As you no doubt know, it’s taken a long time for people of colour to achieve racial equality across the globe — and racism is still rife in the 21st century. Back in the mid-20th century, however, things were a whole lot worse.
In the 1950s, African Americans were denied basic civil and human rights thanks to discrimination and segregation practices. Just so you know, discrimination meant black people were denied opportunities because of their race, while segregation meant the provision of separate – and often inferior – facilities for people of colour to use. These rules were known as Jim Crow laws; Jim Crow was the subject of a C19th song that made derogatory comments about African Americans. It also referred to being the victim of segregation; being “Jim Crowed”.
So, things were pretty bad for people of colour in 20th century America. In order to kickstart the discussion about racial equality, a number of organisations were set up to campaign for civil rights. First up on the list was the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), which helped achieve improved civil rights through peaceful methods. Second on the list is the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which mobilised support from white students for the Civil Rights Movement, and was overall incredibly active in the field of voter registration. Next up, and arguably most important, is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909. The NAACP went on to mount successful legal challenges that effectively outlawed aspects of segregation, so they were pretty important.
The NAACP couldn’t have achieved all this without the help of Rosa Parks, an NAACP activist who kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in a segregated bus. Her move came just one year after junior schools were desegregated as a result of Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, which set a legal precedent for the protest — but didn’t end segregation overnight as you’ve no doubt already worked out.
By 1957, black students had started attending traditionally white schools. Little Rock Central High School was forced to accept nine black students into its all-white institution after mass protests broke out, and were attended by Federal troops sent by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This move marked the beginning of Federal support for the civil rights campaign, which was a pretty big jump at the time.
But despite advances in the fight for racial equality, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Brown vs Board of Education in Topeka, segregation was still the norm across the US by 1960. Early on that year, what was to be a non-violent protest by four African American students at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, resulted in a sit-in movement that quickly spread to college towns throughout the region. The eventual outcome of the national sit-ins was the desegregation of lunch counters. Result!
Next up on our agenda is the Freedom Riders. A group of 13 African American and white civil rights activists launched the 1961 Freedom Rides, which were a series of bus trips through the south of America protesting segregation on interstate buses, and in waiting rooms, bathrooms and bus stations.
Sadly, the bus the group was travelling on was fire-bombed, and they were badly beaten after local police colluded with the KKK to bring the activists down. That being said, the Freedom Riders still won in the end – by September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission had issued regulations prohibiting segregation in bus and train stations nationwide.
Ready for a mind-blowing fact? Police brutality actually helped the Civil Rights Movement in a lot of ways. One particular example of this can be found in Bull Connor, who was Birmingham’s Police Chief at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Connor’s brutal treatment of peaceful marchers was covered by national media, shocking the world as it aired. Audiences tuned in to find the Birmingham Police Department had used fire hoses and dogs on protesters, and arrested 1,000 demonstrators during the action in 1961.
The violence shocked the government into action, prompting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race and gender. It could not, however, wipe away the results of years of inequality; this would take generations.
One year later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave political power to African Americans by enfranchising all adults and removing the abuse of voter registration in the process. And two years later in 1967, the Supreme Court legalised mixed-race marriages. In short, everything was coming up Milhouse!
Sensing victory, civil rights activists started becoming more militant. By around 1968, restless African Americans decided civil rights spokesperson Martin Luther King’s peaceful methods were too slow for their tastes. This sentiment swept across the country, and especially in urban black communities because of the money the government was spending on the war in Vietnam.
Wondering how the two were linked? In short, poverty and disadvantage were the result of years of discrimination and segregation. So, patience ran out when change was delayed after the promise of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society fell through when money was spent on the war effort instead.
When living conditions continued to worsen, widespread riots broke out in the late 60s. The riots occurred because of a combination of factors that included frustration borne out of poverty, the treatment of black people by the police, the weather, Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination and the activities of black nationalist groups.
In the end, the Civil Rights Movement was so successful that students and women went on to base their own protests on the methods used by African Americans seeking racial equality in the 60s and 70s.