The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s implicated some of the best of the human spirit, as a number of leaders helped to direct the force of America’s black population. While these leaders were important in directing the activities of the population, they were supported by a host of government forces. Some argue that the movement could not have been a success without the help and support of government at large. They argue specifically that while the actions of leaders were important, the support of the federal government provided the kind of atmosphere where that activity by leaders could actually be meaningful. While it is true that individual leaders had a major impact on the success of the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government in its opposition of states played the most important role in bringing about success for the movement.

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In his work, Lawson articulates an important point about the Civil Rights Movement. He notes that perhaps the biggest thing standing in the way of the movement was the insistence of state governments on subverting federal law (Lawson). Many of the states of the South were not willing to comply even with Supreme Court mandates. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, for instance, states did not simply roll over and allow integration to take hold. Rather, the states resisted in many different ways, requiring the federal government to intervene to ensure that the movement could actually take advantage of the law. Even when civil rights activists were able to win their own victories, states were more than willing to operate outside of the law. This preference and willingness among the states forced the federal government to play a critical role in ensuring that certain freedoms were actually manifested in reality.

To his credit, Charles Payne had a very different view of the actual causes of success for the Civil Rights Movement. Payne believed that at the heart of the movement, there were people leading local movements to bring about equality and certain rights. He cites examples like Septima Clark, who advocated at the local level. These people, according to Clark, did not get the attention that national organizations tended to get during this time. This lack of exposure was not due to a lack of importance, though. He holds that local people were just as important or even more important than the federal government, mostly because people who acted locally tended to bring change closer to the people who needed it the most. Payne’s argument asserts that the federal government’s actions were simply a political response to a movement that gained steam right on the ground in local communities (Payne). If the local movements had not gotten so strong from a grassroots level, then the federal government may not have felt the pressure to push for changes. After all, nothing said that the federal government had to be so aggressive in enforcing its will on the states. Throughout history, the federal government had shown a willingness to allow racial injustice to happen in the states. What caused the federal government to change? Payne’s opinion is that the federal government only changed its ways because of the impetus offered by work done on the local level.

In her personal account, Anne Moody reveals why Payne’s take might be wrong. Moody discusses, at length, examples like her own sit-in at a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. Predictably, she and her counterparts were abused, beaten, and drug into the streets for the simple crime of wanting to eat at an “all-white” lunch counter. While she clearly put in the effort necessary to bring about change, her work seems to provide recognition that on the local level, people can only do so much. The book ends, in fact, with her wondering whether the abuse was worth it. Did they really accomplish anything by resisting? She laments that their efforts were designed, in some ways, to try and stretch white people in places like Jackson at that time. What she recognizes, though, is that some of those people had what she deemed an “incurable disease” (Moody). She makes the primary and important point that no matter what her and her friends did, they were never able to change the hearts of the people. Even the police were not willing to provide her with protection.

The opinion of Moody shows the reality that without the help of the federal government, even the bravest of civil rights activists could not bring about the kind of change that was necessary in order for the movement to be a success. In order to truly determine whether the federal government or the individual activists were most important, one must ask a seminal question. What would have been the outcome in a place like Jackson, Mississippi if Moody and her counterparts were to continue their efforts without the support of the federal government? While she was certainly brave, and those around her played a major role in the movement, it is likely that very little progress would have been made if the federal government had not stepped in to use its force in order to make the states comply with federal law. Ultimately, this means that the federal government played a more important role in the movement. Recognizing this fact should not denigrate the progress made by individuals during the movement, but it should highlight the limitations of individual action.

Lawson, Steven F., and Charles M. Payne. Debating the civil rights movement, 1945-1968. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Moody, Anne. Coming of age in Mississippi. Random House LLC, 2004.