Civil Rights Movement

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Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Time Period
1954  - 1968
The Civil Rights Movement emerged after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger in 1955. Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr., a new minister at the time, led a 386-day bus boycott in Montgomery. This launched his career and led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that subsequently led protests across the South.

Freedom riders and lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1960s led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would engage in both direct action campaigns and voter registration canvassing.

In 1963, the March on Washington gathered more than 250,000 people of different races and faiths, and MLK implored racial equality in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Civil Rights Movement splintered after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. However, by this time, the movement helped pass equality legislation, turn presidents into allies, and eventually would inspire other equality movements.
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Social Movements and Religion in American History
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The Civil Rights Movement refers to specific events of political and social protest against racism in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned "separate but equal" education and integrated public education in the United States with their decision in "Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas." In response, white parents funded private, segregated schools or left the community. Most private schools in the South founded between 1954 and the 1970s were founded in direct opposition to the integration of public education.

In Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, after Rosa Parks’ December 1 arrest for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger, African Americans launched a 386-day boycott of public transportation until the city agreed to desegregate. Martin Luther King Jr., a new minister in Montgomery, became the leader of the boycott. Montgomery launched King to national fame, and in 1957 he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In February 1960, four students in Greensboro, N.C., sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. For college students nationwide, Greensboro was the spark that ignited dozens of sit-ins. That same year, a student movement emerged in Nashville, Tenn., led by James Lawson, called Freedom Rides, which tested the desegregation of interstate busing from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. At almost every stop, the riders faced violent verbal and physical abuse.

SCLC director Ella Baker coordinated the student movement as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would engage in both direct action campaigns and voter registration canvassing and “be multiracial, and be democratic.” Headquartered in Atlanta, SNCC began projects in Southwest Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and across other parts of the South. Friends of SNCC groups in the North and West raised local awareness and support for SNCC’s efforts in the South. College students from across the country came south to be a part of SNCC’s front lines civil rights campaign. These students gave the movement a revolutionary energy, flooding jails with their “jail, no bail” policy. Their efforts created local and national tension that applied sustained pressure to elected leaders to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

In 1963, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth invited King and SCLC to come to Birmingham. Project "Confrontation" would aim at disrupting the city’s economy, rather than its politicians. Police attacked the marchers with nightsticks and police dogs. On Good Friday, 1963, King drafted his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," outlining his commitment to nonviolence and projecting heightened tension if racial justice did not come quickly. President John Kennedy was compelled to support the civil rights activists.

Civil rights leaders from six major civil rights organizations collaborated to plan a national demonstration for civil rights, spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph. President Kennedy was not immediately supportive, but ultimately consented to the march. The Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Justice gathered more than 250,000 people of different races and faiths, where John Lewis delivered his famous "Which Side is the Government On?" speech and King his "I Have a Dream" speech. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson continued executive support of the movement. In 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, which denied federal money to any organization, business or school that discriminated based on race.

In November 1963, SNCC facilitated a "Freedom Vote," a mock election for disenfranchised African Americans, which anticipated 1964 Freedom Summer, where thousands of college students converged upon Mississippi for a massive voter registration campaign. On the first day of Freedom Summer, three young workers -- Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman -- were arrested, handed over to the KKK and murdered along a deserted road.

SNCC expanded voter registration efforts to Selma, Ala., beginning in 1963, joined in 1965 by King and the SCLC. Demonstrators planned a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, scheduled for March 7, 1965, later known as "Bloody Sunday." That morning, as more than 500 marchers left Brown Chapel, they found that state troopers had blocked the Edmund Pettis Bridge and were armed for combat. Troopers trampled marchers with horses, gassed them with tear gas and beat them with clubs and sticks.

After 1965, Black Nationalism gained new momentum, not helped by the sheer volume of white violence against nonviolent civil rights demonstrators. By 1966, even moderate leaders like King had shifted toward economic injustice issues and openly opposed the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by James Earl Ray. Without a nationally recognized leader figure, as King had been, the movement splintered. Local organizations and national organizations continued to campaign for racial equality; but the late 1960s marked the end of organized cooperation between them. New concerns of gender equality and economic justice entered national dialogue. Black Power isolated several organizations from mainstream effectiveness. Additional gains for racial equality continued in Congress and the Supreme Court. And from 1965, affirmative action has contributed to greater equality for racial minorities and women in employment and education.
King, Martin Luther
Abernathy, Ralph
Jackson, Jesse
Blake, Eugene Carson
Heschel, Abraham Joshua
Shuttlesworth, Fred
Perkins, John
Northern Baptist Convention
National Baptist Convention
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Rise of Equal Rights Movements
Progressive National Baptist Convention

March on Washington 1963- Flickr- Center for Jewish History, NYC

Civil Rights leaders- National Archives and Records Administration.gif

Signing the Civil Rights Act- White House Press Office

Selma to Birmingham march 1965- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08102

March on Washington, I Have a Dream speech- US Government photo
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Courtney Pace Lyons

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