A History of the Civil Rights Movement in America (1954-1968)

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America was a political campaign to eradicate and abolish marginalisation, discrimination, and institutional racial segregation among Black people and other non-whites throughout the United States. The movement lasted for 14 years – from 1954 to 1968.

Since its independence in 1776, race as a social category, based on skin colour, has been a recurring empirical culture engraved deeply within the roots of American society.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman and civil rights leader.

The sufferings of an average black American could have been worse today but for a significant period in the history of the United States known as The Civil Rights Era, which was highly characterised by segregation, lynchings, and assassinations.

In this article, we shall take a cursory look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America.

The Slavery Matter: 1855-1860

Following the end of the colonial era under Great Britain, America had just settled a border dispute with Canada and ended a war with Mexico on ownership rights to certain states which they claimed in both cases. At this time, slavery was the norm in the United States as it had the legal backing of the Constitution under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which declared Missouri as a slave state but disallowed the possibility of other free states being converted into slave states in the future.

This Compromise which had managed to maintain peace between the South which encouraged slavery, and the North which pushed for its abolition, would be broken as the new states acquired from the Mexican War and border treaties were bound to become free states. This wouldn’t have been an issue but for the fact that at its event, there would be more free states than slave states, which meant that the free states having the supermajorities, could vote against slavery if they so wished and it would be abolished as quickly as it was established.

Upon this sudden realisation, the South quickly responded by implementing three striking Acts through Congress which served as the much-needed security to the legal position of slavery in the United States. First, they would go on to enact the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which put the freedom of Northern Black Americans at risk. Next, they would succeed in repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

President Abraham Lincoln with African Americans outside of the White House, c.1863/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

Finally, on March 6, 1857, the consolidation of slavery they so desired was achieved as the Supreme Court ruled on the Dred Scott decision, stating that Black Americans were not citizens of the United States and had no rights to that effect. They were further described as being slaves and inferior to their white counterparts and were to be subject to their masters who could now claim charge over them legally.

This rapid turn of events led to a counter-reaction by the abolitionists, as they conceded that the only way to salvage the situation was to have the free states increase the size of the supermajorities to see through a constitutional amendment while curbing the spread of slavery to other states where it was initially non-existent.

These movements birthed the Republican Party in 1860 and saw the party’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln win the presidential elections that year. One would imagine that America would be on its way to freedom in a few years but the South wouldn’t give in so easily. While the Republicans celebrated their victory in their camp, ten states in the South led by South Carolina seceded completely from the United States. This would be the start of a cycle of struggles with no hope of remission except by blood.

The American Civil War: 1861-1865

Following the secession of the states that would go on to form the Southern Confederacy, the American Civil War broke out between them and the North, which formed the Union. Although the cause of the war was reportedly over state rights, a deeper understanding would reveal that it was about slavery and the legal disposition over it in the country. Just before the war broke out in 1861, the status of slavery in the United States had about 13% of its entire 32 million American population being black slaves mostly in the South.

The initial goal the Union aimed to achieve by indulging in the war was to stop slavery from spreading and sustain the North. However, as the war progressed, they upped their plans and sought after the outright freedom of all slaves. It was to this effect that President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave the right of freedom to all the slaves in the South.

President Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865), 16th President of the United States (March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865).

On January 31, 1865, still in the heat of the war, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gained the approval of Congress. This amendment led to the total abolishment of slavery throughout the country, which was eventually ratified by all of the states later that year, except for Mississippi, which would not ratify it until 1995. Although the freed Black Americans were faced with problems of starvation and lack of shelter among others, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress on March 3, 1865, to see to their needs and assistance and it was executed by the Army.

On April 9, 1865, the American Civil War was eventually ended, as Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. It didn’t take long before other generals of the Confederacy threw in their arms as well. When the war ended, the South was almost entirely in a state of decimation with its railroads and other paramount infrastructure laid to waste.

Following the fall of the Southern Confederates, slavery was outlawed and about four million African Americans gained their freedom. It was now left for the country to recover from its ruins. It would appear that it was a thing of the South to always give the final blow, for as the Northern Union basked in their victory and the Confederates were left to lick their wounds, some of their members had other ideas to pull off one last stunt, taking the bloodshed out of the war into the White House.

Grant-Lee Appomatox
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, April 9, 1865.

Five days after the war ended, on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln would die the following morning. The first American president to be assassinated.

The Reconstruction: 1865-1877

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the plans for Reconstruction were left in the hands of his successor, Andrew Johnson, who wasted no time in making his intentions clear. He launched the programme and it saw African Americans come into a state of freedom in experience and not just by law. They were able to live freely, get educated, work, and earn income for themselves among other rights.

However, President Johnson wouldn’t be so thorough in clipping the wings of the South, for no sooner had the war ended that he restored to the Southerners their lands that were seized by the Union and given to the Freedmen’s Bureau or the African Americans, stating that they had every right to own their property but not before making them agree to obey the laws of the Thirteenth Amendment and respect the civil rights of African Americans. This singular act of leniency would cost the United States a great deal later on.

On February 2, 1866, President Andrew Johnson hosted some black delegates led by Frederick Douglass, who had come to suggest that it was high time Black citizens were given their enfranchisement rights. However, to their surprise, the President was averse to such a suggestion and they returned in indignation. President Johnson would also veto two bills sent for his approval – one for the Freedmen’s Bureau which was to see them become a permanent organisation, and the other for the Civil Rights Act of the African Americans.

A few months later, Congress overrode (the first of its kind) the verdict of the President concerning the latter, passing it into law, and having African Americans share equal rights as citizens with the whites.

Furthermore, on June 13, 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was approved by Congress which saw to the rightful citizenship of African Americans, gave them access to all due civil rights, and granted them legal protection as citizens deserved.

Andrew Johnson POTUS 17
President Andrew Johnson (December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875), 17th President of the United States (April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869).

It was at this point that the South would again come into the picture, establishing the Ku Klux Klan – a group which promoted white supremacy and subjected blacks and other supposed inferior races to slavery and harassment. The following year, Congress went on to, again, override the veto the President had placed on the bill for black suffrage, giving African Americans their due right to enfranchisement.

On March 2, 1867, Reconstruction began in earnest as Congress passed the Reconstruction Act into law. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified, making it legally bound for African Americans, by birth or naturalisation, to claim citizenship in the United States.

It would be a flaw on our part if we fail to mention at this point that on August 11, 1868, Thaddeus Stevens died. He was known as the father of Reconstruction as he dedicated his life to fighting for the freedom and civil rights of African Americans. He was also a leader in Congress and a member of the Republican Party. By the end of that year, the Republican General who won the Civil War against the Confederates, Ulysses S. Grant, was elected as the 18th President of the United States.

In 1869, another amendment was made to the American Constitution – the Fifteenth Amendment – and the final one of the Reconstruction Era. This Amendment gave African Americans the long-sought-after right to vote and the following year, it was ratified.

In 1875, the Civil Rights Act gained the approval of Congress and granted black Americans the right to participate in jury activities and contest for public positions. In 1876, there was a close presidential election with indeterminate results between the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Democrat candidate, Samuel Tilden.

Once again, the Southerners struck to mark the turn of the age, for the following year, in exchange for being elected as president, Rutherford B. Hayes had an informal agreement with some moderate Democrats in the South and called off the military protecting the rights of African Americans in the South leading to the Compromise of 1877. That year marked the end of the Reconstruction and President Hayes was nicknamed Rutherfraud or His Fraudulency by his political opponents throughout his term in the White House.

Post Reconstruction: 1877-1947

Upon gaining control over the Southern territory, the ex-Confederates wasted no time in re-establishing their dominance over the African Americans. They passed legislation on what was called the Jim Crow laws, which did all but respect the civil rights of black people in the United States.

Racial segregation was the highlight of these laws as African Americans were prohibited from using public infrastructure such as parks, hospitals, schools, churches, and so on. Unprecedented violence became the order of the day as a black person walking along the road could as easily be shot or lynched and everyone would continue their day as though nothing happened. Such was the state and atrocities in the South in their bid to gain control over the population and lives of African Americans.

In 1883, the Supreme Court gave a verdict concerning the Civil Rights Acts passed; the Thirteenth Amendment which saw the abolition of slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment which gave black Americans the right to be called and protected as citizens. The Court’s verdict was that these two Amendments were not broken in any way by the existence of certain acts of racial discrimination.

Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow Laws: A dark period for African Americans.

The Thirteenth was deemed inappropriate, according to the Constitution, while the Fourteenth was limited to states alone and not individuals. This verdict was followed by a rise in racial demonstrations of brutality as it stripped the Civil Rights Acts of their much precious meaning to African Americans. This verdict would be valid for the next century until the Supreme Court again called it off in 1964, restoring the Civil Rights Act to law.

Recall that the State of Mississippi did not officially ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 148 years later in 2013. The state was quick to replace its Constitutional laws during the Reconstruction with rulings intended to deprive African Americans of their civil rights in 1890. It became all too clear to everyone when the Supreme Court in 1896 directly gave a verdict in favour of racial discrimination in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson, backing the misbelief that Blacks and Whites were separate, although equal, and had to be treated as such.

Jim Crow Laws: 1877-1965

No one would have believed it possible for racial discriminatory laws to be passed directly into the constitution but you had better believe it, for, in the year 1900, the notorious Jim Crow laws were legalised all over the Southern region. The achievements of the Reconstruction were all torn down at this point.

1964 Civil Rights Act
The 1964 Civil Rights Act shattered the last of the power the Jim Crow laws possessed.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the claws of Jim Crow got to the North. African Americans had neither safety nor security anywhere anymore. They were racially abused and separated from the white society, often neglected in terms of basic healthcare, and given the worst of jobs as their means of livelihood. As the Great Migration occurred in the 1910s, racial abuse increased in the North.

In 1920, the segregation levels had been so bad that there was no difference between the South and the North. It was a dark period for African Americans. The next decade wasn’t any better with the United States government signing public policies that deliberately aided the segregation of the Black community. The South had total control of Congress and no law could be passed without their backing. Many laws were passed to strip Black citizens of their civil rights and access to basic privileges all in the bid to make life unbearable for them, simply because they were Black.

The Civil Rights Era: 1948-1968

The advent of World War II gave rise to the revolution of civil rights. Black veterans came back home after the war and insisted on being given their civil rights as citizens. In 1948, the much-anticipated change began as President Harry Truman called against racial segregation in the army and the Democrats included advocacy for civil rights into their party focus. That year, the Supreme Court also began to retrace its steps to rule against racial discrimination. In 1954, it finally crushed the hold of the Jim Crow laws, overturning the Plessy verdict against racial segregation.

In 1957, things began to take more solid form as Congress passed into law the first Civil Rights Act since the time of the Reconstruction and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy, in response to increasing demonstrations for racial equality, proposed a Civil Rights bill to Congress.

In November, President Kennedy was assassinated. However, this did nothing to quell the tide that had risen; rather, it fueled it. His successor, President Lyndon Johnson took advantage of the rising emotions as a result of the assassination and pushed the civil rights bill to ratification. Thus, the 1964 Civil Rights Act shattered the last of the power the Jim Crow laws possessed.

The following year, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act came through and though the change was coming, it would be accelerated by the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

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