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Civil Rights Key Individuals

Who were the key individuals who bought about such massive change? Learn more about these important figures with our dedicated profiles.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was a key civil rights leader who was heavily influenced by the tactics of Mahatma Ghandi when opposing British rule in India, leading him to spearhead a campaign of non-violent direct action to achieve racial equality. King was a Baptist minister who first rose to prominence because Rosa Parks, the lady who triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a member of his congregation. After Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, King organised a year-long boycott of Montgomery’s buses that gained national attention and led to desegregation. By 1957, he had been chosen as the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and he used this position to encourage Americans to campaign for racial equality through peaceful means, such as sit-ins, marches and protests.

The height of his influence was felt in 1963, when he chose to focus his efforts in Birmingham, Alabama, where resistance to integration was strong and there were regular attacks on the black community. King’s defiance of an injunction led to his arrest and upon his release, he organised a ‘Children’s Crusade’, where thousands of schoolchildren were encouraged to protest vocally about segregation. Although King was criticised for placing young people at risk, the violent response of the police force gained national and international attention and won much support for King’s cause. The depth of this was displayed at Washington three months later, when he delivered the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, outlining his belief that public pressure could lead to equality and freedom for all Americans.

It is likely that King’s tactics encouraged the civil rights legislation that occurred during Johnson’s presidency and King then turned his attention to the economic inequality faced by poor African Americans in Northern cities. The increasing divisions in the civil rights movement and King’s opposition to the Vietnam War made gaining mass public support more difficult in his last few years but his assassination in Memphis in April 1968 sent shockwaves through the nation.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X, formerly known as Malcolm Little, adopted his alternative surname to represent the lost African name of his ancestors. He was a controversial figure who also campaigned for black civil rights but criticised the SCLC’s focus on integration. Instead, Malcolm X spent much of his political career promoting ideas of black racial supremacy, the right to self-defence and self-determination and the need for a separate state for black people. For some contemporaries, he was a divisive racist who increased tension between different ethnicities, but for others he was an inspiring leader who encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights and take pride in their abilities.

Malcolm X’s ideology was partly shaped by his childhood experiences; his father was an active supporter of Marcus Garvey and this meant he was targeted and eventually murdered by white supremacists. The mental toll this took on his wife meant that Malcolm and his siblings grew up in institutional care. Malcolm was also greatly influenced by the Nation of Islam, a Muslim organisation led by Elijah Muhammad. He became a key spokesperson for the group and played a significant role in increasing membership from 500 to 30,000 in under a decade. His charisma and understanding of how to gain a mass media presence and influence people was demonstrated at the Unity Rally he organised in New York in 1963.

Although he was often openly critical of the more accommodating tactics of non-violent groups, there is evidence that his views on this altered towards the end of his life. In March 1964, he terminated his membership of the NOI after discovering the sexual promiscuities of Elijah Muhammad. He then set up an alternative organisation, Muslim Mosque Inc. and began to promote integration and co-operation with other races, rather than the need for a separate state. Malcolm X was assassinated by followers of Elijah Muhammad on 21st February 1965.

Dwight Eisenhower

In general, Eisenhower was a popular Republican president who consistently enjoyed over 70% approval ratings by successfully using brinkmanship to respond effectively to international crises whilst still reducing government spending. Yet, his record on civil rights is more mixed and many historians would consider it to be an area of failure for Eisenhower. His support for racial equality was tepid at best and he was reluctant to enforce progress in the southern states, even as the civil rights movement gained momentum and support. After segregation in schools was declared unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, Eisenhower remained silent on the issue and this encouraged white supremacist groups to organise citizens’ councils to obstruct desegregation.

Eisenhower did encourage the integration of federal facilities (including schools) in Washington but he was more reluctant to take action in the Deep South unless his hand was forced. He did use federal troops to intervene in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 owing to a ‘solemn obligation’ to uphold the constitution but unless there was wide scale public disturbance, there was little federal action.

By 1960, only 6% of African American students were in integrated schools. However, Eisenhower’s 1957 and 1960 Acts represented the first civil rights legislation for over eighty years and showed some willingness to advance racial equality. The bills gave federal protection to all citizens’ right to vote and although the final acts were watered down and largely ineffective, this was as much due to Democrat opposition as to the president himself. Ultimately, even if Eisenhower accepted the principle of racial equality, he believed desegregation should be gradual because hearts and minds would be slow to adjust, rather than something that should be enforced by the government.

John F Kennedy

By the time of Kennedy’s election campaign in 1960, civil rights was becoming an issue that was difficult to ignore. The African-American vote could prove decisive in a number of states if the contest was close and it therefore may have initially been political expediency that caused Kennedy to secure the SCLC’s endorsement after he had expressed his concern at Martin Luther King’s imprisonment.

He had voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights bill and at first largely reacted to events rather than drafting more specific legislation. He used federal troops to respond to attacks on the 1961 ‘freedom riders’ and to force governors in both Mississippi and Alabama to allow black students to attend state universities. He also began to examine employment discrimination by placing his brother Robert in charge of an Equal Employment Opportunities Committee.

Kennedy’s speeches suggest that he became increasingly convinced of the need to back the campaign for civil rights, with initial support for school desegregation evolving into a public address to the nation on the issue of racial equality in June 1963. He spoke of civil rights as a ‘moral’ issue and promised a comprehensive Civil Rights Act, which would ensure integration, voting protection and access to public facilities. It seems likely that the violent reactions of opponents like Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor in Birmingham had convinced him of the morality of the cause. At the point of his assassination, Kennedy’s civil rights legislation was still being drafted but it demonstrates his later commitment to the cause.

Lyndon B Johnson

Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement is complex and fraught with contradictions. He was responsible for more significant legislation on the issue than any previous president, adding the presidential signature to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which ended public segregation, provided voter protection and furthered the integration of schools) and also to the Voting Rights Act of the following year. Yet, he was also a product of his Texan upbringing, with many recorded incidents of him using racist language and sympathising with the segregationists amongst the Southern Democrats.

There was little in his pre-presidential career to suggest he would become a hero in the eyes of many African Americans; he voted against nearly all civil rights bills under Truman, justifying this by stating that he was ‘not against black rights but for states’ rights.’ However, by the 1950s he had begun to swim against the tide of Southern Democrat opinion by supporting the 1954 Brown decision on school integration and helping to pass Eisenhower’s civil rights legislation (even if he was also responsible for some of the watering down that made it acceptable to Southern Democrats).

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been planned under the previous administration and was therefore Kennedy’s legacy, it was not easy for Johnson to get it to pass and he worked tirelessly to counter the longest obstruction in American political history. He was also committed to the idea of creating a ‘Great Society’, which he saw as one ‘without poverty and racial injustice.’ Many of the benefits felt by African Americans during his presidency resulted from this wider social programme, through legislation like the Higher Education Act of 1965, which increased funding to colleges in poor areas. However, the rioting of the mid-60’s and the rise of more militant black protest groups demonstrate that there was not universal satisfaction with the progress made under Johnson. His social reform was increasingly side-lined by the quagmire of the Vietnam War and his approval ratings had fallen dramatically by the time he chose not to run for re-election in 1968.