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The Early Civil Rights Movement

World War II was the turning point for black Americans in their search for equal rights. The war had thre major effects on racial equality for them. The first effect was the migration of blacks from the south to the north and from rural to urban areas within the south. This mobility gave blacks new psychological freedoms from being away from the tight controls placed on them in the small southern towns. The second effect was the increased economic mobility. The war had created many new jobs and blacks were looked upon to fill jobs such as janitors and scrub-women. Blacks were cconstantly disriminated against in these new jobs and this showed them that much change was needed. The third effect was the call by black servicemembers for an end to segregation in the military. They wanted the opportunity to train with white soldiers and fight in combat units. Although there were some strides made in inergrating blacks in the service, they still were victims of violence in the towns near their military bases. These three things changed black peoples perspective on society. They were let into "white" America to help with the war efffort but still were subject to the same old discrimination. These new experiences showed them the other side of America and not being let in frustrated them.

The first major victory for blacks was the Supreme Courts ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Most blacks thought that this decision, declaring that segregateed schools was unconstitutional, was the much wanted end to organized segregation. This decision did not live up to their expectations. Most school districts failed to enacct the ruling. This only added to their frustrations and they decieded to take matters into their own hands.

Ever since the Plessey vs. Furgeson case in 1896, segregation was legal. It stated that states were allowed to segregate facilities as long as blacks were given equal facilities. When the Supreme Court heard the Brown case it was Chief Justice Warren who argued that segregated schools harmed black children by instilling in them “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the country that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” (LeFeber pg. 378) Studies had indicated that black children and an inferiority complex, they felt that white people were superior to them. The court knew that desegregation would be a hard pill to swallow and gave the states time to implement the ruling.

Eisenhower was uneasy with the Supreme Courts ruling. He felt that desegregation could not take place overnight and that it must be given a while to take effect. Although he felt this way he swiftly moved to desegregate Washington’s schools and public places. Congress also passed the first civil rights legislation in 82 years. The law gave the Judicial system power to force the states to give equal access to voting and created a civil rights commission.

The modern civil rights movement began in Montgomery, Alabama when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passanger and move to the back of a city bus. Rosa Parks arrest sparked a year long bus boycott by the black citizens in Montgomery. The whole black community was mobilized and took part in the boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was looked upon as their leader. King brought together blacks in solidarity demanding a complete desegregation of Montgomery buses. He also brought to the movement the church, which had a strong presence in the black community. King thought that blacks must overcome racial prejudices through nonviolent means. King declared that “we must meet the forces of hate with the power of lover; we must meet physical force with soul force.” (LaFeber pg. 380). The boycott showed white Americans that blacks were willing to stand up for their rights and proved that a movement of such could expand for the good of all black Americans. The boycott was a success and in 1956 a district court ruled that segregation on the cities buses was illegal.

In 1957 during the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas the citizens and governor opposed letting black students attend their schools. The governor sent the National Guard to Little Rock to stop the integration. The National Guard succeeded in keeping the blacks out for three weeks. Then a federal judge ordered the National Guard to leave. When they did chaos broke out and the Mayor of Little Rock requested and received federal troops to help with the integration. This move by the government showed the southern states that it was serious about school desegragation.

John F. Kennedy relied heavily on the black vote in the 1960 election. Although he said a lot about supporting civil rights legislation he placed it low on his legislative agenda, fearing that if he did not he would lose the support of southern whites. Still he did make some progress towards civil rights. He gave an executive order calling for the hiring of more blacks in government and civilian contractor jobs. Under his administration 183 schools had started the desegregation process. He also gained the support of blacks by intervening and gaining King’s release from a jail in Georgia.

Civil rights leaders relied on litigation in the early stages of the movement. But blacks were becoming frustrated by the often slow process and started to actively try to change the existing conditions. One of these tactics was the sit-in. In 1960, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond and Joseph McNeil, all students at the all black North Carolina A+T College in Greensboro, went to the local Woolworth’s to demand service. When they were refused they proceeded to sit at the lunch counter in protest. This soon spread all over the south and within a year over 50,000 people had participated in sit-ins. This movement succeeded in desegregating many hotels, theaters, parks and stores. The freedom rides was an offshoot of the sit-in movement. In 1961 both white and black students rode buses through the south hoping to end segregation on buses and in terminals. These buses were often attacked by white racists. The president sent federal marshals to Montgomery Alabama to prevent further violence. Under Kennedy’s urging the Interstate Commerce Commission banned all segregation at bus and train terminals.

In 1963 civil rights demonstrations were held in Birmingham, Alabama. Blacks started non-violent demonstrations in order to end segregation in stores and try to get business to hire more blacks. On Good Friday they took part in marches and sit-ins and the local police used force to disperse them. Many of the demonstrators were thrown in jail. In 1965 King led many marchers in Selma, Alabama. State troopers attact the marchers and later when a civil rights worker was killed. The led to the Voter Rights Action of 1965 which was signed into law by President Johnson.

Blacks achieved success in these protests during the first half of the 60’s. The sit-ins and freedom rides ended segregation at bus and train stations. The demonstrations in Birmingham led to Kennedy endorsing a civil rights bill that made segregation illegal in hotels, restaurants, hotels, and other public places, allowed the Justice Department to file suits against states not desegregating schools, prohibited segregation in state programs that received federal aid, and removed racial barriers for trade union membership. The incident at the University of Mississippi law school in 1962 had brought about Kennedy’s executive order banning segregation in all new federally subsidized housing. He also proposed a bill that would end discriminatory practices in voter registration.