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 the Constitution.
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 of NAACP 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 Abernathy, Martin 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, and large-scale 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, visit African American Odyssey: Civil Rights.