As with all great social movements, the Civil Rights movement that peaked in the 1960s built on much earlier traditions of African American organization, protest, and legal action. Although it did not begin to make dramatic impacts on American society until the 1930s and 1940s, the origins of the Civil Rights movement can be traced back to the 1880s. The modern Civil Rights movement should be traced from African American legal actions during World War II.
What eventually developed into the modern Civil Rights movement began even before the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson, which established the principle of separate but equal. Clarissa Myrick-Harris argues that the Civil Rights movement began with the 1881 Washerwomen’s Strike in Atlanta, in which black laundresses organized a strike to get better wages and more autonomy in their working conditions. The washerwomen drew financial and moral support from Atlanta’s churches and fraternal organizations, setting a pattern that would hold true for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 1881 was an important for African American efforts to protect their rights in Atlanta, as the city’s black residents organized for collective self-defense to protect themselves from police brutality and false arrest. In one such occurrence, African American men and women gathered to protect James Burke when he was arrested for allegedly pushing a white woman from a sidewalk. Not only did his mother brandish a gun at white authorities, but also the crowd followed the police to the jail to ensure that Burke was safe.
From 1890-1910 black Atlantans reacted by the rash of lynching in and around the city by holding mass rallies and launching petition drives to get police protection. They failed to produce significant results, but provided the model of nonviolent direct action that was successfully used during the 1950s and 1960s to finally take concrete steps toward equality. This episode of black protest also drove Atlanta University professor W. E. B. Du Bois to become a civil rights activist.
After the 1906 Atlanta riot, black and white city leaders formed coalitions to provide a façade of peace and civility for the city. African American activists allied with moderate politicians to use their limited electoral power to oust conservative from city government. Although others argued that the need for civility worked against progress in civil rights in other areas of the South, Myrick-Harris believes that the desire to keep the peace in Atlanta allowed it to become the home bases for organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee a few decades later.
Glenda Gilmore also seems to argue for a very early periodization for the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. She argues that in North Carolina, African American men were successfully involved in North Carolina politics from 1890-1898. The primary factor driving conservative white politicians to seek segregation and to limit their voting was due to the political participation and economic success of black men in the state, but also as a measure to limit the ambitions of white women. Gilmore argues that the result of legal segregation in North Carolina was to force black women to act as ambassadors to the white community through their churches and civic organizations in an effort to gain a modicum of respect for their community. As a result, black women helped to develop the organizations that would be so critical to the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
While legal segregation from 1890-1954 may have delayed legal and political equality for African Americans, Darlene Clark Hine argues that it gave African Americans the time and space to gain dignity, develop positive self-images, and develop expertise because they were forced to develop parallel institutions. Professional organizations gave blacks an arena to develop strategies of resistance. This was especially true for lawyers, who had to learn how to survive in court rooms dominated by whites, and experience that Doctors and nurses did not undergo until the fought to desegregate War Department hospitals during World War II.
In what is probably the best argument for an earlier periodization of the Civil Rights Movement, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall believes that the Civil Rights Movement developed during the 1930s as a result of the New Deal. Hall contends that both the First and Second Great Migrations provided the impetus for the Civil Rights Movement, a process that was exacerbated by World War II and the vast social and economic changes that it brought. In the North, African American men got stuck with the worst jobs, while black women could only get domestic work. In the West, African Americans had to fight to prevent Jim Crow-style restrictions on their freedom from following them from the South. In addition to these issues, African Americans faced racism in social welfare and New Deal programs.
To fight these problems, Hall argues that a social movement of labor, civil rights activists, progressives, and black and white radicals developed. The Communist Party of the USA was also associated with this movement, forming a “Black Popular Front”. This black-labor-left coalition tried to extend New Deal policies to cover African Americans. In order to do this, southern Democrats had to be forced out of Congress, but to gain that, the franchise had to be returned to the South’s blacks and poor whites. The Double V campaign was one incarnation of this struggle, which combined millions of workers and returning African American veterans that provided a powerful moral, moral rights-consciousness that was used later to pursue real gains.
National liberation movements that developed during the 1940s and the horror of the Holocaust provided these Civil Rights activist even firmer moral ground to stand on. Hall argues that the Allwright v Smith decision of 1944, desegregation of the military, outlawing racist housing covenants, and ending segregation of graduate education all developed out of this New Deal-era Civil Rights movement.
John Egerton also argues that the Civil Rights Movement started during the 1940s. During the decade of the 1940s Mary McLeod Bethune was and outspoken and fearless opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs, even appearing on streets with a placard to protest lynching. By the end of the decade, the NAACP had launched its assault on legal segregation in education and voting, culminating in the Allwright v Smith (1944) and Brown v Board of Education (1954) decisions by the Supreme Court. Charles Zelden also seems to support this periodization through his discussions of the Allwright decision ending the white primary system.
As part of its system of Jim Crow legislation, Texas had enacted legislation implementing a primary system in which African Americans could not participate. In the solid South, this meant that African Americans were effectively barred from really participating in the electoral process since the real decisions were made during the primaries. Black Texans began their assault on the law during the 1920s, but gained little concrete success. While the law creating the white primary was struck down in consecutive decisions in 1927 and 1932, the Democratic Party enacted its own internal rules preventing African Americans from participating in primaries. Initial court challenges ended with rulings that as a private organization, the Democrats were entitled to enacting their own membership rules.
After significant turn-over in the Supreme Court, a second round of challenges to the white primary met with success when the justices ruled that Texas statutes related to primary elections made the Democratic Party significantly more than just a private organization like a club or fraternal organization. The victory in Allwright v Smith did not provide equal voting rights for African Americans, but it represents a critical first step toward equality even before President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces in 1948, or the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Aldon Morris also argues for a very specific periodization for the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement that places it earlier than might be traditionally recognized, contending that it began in 1953. Morris also asserts, contrary to popular conceptions, that the Civil Rights movement was not a spontaneous and ad hoc proliferation of protest by African Americans, but an organized, collective form of protest that involved large groups of people in boycotts, meetings, and other disruptive, nonviolent tactics. Segregation had forced blacks to develop their own organizations and close knit communities. The churches were the dominant institution, and social networks connected individual churches, while ministers coordinated the mass movement. By the time the Civil Rights Movement as a mass phenomenon developed, the NAACP was the dominant protest organization that was not a church. Its court cases through the first half of the 20th century set the stage that developed leaders for the mass, public, phase of the Civil Rights movement.
The Civil Rights Movement, according the Morris, began with the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, which showed the movement’s leaders that it needed large scale planning and organization. In Baton Rouge, the boycott was mobilized through the churches by Reverend T. J. Jemison, and differed from the NAACP’s tactics because it was a mass protest that focused on direct action, not a legal one. This is the form of protest that spread across the South to organizations that planned protests and devised the tactics that led to the December 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that launched Martin Luther King as the Civil Rights Movement’s charismatic leader.
The Civil Rights Movement hit its next major signpost in Oklahoma at a 1958 lunch counter sit-in, the precursor to the much more famous Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in of 1960. That sit-in spawned hundreds of sit-ins in 70 southern cities. The sit-ins developed into a mass movement of their own, which strengthened the organizational base of the larger Civil Rights movement, and led to the development of SNCC and the white student protests of the 1960s.
Looking at the three major possible time periods to place the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights movement, it is relatively easy to dismiss arguments for the early time period of the 1880s and 1890s. Developments at that time period were undoubtedly important for setting the groundwork that allowed African Americans to develop the skills and organizations they needed to successfully demand their legal and political rights in the 1950s and the 1960s. It is significantly more difficult to make a choice between the arguments Jacqueline Dowd Hall and John Egerton make for a start to the Civil Rights movement during the 1930s and 1940s, and the later periods argued by Aldon Morris and others. Morris especially makes a persuasive argument for placing the beginnings of the mass Civil Rights Movement in 1953 with the Baton Rouge bus boycott. The real question is whether that either the Baton Rouge or Montgomery bus boycotts could develop without the progress made earlier. Hall and Egerton’s argument for a black-liberal-left coalition that began to advocate for changes during the Roosevelt administration is quite persuasive. If not for those advocates, it is unlikely that the Democratic Party adds its civil rights plank in 1948 or that President Truman integrates the armed forces by executive order in 1948. Those events provided the inspiration for the bus boycotts and sit-ins of 1953-1960.