How united was the Civil Rights movement from 1865 to 1992?

During the years from 1865 to 1992, many groups and individuals worked as part of the Civil Rights Movement. At times, these groups worked successfully together to bring about positive change for African Americans. However, due to the diversity of the different groups involved in the movement, there were also divisions. These divisions were caused by differences in the ideas of leaders of the movement, different techniques used by the Civil Rights groups and opposing aims within the movement.

The aims of the Civil Rights Movement were important, as it would have been most successful at times when all the groups involved were working towards a clear common aim. The main period of division was the 1960s, and this was largely due to the differing aims of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two key individuals in the movement. Martin Luther King’s main aim was to bring about desegregation in the South, and for black people to have the same rights as white people. This was a complete contrast the views of Malcolm X, who believed economic change was more important than desegregation, and called for a separate black state, showing that he didn’t feel it was possible for African Americans to gain equality in the same way that Martin Luther King did. While King believed strongly in the importance of non-violent action, partly due to religious reasons, Malcolm X felt that violence used for “self defence” was acceptable. The ideas of these two very different men contradicted each other, which caused tension within the movement and meant there was a lack of unity during the 1960s. However, as both men began to acknowledge each other, their views changed slightly and moved closer towards a kind of middle ground, showing that, although they were divided, there could have been the potential for a much more united movement during the 1960s.

In many ways, Malcolm X’s ideas were similar to those of Marcus Garvey, a Civil Rights activist in the late 19th and early 20th century who believed that social and economic change were the most significant factors in achieving equal rights. Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign shows that he felt African Americans would not be able to achieve equality in America, an idea that continued into the 1960s, and clearly influenced Malcolm X. Although Booker T. Washington had also mentioned a return to Africa and in some cases held similar views, he was much less radical and outspoken than Garvey, which could hint at divisions very early on in the Civil Rights Movement.

It wasn’t just the aims of individuals that were important, as a number of organisations played a very important role in helping to advance the Civil Rights Movement. Despite differences in their methods, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were both working towards desegregation, showing an element of unity between the two organisations. This is a contrast to the situation in the 1960s, as the aims of Martin Luther King’s SCLC were completely different to those of the Black Power groups, such as the Black Panthers. Like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers believed that economic change was vital, and develop a ten point plan on which their activities were based. Some of these ideas, such as full employment for black people, were beneficial, but the militancy and ideas of black supremacy held by the group contradicted the views of Martin Luther King, and gave the Civil Rights Movement a more negative public image, which lasted into the 1970s.

A turning point for the Civil Rights Movement was 1965, as after this point the movement became noticeably more militant. The Selma march in 1965 had caused tension within the movement, as Jamie Lee Jackson was murdered as a result of the SCLC march, and protesters were treated violently. When King agreed to cut short a planned march to the Governor’s office, he was accused of being timid, and even his own supporters started to turn against him. This was the start of serious divisions within the movement. SNNC had started to become slightly more militant, as they became frustrated with the lack of progress the non violent action was making. A more significant development was the formation of the Black Panthers in 1966. Led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the group were obviously much more militant than any previous Civil Rights group. To SCLC supporters, the formation of the Black Panthers, who openly used violence, seemed like a step back from the progress that had been made. The Black Panthers had clearly been influenced by both Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, as they focused on a sense of cultural pride, although this was rather extreme, as they leaned towards the idea of separation. The Black Panthers attracted members from SNCC, which showed just how divided the movement had become by this point, as SNCC had always been associated with the SCLC and non-violent action.

The events at Selma and the formation of the Black Panthers showed a significant change from the situation in the early 1960s. Before 1965, the SCLC and SNCC had worked together using non-violent direct direction, such as marches and sit-ins to tackle the issue of segregation. Martin Luther King’s strong views about non-violence had helped give the Civil Rights Movement a more popular image, and helped the movement makes progress. For example, during the 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama, the police in the city used violence against the protesters, who didn’t retaliate, which made the authorities seem like the group in the wrong. The subsequent negotiations led to some shops being segregated in Birmingham, and new laws helping black people find employment. This demonstrated how non-violent protest and negotiation could be used effectively, showing that there was no need for violence in the movement. Similarly, the NAACP were against the use of violence, focusing instead on legal cases, such as the Brown v. Topeka case of 1954, which highlighted the importance of the Supreme Court, and again showed that gains could be made without resorting to violence. The early 1960s were a time when all Civil Rights groups felt they could work together, as the Council of Community Organisation was formed in 1963, creating a sense of unity between different groups. The 1963 march on Washington showed how united the movement was at this point, as the majority of Civil Rights groups took part, including the SCLC, SNCC and CORE. All the groups seemed to have a similar sense of purpose, showing that, although they may have had differing views and ideas, they were willing and able to work together, because as well as taking part, all three groups helped plan the march. The march also demonstrated how, at this point, the movement had a lot of white support, increasing the sense of unity and showing the growing popularity of the movement.

The 1960s wasn’t the first time there had been signs of division in the movement, as the NAACP and CORE had been seen as opposing groups since the Second World, when CORE was formed. The NAACP focused completely on taking the legal route, presenting cases of discrimination to the Supreme Court in order to get desegregation and acts of racism declared unconstitutional. This contrasts with the more direct approach of CORE, who, while not supporting violent action at this point, used more direct forms of protest than the NAACP. CORE were generally more confrontational than the NAACP, and this could have caused divisions during the 1940s, as this was when the Supreme Court started to support the movement, so the NAACP wouldn’t have wanted CORE to undo the progress they had made. This division didn’t continue, a CORE faded from the movement during the Cold War years, and the NAACP became more dominant, being responsible for successful cases such as the Brown v. Topeka case of 1954, which proved that using legal cases was successful and useful to the movement, as well as highlighting the importance of the Supreme Court in advancing Civil Rights. However, as the SCLC became more prominent during the late 1950s, there were tensions between the two groups, particularly following the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1957, as the NAACP saw Martin Luther King and the SCLC as too confrontational. There was a lack of unity between the two groups, despite the fact that the SCLC wanted to cooperate with the NAACP over common issues, such as voting rights.

Later on in the movement, towards the 1980s and 1990s, many of these groups faded away, like CORE had done during the Cold War. Groups that had been hugely influential from the 1950s to the start of the 1970s, such as the SNNC and Black Panthers, no longer existed, and although the SCLC still existed, it hadn’t adapted and its style wasn’t suitable for the 1980s and 1990s. Only the NAACP was still active and successful, and could be seen as the dominant group, as they had been during the 1950s. This meant that there weren’t divisions in the movement, as there weren’t really any opposing Civil Rights groups. However the cooperation of the Supreme Court was still crucial to the success of the NAACP, and it could be said that if they weren’t united in some way with the movement, it would have been difficult for further progress to be made.

The divisions in the movement weren’t just because of different views about how black people should achieve equal rights. The main reason that divisions in the movement formed was the difference between the North and the South. In the South, desegregation was an important issue for black people, as it was a problem well into the 1960s. Voting Rights were also important, as African Americans living in the South had always faced difficulty voting, as they were subjected to unfair tests or faced intimidation from anti rights groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. These problems didn’t apply to black people living in the North, who instead faced the problems of poverty, de facto segregation in housing and unequal education. Groups such as the SCLC and NAACP were formed and based in the South, dealing predominately with the issues that applied to Southern blacks, making them irrelevant to black people in the North. Also, State governments in the South were less sympathetic to the movement, so issued had to be dealt with careful, perhaps in a different way to in the North. Similarly, groups that were active in the North, such as CORE and later the Black Panthers dealt largely with economic and housing problems, and had little in common with the Civil Rights groups of the South. This shows that is was difficult to have a completely united movement, as the situations in the North and South were so different, and that there was no one approach that would be relevant to both areas. This could suggest that none of the methods used by any Civil Rights group was wrong, as they were simply trying to find a form of protest or campaigning that was relevant to the area they were active in.

The advancement of African American Civil Rights wasn’t just dependent on the unity of the movement itself. It also relied on the cooperation on the President, Congress and the Supreme Court. The reason that the Civil Rights Movement was so successful during the 1960s, despite the divisions within the movement, was because for the first time, the President, Congress and the Supreme Court were all united in helping to advance the movement. Since the 1640s the Supreme Court had been sympathetic towards the Civil Rights Movement, and was particularly significant in helping abolish segregation in the South. President Kennedy was one of the first Presidents to take such an interest in the movement since President Roosevelt in the 1930s. this had a significant impact, as Kennedy’s involvement led to the Civil Rights bill being drafted, and later being passed by Johnson. Johnson continued Kennedy’s support of the movement, passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965, showing his commitment to the cause of Civil Rights. For these two major pieces of legislation to be ratified, the support of Congress was essential. At this time, Congress generally supported the ideas of Kennedy, and were willing to pass legislation to help advance Civil Rights. This could have been because of the growing popularity of the movement, or the fact that a number of protests and marches held in the early 1960s, when the movement was relatively united, had successfully raised awareness of the problem faced by black people. The cooperation of Congress continued into the 1980s, when it was very liberal and willing to pass more Civil Rights legislation, such as the 1982 Voting Rights Act, despite the fact that President Reagan wasn’t cooperative like Kennedy.

Even when the Federal Government wasn’t united in its views towards Civil Rights, it was still possible to make progress. The same idea can be applied to the Civil Rights Movement itself, as, despite the divisions that were sometimes present, the movement was still able to make significant progress. The lack of unity wasn’t severe enough to greatly hinder the movement, and could almost be seen as a positive thing, as the differences were mainly based around the differences between North and South. The different approaches meant that all areas were being covered, and all the relevant issues were being dealt with. This made the Civil Rights Movement successful, and examples of unity, such as the 1963 march on Washington, show that despite their differences, groups within the movement could work together when they needed to.