Civil rights movement

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National Mall , Washington, DC , 1963: Crowd at the closing rally of the March on Washington

The civil rights movement ( English Civil Rights Movement ) is an anti-racist social movement in the United States . It reached its historical peak between the late 1950s and the late 1960s. The focus of that movement lay in the commitment to the enforcement of the civil rights of African Americans compared to this time in the form of " segregation " (English Racial segregation ) legally enshrined discrimination of black people in the southern statesof the USA. There she fought for major reforms on equality and equality with an impact on American constitutional law .

The Civil Rights Movement gained primarily through the popular protagonist Martin Luther King and he advocated non-violent resistance in the civil disobedience (English Civil Disobedience ) worldwide attention. When King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the American civil rights movement was also honored on an international level.


The Civil Rights Movement has been advocating equality for African Americans and overcoming racism in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century . Slavery had been abolished in the United States since the end of the American Civil War in 1865 , but Afro-Americans, especially in the southern states, continued to be oppressed.

First, the former slaves were with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution , the citizens and the 15th Amendment , the right to vote granted and elected black politicians into parliament. But the situation of blacks only improved so long as Union troops occupied the southern states. After their withdrawal and the end of Reconstruction , the trend was reversed: the so-called Jim Crow laws , which served as an alternative to the now abolished Black Codes , maintained the employment of blacks mainly as poorly paid farm workers and circumvented the right to vote through restrictions like a literacy test, from which some whose grandfathers had already voted were again excluded ( grandfather clause ). Together with the violent intimidation of black voters by the Ku Klux Klan , which was founded in 1865/66, this led to the political representation of blacks coming to a standstill.

Laws and lawsuits through the mid-1950s

WEB Du Bois (1918)

Furthermore, laws called the Jim Crow Acts established racial segregation that affected all public facilities, including schools, universities, hospitals, public transportation and buildings, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, swimming pools and parks. The segregation was in 1896 in the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case v Plessy. Ferguson confirmed and legitimized. It declared separate bodies to be constitutional as long as they were of the same quality (" separate but equivalent "). However, this equality was never checked, so that facilities for blacks were always poorly equipped.

The developments of this time were no exception in a global comparison, especially with regard to the politically dominant nation-states of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially, racism had spread in Europe in the wake of late modern colonialism and the division of Africa as well as the spread of various pseudoscientific racial theories , according to which one “white race” was superior to others. The United States, too, began to pursue imperialist goals. The national thinking at the time was not only to African Americans but to all non- " white dominated" (in the sense of non-European origin populations) of racist stereotypes and prejudices, United States-specifically associated with a sense of mission in the sense of Manifest Destiny initially up to the Pacific , and finally beyond.

The question arose for the African Americans how they should deal with the difficult situation. Booker T. Washington took the view of accommodation (in the sense of a form of "adaptation") at the turn of the century . In his opinion, blacks should accept the existing differences for the moment - believing that there would be an economic upswing to come, he hoped to improve their economic situation. Through better education and learning particularly technical professions, blacks should, over time, achieve equality and peaceful coexistence with whites. Like him, the separatist Marcus Garvey was concerned with the economic independence of blacks (Black Business Power) . He and the Universal Negro Improvement Association he founded in 1914 also promoted political independence from the "white" USA; B. through collective emigration to Africa. His philosophy of black pride (Black Pride) gave many blacks more self-respect and identification with itself. Garvey's movement particularly enjoyed in the aftermath of the First World War are particularly popular.

Thurgood Marshall (1957); from the 1930s an important NAACP lawyer, later (1967–1991) the first African-American judge at the US Supreme Court

The third, and at that time the most extensive organized movement, propagated integration and with it the full legal equality of the black population. This movement was represented by WEB Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909 . Their goal was the fastest possible equality between blacks and whites. In court, the NAACP tried to protect the rights of black people. In 1915 it achieved the abolition of grandfather clauses in the constitutions of Maryland and Oklahoma , which in 1939 was extended to the entire south. The National Urban League (NUL), which in response to the increased migration of blacks to the cities of the north wanted to improve their living and working conditions there, is one of the integrationists.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP won several cases with Thurgood Marshall in which he was able to demonstrate that the educational institutions of his black clients were not on par with those of whites. In the early 1950s, however, the NAACP planned to no longer invoke the doctrine of “separate but equal”, but to attack it. In 1954, after several years of trial, the Supreme Court passed a historic judgment in the Brown v. Board of Education , which declared racial segregation in schools as not inherently equivalent and therefore generally unconstitutional and ordered its abolition. There was no set period for the implementation of the judgment, which, moreover, did not affect any public institutions other than schools. But the verdict sparked enthusiasm among America's blacks, while opposition from whites, particularly in the South.

Montgomery bus boycott (1955/56)

Rosa Parks together with Martin Luther King (in the background) around 1955

The 1955/56 Montgomery bus boycott is seen as the birth of the American civil rights movement. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to vacate her seat on a bus in Montgomery , Alabama for a white man, the city's African-American population boycotted the bus company for 13 months. In addition, a group of those affected filed a lawsuit (Gayle v. Browder) on the grounds that the racial segregation rules of the bus company violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution . This lawsuit was filed with reference to the landmark decision by Brown v. Board of Education upheld, which the Supreme Court upheld on November 13, 1956. The blacks had gained national attention through this incident, particularly the leader of the boycott, Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. , Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became the most popular leader of the black civil rights movement.

Little Rock and School Integration (1957)

Racial Segregation in School Education in the United States before 1954

In 1957, an angry crowd in Little Rock , Arkansas denied nine black students access to Little Rock Central High School, which until then had been exclusively whites . The governor of Arkansas refused to give students access to the school, as well as to protect them. The first live coverage on television forced President Eisenhower to withdraw the Arkansas National Guard from the governor's orders and to give the students protection and access to their school themselves.

Civil Disobedience Strategy

With the means of civil disobedience , which included non-violent resistance with various forms of peaceful protest, the civil rights movement was able to enforce the repeal of the institutional segregation policy in the US southern states. In his methods and strategy , King and his followers also orientated themselves on the methods of Mahatma Gandhi in the non-violent struggle for India's independence from the British colonial power . North Carolina students were the first to begin nonviolent resistance in 1960. With their sit-ins in restaurants for whites, they started a national anti-segregation movement in all public establishments. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged from this movement in 1960 .

In 1961, the so-called Freedom Rides began , bus rides across the borders of US states to states in which racial segregation was only legally abolished. The Freedom Drivers succeeded in showing the public that segregation actually continued to exist on these bus trips and the associated train stations. Blacks were physically abused by white racists at train stations, which aroused national outrage through media coverage. The pressure on the US government grew; From 1962, the existing court ruling that banned racial segregation on interstate bus journeys was enforced.

Birmingham Struggle for Desegregation and Civil Rights Act (1963/64)

Martin Luther King in his famous speech " I Have a Dream "
July 2, 1964: US President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, surrounded by representatives from politics and society. Immediately to the left behind Johnson: Martin Luther King

The civil rights movement had completed its method of nonviolent resistance through the Freedom Rides . It exposed the violence of white racists and, with the help of media coverage, portrayed it as ineffective and false, as Martin Luther King put it. The images increased the moral pressure on the racist violent criminals; disclosure of the crisis forced the authorities to look into and resolve the issue. Using these tactics, the civil rights movement enforced the desegregation in Birmingham , Alabama, in 1963 . After weeks of demonstrations in which the violence of the police under Eugene "Bull" Connor shocked the US, particularly in the face of the mistreatment of demonstrating children, the city's businessmen, concerned about Birmingham's reputation, implemented the demands of the civil rights movement. President John F. Kennedy and large parts of the US population now supported King's movement.

Kennedy, whose election was decided by black votes in 1960 , promised to introduce a civil rights law in favor of blacks in Congress. In support of this bill, civil rights organizations organized a " March on Washington for Work and Freedom " in August 1963 , which was attended by 250,000 black and white people. As the highlight was Martin Luther King's famous speech "I Have a Dream" ( I Have a Dream ) the integration of blacks in white society in America seem possible. The 1964 Civil Rights Act , signed by Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson , who also supported the black population in their quest for equality, also contributed to this. In the same year, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment and exemplary policy of nonviolence .

"Bloody Sunday" in Selma and Voting Rights Act, 1965

Bloody Sunday , March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama: Police block the way for protesters at Edmund Pettus Bridge

The SNCC had embarked on an ambitious voter registration program in Selma, Alabama , in 1965 , but it made little headway with opposition from local Sheriff Jim Clark. After local residents sought help from the SCLC, King came to Selma to lead a number of marches. He was arrested along with 250 other demonstrators. Those who continued to march encountered violent resistance from the police. A Selma resident, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was killed by police during a later march in February.

On Sunday March 7th, later called Bloody Sunday , Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of the SNCC led a march of 600 people who were planning the 86 km distance between Selma and the state capital Montgomery to go. After a few hundred meters (six blocks) at Edmund Pettus Bridge , state police officers and local police officers, some of whom were mounted, attacked the peaceful demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, rubber hoses wrapped in barbed wire and bull whips, and drove them to Selma return. John Lewis was knocked unconscious and dragged to safety while at least 16 other members of the train were hospitalized. Among those attacked with gas and blows was Amelia Boynton Robinson , who was at the center of civil rights activism at the time.

The national radio broadcast of police officers attacking unresisting marchers who were just trying to gain the right to vote provoked a national response similar to that sparked by the Birmingham scenes two years earlier. While the protesters were able to obtain a court order granting them the right to march unhindered two weeks later, white extremists beat another supporter of the suffrage, Reverend James Reeb, after a second march on March 9 that replaced the "Bloody." Sundays ”was the goal. Reeb died on March 11 as a result of the beatings in a Birmingham hospital. On March 25, four members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed Viola Liuzzo , a Detroit housewife , while she was carrying protesters back to Selma in her car that night after completing the successful march on Montgomery.

US President Johnson held a week after the first march a televised address to the nation, he in the support for the bill of the new electoral Act ( Voting Rights Act ) canvassed. In it he said:

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And We Shall Overcome .

“But even if we pass this law, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement that has reached every corner of every state in America. It is about the effort of American negroes to secure all the blessings of American life.

Your concern must also be our concern. Because it must be in the interests of all of us, not just the negroes, to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we will do it "

US President Johnson (center) meets with representatives of the civil rights movement in the White House : Martin Luther King (left), Whitney Young and James Farmer (right)

On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act . This lifted poll taxes , reading tests, and other tests, and authorized federal oversight to register voters in states and constituencies where such tests were used. Afro-Americans, who had previously been prevented from registering on the electoral roll, had for the first time an alternative to a trial in court. In cases where there was discrimination in terms of elections, the 1965 Act authorized the United States Attorney General to dispatch federal investigators to replace local registrars.

The law had an immediate and positive effect on African Americans. Within a few months of its entry into force, a quarter of a million black voters registered; a third of these were registered by federal officials. Within four years, the number of registered voters in the southern states doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest turnout of the black population (74%) and led the nation in the number of black officials elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a turnout of 92.1% of black voters, Arkansas 77.9% and Texas 73.1%. Some whites who opposed the law had to pay an immediate price for it. Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark, notorious for using fire hoses and cattle picks to crack down on civil rights demonstrations, stood for re-election in 1966. Although he removed his trademark, a pin with the word Never , from his uniform, he was unsuccessful. He lost in the election because blacks voted just to get him out of office.

The fact that blacks were given the right to vote permanently changed the political landscape of the southern United States. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, barely 100 African Americans held elected office; by 1989 there were more than 7200 incumbents, including more than 4800 in the southern states. Almost every county in the Black Belt in Alabama had a black sheriff in 1989 and Blacks also had more top positions in local and state governments hold. Atlanta had a black mayor with Andrew Young , as did Jackson (Mississippi) with Harvey Johnson and New Orleans with Ernest Morial . At the national level, there have also been black politicians like Barbara Jordan , who sat for Texas in the US House of Representatives , and the former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, who was sent as US ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration . Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia state parliament in 1965 ; however, the political reaction to his public opposition to the Vietnam War prevented him from accepting his mandate before 1967. John Lewis currently represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives , to which he was first elected in 1986. Lewis is on the influential finance committee there. From 2009 to 2017, Barack Obama was the first African American President of the United States of America.

Fragmentation, Violent Unrest, Assassination of Martin Luther King

Malcolm X (right) in conversation with Martin Luther King (left)
Angela Davis , a prominent member of the
CPUSA for many years

From the mid-1960s, however, the civil rights movement collapsed. As violence against civil rights activists increased, sympathy for leaders like Malcolm X , a prominent protagonist of the Black Muslim movement, grew among the movement's young radicals . In 1966, under its new, controversial chairman Stokely Carmichael , the SNCC renounced nonviolent resistance and renounced the Kings civil rights movement. Instead, he called for Black Power . This term, controversial and criticized in the media, further divided the civil rights movement. The NAACP and the NUL distanced themselves from the SNCC and also from King when the latter did not take over their condemnation of Black Power , but instead sought understanding for the Black Power movement.

In their violent form, Black Power and Black Nationalism were also expressed in the Black Panther Party . This legitimized their militancy with the still existing racist violence against blacks in the USA. In addition to her self-image as armed guards of the black population, she pursued a radical socialist program that was directed against the social disadvantage of blacks. These problems proved more difficult to solve than the political ones. The united civil rights movement had failed because of them, as did Malcolm X, who was murdered in 1965. King recognized the explosiveness of this topic, which was expressed every year from 1964 to 1967 in race riots in the ghettos of the cities of the north. From 1966 he therefore devoted himself to the poverty and social disadvantage of blacks in Chicago . But this also met resistance in the north of the USA; his campaigns were hardly successful. King recognized that racism was not a political problem in the South, but rather rested in the economic and social structures of the USA. Therefore, in the fight against this social segregation and the racism inherent in the system, he called for a revolution in the American value system and a redistribution of power and capital.

But it shouldn't come to that. King was assassinated in 1968 . Thereafter there were hesitant improvements. However, American society has not fundamentally changed in terms of the unequal treatment of black versus white populations - social differences between black and white still persist. However, since the civil rights movement, new generations have been born who have made gradual improvements in social problems as well.

Further civil rights movements in the USA

In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, other national or ethnic minorities in the United States took up demands from the African American civil rights movement. This resulted in independent civil rights movements that defended themselves against racism or racist oppression and social disadvantage. This is how, for example, the American Indian Movement or the Chicano Movement came into being .

Black Lives Matter has been one of the most famous civil rights movements since 2013 .


  • Freedom on my Mind , 110 minutes, 1994, produced and directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, 1994 Academy Award Nominee, Best Documentary Feature


  • John A. Kirk: The Civil Rights Movement: A Documentary Reader. John Wiley & Sons, New York 2020, ISBN 978-1-118-73716-3 .
  • Jonathan Rosenberg: How Far the Promised Land? World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2018, ISBN 978-0-691-18729-7 .
  • Russell Brooker: The American Civil Rights Movement 1865-1950: Black Agency and People of Good Will. Lexington Books, Lanham 2016, ISBN 978-0-7391-7993-2 .
  • Bruce J. Dierenfield: The Civil Rights Movement. Routledge, London 2014, ISBN 978-1-138-83557-3 .
  • Danielle L. McGuire, John Dittmer (Eds.): Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington 2011, ISBN 978-0-8131-4024-7 .
  • Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. WW Norton, New York 2009, ISBN 978-0-393-34818-7 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Text of the televised address given by President LB Johnson to both Houses of Congress on the website of the US Embassy in Germany