The civil rights movement lasted through the years 1954 to about 1968. The main goal of the movement was to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure basic human rights of U.S citizens, and receive guaranteed protection from the government. Focused mainly in the Southern United States, protesters primarily used non-violent acts of civil disobedience such as sit-ins, boycotts and marches to bring attention to their cause.
Starting with the overturn of Brown v. Education which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine, civil rights activists pushed for and achieved change through a series of Civil Rights Acts, Amendments, and the creation of new federal agencies. Among the most important of these activists were Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall. While there was a wide range of beliefs and goals among these men and others, generally they dedicated their lives towards bringing about an end to the inequality and discrimination faced by African Americans.
One change in particular these civil rights activists wanted was to rid the United States, and in particular the south of the Jim Crow Laws. The Jim Crow laws were harsh, unfair laws created in 1877 that segregated and discriminated black colored people from white colored people. The Jim Crow laws encouraged beliefs that whites were superior to blacks in all ways including intelligence, behavior, sexual relations and more (“Pilgrim, 2000”). Many christians at this time were taught that whites were the chosen people and blacks were cursed to be servants and even God supported racial segregation (“Pilgrim, 2000). Some examples of of the Jim Crow etiquette norms were blacks were not allowed to shake hands with whites, they were not allowed to show affection in public, and if they were taking some form of transportation with another white person they were forced to sit in the back (Pilgrim, 2000). The 13th 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution had given blacks the same legal rights a whites however in 1896, blacks lost much of their liberties due to the Plessy v. Ferguson case which legitimized the Jim Crow laws. In the 1900’s Jim Crow laws had become a way of life as there were separate prisons, separate hospitals, separate schools, even separate bathrooms and water fountains. The black facilities were far inferior to the white facilities and due to the plessy case all of the racism and discrimination was within legal rights. Punishment for blacks breaking these Jim Crow laws included loss of home, job, and in some cases life. Violence was regularly carried out to those who violated the law including lynching. Lynchings were public acts of violence such as hanging, gunshots, or beaten to death. These lynchings were seen as necessary by whites to keep blacks in check. Thousands of blacks lost their lives due to lynching and it was later discovered many of these victims were falsely accused for their crimes (Pilgrim, 2000). The Jim Crow laws finally ended in 1965 thanks in large part to the civil rights act of 1964 and voting rights act of 1965. Many civil rights activists also played a large part in the removal of the Jim Crow laws. Activists such as Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King played a large role in the removal of the Jim Crow laws during the civil rights movement. Although society is still not perfect, these activists made great strides towards equality, and the removal of the Jim Crow laws is just one example of their progress.
Malcolm X was one of many civil right activists who had a major impact on society. Malcolm X viewpoint was much different on the civil rights than Martin Luther King. The way Malcolm X handled his situations was through violence because he is a muslim and he followed his beliefs by the muslim principles. “Most of his methods were mainly campaigns and speeches aimed at restoring dignity of the black man, his confidences in himself and a complete freedom as Americans” (Okeke). As though for Martin Luther King, he was against violence. “Malcolm strongly desired a change. He knew something was happening, he knew something that must had to be done and he also knew that he could do something but how was not quite clear” (Okeke). Malcolm started to fall down the wrong path after his father who is a preacher was murdered. Before this occurred his intent was to read about law to acquire a basic education. When his father was murdered, this crushed his dreams on going to a university to further his education. “He became mischievous, a burglar, an armed robber and so on all targeted at whites” (Okeke). He managed to land himself in a prison cell where he met with great influences and transformation. While serving his prison time is when he decided convert to the nation of islam.
In the year of 1964, Malcolm was a founder of the Afro american unity organization. He believed that African americans should not have to contend with racism. “He created the organization of African American Unity to allow all African Americans across the world to collaborate in order to end racism”(Okeke) “He was hopeful of influencing African leaders to recommend an immediate investigation into their problem by the united nations commission on Human Rights” (Okeke). His organization was not much of a success. “On February 21, 1965, Black Muslim assassins murdered Malcolm in a rain of bullets as he spoke at the Audubon. Ballroom in Harlem” (Okeke). It is outrageous to see that he has to be killed not by whites who he had always fought but his fellow blacks who he always fought for.
Thurgood Marshall was another prominent activist during the civil rights movement. He fought for what he believed in and his main goal was to end segregation. He strived to protect the rights of all citizens. “Thurgood Marshall was born on June 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland” (“Justice). As a young man, Thurgood’s father had the most influence on him because he always told him to stand up for his beliefs. “His father’s influence was so strong that, later in life, Marshall once said that his father “never told me to become a lawyer, he turned me into one” (“Justice”). Thurgood was first introduced into law when he was in high school. He immediately gained interest after he read the U.S constitution. He became familiar with the document and started memorizing various parts of it. “He took special interest in Article III and the Bill of Rights. Article III establishes the judicial branch of government and the Bill of Rights lists the rights that all American citizens are supposed to enjoy (“Justice”). Marshall knew that many African Americans were not happy of all their constitutional rights. Marshall attended an all black high school. After graduating high school he wanted to further his education at the university of maryland but was rejected because of his race. He wanted to pursue his education in law but had to take it elsewhere. Thurgood seeked admissions and was accepted at Howard University where he could continue to study law. He manage to graduate first of his class which was a big accomplishment for him. He graduated in the year 1933.
A year later in “1934 Thurgood begins to work for the Baltimore branch of NAACP” (“Thurgood Marshall”). NAACP stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The main goal of was to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.
In the year of 1936 Thurgood participated in his first case Murray V. Maryland in which he assisted Charles Hamilton Houston. This case went to the state supreme court. “The plaintiff, Donald G. Murray was a highly qualified Amherst graduate who had been denied entry to the University of Maryland Law School” (Murray V. Maryland 1936). The only reason why he was denied was because of his race. Charles Hamilton Houston ended up winning the case and the judge ordered the university to admit him. Murray ended up being the first black graduate of the university of maryland in 1938.
Thurgood’s most important court case was the Brown v. Board of education which lasted from 1954 to about 1955. The NAACP legal defense also took part in this case. This case was an uprising from Plessy V Ferguson in which the supreme court ruled “separate but equal” during the late 1800’s. The main goal of this case was to put an end to racial segregation in all schools across the united states. About five different cases concerning segregation in public schools is what gave the name Brown v. Board of education. “Marshall raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (“History”). The court later ruled segregation in all schools unconstitutional. “The Supreme Court did not immediately try to give direction for the implementation of its ruling. Rather, it asked the attorney generals of all states with laws permitting segregation in their public schools to submit plans for how to proceed with desegregation” (“History”).
“After Brown, Marshall argued many more court cases in support of civil rights” (“Justice”). Thurgood strategies on how he ensured the rights of all citizens regarding race caught the eyes of John F. Kennedy. “John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S courts of appeals (“Justice”). “In 1965, Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the post of Solicitor General (this person argues cases on behalf of the U.S. government before the Supreme Court)” (“Justice”). In this case, thurgood wrote over 150 decisions regarding support for the rights of immigration, limiting government intrusions in cases involving illegal search and seizures, double jeopardy and right to privacy issues. “Finally, in 1967, President Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court”(“History”). This made him the first African American to reach the level of U.S supreme court justice. He served as supreme court justice from years 1967 until 1991. Even the day he retired, he still fought to ensure the rights of all citizens. He left behind a great legacy in which he earned the nickname “Mr.Civil Rights”.
Martin Luther King is perhaps the most well known of the civil rights activists, considered by many of having been its leader. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, King experienced all of the racial injustices that he would dedicate the rest of his life to fighting against. When he was a child he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business nearby, only to have his friendship broken up because his friend’s father would no longer let them play together and they were forced to go to separate schools. Once while on a bus he and his teacher were told to stand so that white passengers could sit down and King initially refused, later saying it was “the angriest I have ever been in my life”, though he relented to avoid arrest. During a child he often witnessed his father’s resistance and protests against segregation, and this helped to inspire him to fight injustice and inequality. King was a competent student and graduated with a degree in sociology, but ultimately decided to dedicate himself to the church and become a pastor, as he found it to be the best way of helping people.
In 1955 King joined the Montgomery Improvement Association along with other black church and community leaders, starting King’s career as a Civil Rights activist. They worked to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, which started when Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat for a white man. One year later, King and his fellow civil rights activists were victorious, as the United States supreme court declared laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.
In 1957 King and other activists created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with the goal to organize non-violent protests to achieve civil rights reform. As leader of this organization, King joined with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to form the Albany Movement. In an effort to end segregation in Albany, bus stations, lunch counters, libraries and bathrooms that were reserved for White Americans were occupied by African Americans through “sit ins, marches, boycotts, and other methods of nonviolent protests.” (King). During these protests King was arrested twice. Unfortunately, after a year of activism there had been few concessions made, but Civil Rights leaders like King learned valuable lessons at Albany and it had a large influence on their strategy in later efforts.
The next year King led efforts in the Birmingham campaign. Unlike their efforts in Albany which were meant with less confrontational non-violent tactics by the police, in Birmingham it was the opposite. The Birmingham Police Department led by Bull Connor used high pressure water jets, attack dogs and mass arrests on the non-violent protesters. This led to mass attention not only in America but around the world. Within a month Conner was kicked out of office, King became a national figure, and Birmingham became desegregated. This was the catalyst to the Civil Right Act the following year and led president John F. Kennedy to give a national address to the country in which he proposed many of the civil rights proposals that King and others had been pushing for.
Perhaps the most iconic, remembered and impactful not only of King’s career, but for the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, was the March on Washington in 1963. It was here where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech”. In this speech he detailed his dream, which was a world without discrimination, where white and black children could grow up side by side and he stated “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King 1963).
King’s commitment to nonviolence was widely admired, and a year after The March on
Washington King was awarded a Nobel peace prize for his “exceptional leadership in the principles of peace, nonviolence, and direct action.” (
The following year the King organized the Selma to Montgomery marches. President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized that King was a vital partner in getting further Civil Rights legislation passed. While legal segregation had mostly ended, there was still many injustices involving barriers to voting for African Americans in the South. King decided to use three 50 mile long marches from Selma to the Alabama state capitol Montgomery to bring attention to these issues. Once again they were brutalized by the state police with clubs and tear gas on a day now know as Bloody Sunday. The plus side of this brutality was that once again national attention was brought to these issues, helping change public opinion in favor of King and his followers. King led many other campaigns and movements pushing for the rights of African Americans, and was among those who were against the Vietnam war early on.
Unfortunately King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, causing widespread mourning across the country. Just before his death he had been planning on leading a Poor People’s Campaign with the goal of reducing poverty and increasing economic and human rights in the United States (Poor People’s) The impact King and his fellow civil rights activists had on America is monumental. Through his efforts, worldwide attention was brought upon the injustices African Americans faced throughout the country. The passage of multiple civil rights acts and the voting rights bill, in addition to supreme court rulings, and the formation of new federal agencies, led to desegregation and far better conditions for African Americans in the United States, especially in the South. King and others were key to all these changes, as they focused attention onto them and forced a response through their efforts in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and on the doorstep of Washington.
The most admirable and important decision made by King was his commitment to nonviolence. Had King and other Civil Rights Activists attempted to achieve their goals through rioting, violence and insurgency, they would of undoubtedly failed and brought the animosity of potentially sympathetic white americans. Instead by using non-violence, King changed hearts and minds and gained support from across the country. His importance is clearly shown by the fact that his birthday is a United States federal holiday, in which we celebrate his accomplishments in achieving equality for African Americans. While we still face significant problems and roadblocks pertaining to race even today, the United States has been made significantly better thanks to the efforts of King and others in the Civil Rights Movement.
While Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King were all civil rights activists, this does not mean that they all shared the same beliefs. All three of them believed the Conflict theory regarding the racial discrimination and inequality African American’s were facing. Conflict theory on the Civil Right movement generally believed that racial subordination kept minorities at the bottom, therefore benefiting the ruling class whom were white and could benefit economically and socially from their disadvantages. By keeping minorities at the bottom, rich and governing whites created a system that favored them economically, and kept African Americans from rising. A good instance of this is sharecropping, and laws which prevented poor and undereducated blacks from voting, such as the poll tax and literacy tests. Additionally, by creating a system of discrimination and separation which put Whites on top, a sense of mental and physical superiority developed which fueled their hateful actions and drive for segregation.

Because Whites had control of the South’s institutions, ranging from local governments to police forces, they were able to create a system that favored them immensely. While racial segregation was founded on the grounds of “Separate but Equal”, the institutions used by Blacks were drastically inferior to those of whites. Many southern whites resisted these changes, for instance George Wallace the governor of Alabama stood in front black students attempting to attend in 1963. A loose interpretation of conflict theory was obviously prevalent in civil rights activists, and while opinion now and at the time varied on the specifics of the theory, generally this idea has now become the accepted view.
Martin Luther King, while obviously a believer in conflict theory, advocated for peaceful coexistence with whites and told of his dream in which people were judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. He wanted white and black communities so coexist and interact with one another in a positive manner. In his “I Have a Dream Speech”, he outlined exactly this, saying “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be able to join hands with little white boys girls as sisters and brothers. “(King)
Malcolm X has a considerably different perspective, while still subscribing to the conflict theory. He did not push for this peaceful coexistence, and even condemned King’s March on Washington because it included white organizers and demonstrators. He was a Black nationalist and believed that African Americans were better off on their own. He was an advocate for separate races, but rather than have the services for whites be far better than those of blacks, he wanted them to be genuinely equal and fair. He believed there was a strong difference between separation and segregation, staying that “You have yours and you control yours, we have ours and we control ours.”(
Thurgood took a approach similar to Martin Luther King, in that he deserved desegregation and peaceful coexistence. Thurgood knew that African Americans were unhappy with their lack of constitutional rights. They were treated unfairly due to the fact that they limited political power, and in most states could not attend schools where white people were enrolled. Through his actions as a lawyer, Thurgood strived to desegregate schools all across the nation. Thurgood’s father taught him to always stand up for what he believed in, specifically that African Americans should have equal rights as stated in the U.S constitution. Despite his qualifications, he was denied from the University Of Maryland because of his race, and this further inspired him to push for equality. He fought many court cases concerning segregation and the right of African Americans to be admitted to public schools and universities. The defining case of of Thurgoods career was Brown vs. Board of Education. “Marshall raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (“History”). Through his efforts, legal segregation was over and public schools were on their way to becoming desegregated.
The opinions of civil rights activists varied from violent to nonviolent and from advocating for separation to peaceful coexistence. Regardless, the general belief in conflict theory was a common theme among these activists, and is now the widely accepted opinion. Southern Whites were systematically putting African Americans at a disadvantage in an effort to maintain economic, political and social dominance over them. Segregation, Jim Crow Laws, and violent suppression were used in an effort to maintain this dominance. Through the hard work of men like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Thurgood Marshall these injustices were ended. While today’s society is far from perfect, we should look back at the civil rights movement as what could have been had brave men and women not stepped up to the plate to right the wrongs of society.

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