The Civil Rights Movement

The broad spectrum of activities - protests, marches, boycotts, sit-ins, speeches - that marked this movement began as a struggle by African-Americans against historic injustices and their second-class citizenship based on race. Although the NAACP and other organizations had fought for equal justice under the law for black Americans for decades, the movement to guarantee their full civil rights only picked up national momentum in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court's famous Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" and insisted on the racial integration of the nation's public schools.

Civil Disobedience

The following year saw the expansion of grassroots protests against institutionalized racism in the form of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, the boycott eventually succeeded in forcing the integration of the Montgomery city buses.

Civil Rights Demonstration in Selma, Alabama

Civil Rights Demonstration in Selma, Alabama
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The success of this non-violent demonstration inspired African-American communities throughout the South to use similar tactics of civil disobedience to protest racism and press for the integration of public facilities. The Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins in 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961 are prime examples of the eventual success of such tactics in securing racial integration of restaurants, bus depots, parks, and other public facilities. Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) functioned as the leaders and coordinators of local civil rights protests. The SCLC in particular played a central role in helping to bridge the class and educational divides in the black community in order to encourage unified mass action.

Violence and Opposition

Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Birmingham, Alabama. September 1963.

Bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church
Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library

The non-violent approach of the civil rights leaders, however, was not shared by the opponents of integration. Black men and women faced verbal abuse, imprisonment, physical assault, and sometimes even murder as they struggled for equality. In the late 1950s, there was a wave of fire-bombings in Montgomery which destroyed black Americans' homes, businesses, and churches in retaliation for the bus boycott. In Birmingham, there were eighteen unsolved bombings in black neighborhoods. Lawyers who defended those arrested at the sit-ins were targeted in the early 1960s. Freedom Riders were attacked and beaten by mobs in Birmingham and Montgomery, and their buses were fire-bombed. In 1963, police violence against black protestors in Selma, Alabama culminated in the use of dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods against the demonstrators, including young children.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

The March on Washington, 1963
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The violence frequently required the intervention of federal forces to restore order, and it finally prompted President Kennedy to act on professed opposition to racial segregation. He proposed a civil rights bill to Congress in June 1963, but Congress failed to act on it. In August, a quarter of a million protestors gathered for the March on Washington to demand equal rights for all. This was the occasion for Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, which reminded Americans that its citizens should be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." In November, Kennedy was assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in remembrance of Kennedy, and it was finally signed into law in July 1964. It was succeeded a year later by the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right of all Americans to register to vote.

Nuns marching in support of Open Housing in Milwaukee, 1967

Nuns participating in a civil rights demonstration.
Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Archives

Catholics and Civil Rights

Catholic support for the civil rights movement was weak in the late 1950s, and only increased slowly in the early 1960s. The American Catholic Church tended to be ambivalent in its support for integration: the bishops generally supported the ideals of equality and racial justice, but were hesitant to take any steps to implement integration in their dioceses. The laity, on the other handed, especially in the South, tended to favor continued segregation. In the years following the Montgomery bus boycott, however, white Catholics began taking a genuine interest in issues of racial and economic justice. With the major changes in Catholic cultural and institutional norms that were mandated by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, white Catholics in general and professed religious in particular became much more deeply involved in political activism and racial apostolates. While the Catholic Church as an institution never played a leading role in the civil rights movement, those black and white Catholics who participated in demonstrations and spoke out concerning Catholic social teachings helped promote the cause of equality.

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Sources Consulted

Thomas R. Brooks, Walls Come Tumbling Down: A History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1940 - 1970, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Stewart Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Charles D. Lowery, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

John A. Kirk, Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940- 1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1988.

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