MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



Civil Rights Movement (U.S.)

The mass struggle of U.S. minorities in the late 1950s and early 1960s which created substantial changes in the laws and social practices which brutally segregated and suppressed minorities.

The struggle of minorities in the Americas against racial exploitation and genocide dates back to 1492, when the first whites came to the continent, and continues uninterrupted up to the present day. The civil rights movement itself came out of the abolitionist struggles during the U.S. civil war; and was predominantly made up of Afro-Americans. The movement was dedicated to keeping the white government intact, but reforming it to be tolerent of racial diversity, and to someday even include people of color. Fifty years past, these goals have to some extents been achieved, though racism in the government and society as a whole remains strong.

Historical Development: While important steps toward the abolition of outright slavery had been taken in the period after the Civil War, the notorious Jim Crow Law still institutionalized segregation in schools and other public facilities up until 1954. During the second world war, Afro-Americans had been drawn into the army and the defence industries, and laws were passed outlawing discrimination against Blacks in these areas. After the War, Afro-Americans found themselves working in large numbers in the rapidly expanding manufacturing industries and played a central role in re-organising and rebuilding the trade union movement, which had been decimated by the government during the Great Depression. Strategically positioned in an increasingly militant organised working class, Afro-Americans were in a strong position to crush institutionalized racism.

In May 1954, a successful Supreme Court challenge by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held segregation to be unconstitutional. This decision set off a mass movement of Afro-Americans, soon bringing into the struggle hispanic, asian, native, and white radicals, some of whom had already been radicalized in the Peace Movement of the 1950-60s.

On December 1 1955, a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to move to the black section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and blacks staged a one-day boycott of the bus system to protest her arrest. Local Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined the struggle and fused the movement with spiritual power and his proclamations of moral guidance. Although he never proclaimed himself a Communist, but instead used the term "Socialized Democrat", some of his closest advisors were or had been members of the Communist Party (before it's decimation by the McCarthyite purges). Regardless, as a "socialized democrat" King was dedicated to reforming, not replacing, the U.S. government. With his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King went on to build a mass movement, which successfully forced the desegregation of the Mongomery bus service, and spread rapidly to other states. By 1960 however, the movement had still not succeeded in desegregating schools and colleges in the South. While King preached peace and continued to dream of a day when all colored people would be free – a young man named Malcolm X explained: "While King is having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare."

The National Liberation Movement, which was spreading like a bushfire across Asia and Africa at this time, was a source of inspiration for many in the Civil Rights Movement, and would play a role in transforming the movement into a revolutionary one. Initially however, in 1960, emulating tactics applied by Gandhi in the Indian struggle against the British Raj, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the sit-in movement, at the segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The SNCC focused on organising groups of people to achieve structural change, trying to build indigenous leaders instead of imposing outside strong personalities from above, Supermarkets, libraries, and movie theatres were targeted as the movement swept across the country. The SNCC refused to bar anyone based on political ideology, much unlike the SCLC which was constantly on guard against communist and radical left accusations which it feared would take it out of the mainstream.

In May 1961 the Freedom Rides began, with blacks and some whites breaking down segregated interstate transportation. Tens of thousands of students participated, many thousands were arrested and brutally beaten and terrorized. The strength of the movement was made apparent in August 1963 with a march on Washington, in support of civil-rights legislation coming before Congress. John F Kennedy, who had been put into power in 1961 and promised to deliver Civil Rights legislation, never moved an inch forward on this, meeting his assassination sooner in November 1963. It was at this time that the brilliant young Malcolm X became censured by the Nation of Islam, which preached a revolutionary black nationalist agenda, after Malcolm explained Kennedy had received what he had coming to him. After all the assassinations he had ordered on other heads of state, after all the wars he had started and tried to start throughout the world; the "chickens are coming home to roost".

After a decade of massive pressure from Afro-American struggles, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, forbidding discrimination in public accommodation and in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, outlawing the tactics used in the South to disenfranchise black voters. But racism and racial oppression continued without a moment's hesitation in the social fabric of the nation, while the power and reach of terrorist groups like the Klu Klux Klan, unhindered by the authorities in their campaigns of murder and terror, caused minorities to explode into action during the Watts rebellions in the summer of 1965, following Malcolm's death. Two years later huge rebellions exploded in Detroit and Newark, being put down after massive police and military intervention. King himself began to wonder how worthy and effective the cause of non-violence was, when whites offered only token legislation after tremendous pressure and struggles fraught with brutality against blacks – legislation that was at best enforced in the most half-assed ways. King began turning his focus to the underlining economic issues, arguing that the wealth of the nation must be redistributed equally among all, striking many in the government as an outright shift towards communist ideology. In 1967 he began planning a Poor People's Campaign to lobby lawmakers, but by 1968, realising such tactics had a limited future in achieving actual economic equality, he began to embrace militant unions. On April, 4, 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking garbage workers. He was shot dead. With his death, the U.S Civil Rights movement had fully transformed into the revolutionary movement for Black Liberation.