Challenges and Progress in Civil Rights

Where Are Civil Rights Now?

In the United States, civil rights foster democratic principles like equality, participation and access. But there are still many challenges ahead.

Across the country, Black communities are organizing to tackle issues including police violence and disenfranchisement. These efforts are often called the Black Lives Matter movement. Organizers include Louis Farrakhan and prominent Black celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith.

The Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was a series of protests and campaigns aimed at ending discrimination and segregation in American society. The movement was led by religious and civic organizations that emphasized nonviolent protest and specific acts of civil disobedience.

Activists used boycotts, protest marches and Freedom Rides to highlight their cause and demand justice. The movement was bolstered by the work of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who argued that individuals had a moral duty to disobey unjust laws and the murder of Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary in Mississippi.

The movement resulted in major legal victories such as Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While these legal changes did not instantly end segregation, they did have a lasting impact on the country and opened up new opportunities for African Americans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

After the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954 and after a boycott of a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter by college students, President Kennedy sought to pass civil rights legislation. He was assassinated in November 1963, and his successor, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, intensified the effort.

He launched a campaign to level barriers in housing, education, employment, and public accommodations. He required federal “preclearance” of jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices, banned literacy tests for voters, and made it illegal to refuse service to people because of race or religion. Civil rights activists staged marches and protests, nonviolent in nature, throughout the nation. They were often met with angry violence, and television brought the conflict into living rooms around America. Despite this, most Americans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The violence against voting rights activists that began with the attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, captured national attention and prompted President Lyndon Johnson to call for effective federal legislation. The bill that ultimately became the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes, provided for the appointment of federal examiners to oversee elections in places where discriminatory practices had occurred, and required any changes in voting laws be reviewed by the Justice Department on a case-by-case basis.

The Act was one of the most far-reaching civil rights measures ever passed, and it dramatically improved voter participation in the South. It also led to better treatment of Black citizens by law enforcement. Research shows that for every increase in the percentage of Black voters in a covered county, arrest rates dropped.

The Black Power Movement

The Black Power movement took the ideas of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC leaders and emphasized self-reliance, black nationalism and violence as the means of getting political and social power. Revolutions in Africa and elsewhere inspired advocates of black power, who believed that African Americans needed to secure their own rights rather than rely on integration into white society.

The black power movement frightened many people, including whites, and alienated the civil rights movement from some of its most important allies. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Black Panther Party for its embrace of separatism and street gang tactics, and condemned its use of revolutionary violence.

Nevertheless, the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, gained notoriety for demonstrations in cities throughout America and for raising black-gloved fists in defiance of police brutality at the Olympics.

The Southern Strategy

Whether in the form of Goldwater and Nixon or Donald Trump, Republicans have been able to gain the votes of white voters in the South by capitalizing on their racial fears. This is the so-called Southern strategy and it has become a central tenet of modern Republican politics.

However, the history behind this narrative is complicated. As Matthew Lassiter, Ira Katznelson and W.E.B Du Bois demonstrate in their books, the racialization argument is not just a geographic phenomenon. It is a dynamic historical reality that has changed over time.

This change is most visible in how the Supreme Court has retreated from legal segregation. It is also visible in how the coded language of racism mutates over time into political expediency and national social welfare programs.

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