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America’s rich history of civil rights activism is one that must be looked back at and celebrated, both during Black History Month and also in daily life. The trials and achievements of the movement have secured its prime position in the history of world politics, ushering in our modern-day moral and legal groundwork.
They also, now more than ever, hold a place in current affairs, as the problems faced by the Black Lives Matter movement and black people in the current day strike an eerie chord that echoes recent history.
Although the roots of the movement date back to the Civil War and before, when activists and the oppressed fought for basic human rights under the shadow of the slave trade, it is the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to early 70s that won the modern legal freedoms against a segregated society, unwelcoming of reform.
Since the early 1900s, groups like the NAACP had been working against racism and prejudice, securing major legal victories against voting discrimination and holding one of the first civil rights marches in 1917, commonly known as the ‘Silent Parade.’ However, it was during the 1950s & 60s that they, among others, began to force society into a previously unseen and unimagined realm of liberty for Black Americans.
By 1955, the voice of Rosa Parks and the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, which was legally unanswered for by the accused, reverberated through the homes and minds of the country. Their voices, or lack of, became catalysts in initiating a ‘golden age’ for civil rights, calling for racial equality and legal justice.
Victories for the NAACP followed, such as the landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, and the 1950 decision to desegregate railroad dining cars. Early legal triumphs were important in countering the de-jure segregation in the South,
Concurrently, whispers of the name Martin Luther King Jr began to emerge. In 1957, after the NAACP’s Montgomery Bus Boycott, resulted in the desegregation of busses in Montgomery, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) broke onto the civil rights scene.
Dr. King and the SCLC became the bridge for civil rights between the minor victories of the 1950s to a decade of revolution in the 60s. They were bolstered by the actions of 50,000 (mostly student) supporters in February 1960, who took part in “Sit-ins,” as they filled up segregated seats in restaurants and transportation, asking to be served.
With the support of the new and charismatic President Kennedy, the movement saw paramount victories in the early 1960s. The further desegregation of Southern transport in 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington were key in garnering support for the movement on a global scale. However, despite the Civil Rights Movement’s growing momentum and renown, federal power and many Americans still refused to listen.
With the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, there was a forced change from a period of cohesion. Groups like the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC and CORE who once shared almost identical morals and means of securing rights, saw a division in ideology and methods.
This was often exemplified by the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, two historic civil rights leaders who were pitted against each other in the media due to their contrasting ideologies of nonviolence vs aggressive resistance to the system.
Both saw success, with King and the SCLC winning victories in their 1965 voter registration campaign and their march from Selma to Montgomery, which allowed President Johnson to push the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, as the televised march drew media attention and backlash when peaceful protesters were attacked by police and locals.
Whilst the SCLC and Dr. King worked with the president to secure these rights, Black suffering due to institutional problems, such as poor living conditions for African Americans in inner-city Ghettos, sparked action from more radical groups.
Riots broke out in cities across America between 1964 and 1968, initiated by wrongful killings of Black Americans, police brutality, and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
These years of perceived fragmentation were a reaction to continued oppression and an exemplification of the lengths the movement was forced to pursue in order to achieve basic human rights. Despite media and historical condemnation, more radical opposition was essential in pushing for further federal action in the form of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination regarding the sale, rental, or financing of housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin or sex.
In addition, much of the less-radical activism of this period has also been lost in the media portrayal of violence and aggression; grass-roots groups like the Black Panthers sought to resolve economic racial disparities in inner-city areas, proposing a 10 point program for systematic reform and with their 1969 “Free Breakfast for Children” program. At its peak, the program fed 20,000 children across 19 states and was a precursor to the federally funded 1975 breakfast scheme.
However, there is an unnerving parallel between the 1964 Harlem riots, sparked by the murder of James Powell, a teenager who was shot dead by the NYPD, and May 2020 protests at the wrongful killing of George Floyd. The face of recent history can clearly be seen today, attesting to the vitality of remembering the past of the Civil Rights Movement.
In conclusion, with all things considered, these groundbreaking victories for civil rights must be at the forefront of modern memory and celebration. However, the repetition of the past in our modern age of furthered equality begs the question, how much has actually changed?. It challenges us to think about how the world can continue to move forward when leaders and individuals are intent on committing actions that belong only in the dusty pages of history.