I. The modern Civil Rights Movement
In 1654, as the nation was still in the very early stages of growth and development, eleven enslaved men and women petitioned for, and won, their freedom and land from the council of New Netherland (New York). This was one of the first documented black protests in America. Since then, black people have continued to be involved in an ongoing struggle to achieve either freedom or equality or in some instances, both. During the American Civil War, as enslaved and freeborn men and women joined the Union Army in the battle in the South, freeborn men and women were engaged in civil disobedience in the North. Within the black community, the question was never whether they should get involved in the struggle for civil rights; but rather, when, where, and to what extent.
As America has continued to advance—from its early days as a young nation to it’s current role as a world power—black people have contributed to, but have not always been able to benefit from, the political and social mores that make up this country. This tension between working for something and not receiving what one has worked for has naturally led to recurring civil rights movements. It was happening in the courtroom in 1849, with the Roberts v. City of Boston case, as lawyers argued that legalized segregation psychologically damaged black students; and on the streetcars in 1867 when Caroline Le Count, a freeborn educated woman, engaged in civil disobedience to force the city to enforce the law that integrated public transportation. It happened in 1851 when Sojourner Truth, at the Akron Convention, challenged a committee of men to think about the rights of women and again one year later when Frederick Douglass challenged Americans to think about the significance of the fourth of July in the lives and experiences of black people. The early movement for civil rights from the cotton fields in the South to the cotton shirts in the North was extremely active and provided the roots upon which the modern Civil Rights Movement and the 21st century Civil Rights Movement (#BlackLivesMatter) were built.
Beginning in 1954, with the Brown v. Board decision, the modern Civil Rights Movement is a critical period in American history. It was during this time—when black and white Americans worked together—that the American system of injustice, oppression, and inequality slowly began to change. This change is due in large part to the courage of the Little Rock Nine, the innocence of Ruby Bridges, the determination of Autherine Lucy, the grit of James Meredith and the work of Dr. King, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Dorothy I. Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Septima Poinsette Clark and many others. It is also due to the thousands of nameless and faceless foot soldiers who worked tirelessly behind both the scenes and the leaders who helped to bring about the type of change that America had been trying to have since that day in New Netherland.
As the nation continues to celebrate the anniversary of some of the historic events
that happened during the modern Civil Rights Movement and the black and brown
communities continue to push to have their civil rights recognized, it is important to fully
examine and explore some of the lessons learned during this period.
II. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 men, women, and children marched into Washington, DC to demand better jobs, freedom and equality for black people, and to stand in support of President Kennedy’s proposed comprehensive civil rights bill. Although the March was nonviolent and was considered by many to be a success, it was one of the many responses to the increased incidents of violence that had been happening throughout the South for close to ten years. The struggle for civil rights, the “modern” Civil Rights Movement, (this is of course a debatable point, as this struggle had been taking place since the turn of the 20th century) began in 1954 with the United States Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. With a 9-0 ruling, the Court affirmed that segregated schools were unconstitutional, “inherently unequal,” and should be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” As expected, there was deliberate and immediate pushback to the ruling, with Southern governors stating that they would not abide by it, the White Citizens Council organizing its members to oppose it, the passing of laws abolishing compulsory school attendance, and a marked increase in violence towards, and arrests of, any person who attempted to follow the Court’s ruling. What began as a legal battle to end public school segregation quickly expanded and became a fight to end segregation in all public spaces, including restaurants, public transportation, universities, and hotels. Prior to the March, the organizers and participants of the modern Civil Rights Movement had experienced countless victories as changes began to happen throughout the South—including Montgomery, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Greensboro, North Carolina—even as the veil of racism, inequality, and unchecked violence refused to give way in cities like Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. Outside of the Civil War (which ended American enslavement) and the Revolutionary War (which ended British rule), the fight for civil rights during the 20th century was the most important social, economic, and political period in America’s history, as the country moved from being two nations, divided by race, to one nation.