A Social Revolution
In the middle decades of the century, African
Americans seized their new prominence in U.S. public life and
used it to enact a social revolution. Most African Americans
had long grown impatient with the grim condition of civil rights
in the country. Throughout the Southern states, as well as in
some other regions, African Americans were still restricted by
law and by practice to second-class status. Schools, government
buildings, and public
places were segregated by race, and African Americans were
routinely prevented from exercising their right to vote. The
integration of the United States armed forces in 1948 gave many
people new hope for progress. Soon a new generation of activists
made itself known, demanding that the U.S. government provide
all its citizens with the rights and protections guaranteed by
Using tactics that had been perfected by generations
of African American voting-rights, anti-lynching, and labor organizations,
the footsoldiers of this new movement swung into action. Teams
attorneys traveled the country, arguing court cases against
segregation in the public schools. The Congress of Racial Equality,
or CORE, organized "Freedom
Rides" to integrate interstate buses, while the NAACP official Rosa
Parks launched a campaign against segregation in public transit.
New groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
and the Southern Christian Leadership Council organized on college
campuses, sending thousands of students into Southern states
to help register African Americans to vote.
Ministers such as Ralph
Luther King Jr., and Malcolm
X electrified their congregations with calls for action
and took prominent public roles in the struggle. African American
union leaders, led by the early civil rights advocate A.
Philip Randolph, demanded equal access to employment and
in 1963 worked with other civil rights leaders to stage a massive march
on Washington, D.C., for jobs and freedom. Sit-ins, marches, pickets,
public protests all demonstrated the movement's unflinching
opposition to the status quo, and increased pressure on the
federal government to take action.
As the campaign for equality gained ground,
it faced fierce opposition from the residents, governments, and
law enforcement agencies of segregated areas. Activists were harassed, threatened, beaten, arrested, bombed,
and killed by
soldiers, police, angry mobs, and unidentified assassins. Government
officials asked that they moderate their demands, sometimes arguing
that the nation was not yet ready for such a radical agenda.
But the activists prevailed. In the 1950s and
'60s, court decisions struck down segregation in public schools,
and the U.S. government sent troops into many states to enforce
the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected all citizens
from discrimination and segregation in nearly all areas of public
life, including education and employment, and the Voting Rights
Act of 1965 guaranteed the right to vote. While these acts took
some time to fully enforce, and debate continues today over the
best means to apply them, their overall effect cannot be denied.
In a few turbulent decades, African American activists secured
equal rights for themselves and for all Americans and brought
about a revolutionary change in American life.
For an in-depth look at the Civil Rights movement,
American Odyssey: Civil Rights.