The 1960’s in America is widely remembered as a decade of sweeping reforms and rapid changes both in legislation and the general public’s attitude with regard to civil rights. The civil rights movement resulted notably in acts such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on color, race, religion, sex, and national origin; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped make it possible for blacks and other minorities to vote by suspending literacy tests and authorizing federal examiners to register blacks under certain conditions. However, the civil rights reform movement of the 1960s did not exist in a vacuum. The foundation for these political, legal, and social changes was laid in the events of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Political Precedents

President Lyndon Johnson is renowned for the leadership he showed in pushing for civil rights legislation. A precedent for dealing with the issue of civil rights from the White House down was set in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed a distinguished group of Americans as members of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which held a series of public hearings, ordered a number of staff studies made, and received hundreds of communications from organizations and private citizens 1. In 1947, the group presented a written report to the President entitled “To Secure These Rights,” which described “what it felt was the government’s responsibility to safeguard the civil rights of all Americans and recommended a complete program of action to remedy the shortcomings described1. The report included four basic rights which the Committee believed were “essential to the well-being of the individual and to the progress of society1: the right to safety and security of the person, the right to citizenship and its privileges (including the right to vote free of hassle), the right to freedom of conscience and expression, and the right to equality of opportunity. Although it took years for any significant bills to be passed and almost half of the Committee’s proposals were never put into effect, the report helped to create strong political pressures to enact new, more effective civil rights legislation.

Legal Precedents

Years before the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960’s, the Supreme Court began to shift towards support for desegregation in education. Victories for civil rights were won in cases such as Sipuel vs. University of Oklahoma in 1948 and Sweatt vs. Painter in 1949, which dealt with discrimination in law school facilities, and McLaurin vs. Oklahoma in 1950, in which the Court stated that segregated law schools “impair and inhibit [the African-American student’s] ability to study, engage in discussions and exchange views with other students and, in general, to learn his profession2. Another great victory came in 1954 with the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Oliver Brown of Topeka wanted to prevent the enforcement of a state segregation law that prevented his daughter Linda from attending an all-white school three blocks from their home and obliging the eight-year-old to travel a mile by bus every morning to reach an all-black school. Four similar cases from Clarendon County, South Carolina; Prince Edward County, Virginia; New Castle County, Delaware; and Washington, D.C., all combined under the name of the plaintiff from Topeka, were heard in the Supreme Court on December 9, 19422. On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”2. For the first time, public schools were opened to both black and white students. This landmark case in the history of the civil rights movement contained the roots of future Supreme Court decisions and future civil rights legislation.

Social Precedents

The latent political power of the African-American community was also revealed in the 1940’s and 1950’s, paving the way for future civil rights leaders and creating political pressure for reform. During the period of 1940-1960, some three million African-Americans migrated to the North and filled the cities: in this period, the African-American population of New York City doubled, that of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit tripled, and that of Los Angeles increased by five times2. This change in the cities’ demographics had significant consequences for politicians, who “now had to take the African-American vote and, more significantly, African-American grievances, into consideration at the local as well as the national level”2. An important example of the African-Americans’ growing influence was the threatened march on Washington in 1941. A. Philip Randolph, militant leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the only important black trade union, suggested that fifty or a hundred thousand blacks march on Washington to protest their exclusion from industry. After being told by prominent whites such as Mayor La Guardia of New York and Eleanor Roosevelt that “it was the wrong time for such action”, Randolph still refused to budge, until finally (“to avoid embarrassment”) President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting discrimination in war plants on the basis of race, creed, or national origin3. He also established a Fair Employment Practices Commission with powers to investigate complaints but not to compel compliance with its orders4. Gaining favorable results from a threatened march on Washington set a precedent for actual marches two decades later.

The nonviolent protest approach to civil rights activism had its roots in the 1950’s. On December 1, 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks got on a bus and sat down in the “colored” section near the back. When a white man got on and found the “white” section of the bus full, the driver directed Parks to give the man her seat. She refused, and was arrested. This unplanned action was “the spark that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott5. In response to Rosa Parks’ arrest and in protest of their treatment, the majority of the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, walked, biked, and carpooled to work rather than ride the busses for over a year. The Montgomery bus company suffered greatly from the loss of business. Ultimately, Martin Luther King, Jr., spokesman for the boycott, and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) filed suit with the Supreme Court, which ruled that Montgomery had to integrate its busses. It did so on December 21, 19565. This was another milestone in the civil rights movement that clearly demonstrated the power of peaceful, united people in large numbers.

World War II was instrumental in preparing American social views for the civil rights movement. Once the Nazi campaign against the Jews was revealed, its “emphasis on racism helped discredit racial doctrines in the United States”2. The contradictions of fighting a war against racism abroad while endorsing segregation at home became apparent. Liberals and conservatives alike began equating poll taxes, grandfather clauses, lynching, and the segregation of African-Americans with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The Crisis commented that “it sounds pretty foolish to be against park benches marked ‘Jude’ in Berlin, but to be for park benches marked ‘colored’ in Tallahassee, Florida2. Many books were written in the 1940’s that challenged the idea of racial superiority in general and emphasized the importance of individual differences over racial generalizations, the commonalities that all human beings share, and the idea that “racial” traits are really the product of culture and environment. Ashley Montagu declared in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942) that the rise of fascism “shows us today where we end up if we think the shape of the nose or the color of the skin has anything to do with human values and culture”2. The parallel drawn between early Nazi treatment of Jews and American treatment of blacks was a major factor in changing Americans’ attitude towards racism and preparing them for the desegregation and antidiscrimination movement to come.

Although the developments of the 1940’s and 1950’s laid a foundation for the social reform aspect of the great civil rights movement of the 1960’s, it set less of a foundation for the facet of the movement dealing with voting rights. It wasn’t until 1963, when a group of African-Americans in Mississippi ran a mock election (called the “Freedom Election”) to show their anger at being unable to register to vote5, that voting rights came to the foreground. The political events and social changes in an America exiting the era of the Great Depression and overcoming, in Nazi Germany, the threat of a powerful enemy state which took racial superiority to unprecedented extremes, paved the way for the revolution in civil rights in the 1960’s. From the exercise of presidential power, to the influence of the Supreme Court, to the success of nonviolent demonstrations and even marches on Washington, the decades preceding the 1960’s set the stage for the reform movement and the willingness of Americans to accept it.

  1. Friedman, Leon, ed. The Civil Rights Reader: Basic Documents of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Walker and Company, 1967.
  2. Cashman, Sean Dennis. African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
  3. O’Neill, William L. American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960. New York: The Free Press, 1986.
  4. Lingeman, Richard R. Don’t You Know There’s A War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
  5. Holland, Gini. A Cultural History of the United States Through the Decades: the 1960s. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1999.

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