The Civil Rights movement in the United States has been one of the most transformative eras in the nation’s history; its effects have been tremendously influential for African-Americans, as well as all the citizens in the country. Many people think that the Civil Rights movement began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v.Topeka Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in education, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Some of the long-lasting effects of this movement included the establishment of organizations such as the NAACP (Jankin.) There were many people who were key players in the movement, and whose efforts caused the movement to succeed in ways that could not have been imagined. This paper will discuss briefly the history of the Civil Rights movement, and some of the leaders that made it so successful.
The Civil Rights movement included both ad hoc local groups as well as established organizations such as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Jankin.) Although these groups frequently had different methods of strategizing and tactical activities, and were comprised of people from many different classes and backgrounds, the Civil Rights movement players all worked towards the same goal: eliminating the system of Jim Crow segregation in addition to finding ways to reform the most abhorrent practices of racial bigotry associated with both the institutions of American society as well is its citizens.

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During the early to mid 20th century, African-Americans were frequently lynched by citizens including vigilantes who were determined to make sure that the races remained separate. One of the most notable ways that this problem was addressed was the NAACP’s campaign against lynching of the 1930s. The organization utilized widespread publicity about the causes and costs of lynching, launched a successful campaign to defeat a nominee of the Supreme Court who was a white supremacist, and made a concerted effort to lobby both Congress and the Roosevelt administration to enact a federal anti-lynching law (Jankin.) Another major effort of the movement was a campaign to address desegregation in education, and this movement was headed by Charles Hamilton Houston, a black attorney who developed the legal basis for the 1954 Brown v Topeka Board of Education case that ultimately put an end to the legality of school segregation.

There was tremendous southern resistance to the Brown decision, resulting in a very slow pace of change that precipitated a great deal of impatience among younger African Americans when the 1960s began (Jankin.) As a result, they staged the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man; the boycott lasted for a full year in 1956, and demonstrated that massive direct action could actually cause significant change. Other activities also sought to eliminate segregated public facilities, including when for college students from Greensboro sat at the Woolworth lunch counter, causing a decade of civil rights activity and organizing that ultimately put an end to Jim Crow laws. There was tremendous effort to eliminate signs that said “Whites only” and “Colored only” signs in public places. Ella Baker, a grassroots organizer who had become an activist starting in the 1930s, encouraged college students to become involved in sit-ins and other protests in which protesters demanded jobs, healthcare, reform of the police and criminal justice system, education, and voting rights (Jankin).

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington; King was an advocate of nonviolent protest designed to achieve equality between the races. Other activists in the civil rights movement, including Malcolm X, took a more separatist and aggressive approach to the idea of equality for blacks, and were impatient with the peaceful tactics of Dr. King and his followers. A major advancement for the Civil Rights movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by Pres. Lyndon Johnson, and which was a tremendous leap forward for the rights of black people to participate in the democratic process. Like all of the changes associated with civil rights, voting rights were slow to be accepted, especially in the South, so that legally, African-Americans had the right to vote but they also had to cope with many obstacles that were put in place to prevent them from actually exercising that right. In fact, that remains a challenge today, in various forms.

The Civil Rights movement took American society to a completely different place than what had existed before between the races. Leaders such as Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X all played a significant role in moving things forward for African-Americans. Although racial equality does not fully exist in the United States even in these modern times, without the Movement the gains that have been made would have been virtually impossible. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the drive for civil rights was the demonstration that grassroots movements can be extremely effective in forcing institutions and individuals to change.

  • Jankin, Kenneth. “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” April 2010. National Humanities Web. 16 April 2014.