Civil Rights Movement

From Ohio History Central

Since the end of the American Civil War, African Americans have struggled to achieve equality. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment granted equal protection under the law to African Americans in 1867, and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment gave African American men the right to vote. Despite these legal protections, African Americans continued to face economic, social and political discrimination in the United States.

Following World War II, many Americans united together across color lines to protest the racism and discrimination that existed in the United States. For many years before World War II, a smaller number of Americans had fought for equality. However, with the end of World War II a more organized Civil Rights Movement came into being.

There were several reasons why this movement developed at this point in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans served their country during World War II. They discovered that racial discrimination was not nearly as oppressive in European countries like Great Britain and France. For the first time, many people realized that the United States could become a land without racial discrimination. Another primary reason for the growth of the Civil Rights Movement at the end of World War II was the G.I. Bill. To help veterans from World War II readjust to life after returning home, the federal government helped offset the cost of a college education. Thousands of African American veterans took advantage of this benefit, but still faced employment discrimination that prevented them from working in better-paying professional jobs. Many African Americans college graduates had to take jobs that they could have obtained without a four-year college degree. Unhappy that the United States did not truly provide freedom and equality to all people, many African Americans and their supporters created a much more organized movement to achieve equal rights.

During the 1950s and the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as an important leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, he helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott and hoped to end segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. King next formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This organization, established in 1957, sought to unite churches across the South to protest racial segregation and the lack of other rights for African Americans. King was a leader in this organization for the rest of his life. He advocated non-violent protest. King believed that people of all races would look favorably on a movement that encouraged peace and equality and did not meet injustice with violence. King's peaceful message attracted thousands of supporters of all races who agreed that segregation and the lack of rights for African Americans could not continue.

King organized protest rallies, boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. He hoped that thousands of people asking peacefully and respectfully for equal rights would rally support to the Civil Rights Movement. The best-known event organized by King was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred on August 28, 1963, in Washington, DC. It was at this protest that King delivered his "I Have a Dream" Speech. Between 200,000 and 500,000 people of all races marched through the streets of Washington. They peacefully requested government support to end segregation and other forms of racial injustice. However, many people responded with violence to try to prevent the continued growth and success of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement was successful in 1964 and 1965, with the federal government's passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two federal laws outlawed segregation, guaranteed African Americans equal protection under the law, and truly secured African American men and women the right to vote. However, the Civil Rights Movement was not over. King and other activists continued to urge peaceful demonstrations to protest the lack of equal pay for equal work for African Americans. They also sought to improve educational opportunities for people of all races.

The Civil Rights Movement began to change after 1965. Some African Americans began to reject the calls for non-violent protests. These people wanted changes to occur much more quickly. They demanded action now, rather than the slower changes that usually came from peaceful demonstrations. By 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had divided between the more peaceful followers of King and generally younger and more assertive African Americans who advocated other methods, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.

Despite this split within the Civil Rights Movement, activists of all races continued to fight for the rights of African Americans. On April 4, 1968, an assassin killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. The Civil Rights Movement split further and lacked the strong influence and leadership that it had enjoyed during the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

Many people view the Civil Rights Movement as the struggle to provide African Americans in the Southern United States with equal opportunities, but this reform era encompassed much more. During the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans living in the northern part of the United States also experienced racism and discrimination. Generally, the problems that these people endured were not as oppressive as African Americans faced in the South. Many white and African American Ohioans actively worked to bring change to the South. They joined organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. They participated in protests across the South including the Freedom Summer Project of 1964.

Other Northern activists sought to end inequality in Ohio. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, the United Freedom Movement sought to desegregate schools in Cleveland, Ohio. Partly due to pressure from Civil Rights activists, the State of Ohio enacted the Ohio Civil Rights Act of 1959 to "prevent and eliminate the practice of discrimination in employment against persons because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry." The Civil Rights Act also guaranteed all people fair access to public facilities and private businesses. The Ohio Civil Rights Act established the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to help eliminate discrimination in Ohio.

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