provoke segregationists to attack his peaceful protests, attracting media attention. He knew that the movement would need media-generated sympathy from moderate whites in order to have any lasting effect.

Whereas King organized southern black churches, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) brought together like-minded students. Ella Baker, an SCLC director, formed the SNCC along with a group of activist students after the highly successful Greensboro sit-in in 1960. The SNCC worked diligently to mobilize black and white students in the North and South to work and protest for the civil rights cause. The SNCC organized hundreds of sit-ins, boycotts, and other peaceful protests across the country to end segregation in restaurants, stores, public transportation, and other common areas. The SNCC’s tactics were highly successful and gave the movement a badly needed boost after the SCLC failed to draw enough media attention. The SNCC organized or participated in nearly every major civil rights campaign of the 1960s.

Even though the SCLC and SNCC led highly successful campaigns, the courtroom victories of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had the most lasting effect on the movement’s goal to desegregate the South. Had the NAACP not won these victories, it is doubtful that the movement would ever have gained as much momentum as it did. Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant lawyer working for the NAACP, attacked the “separate but equal” doctrine that justified segregation, winning a number of significant cases, including Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Morgan v. Virginia (1946), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). Marshall finally scored a direct hit on the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision. Marshall won a unanimous verdict with the help of Chief Justice Earl Warren, a conservative appointee who proved more sympathetic to the civil rights movement than expected. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling stated that segregated public schools were inherently unequal and should be integrated as soon as possible—effectively reversing the 1896Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had made and kept “separate but equal” law. This legal victory sent a message to activists throughout the country that sweeping civil rights reform was possible and imminent, prompting both black and white activists such as King, Rosa Parks, James Meredith, and student volunteers in the SNCC to take a stand and fight for integration. Without the NAACP and the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the SCLC and SNCC arguably would have never even formed.

Though the SCLC, SNCC, and NAACP had the uniform goal of integrating the United States, the formation of the NAACP and its legal victories in the 1940s and 1950s were the most effective steps toward concrete desegregation of the South in the mid-twentieth century. The NAACP’s victories laid the foundation for the civil rights movement and empowered blacks everywhere to organize and fight for equal social, political, and economic rights.

Why did the civil rights movement gain momentum in the 1950s and 1960s?

Although blacks had been struggling for equal rights since the end of Reconstruction, their fight for civil rights picked up speed in the 1950s and 1960s because of the Great Migration, World War II, and the NAACP’s legal victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Unemployment and poverty in the South prompted as many as 2 million blacks to leave their homes in search of jobs in northern cities in the years after World War I. The Great Depression and the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1940s exacerbated these job shortages in the South by eliminating white planters’ need for sharecroppers and field hands. Additionally, as more and more blacks migrated north to the cities, more and more white northerners left the cities for the suburbs, thus transforming inner cities into predominantly black neighborhoods. Nonetheless, exposure to the much higher standard of living in northern cities also made blacks aware of the degree of income inequality that existed between North and South, black and white. As a result, more and more northern blacks began clamoring for jobs, education, and social services—a cry that helped launch the modern civil rights movement as well as the Great Society.

World War II also had a dramatic effect on black Americans, as black civil rights leaders publicized their “Double V” campaign for victory both abroad and at home. After civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington, D.C., to protest racial inequality, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 to desegregate defense industries. This action alone allowed more than 200,000 northern blacks to find jobs in various defense industries, boosting their average income considerably. President Harry S Truman later desegregated the military with Executive Order 9981 and also created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, one of the first government committees since Reconstruction seriously devoted to tackling racial issues. In the years after World War II, as the Cold War began, activists wondered how the United States could fight for freedom abroad when so many still lacked freedom at home. Foreign dignitaries from the USSR asked this question too and accused the United States of hypocrisy. Growing international pressure helped convince President John F. Kennedy to endorse the civil rights movement fully in the early 1960s.

Despite these factors, the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision was the most important momentum builder for the civil rights movement. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, with the direct influence of the NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, finally overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling more than a half century earlier. In declaring that segregated schools were inherently unequal, the Brown v. Board of Education decision opened a floodgate for more attacks on southern Jim Crow laws. Empowered by Brown, blacks such as Rosa Parks and James Meredith took bolder steps to end segregation.

How did Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson affect the civil rights movement? Which of these presidents had the most impact and why?

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson each entered the White House with different perspectives on the civil rights movement: Eisenhower privately opposed it, Kennedy supported it tacitly, and Johnson disagreed with it personally but wanted to assume leadership of his party and put the issue to rest. Although Eisenhower indirectly helped the civil rights movement by appointing Earl Warren to the Supreme Court and taking federal control of the Little Rock crisis, Kennedy had the most direct impact on the movement. His public support for the movement forced his successor, Johnson, to support it as well. Without Kennedy’s backing, blacks might never have won the necessary government protection to fight segregation and racism in the South.

President Eisenhower appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to the Supreme Court in the middle of the Brown v. Board of Education case and never foresaw the previously conservative Warren supporting a liberal cause such as civil rights. Eisenhower had never been a friend of the civil rights movement and had even opposed Truman’s Executive Order 9981 to integrate the armed forces. He had deep regrets about appointing Warren and refused to comment on the landmark Brown decision publicly, let alone endorse the blossoming civil rights movement. Even though Eisenhower sent army troops to resolve the Little Rock crisis by forcibly integrating Central High School in 1957, he did so only to uphold federal authority, not to promote black civil rights. He later signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as a political gesture, but only after assuring southern legislators that the act would have no significant impact.

Whereas Eisenhower privately opposed the movement, Kennedy privately supported it and met frequently with civil rights leaders in the SCLC, NAACP, and CORE. Initially, he felt that he could not endorse the movement publicly out of fear of alienating conservative Democrats in Congress. Later, however, mob violence against the Freedom Riders in 1961 and against peaceful protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, prompted Kennedy to back the civil rights movement publicly, even at the risk of his own political future. He supported the March on Washington later that year and planned to push a new, stronger civil rights bill through Congress but was assassinated before any such bill could be passed.

Kennedy’s support for the movement effectively forced his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to back it as well, even though Johnson had opposed civil rights legislation during his twelve years as Senate majority leader. Johnson realized that he had to honor Kennedy’s commitment to the movement in order to unite the Democratic Party and lead it effectively. He therefore put all his energy into pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a tougher civil rights bill than even Kennedy had envisioned. Johnson later followed through with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even though these acts were landmark achievements and finally gave black Americans equal social and political rights, Johnson likely would not have endorsed them had it not been for Kennedy’s prior commitment. In fact, after Johnson had done what he considered to be his political duty, he ordered the FBI to investigate civil rights activists and organizations for alleged ties to Communism.

Kennedy’s public endorsement of civil rights during his final year in office thus had a greater impact on the movement than any other presidential actions over the movement’s lifespan. Kennedy’s decisions reversed eight years of opposition from Eisenhower and forced Johnson to continue to support the movement after Kennedy’s assassination.

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