The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Education

Department of English Language and Literature

The African American Civil Rights Movement

As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom
Bachelor Thesis

Brno 2008

Supervisor: Author:

Mgr. Zdeněk Janík, M.A., Ph.D. Hana Marková

I declare that this bachelor thesis is completely my own work and that all information gathered for its compilation is cited in the bibliography.

Brno 1st December, 2008 Hana Marková

I gratefully thank my supervisor, Mgr. Zdeněk Janík, for his kind assistance, precious advice and with providing me the useful materials necessary for understanding this complicated topic. Above all, I would like to thank him for his patience and valuable comments.

Hana Marková

This thesis deals with the African American Civil Rights Movement not only from the point of view of its most important years from 1955 to 1965, but also explains its first part through slavery, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws how American society became divided along the color line; the second part shows how the first half of the twentieth century through the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and both World Wars contributed to the black self-awareness, and improvement of their social position; in addition the increasing suffrage movement and the beginning of the Cold War along with Brown v. Board of Education laid the foundation for the spreading of the movement; the third part analyses the movement itself and is divided into four sub-parts according to the means that movement applied – boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides and marches; the thesis concludes with the years 1964 and 1965 when the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were passed.

Key words:

African Americans, civil rights movement, slavery, Jim Crow laws, suffrage, boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, NAACP, SNCC, SCLC


Contents 1

Introduction 3

1. How it happened 6

1.1 Enslavement 6

1.1.1 Conditions of Slavery 6

1.1.2 Naturalization Act 7

1.1.3 Abolition of Slavery 7

1.1.4 Summary 9

1.2 Freedom or Non Freedom 10

1.2.1 Black Codes and Reconstruction 10

1.2.2 Summary 11

1.2.3 Jim Crow Laws 12

1.2.4 Life under Jim Crow 13

1.2.5 Summary 15

1.3 Resistance at the Turn of Century 16

1.3.1 Lynching and Race Riots 16

1.3.2 Foundation of the NAACP 17

1.3.3 Summary 18

2. Precursors of the Movement 20

2.1 Defenseless Blacks and the Defense of Democracy 20

2.1.1 The Great Migration 20

2.1.2 Consequences of the First World War 22

2.1.3 Summary 24

2.2 Improvements in Hard Times 25

2.2.1 Period of Growth and the Great Depression 25

2.2.2 An Emerging Power to Change the Status Quo 26

2.2.3 Summary 27

2.3 The Second World War 28

2.3.1 Perception of the War and the Segregated Army 28

2.3.2 The March on Washington Movement 29

2.3.3 The South during the War, Bloody Riots, and the NAACP 30

2.3.4 Summary 31

2.4 The Final Steps toward the Movement 33

2.4.1 Suffrage 33

2.4.2 The Cold War as an Ally to the CRM and Support from Truman 35

2.4.3 Summary 37

2.5 Prelude to the Movement 38

2.5.1 The Main Focus of Attention at Mid-century 38

2.5.2 Brown v. Board of education 39

2.5.3 Summary 41

3. The Civil Rights Movement 42

3.1 The Start of the Movement 42

3.1.1 The Murder of Emmett Till 42

3.1.2 Rosa Parks’ refusal 43

3.1.3 The Explanation of the Movement 44

3.1.4 The Means of the Movement 45

3.2 Not Only Boycotts of the 1950s 48

3.2.1 The Montgomery Bus Boycott 48

3.2.2 Formation of the SCLC 51

3.2.3 The Civil Rights Acts of the 1950s 52

3.2.4 Crisis in Little Rock 53

3.2.5 Summary 55

3.3 The Sit-in Movement 56

3.3.1 The Sit-in Movement in Greensboro 56

3.3.2 Spreading of the Sit-ins and Formation of the SNCC 58

3.3.3 Summary 59

3.4 Freedom Rides and Freedom Votes 61

3.4.1 The Freedom Rides 61

3.4.2 Voter Registration Drives 63

3.4.3 Summary 64

3.5 Marches 66

3.5.1 The Failure in Albany 66

3.5.2 Hard Victory in Birmingham 67

3.5.3 The March on Washington 69

3.5.4 Summary 70

3.6 On the Eve of Victory 72

3.6.2 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 73

3.6.3 The Final Battle for Civil Rights in Selma 74

3.6.4 The Voting Rights Act of 1965 75

3.6.5 Summary 76

Conclusion 77

Bibliography 80

List of Abbreviations 82


The American history lessons I received during my second year of study given by Mr. Janík came as a shock regarding my perception of the United States as I had previously envisioned it. Mr. Janík’s lessons changed my view and stimulated my increasing interest in American history. The classic could say - not everything is how it seems to be. The most powerful and most democratic country in the world unmasked its darker sides and sins which in many cases resulted in the red colour of blood. Segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, sit-ins, marches, the Little Rock Nine and many other expressions were new to me but all connected with a name, the only known to me, that of Martin Luther King, Jr. My motivation for writing a thesis on this topic was stimulated by the fact that it is not possible to find information on it in any Czech History or English cultural books intended for elementary education. Our attitude today in the Czech Republic, in relation to our aims concerning cooperation with the west and our dependence on American trade, along with the expanding opportunities to travel there, convinces many it would be a pity not to be acquainted with this part of American history.

Thus the decision to compose this thesis concerning the African American Civil Rights Movement entered my head. From the beginning, my imagination was concentrated on how to write this thesis to fulfil the needs of English teachers at Czech elementary schools. Reviewing the history of the United States had resulted in the recognition that the Civil Rights Movement had not been restricted to some ten or fifteen years. Creation of this thesis concerning only those years could not answer troubling questions: Why had only non-violence been used, and not other more direct actions such as revolution to obtain civil rights? Why had African Americans waited till the mid-twentieth century to take action? Why was it such a big problem to assimilate them, since this was the twentieth century and not the Middle Ages? This thesis creates a guide for English teachers who might be interested in American history from a different point of view. It can offer reasons and explanations for the mass Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century as well as the movement itself.

There is little argument that the United States developed the greatest economy in the world. Nonetheless, it is necessary to provide our students with a chance to see that the history of the United States had not always been smooth and without mistakes. It is further necessary to show our students the facts that the picture of America which is offered to us on television depicting happy teenagers and their middle class families, both white and black, living in the same districts, visiting each other, and spending time together is in many cases inaccurate. A picture of what the United States desires to be but is quintessentially not, since a large portion of the country’s history had been more characterised by injustice, slavery and segregation rather than equality, freedom for all and justice. The time to fulfil the dream concerning American society with equal conditions for all has been too short for the time being.

Freedom – the word encompasses our rights, liberty and free will. We cannot imagine the restrictions of the rights we practice every day. Freedom of movement, choice and will is the second nature for us, and it is unimaginable that it could be otherwise. Try to imagine that you cannot choose which school you want your children to attend, or that you have to be careful about which restaurant you visit and, ironically, that you must obey signs as to where you can sit on a bus or when seeing a doctor. If you desire to change the situation through elections, you cannot because you are disenfranchised. It is tempting to say that such practices were in effect long ago, but it is not true. Go back fifty or sixty years in the United States, and imagine being born as the child of a black woman and your life would be full of restrictions, humiliation and lack of freedom.

How could this occur in a country that has always been a symbol of unlimited opportunities for all, a democracy which defended the rights of oppressed nations throughout the world? The explanation lies in American history and this thesis hopes to prove it.

What is the American dream? It should include ideals based on equality for all, the same opportunities for all and if you work hard, you can succeed at whatever you wish. This has not always been the case. It all started quite innocently. Africans who were originally brought to the New World like trade goods were not accepted as equal to whites and often not considered as human beings with needs, feelings and the same intelligence. It seemed that they were good only for hard labor. This perception of blacks was accepted as fact and became engrained as time passed. The possibility to live their own lives remained for Africans a mere dream that could not possibly be fulfilled. Since several white generations grew up in an environment where the possession of slaves was the same as having farm animals, it comes as no surprise that changing the deep-seated opinions about blacks would be neither easy nor possible in the following one hundred years after the abolition of slavery.

The first part of this thesis reviews this era of American history – back to the original settlements of the New World and early slavery, along with the beginnings of racism and inequality between whites and blacks. Furthermore it explains abolition of slavery and the subsequent development of Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws as a consequence of Southern discontent with the freedom gained by black slaves. This part is further directed at African American’s dissatisfaction with their unequal position, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century and explains why blacks could not fight for their rights during these years.

The second part of this thesis attempts to explain why the movement did not gain momentum until the mid-fifties. The Great Migration and the Great Depression whose consequences paradoxically improved the economic position of African Americans, along with the Second World War are some, but not all, of the precursors to the Civil Rights Movement. In relation to this period, the thesis will try to demonstrate the reasons why the later Civil rights movement was based on non violent tactics and civil disobedience and not on open defiance.

This parts of the thesis further deals with the ten years previous to the outbreak of the movement that were strongly influenced by increasing numbers of black voters and by the change of attitude to civil rights at the federal level. In addition, this thesis indicates how the resistance of African Americans became more organized and directed at specific targets and shows how cooperation by local branches on grassroots level with parent organizations was essential for the movement. The case of Brown v. Board of Education represented a turning point that persuaded African Americans to belief that the time for obtaining actual freedom was approaching.

The final part of this thesis starts with two events considered as the beginning of the movement along with the explanation of the movement and the means applied to gain success. Further, in individual chapters these means are shown in action and the advances of the movements are described. This part concludes with the two Acts of 1964 and 1965.

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