The Civil Rights Movement

“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is interrelated…racism, poverty, militarism, and imperialism. Evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.” — Martin Luther King

“If George Washington didn’t get independence for this country non-violently… and you taught me to look upon heroes, then it’s time for you to realize — I have studied your books well.” — Malcolm X

The tremendous civil rights movement of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s shook America to its very foundations. It was a movement that in one way or another touched every black family in the U.S. Internationally throughout Africa, the Caribbean and even Europe, blacks were imbued with a new confidence. It seemed that on every continent a liberation struggle was taking place. America, the “land of the free,” was no exception.

Jim Crow (Racial Segregation)

White-Colored-Sep-AccomThis was a struggle that had to be fought. Blacks in America faced not only poverty but also a degrading, racist social system commonly known as “Jim Crow” (racial segregation). In the south, rights to vote, organize, even to assemble were taken away from blacks. Segregated schools, transport, public toilets etc. condemned blacks to the worst conditions.

Jim Crow was not simply some nasty piece of legislation that evolved over time. It was a carefully worked out, carefully executed, social system devised by the ruling class. At times of economic crisis, which are an inevitable part of capitalism’s boom and bust cycle, the ruling class often uses racism to divide the working class. Racism is also used to drive down all workers’ wages and working conditions, thus providing pools of cheap labor. Before World War II, in the south, there were vast amounts of land and yet an enormous shortage of labor. Taking away the rights of blacks enabled the bosses to force them to work for pitifully low wages. After World War II, when the mechanization of agriculture solved the bosses’ problem, blacks were literally driven off the land. After the war, the labor shortage shifted to factories in the North. Migration of huge numbers of blacks to the north began. This continued through the 1950s and 1960s and contributed to the development of the black ghettos we see there today.

During World War II, over 3 million blacks registered in the U.S. military. Over 500,000 fought and many died, in racially segregated units, “to defend democracy” and to fight the racist Nazi regime. Those that returned did so knowing things would never be the same again. Blacks came back wanting, expecting, and prepared to fight for change.

1954 Supreme Court Ruling

di1954-05-18_p01There had often been struggles through the courts by blacks to end segregation, but before 1954 those efforts had little effect. Various social and political events forced the ruling class to realize there had to be change. Throughout Africa and Asia there were huge movements for independence, against military and economic domination by imperialism. Colonial rule in its previous form was coming to an end. Imperialist America found itself having to negotiate with new, confident black governments. Many new African regimes were beginning to align with the “communist” (Stalinist) countries in the east. To uphold global capitalism, the U.S. had to try to convince these governments that they were the friends of blacks. The U.S ruling elite therefore looked to produce cosmetic changes at home.

This was the reason for the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which banned segregation in schools. But rather than satisfy blacks in the U.S., it emboldened them to demand even more. Blacks demanded the right to vote and boldly went to register.


There was always strong resistance to the dismantling of Jim Crow. The southern Democratic Party, made up of white large and small business owners was based on this racist system. While industrialization benefited big corporations, the business owners still benefited from exploiting blacks to make their profits.

To sustain the Jim Crow system, lynchings and murders became commonplace. Blacks who registered to vote were assassinated, and any blacks that fought for their rights in any way were met with a reign of terror.

KKK lynchingLynchings became an integral part of the Jim Crow system. Far from being an aberration they became an American institution. Many people traveled for miles see the lynching of a black take place, with discounts introduced on the railroads for those traveling to a lynching. Rallies with Democratic Party speakers were held before some lynchings took place and photographs of the events were even taken and sold as souvenirs.

In 1955 things began to change. Emmett Till, a 14 year-old black boy from Chicago was visiting family in Mississippi. Coming from the north he was seen by southern whites to have “ideas above his station.” The final straw came when he “sweet-talked” a white woman. For this “crime” he was beaten, shot through the head, and his body was mutilated. Yet this was not allowed to become just another lynching. His mother had his body shipped back to Chicago and demanded an open casket funeral so the whole world could see what America had done to her son. Over 250,000 people came to view the body. Jet magazine carried a picture of Emmett’s mutilated body that sent shockwaves through every black community. Meetings were called in every black ghetto. Demands for troops to be sent to Mississippi to protect blacks spread, not only through the north, but also through the south. Till’s mother demanded a meeting with President Eisenhower but was refused. Instead the FBI was sent to investigate who was organizing the protests. A mock trial with an all white jury let the lynchers off scot-free. Everywhere, street protests developed, and demands for action could be heard. The tide had begun to turn.

Against this background the mass movement began to evolve. In Montgomery, Alabama, action began. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, an activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), made her stand.

The bus system in Montgomery was totally segregated, with priority given to whites for the best seats. While 70% of the passengers were black, they had to sit in the back of the buses. If all the white seats were taken, then whites could demand that blacks give up their seats. When a white demanded Rosa Parks’ seat, she refused saying, she was tired from work and tired of giving in. For this she was arrested and fined $10. She along with E. D. Nixon, a black trade union organizer, and the NAACP had been planning a campaign against segregation, and they decided it was time to fight back. They used her case to organize a one-day boycott of the buses.

Through the churches, which were the backbone of the black community, the campaign was organized. Ministers, who were the traditionally accepted leaders of the black community, were approached to lead the campaign. One of those that accepted was a new minister in town, Martin Luther King. He went on to become the most famous leader of the civil rights movement.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The whole black community in the area rallied behind the boycott. As the boycott spiraled from one day to almost a year, its demands grew bolder. Initially the campaign simply demanded sensitive treatment for blacks on buses, but they soon realized they had to go the whole way, and they demanded the end of segregation on buses.

almost-empty-busEven with support from the whole community, it was a long, hard struggle. A complex system of private cars had to be used to transport blacks. Martin Luther King put out a call for 100 station-wagons to come to Montgomery to be used as free shuttle services. A few supportive whites provided rides to blacks. Even so, many blacks were forced to walk miles every day to get to work. But the resolve hardened each day. When asked by a reporter why she was walking, one middle aged black woman replied, “For me, my children, and my grandchildren.”

The resolve of racist whites also hardened. The White Citizens’ Council developed as the main organization against the boycott, and it grew massively during this period. Violence increased dramatically. During the campaign at least eight bombings took place. The Ku Klux Klan held highly visible, intimidating rallies. Nevertheless six months into the Montgomery, Alabama boycott, another began in Florida, forcing the bus company there out of business. Eleven months on, the battle was finally won. Enormous pressure forced the desegregation of Montgomery buses, and a small taste of what mass action could achieve left the black community hungry for much more.

After the Montgomery boycott, Martin Luther King became greatly respected for his leadership qualities. However Malcolm X was quick to condemn King’s ideas of pacifism and non-violence as ideas that disarmed the black community:”You don’t have to criticize Reverend King. His actions criticize him. Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro.”

Segregation in Schools

The 1950s saw the famous Brown v. Board Supreme Court case that ruled against segregation in schools. But it would take a lot more than paper legislation to have any effective change.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957 came the first major confrontation to desegregate schools. Nine black teenagers were set to attend a school in Little Rock. The state Governor Orval Faubus, a Democrat, had initially been elected with the backing of groups like the NAACP and the trade union movement. However, once Faubus was in office, he soon shed his liberal image. Playing on the discontent that existed among whites toward integration, he became a hardened segregationist and refused to enforce any law to integrate schools. Racist mobs rallied to physically stop the black teenagers getting to the school. Pressure forced President Eisenhower to act. He sent federal troops to ensure passage for the blacks students. The fact that the state had been forced to intervene represented another victory for the black movement and greatly demoralized the racists.

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides

Until the early 1960s the struggles of blacks against segregation had mainly consisted of local action. In 1960, that changed, and the movement rapidly spread from state to state with young people playing a key role.

It began with the sit-in movement. A new generation inspired by the movements already taking place in the U.S. and internationally, decided they too should get involved. They would enter segregated restaurants and demand to be served, and when they were refused they would literally sit-in! The invasion of the bar meant that its owners lost money. Eventually the police would be called and the youth, predominantly students, would be arrested. Many were beaten. Every time a group was arrested another group would come to take their place. Thousands were arrested and many were expelled from school, but the sit-ins spread like wildfire.

Then came the Freedom Rides where black and white students would board buses and travel through the southern states. These actions were taken to force the integration of buses that had already been passed in law, but not in practice. Many of the freedom riders were beaten and brutalized by racist mobs. Yet the Freedom Rides still continued.

It became clear to the youth that they needed their own organization to discuss the strategies and actions they needed to take. They were invited by Martin Luther King to form the youth wing of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization which had a strong pacifist thread but still supported direct acts of civil disobedience. But King’s offer was rejected, and instead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. While still defending the tactic of non- violence, for SNCC, non-violence was seen as a tactic to be used on a case-by-case basis, not a principle for all situations.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King evolved as the most important leader of the black revolt. His principle of pacifism was the dominant feature of the movement for a long period. But once youth entered the scene of battle, it was much harder for him to hold this line. Faced with beatings, lynching and petrol bombings, the idea of non-violence somehow did not ring true. Figures like Malcolm X, with his message of militant action, became a much more attractive focus for young blacks. Malcolm completely rejected the idea of turning the other cheek and he advocated black people defending themselves “…by any means necessary. If someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

mlkWhile King believed that mass, peaceful protests would convince the government to implement reforms, Malcolm X soon became one of the most vocal opponents of King’s strategy for the movement. After the famous 250,000-strong 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his well remembered “I have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X later commented, “While they’re dreaming, our people are living a nightmare.”

Malcolm was not alone in criticizing aspects of King’s leadership. He was effectively voicing the thoughts of many younger activists. Anne Mood who was at the Washington demonstration recalled: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers to discover we had dreamers instead of a leader leading us. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton, Mississippi, we never had time to sleep much less to dream.”

After King was presented with the Nobel peace Prize, Malcolm again used the opportunity to highlight their different approaches. “He got the Peace Prize, we got the problem. I don’t want the white man giving me medals. If I’m following a general and he’s leading me into battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards or awards, I get suspicious of him, especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over.”

However, even Martin Luther King was to talk of revolution towards the end of his life. In 1967 he commented “For the last 2 years we have been a reform movement…But after Selma and the Voting rights Bill (1965) we moved into a new era which must be an era of revolution. What good does it do a man to have integrated lunch counters if he can’t buy a hamburger?” This was too much for the ruling class. King started supporting marches of striking workers and was gunned down as he prepared to march with refuse workers in Memphis.