Following World War II, the United States experienced unprecedented public sentiment against the oppression of African Americans and other minorities. This public outcry presented itself in the form of boycotts, freedom rides, national rallies, and marches. These protests focused on ending discrimination and on protecting civil rights. Although not focusing on higher education per se, this entry examines the significance of the civil rights movement in the United States while discussing its background, highlighting relevant civil rights legislation, and reviewing key court cases in light of the impact that the movement had on American colleges and universities.
Under the U.S. Constitution, civil rights are afforded to persons by reason of citizenship or personhood and include rights to free speech, freedom of the press, voting, due process, and equal protection of the laws. Discrimination occurs, in part, when these rights are denied. In order to prevent such discrimination, Congress has passed statutes recognizing these rights, while the Supreme Court has decided cases focused on these areas.
During the civil rights movement, opponents of segregation made continuing efforts to challenge it through the courts. Although the Supreme Court focused on equal rights broadly, this entry highlights major cases in particular, because they paved the road to the civil rights movement. In its 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court held that because slaves did not become free when they were taken into free states, they lacked the right to file judicial actions. The Court also maintained that Congress could not bar slavery from territories and that Blacks could not become citizens. Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist, commented that although the outcome was very troublesome, it gave him high hopes. Specifically, Douglass believed that the national conscience would overwhelmingly reject this problematic situation.
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court determined that facilities for African Americans could be “separate but equal,” setting a precedent that lasted until 1954, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka. The Court’s ruling in Brown that separate was inherently unequal began a tide of litigation, legislation, and resistance that defined the civil rights movement.
Constitutional Rights and Civil Rights Legislation
Civil rights are protected primarily through the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and through congressional enactment of a variety of statutes. The Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibited any state from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law” and from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” In addition, Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to pass any laws needed for its enforcement. The Fifteenth Amendment banned race-based voting qualifications.
Along with constitutional amendments, Congress passed civil rights statutes during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Two of the most noteworthy were Section 1981, which protects one from discrimination based on race in contracts and when participating in lawsuits (42 U.S.C. § 1981), and the Civil Rights Act of 1971, more commonly known as Section 1983 (42 U.S.C. § 1983). Section 1983 protects individuals whose civil rights have been violated by individuals who were acting under color of state law.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the best-known modern statute passed by Congress to protect civil rights. Under this statute, one may not discriminate based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in public establishments that participate in interstate commerce (42 U.S.C. § 2000a). Title VI of the Civil Rights Act also prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs. Agencies that violate Title VI risk the loss of federal funding. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids employment discrimination where employers are engaged in interstate commerce; further, states may offer additional civil rights protections beyond the federal protections provided in this act.
Civil Rights Movement: Early Efforts
Although the commonly recalled events of the civil rights movement took place in the 1950s and 1960s, earlier civil rights efforts should be recognized. Some scholars maintain that an organized movement began in the 1700s, when Massachusetts outlawed slavery within its borders, and continued in 1808 when the importation of slaves was banned. Still other scholars cite the revolt of Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a slave rebellion in Virginia. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves, clearly a major turning point in civil rights history.
Another significant development was the foundation of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group, in 1905. This group, which was led by W. E. B. Du Bois, openly opposed racial segregation. The Niagara Movement eventually became known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Even so, most observers agree that the civil rights movement reached its peak from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s.
Civil Rights Movement: The 1950s and 1960s
A major catalyst for the civil rights movement came in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a White passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. After she was arrested, leaders of the Black community in Montgomery, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., staged a boycott of the Montgomery bus system that eventually led to its desegregation a year later. This protest helped make King a national figure. Shortly after the bus boycott, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, was killed for allegedly whistling at a White woman. This case became an international outrage, as the two men accused of the murder were acquitted by an all-White jury.
In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed with Dr. King as its first president. SCLC emphasized nonviolent mass action as a central form of resistance and became a major force in the civil rights movement. Also in 1957 came the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, an event that was put in the national spotlight when Governor Orval Faubus and crowds of angry students and parents barred nine Black students from the school. Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Black students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the National Guard and federal troops to escort the Black students into the building. The Little Rock school system closed the public schools for a time instead of integrating the student body.
Around 1960, the growing civil rights momentum reached college students, as they began to join in the protests that were spreading across the south. In 1960, four Black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although the students were not served, they returned continuously to the counter and insisted on being served. This action prompted more sit-ins around the country, and these four students became icons of the civil rights movement. Shortly after this event, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at Shaw University as a group that helped to organize Black youth in the civil rights movement.
Student involvement continued into the summer of 1961, when almost 1,000 Black and White students and volunteers from across the country joined in “freedom rides” that tested the desegregation of the transportation system in the United States. The freedom rides were sponsored by both SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). These students were often met with stiff resistance; for example, mobs in Alabama burned a bus that held the student volunteers. In Mississippi freedom riders were arrested for breaching the peace in White facilities. Several of these students were jailed.
In 1962, riots broke out at the University of Mississippi when the first Black student, James Meredith, was enrolled. Governor Ross Barnett had said that he would never allow the university to become integrated, prompting the riots in which two students were killed. Even so, Meredith was protected by the National Guard and went on to graduate from the university in 1964.
Earlier in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested and jailed while participating in an antisegregation protest in Birmingham, Alabama. During this time, he wrote a “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” stressing that unjust laws should be disobeyed. Another significant development in 1963 was the murder of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary for Mississippi; his murderer was convicted 30 years later. Finally, deadly riots also broke out in 1963 when four Black girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, were killed by a bomb that exploded at their church. It took 40 years to convict those responsible for the bombing.
Perhaps the most remembered event of the civil rights movement is Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech at the culmination of the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. More than 200,000 people attended this nonviolent event. Soon after the march, President John F. Kennedy, who had been quietly in favor of the movement, came out with his full support. President Kennedy began to work on getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress but ran into significant resistance.
When Kennedy was assassinated in November, only months after the 1963 march, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the cause of the civil rights movement in Kennedy’s name. Using the memory of the assassinated president, Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act into, and through, Congress. When Southern Democrat senators staged a filibuster that lasted a record 57 days, Johnson was able to sway the majority and win the vote to end it only by convincing a senator from Illinois who controlled several votes. Johnson did so by invoking the memory of President Lincoln, who opposed slavery and was from Illinois. President Johnson signed the act into law in 1964 and made segregation in all public facilities and employment discrimination illegal.
Shortly after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, three civil rights workers in Mississippi who were registering Black voters disappeared. The three workers had been arrested by the police on speeding charges, jailed for several hours, and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after being released. Six months later, Malcolm X, the founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, was shot to death in Harlem. Amidst this post–Civil Rights Act chaos, the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965, thereby enabling more Blacks to vote by banning literacy laws. Before this act was passed, Blacks who marched to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of voting rights were beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
In further contrast to the victories of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968 on the balcony of his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room. Not long thereafter, escaped convict James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Yet three days after his sentencing Ray recanted his statement and maintained his innocence until his death in 1998. As a result, questions about Dr. King’s death still remain.
Proponents of the movement employed a variety of approaches to bring about equality during the civil rights movement. For example, the NAACP, CORE, and SCLC endorsed peaceful methods for change, while other groups such as the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Nationalist movement advocated a more aggressive approach for change.
It is also important to note that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) was founded in 1968. MALDEF’s mission was to safeguard the civil rights of Latinos. Moreover, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 and advocated on the behalf of the interests of indigenous Americans. The women’s movement had a significant presence during the civil rights movement as well, advocating for a variety of issues from equal pay to reproductive rights.
Although there is more to achieve in ending discrimination, it is unquestionable that the civil rights movement brought about important advances toward this goal with the result that its impact has been felt in the world of higher education and beyond.
Suzanne E. Eckes
- Eckes, S. (2006). The civil rights movement. In F. English (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration (Vol. 1, pp. 138–141). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hampton, H., & Fayer, S. (1991). Voices of freedom. New York: Bantam Books.
- Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).
- Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352.
- Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
- Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
- United States Code, as cited.
- Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110.