Historian summer 2007, pp. 6-13 Copyright the historical association. Summer 2007. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Civil Rights: How Did the Civil Rights Movement Change America?

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Summer 2007, pp. 6-13

Copyright © THE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION. Summer 2007. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Civil Rights: How Did the Civil Rights Movement Change America?

By Professor A.J. Badger

The Problem

     In 1984 Jimmy Carter reflected on growing up in the segregated South. He recalled that, as a young child, he, like many white children, had had an African American child as his closest friend. The two children spent all their play time together. One day they travelled on the train from Plains to Americus. Carter went into one compartment; his young friend went into another. What struck Carter in retrospect was not that the facilities had been segregated but that, at the time, he had not thought anything about it. He noted how unthinking and pervasive the white Southern commitment to segregation had been.

     Next Carter recalled the night when the heavyweight boxer, Joe Louis, attempted to avenge his one defeat at the hands of the German, Max Schmeling, who had been feted by the Nazis. The Carters were the leading white family in Plains but they did not have electricity. However, they could hook up a radio and run it on the battery of one of their tractors. The night of the fight, African Americans in Plains came to the Carters' yard to listen to the fight. As the Brown Bomber destroyed Schmeling, Carter observed the quiet, dignified satisfaction of the black crowd. It was his first intimation that behind the veil of African American deference and apparent satisfaction with segregation lay a racial pride and a determination privately to refrain from acknowledging the legitimacy of white supremacy.

     Carter's father was the most powerful white man in Plains. The most important figure in the black community was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Carter's mother, Miss Lillian, maintained a close interest in the education of the bishop's son, who would visit her whenever he returned to Plains from college in the North. The son would go to the front door of the Carter house and Miss Lillian would meet him in the front room. Mr Carter was appalled that a black man should go to the front, rather than back, door of the Carter house and that a black man should be entertained by his wife. But he knew better than to tangle with Miss Lillian. Whenever the bishop's son called, Mr Carter would leave.

     As the two most prominent figures in their communities, Mr Carter and the bishop had to do business together. How were they to meet? Mr Carter could not conceive of the African American bishop coming to the front door of his house, the bishop could not conceive of going to the back door like a servant. A compromise was reached. The bishop would drive up to the Carter house and stay in his car, and Mr Carter would come to the edge of the yard. With Mr Carter standing and the bishop sitting, honour was satisfied. Such was the elaborate etiquette of race relations that underpinned segregation and which African Americans who were determined could push at the edges but not ignore.

     The South that Jimmy Carter grew up in was the poorest region in the country. Here African Americans were rigidly segregated and economically and politically powerless. When Carter was elected president in 1976, he was the representative of a South that was a booming biracial democracy. He failed to win a majority of white votes in the South but he won the Southern states because of overwhelming black support. As Andrew Young observed, the hands that had picked the cotton picked the president. How had the region been transformed? How had the physical restrictions of segregation been eliminated? How had African Americans gained the right to vote? How had a powerless black minority wrested change from a powerful and entrenched white majority?

     Before 1940 southern blacks had to rely on white goodwill to secure redress for their grievances. They had few levers with which to extract concessions from the whites. The collapse of white supremacy in the 1950s and 1960s was not inevitable. Change had to be wrenched from the hands of an entrenched and determined white majority. The transformation would require protest from below--the civil rights movement--and intervention from outside--the federal courts and the federal government.

The Inevitable Result of Economic Modernization?

     Some historians argue that the economic modernization of the South made racial change inevitable. Segregation was expensive and anachronistic, and Southern businessmen saw the economic damage caused by traditional patterns of race relations and by the ensuing negative national publicity that deterred outside investment. Certainly federal spending on defence in both World War II and the Cold War kick-started the take-off of the South into self-sustaining economic growth. Research parks, foreign car manufacturers, chickens and soya beans replaced textiles and cotton. As agriculture mechanized and diversified, African Americans moved to both the northern and southern cities. In the north they enhanced their national political leverage over Democratic presidential candidates. In the south they had the breathing space and the purchasing power that was a necessary precondition of a civil rights movement.

     But economic modernization did not make racial change inevitable. For the longest time southern business leaders believed that they could combine economic growth with traditional patterns of race relations. Only slowly, most notably after the Little Rock crisis of 1957-8, did southern businessmen come to realize the damage to the economy that violent, massive resistance to racial change could bring. They learnt that northern businesses would not locate to the South if their middle-class managers had to confront mob violence or if the school system and recreational facilities, like golf courses and swimming pools, had been closed rather than desegregated. What is striking is how late businessmen in the South make this calculation and decide to mediate the gradual progress to racial change in their communities- in Georgia not until 1961, in Alabama and South Carolina in 1963, in Mississippi in 1964.

The Result of Gradual Racial Change Initiated by Whites?

     The political scientist V.O. Key Jr. looked at the South in 1949 and was optimistic that the end of desegregation, black disfranchisement and the one-party system would immeasurably strengthen the forces of southern liberalism. White southern Uberai politicians believed that economic change would bring about gradual racial change without outside intervention. Growing prosperity would erode racial tensions. This calculation sprang partly from a genuine belief in gradualism and partly from a reluctance to upset their core white lower-income constituency. Legal historian Michael Klarman has argued that white moderate politicians were dominant in the South before the landmark Supreme Court Brown decision of 1954 which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Klarman continues that the white backlash provoked by the Brown decision actually slowed the pace of racial change. It halted the "incipient amelioration of race relations" promoted by new metropolitan elites and moderates in the South. It destroyed moderate Southern white politicians and unleashed a violent white response that would, however, eventually bring about federal intervention in the 1960s.

     But racial change before 1954 was only glacial, and it was confined only to the periphery of the South and to the margins of segregation. The core of segregation was intact. It did not need the Brown decision to produce a white backlash. There was already a violent white backlash against the presence of black troops in the South during the war, against assertive returning black veterans, against black voting and against left-wing inter-racial trades unions. Before 1954 there was a white backlash versus black troops, black unions and black voting.

     The Souths reaction to the Brown decision confirmed the depth of white southerners' commitment to segregation. Massive Resistance-the legal and vigilante obstruction of school desegregation, the lack of voluntary or even token compliance with the court decision- reflected the determination of southern leaders to enforce racial unity in the south, to bring into line possible white waverers and dissenters, as well as intimidate African Americans. Politicians were increasingly elected who preached the most extreme defiance. They were mounting a crusade to protect segregation. In me face of that drive, racially moderate white politicians ran for cover, became closet moderates' or were defeated.

     The violent backlash that eventually produced federal intervention in the 1960s was not against the Brown decision, it was against the civil rights demonstrations that invaded the public and private space that whites thought was theirs to control. It was only when faced with the inevitability of racial change that southern whites and their political leaders began to accept desegregation and accommodate to large-scale African American voting.

Courts and the Federal Government?

     The electoral power of African American votes in the northern cities and the ideological imperatives of the Cold War, which put white supremacy at odds with America's global democratic ideals, pushed presidents from Truman to Kennedy to espouse black civil rights as a national issue. But implementing presidential intentions in legislation was a different matter, given the power of southern conservative Democrats in Congress.

     The Judiciary was less constrained. But even when the Supreme Court, for all the boldness with which the Court overturned constitutional precedent in the Brown decision, was extremely cautious in its implementation of the Brown decision. They did not want to create a violent white backlash by simply mandating immediate desegregation in such a sensitive area as school education. The decision to avoid a rigid timetable, to leave the initiative with local school boards, monitored by federal district courts, was based on a fear of arbitrarily overturning social custom and in the hope that, particularly in urban areas, moderate white southerners would voluntarily take their communities into compliance with the law of the land. When this did not occur, the Supreme Court for a long time still only intervened in school desegregation when the authority of the courts was egregiously flouted. Court decisions did not implement themselves. It was a Supreme Court decision that ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott by declaring Alabama's bus segregation statutes unconstitutional. But, although Montgomery buses desegregated, it would be another six years before buses in Birmingham, in the same state, would desegregate.

     Kennedy's civil rights policy was driven in a negative sense by his reluctance to challenge southern Democrats in Congress whose support he needed for other domestic legislation. In a positive sense, he, like the Courts, had faith in southern white moderates. If they were actively encouraged and helped to bring racial change in their communities, he would not need to send troops into the South as Eisenhower had had to do or to enact coercive civil rights legislation. Such steps would be an acknowledgement of failure. Thus, he aimed to defuse crises provoked by the Freedom Rides or by the campaign at Albany. Finally, faced by mob defiance of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and by the police violence against demonstrators at Birmingham in 1963, Kennedy learnt that his faith in southern moderates was misplaced. He was forced to do the two things he most wanted to avoid: send in federal troops in Mississippi and to call for strong civil rights legislation to avoid a summer of Birminghams in 1963.

     To establish himself as national President in his own right, Lyndon Johnson had to demonstrate his absolute commitment to civil rights. Johnson was less in awe than Kennedy of the southerners he had to face down in Congress. His determination and ability to capture the moment led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislation that dismantled the physical apparatus of segregation and doubled the number of black southerners who could vote. For all his distrust of radical black leaders, for all his distress at the urban race riots of the Long Hot Summers, 1965-1968, for all the cost and turmoil of the Vietnam War, Johnson never lost sight of the need to provide economic gains for African Americans to match their civil rights gains and to the end of his presidency he tried to do what he knew best--pass legislation.

Direct Action Protest?

     Given the cautious deference to southern white sentiment of the courts and the federal government, federal intervention would require pressure from beneath. It was the civil rights movement that created the confrontations that forced the federal government to intervene.

     In the years after 1945 African Americans in the South relied on traditional tactics of patient negotiation with whites, bolstered by NAACP initiated litigation in the courts. The limited amount of black voting in southern cities did give them some leverage in their negotiation but ultimately they came up against white intransigence. Rising black expectations came up against white determination to retain segregation. That impasse led African Americans to initiate direct action protest. Both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the student sit-ins of 1960 depended on convincing local southern whites to change their minds on segregation. Non-violent, Christian-based protest, the demonstrators hoped, would appeal to the best instincts of southern whites. Sit-ins did ratchet up the pressure. Whites could simply sit out a boycott if they were prepared to suffer the economic consequences: they did not have to respond to black protest at all. In response to a sit-in, however, they had to do something: either arrest the students or negotiate with them.

     The lack of success of such tactics in the Deep South led to a different strategy. The aim of protest was not to win over local whites but to create a crisis which would compel the federal government to intervene. The federal government would intervene when there was white violence (the Freedom Rides in 1961, Birmingham in 1963, and Selma in 1965) but would not intervene if white opposition was 'non-brutal', as at Albany in 1961-2.

     There was therefore a direct link between direct action protest by African Americans in the South and the introduction and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation transformed the South. It physically dismantled segregation: through me cut-off of federal funds it started real, rather than token, desegregation, began to eliminate job discrimination and provided for the direct federal registration of voters in the most oppressive areas of the South. The transformation of the region had occurred as a result of a pincer movement of direct action by African American protest from below and federal government intervention from above.

Leaders or Grass-Roots Protest?

     Historians have criticised narratives of the civil rights movement that emphasize the role of leaders, especially male church ministers. They note the importance of middle- and working-class women in initiating the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the cutting edge role of students from 1960 onwards, and the role of women in sustaining the rural civil rights movement in the Deep South at the community level. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, unlike Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was imbued with the philosophy of grass-roots and participatory democracy espoused by Ella Baker. Both SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality at the local level emphasized the importance of organizing communities from the bottom up and developing local leadership.

     Martin Luther King, by contrast, has been criticised for his 'hit and run tactics' going into communities where others had done the work, gaining maximum publicity, negotiating premature settlements and then moving on. King, critics argued, placed excessive faith in non-violence, the goodwill of whites, the desirability of integration and the good faith of national liberals and the federal government. He also failed to develop economic rights, without which the civil rights that he campaigned for meant little.

     Yet King's role should not be underestimated. The 1964 and 1965 Acts were the direct result of King's campaigns and his faith in the federal government here was justified. The students' campaign in Mississippi in 1964 had registered less than a thousand voters. Less than six per cent of voting age African Americans was registered to vote. Three years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act 60% of voting age African Americans were registered. King's insistence on non-violence was not a soft option: it was not an easy route for a black community that had a tradition of armed self-defence. But it was crucial to winning over national support and, in the South, violent protest would simply have produced vicious repression by the white authorities. For all they criticised King, SNCC activists relied on King's ability to raise funds for the movement in the North and they had to acknowledge King's mass appeal in the poor, rural South. Unlike other civil rights leaders King always kept lines of communication open to black radicals and advocates of Black Power. King had always been concerned about economics. He established Operation Breadbasket to try and secure jobs for African Americans in the private sector and, when he was assassinated, he was not only helping a strike of low- wage garbage workers, he was also mounting the Poor People's Campaign to demand a radical re-ordering of America's economic resources. King's was a far more radical vision than the safe and sanitized version celebrated in America today on the occasion of the national holiday in his name.

How Far Did the Civil Rights Movement Change America?

     The Civil Rights Movement, therefore, played a key role in transforming the American South. It ended school segregation. Southern schools are now less segregated than northern schools. It provided physical safety for African Americans and revolutionized law enforcement in the South as police chiefs and sheriffs had to pay attention to the needs of a black electorate. It changed what John Shelton Reed has called 'day to day' race relations in the South: the way that ordinary blacks and whites treat each other in everyday life. It opened the way for black office holders in the South. That bastion of white supremacy, Mississippi, now has more elected black office-holders than any state in the nation. The once segregationist Democratic party in the South now is dependent on black support. It had an economic impact. It opened up 'visible' jobs for African Americans in the service sector and government. It brought the integration of the textile industry's work force.

     But it also brought national change. Affirmative action and the opening up of higher education helped create one of the most important developments in modern America: the dramatic expansion of the black middle class. The rights African Americans achieved became the basis for a 'rights revolution which extended rights to other disadvantaged groups: women, gays, lesbians, the disabled and immigrants.

     There has been a downside to these changes. The rights revolution has largely been driven through by judges, government bureaucrats and a new breed of public interest lawyers. The gains are easy targets for conservative politicians who complain that these policies have been sustained by unelected, unaccountable groups at the expense of 'ordinary' Americans and in defiance of popular opinion. The jury is still out on the success of school desegregation which has often been undermined by white flight either to the suburbs or the private school system. Economic gains for a black middle class have not been matched by gains for poor blacks in the southern and northern cities and in the rural South. In those places, an underclass exists whose living standards and expectations are like those of a Third World country.

     For all the political gains of the civil rights movement, the backlash to those gains has made a profound contribution to the success of conservatives in the nation. Between 1955 and 1965 African Americans in the South won the culture wars in front of a national audience. Non-violent, religious protesters for constitutional rights came up against vicious public police brutality and lawless mobs of white southerners. After 1965, conservative white southerners won the national culture wars. Their coded language denouncing not African Americans per se but immoral welfare recipients and violent criminals elicited a sympathetic response amongst many northern whites. There was a northern white backlash against the invasion of their private space-their schools and suburbs-and against black competition for jobs and housing. This southern white discourse helped create a national political climate that was hostile to any taxes which were spent on economic programmes to benefit people that were considered either as dependents [welfare recipients] or as criminals [rioters or the perpetrators of street crime]. An unintended consequence, therefore, of the civil rights movement has been a conservative, anti-tax, law and order programme that has seen the creation of a Republican Party in the South that is lily-white and now has immense power within national politics.

Professor A.J. Badger is Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College. Among his books are The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 (1989) and, edited with Brian Ward, The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement (1995). New Deal/New South: An Anthony J. Badger Reader has just been published by University of Arkansas Press. He is writing a biography of Albert Gore Sr. This article is based on a lecture given by Professor Badger at the Historical Association on 8 February 2007.


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Badger, A.J. "Civil Rights: How Did the Civil Rights Movement Change America?." Historian (London, United Kingdom) No. 94. Summer 2007: 6-13. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 31 May 2013.
Accessed on 05/31/2013 from SIRS Issues Researcher via SIRS Knowledge Source 


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