The goals and principal achievements of the southern civil rights movement of the late 1950s and the early 1960s

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Lauren Sams


Section 2438


The goals and principal achievements of the southern civil rights movement of the late 1950s and the early 1960s
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was an ambitious struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans. Under the Constitution, all Americans are guaranteed basic rights as a citizen. Particularly in the southern United States, blacks were consistently and systematically denied these rights. The main goals of the civil rights movement of this time were to achieve legal equality for African Americans (thereby granting opportunities equal to those of their white peers in education, voting rights and use of public facilities, employment and housing). In order to accomplish this, the movement’s other main goal was to desegregate the South.

After slavery was abolished in the 19th century, many states enacted “African American codes” intended to limit the civil rights of the newly freed African Americans. In response to this, the 14th Amendment was passed to guarantee that no state “shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States…” This Amendment did not accomplish its intended effect. In the 1950s, African Americans (particularly in the southern United States) were still being denied basic rights. African Americans could not speak freely in public in the presence of whites, for fear of white retaliation. Often, African Americans were prevented from registering to vote. Those who did register and attempt to vote faced the possibility of physical harm. Public facilities such as schools, transportation and places of business were segregated, with African Americans always receiving the inferior version. The civil rights movement of the late 50s and early 60s sought to correct these violations of rights by integrating the south.

In 1950 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund attorneys began working on a school desegregation case in South Carolina. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case along with several others (from District of Columbia, Virginia, Kansas and Delaware) under the title of “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.” Thurgood Marshall (who became a Supreme Court Justice in 1967) argued the case and won. The Supreme Court decided “separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal” and called for the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” Though the court ruling was specifically about segregation in schools, the implication of it was that all segregation was unequal. However, southern states quickly found ways to circumvent the intended consequences of the ruling. Some states even “closed” all public schools and reopened them as private schools for whites only. Still, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established a precedent. In 1962 the school segregation issue was brought to national attention again, this time concerning the college level. James Meredith, a Jackson State college student, attempted to become the first African American student admitted to the University of Mississippi. He was rejected twice in 1961. Alleging he had been denied because of his race, Meredith filed a complaint with the district court. The court initially dismissed his complaint, but was overturned on appeal at the federal court. James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education were important victories for the civil rights movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was another major accomplishment of the civil rights movement. President Kennedy’s assassination was seen as a potential setback to the civil rights movement. Supporters were unsure if President Johnson would provide as strong of an aid to the movement as Kennedy. Johnson soon proved committed to the movement as well. "Let us continue," he declared, promising "the ideas and the ideals which [Kennedy] so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action." Johnson worked diligently to push through the civil rights legislation that Kennedy had supported. After witnessing a massive lobbying campaign (mounted by Johnson and the civil rights leaders), Congress decided that discrimination in public establishments affected interstate commerce and therefore fell under its regulation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination or segregation in any public place – specifically including places of public lodging, restaurants and places of entertainment. The Act also prohibits discrimination in employment in businesses involved in interstate commerce and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It also provided for technical and financial aid to communities that were actively working to desegregate its schools. The Act authorized the Justice Department to bring suits against schools that were not participating in desegregation. Bias in federally assisted programs was also made illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was another legal victory for the Civil Rights movement.

Despite these legal achievements in the civil rights arena, African Americans were still discriminated against in voting issues in the South. Literacy tests, poll taxes, land ownership qualifications had been long-used methods to keeps African Americans from the polls in the South. White intimidation through the use of violence was another tactic. In 1965, Congress had decided that the previously used method of case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting practices and passed the Voting Rights act of 1965. This Act created a “significant change in the status” of southern African Americans. The Voting Rights Act “prohibited the states from using literacy tests, interpreting the Constitution and other methods of exclusion.” The Act also provided for the appointment of federal examiners who had the authority to register qualified citizens to vote. Poll taxes were specifically prohibited in the 24th Amendment, passed in 1964. By the end of the decade there was a large increase the registration and participation of African American voters. This increase in registration led to the election of African Americans to all levels of government office. Though originally met with strong opposition from a vocal group of white southerners, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was another legal victory for the civil rights movement.

While African Americans still experience discrimination in various forms today, they also experience benefits from the many achievements of the civil rights movement. Segregation in schools, public accommodations, housing and employment have been illegal for nearly 40 years. African Americans now have equal opportunities to register to vote and in some areas are actually registered in higher percentages than their white peers. In situations where it’s believed that discriminatory conditions do exist, African Americans (and other minorities) have the legal precedents in place to successfully challenge and overturn those conditions. The civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s brought about many legal victories which contributed to the greatly improved current status of African Americans in our country.

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