Civil Rights: The Movement

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Civil Rights March on Washington, DC

Civil Rights March on Washington, DC,
August 28, 1963 - National Archives

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constition officially outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, the Fourteenth Amendment overruled the Dred Scott case and gave citizenship and protection to all under the law regardless of race in 1868, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave all citizens the right to vote regardless of that person's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" in 1870. Despite these measures, African-Americans still faced racist Jim Crow laws and customs that enabled whites to provide blacks with "separate but equal" public spaces that were actually substandard, inferior, and discriminatory. This lasted from the 1870s through the 1960s, until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were signed into law in 1964 and 1965, respectively.

"It's something that you
simply grow up with"
- Pauli Murray

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In her interview, lawyer and activist Pauli Murray discusses these Jim Crow laws as she recalls growing up in Durham and having a "very conscious" awareness of segregation, lynchings, and racial discrimination. Specifically, she remembers hearing her grandmother tell stories about the Ku Klux Klan riding around her cabin in Chapel Hill. As Murray says, "This awareness to a child of my generation grows with you, just like almost a part of your body and your being."

The United States civil rights movement gained widespread public awareness in the 1950s, but many trailblazers began their work to outlaw racial discrimination and bring equal rights under the law to all Americans long before then. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 to promote equality through litigation and legislative efforts. The legal department of the NAACP fought landmark cases, overturning Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established those supposed "separate but equal" facilities for African-Americans, and winning Brown vs. Board of Education and thus integrating schools.

Women like Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Modjeska Simkins were members of the NAACP and were instrumental in the formation and operation of two organizations on the front lines of the struggle for equality: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization which engaged in direct, collective action; and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization for younger African-American activists. Other women, like Elizabeth Brooks and Mary Smith, took leadership roles as they engaged in direct action to claim fair treatment and compensation for themselves and their fellow workers at the university.