Weekly Feature

Associated Press
Two men sit in the first seat behind the driver of a city bus in Montgomery, Al, Dec. 21,
1956, after the supreme court ruled racial segregation on the buses as unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Era: Milestones of the Modern Movement

February 14, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
As pervasive as the civil rights movement was, certain events have come to distinguish the era. In part four of a series, we examine a few pivotal moments, including the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott and the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education.

Mississippi, 1955

The murder of Emmett Till in Money, Miss., in 1955 was a horrific turning point for many people, regardless of race. Widely covered by foreign and domestic press, the case involved the murder of a teenage black boy by two white men. Till was kidnapped after he allegedly whistled at one of their wives. The men beat him, shot and mutilated him, and then abandoned his body in a river. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted the men after just 67 minutes of deliberation. The trial provoked outrage as far as the newswires could reach. The men were ostracized in their community, but the court ruling provoked future protests.

Alabama, 1955

The Montgomery bus boycott, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), lasted more than a year. During the boycott, African-Americans in Montgomery, Ala., took up the cause of Rosa Parks and refused to accept segregated seating on buses. The boycott ended when the Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of desegregation on buses. Following the boycott, Reverend Martin Luther King and Reverend William Powell, president and secretary of the MIA, created suggestions for African-Americans on bus integration.

Watch a rarely seen interview with Rosa Parks on the Internet Archive. The interview was conducted during the Montgomery bus boycott and aired in a Democracy Now videocast following her death in 2005.

The Landmark Case

Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, one of five civil rights cases later encompassed in Brown v. Board of Education, was the only case initiated by students. The students were protesting the poor conditions of their school. A group participated in a walkout staged by a 16-year-old high school student named Barbara Johns. Collectively, five cases related to segregated schooling were combined in Brown v. Board of Education. The case abolished segregation in schools, and represented just one more step in a “long walk to freedom,” to borrow Nelson Mandela’s words. 

The daughter of the person named Brown in the famous case, Cheryl Brown Henderson, discusses the groundbreaking case some 50 years later, on NPR. It is surprising to hear that Brown’s family did not discuss the case with one another for many years.

Listen to an audio sample of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The Presidential Role

Although he was killed before his civil rights initiative achieved its goals in the courts, John F. Kennedy’s mission was inherited by his successor, the “accidental” President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson and Dr. King were, collectively, the main force behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But as we’ve seen in the previous installments of this article, neither man was acting alone. Thousands of people in communities across the country acted to realize Dr. King’s dream.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a hotbed of civil rights progress in the 1950s and 1960s. But what happened after Dr. King was killed? Reverend Joseph E. Lowery ran the SCLC for 40 years, until 1997. Upon his retirement, The New York Times ran a profile on Lowery, illuminating the change in focus from mid-century oppression to legitimate emancipation, and the new goals the organization had in mind for African-Americans after 1964. “Without Jim Crow as a catalyst for action,” the article notes, Lowery “turned the group's attention to economic issues like affirmative action and minority business development, as well as fighting the explosion of violent crime and AIDS among blacks.”

America's First Black President

In the years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, African-Americans have reached and far surpassed the kinds of accomplishments that happened during the nadir of the Booker T. Washington era, a brief renaissance before the setbacks of war, segregation and overt racism. The election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, is undoubtedly proof of how much blacks can accomplish today. 

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