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Civil Rights Movement Key Debates

What are the key points of discussion and debate surrounding the Civil Rights movement? Get ideas for essays and coursework with our detailed analysis.

How successful were the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 60s?

To some extent, the divided nature of American society and the number of obstacles standing in the way of progress were always going to mean that the civil rights campaigns fell short of their ultimate aim; complete racial equality. Although these two decades saw the greatest gains in civil rights for almost a century, each piece of legislation fell short of the desired outcome for those most committed to the cause. For example, the 1954 Brown ruling led to very few racially integrated schools over the next decade and the 1957 Civil Rights Act banned voter discrimination but only after this had been proved by a jury. Since black people weren’t permitted to serve on juries in most southern states, the importance of this rarely went beyond the symbolic. Similarly, during Johnson’s presidency, the campaign to increase voter registration in Selma in 1965 demonstrated that even the 1964 act was not enough to ensure that African-Americans were exercising their democratic right to vote as easily as their white compatriots. Undoubtedly, the increasing divisions in the civil rights movement also limited its effectiveness as energies were focused on internal disputes as well as on the opponents of progress. For the followers of groups like the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers, the SCLC and NAACP’s determination to use non-violent means of protest was too appeasing and prevented black people from being able to defend themselves in the face of aggression. For Martin Luther King and his followers, the more militant campaigners damaged the credibility of the cause and lost sympathy from more neutral observers. By the time of King’s assassination in 1968, the movement appeared to have lost its momentum and cohesiveness. However, these weaknesses should not entirely detract from what was achieved; through sit-ins, marches, boycotts and other media-grabbing techniques, civil rights became an issue that it was difficult for the government to ignore. By the late 60s, the movement had diversified partly as a result of division but also because so many key battles had already been won; the Jim Crow laws had been abolished and the African American vote would be pivotal in many future elections. Although hearts and minds were not all won over by the cause, there was certainly far more racial equality in America by the end of the 1960s than there had been two decades earlier.

Which president did the most to further black civil rights in the USA?

Following emancipation, the most significance gains in black civil rights were made during the 1950s and 1960s. This means that a comparative assessment of the contribution of different presidents should largely focus on Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. It is undisputable that the majority of important legislative change occurred under the latter’s presidency, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act ending legal public segregation and encouraging the integration of education and voting rights for African Americans who had previously been kept from the polls through taxes and obstructions. This was further reinforced by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Johnson also did a great deal to benefit poor black communities by including them in the vision of a ‘Great Society’ he desired for America, even if his ability to pursue this was greatly hampered by the Vietnam War. Yet, Johnson’s commitment to civil rights was undoubtedly inherited from his predecessor, Kennedy, and to some extent, his determination to rush through the 1964 Act should be interpreted as his honouring the former president’s legacy. Indeed, the legislation was already drawn up at the point of Kennedy’s assassination and Kennedy had made his commitment to it clear in a June 1963 speech where he openly stated that racial equality was a moral issue that should not be ignored. However, it appears that Kennedy’s commitment was only really assured in the final year of his presidency, perhaps after events at Birmingham and elsewhere had convinced his of the cause. Kennedy actually voted against Eisenhower’s Civil Rights bill in 1957 and the Republican president also deserves some credit for advancing the African American cause. His two Civil Rights Acts were the first since the Reconstruction era and therefore hold a symbolic importance, even if their impact was limited. Eisenhower was also willing to intervene to uphold the law (as seen at Little Rock in 1957) and spoke positively of racial equality but for the majority of his two terms, he resisted direct involvement in the hope that gradual change would occur without the need for federal intervention, undermining his significance in this area.

Why were major advances in black civil rights not made until the 1960s?

After the civil war ended and federal troops were withdrawn from the south, it became increasingly possible for states to pursue their own laws and agendas without much central intervention. This meant that, although emancipation had freed all African Americans from slavery in 1963, a series of ‘Jim Crow’ laws were then used to create a system of systematic segregation and inequality across the south (and, to a much lesser extent, in the north). By 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling had ensured legal justification of this and the system of segregation would remain largely unchallenged for the next sixty years. The reasons for this are complex and varied, with changing economic and international circumstances not creating favourable conditions for the pursuit of black civil rights until after World War Two. The divide between northern and southern America had already began to unravel during the 1930s, when the Great Depression and the mechanisation of agriculture caused many plantation owners to lay off black workers, causing them to head north in search of alternative employment. Their settlement in urban areas increased awareness of their rights and disrupted the status quo that had existed since the previous century. World War Two itself also galvanised the Civil Rights movement because the American government repeatedly spoke of the principles of freedom and self-determination for which they were fighting. As the Cold War continued throughout the 1950s and 60s, it became harder to justify the inequality of American society whilst acting as moral policemen in the fight against dictatorial communism. Yet, key turning points and legal decisions must be considered alongside external circumstance; the 1954 Brown decision was the most important of these because it finally overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling more than a half century earlier. This opened a floodgate for more attacks on southern Jim Crow laws. Empowered by Brown, individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were able to give the movement the inspiration and leadership it needed to progress.

How important was the leadership of Martin Luther King to the advancement of black civil rights in the USA?

Martin Luther King is perhaps the most well-known figure associated with the cause of African-American civil rights and his assassination in 1968 caused wide scale public mourning. Indeed, the civil rights movement never regained its momentum after his death, emphasising his significance. King and his associates in the SCLC stood out from other prominent groups like the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers because of his absolute commitment to non-violent direct action. This approach was highly effective because it still enabled US citizens to make their voices and discontent heard without damaging their reputations. By refusing to respond with violence, King’s supporters refused to stoop to the level of white supremacists who were willing to attack unarmed, peaceful protestors and this often meant that neutral observers became convinced of their cause, and that it was harder for the government to resist the logic of their argument. For example, King’s mobilisation of young people in Birmingham in 1963 provoked an ugly reaction from the state police in scenes that were captured by the national and international media. When this is contrasted with the peaceful, cohesive atmosphere during 250,000-strong the March to Washington a few months later, it is logical to assume that both Kennedy and Johnson’s desire for comprehensive civil rights legislation was, at least in part, a result of King’s leadership and inspiration. However, it is possible to exaggerate King’s success and to overlook other key figures who also promoted peaceful protests, such as Rosa Parks (whose bravery and defiance led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and Thurgood Marshall (the NAACP lawyer who won twenty-nine civil rights cases, including the 1954 Brown ruling). Although the campaign in Birmingham produced significant results, King’s tactics achieved far less in Albany in the years before and at the time of his death, King was struggling to advance the cause of poor African Americans in northern slums. However, the number of legal, social and political difficulties that King faced make it hard to see what he did achieve as anything short of remarkable.