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THE 1950s AND 1960s

civil rights freedom south

As the cold war entered the political consciousness of the nation, outspoken critics of the United States and especially those with Communist ties were victimized by a congressionally supported witch hunt to expel such subversive elements from the country. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois and artist-activist Paul Robeson were two of the more prominent African Americans targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the era of McCarthyism. Whereas Du Bois avoided penalties because claims against him were dismissed, Robeson refused to yield in his scathing criticisms of racial practices in America, nor did he denounce his Communist Party affiliations. With little support from civil rights leaders because of fears of being targeted themselves, Robeson, at the mercy of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s vicious assaults, was eventually deported. Paul Robeson is widely recognized as one of the most tragic fatalities of McCarthyism and anticommunist aggression in the United States.

By the middle of the 1950s, racial realities in the United States still thrived to block black equality and progress. However, developments from the post–World War II era propelled civil rights activism and coordination. With the 1954 victory in Brown and the encouraging success of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, led by members of the NAACP and CORE, the modern civil rights era was ignited. Jim Crow—America’s version of racial apartheid—would soon meet its death knell as well-coordinated protest movements pushed the civil rights agenda, ultimately engendering the consciousness of America.

In February 1960, the student protest movement began when four students at North Carolina A&T walked into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down, refusing to move until served. Only days later, students across the South were leading numerous sitin movements against establishments clinging to the practices of Jim Crow. Within a month of the initiation of the sit-ins, hundreds of young radicals convened at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and created the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC radicals, black and white, infused a high degree of militancy into the civil rights movement, adding direct, confrontational action to the already successful legal movements and economic boycotts.

Alongside CORE, SNCC continued its direct-action, civil disobedience campaigns, exposing the lengths to which white southerners would go to preserve segregation, even in the face of laws proscribing such practices. CORE reinvigorated its 1947 Freedom Rides by teaming with members of SNCC in 1961 and leading an interracial group of riders through the South, challenging Jim Crow in interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were met with violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. However, no stop along their ride through the South proved more dangerous than Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, the protesters were met by more than 1,000 whites, with the police nowhere to be found. All the riders and a presidential aide assigned to monitor the crisis were injured by the mob and had to be hospitalized.

Under the coordination of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., protest movements in Albany, Georgia (1961), and Birmingham, Alabama (1963), propelled the civil rights agenda as young and old joined forces to battle racism in the Deep South. In August 1963, the civil rights movement momentum peaked as nearly 250,000 marchers of many colors and faiths assembled in the nation’s capital for the famed March on Washington, where they heard King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” However, soon after the march concluded, white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. Such violent responses were emblematic of the resentment and contempt whites held against blacks challenging racial norms.

Church bombings were only part of the violence directed at African American freedom fighters during the civil rights era. During Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, white terror surfaced against volunteers leading voter registration drives in the South’s most resistant communities. A collection of young, racially mixed activists from CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP joined forces under the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in an effort to restore and enhance political participation among blacks in Mississippi. Soon after Freedom Summer began, three volunteers disappeared. Two white volunteers in their early twenties—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—and James Chaney, a twenty-one-year-old black Mississippi native, were killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The efforts of COFO and Freedom Summer ultimately led to the highest political mobilization of blacks across the state since Reconstruction.

One year later, in 1965, SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to highlight the continued disfranchisement of African American voters in Alabama. As King and the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police officers met them with tear gas and proceeded to beat them before a national television audience. What became known as “Bloody Sunday” spurred Congress and President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also named the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed mechanisms whites had used to disqualify black voters for nearly a century. Congress had also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought an end to Jim Crow in public accommodations and employment and reaffirmed the congressional commitment to school desegregation.

In a roughly twenty-five year period after World War II, barely one generation, the civil rights community had effectively done away with Jim Crow. With much sacrifice, skillful protest, and charismatic leadership, legally sanctioned second-class citizenship, disfranchisement, and employment injustice reached a formal end.

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over 6 years ago

Get your McCarthy's straight! Robsen was not attacked by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Eugene McCarthy,Democrat, Mn., was the anti-war Senator who ran for president in 1968. Senator Joseph McCarthy from whose assaults Robsen suffered, chaired the HUAC committee in the early 1950's. Please correct this offensive mistake.

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over 6 years ago

I think you mean Joseph McCarthy not Eugene. Huge difference.