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Introduction to Political Science

7.4 Civil Rights Movements

Introduction to Political Science7.4 Civil Rights Movements

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the methods marginalized groups use to fight for civil rights protections.
  • Compare current and historical examples of civil rights movements in the United States and around the world.
  • Analyze the ways in which marginalized groups have sought to gain and mobilize allies among more powerful segments of society.

Compared to other types of governments, democracies are fundamentally distinct in how they allow citizens to take an active role. Forms of political participation include boycotts, communicating with legislators, displaying signs, donating to candidates and campaigns, voting, running for office, volunteering in civic organizations, and participating in rallies and protests. (For more on political participation, see Chapter 5: Political Participation and Public Opinion and Chapter 8: Interest Groups, Political Parties, and Elections.) Historically, citizens (and noncitizens in some situations) have used various forms of participation to raise awareness of problems in the hopes of influencing elected officials to seek public policy solutions to these problems in the form of statutes and laws. Civil rights groups and social movements have emerged in response to conditions or events in which minority group members were targeted and subjected to discrimination and violence because of their minority group membership. Some of the most significant civil rights victories globally started from humble beginnings but turned into movements that galvanized millions.

What Can I Do?

How Personal Responsibility Shapes Civil Rights



A Protestor Confronts a Line of Chinese Armored Tanks in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989

In this video clip, a lone protester confronts a line of advancing tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on June 5, 1989.

As you read through this chapter, you may be struck by how many of the events that have brought change started with the action of one or two individuals. What would have happened if these individuals had not drawn attention to what they saw as the unethical, immoral, or unequal treatment of certain groups? Whether explicitly or subconsciously, these individuals realized it was up to them to take personal responsibility. They understood that they had to try to make a difference through some form of action, using whatever means they had, and that the action they were going to take was an ethical response to what they viewed as an unjust situation. Many people see things around them that they disagree with or that they feel are wrong. However, they may not believe that they as individuals can make a difference, or they are unsure what actions they as individuals can take that would make a difference. Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you believe something wrong is occurring—at work, in school, or as a part of an extracurricular organization—remember that the actions of individuals can make a difference.

From Individual to Group Action

In 1848, Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay titled Civil Disobedience inspired by his public refusal to pay a poll tax, which landed him in jail. Liberal political philosopher John Rawls defines civil disobedience as a “public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”77


Civil Disobedience

English actor Stephen Fry narrates this explanation and brief history of civil disobedience.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience influenced the political attitudes and subsequent activism of M. K. “Mahatma” Gandhi,78 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,79 and other writers and reactionaries like Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, Leo Tolstoy, and Marcel Proust.80

A large group of people march down a paved road surrounded by dirt, trees, and brush. Most are dressed in white. The people who lead the marchers hold a banner that says Burn Borders Not Coal.
Figure 7.10 In May 2016, more than 3,500 European climate activists shut down the open-cast coal mine Welzow-Süd in Germany and cut Europe’s tenth-largest emitter of CO2, the Schwarze Pumpe power plant, off from all coal supplies. In this act of civil disobedience, protesters entered the mine and blocked coal transport. (credit: “Ende Gelände: Day 1 - More than 3,500 people joined the action of civil disobedience” by Tim Wagner/Break Free/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In 1892, Homer Plessy engaged in an act of civil disobedience when he challenged the discriminatory Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act (1890), which required all Louisiana passenger trains to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”81 The act required railway staff to deny accommodation to those refusing to abide by the law. Plessy, who was one-eighth Black and “passed” as a White man, sat in the train car reserved for White passengers and announced to the conductor that he was Black. Though Plessy acted alone, he was part of an organization that called itself Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), and he agreed to protest the law on their behalf.82 After his actions resulted in his arrest, he had standing to challenge the law, and his case went before the US Supreme Court.

The Court’s opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) reinforced the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which gave constitutional protection to race-based discrimination and supported the attitudes of the majority of Americans and elected officials at the time. This made it legal and constitutional for states to determine who was White and who was non-White and to decide whether and when White people and non-White people would be separated in public accommodations. It freed private businesses and institutions to practice race-based segregation without government interference. According to the Legal Information Institute,

“The decision . . . was the first major inquiry in to the meaning of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the states from denying “equal protection of the laws” to any person within their jurisdiction . . . Justice Brown stated that even though the Fourteenth Amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races, separate treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans.”83

In the years following the Plessy decision, activist efforts grew to work for civil rights for African Americans. In 1909, Black leaders including W. E. B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells joined White advocates to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Organized actions gained traction with the work of groups like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a Black labor union founded in 1925, and later in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a group that influenced and worked with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1950s and 1960s, CORE pioneered the use of acts of civil disobedience like bus boycotts, marches, and sit-ins as a central mechanism of the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used nonviolent tactics to challenge segregation, register and mobilize Black voters, and seek equal protection and equal treatment for Black people and for women.84

In 1969, seventy years after Homer Plessy’s protest, Czech university student Jan Palach signed a suicide note with the fictional name “Torch Number 1” and set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the growing despondency among Czech youth.85 His suicide inspired further suicides and eventually led to a populist uprising known as the Velvet Revolution, which, as the Soviet Union was dissolving, culminated in Czechoslovakia’s independence in 1989 and its dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Protesters crowd a street lined with old European buildings. Several protesters hold up banners.
Figure 7.11 Thousands gathered in Prague in 1989 as part of the Velvet Revolution. (credit: “1989 sametova revoluce 12” by Josef Šrámek ml./Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi died by suicide to protest police corruption and lack of economic opportunities in Tunisia.86 As word spread of Bouazizi’s suicide, thousands gathered across the country, united by what they saw as a death in response to government corruption. News, photos, and videos of the Tunisian protests were quickly shared with people in other Arab countries, and what started as a demonstration in Tunisia engulfed the Middle East. Within months, four government leaders would resign in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, ushering in what many saw as the beginning of more populist and democratic ways of life.87 This movement became known as the Arab Spring.

Movements to Achieve African American Equality

Most people associate the civil rights movement in the United States with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington, but the movement first began with a 1953 bus boycott aimed at desegregating public transportation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.88 This protest occurred two years before the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till for allegedly offending a White woman in a grocery store and the arrest of Rosa Parks that instigated the more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, both of which occurred in 1955.

Rev. Martin Luther King Junior waving to a large crowd from a platform podium and being photographed by the press at the 1963 March on Washington.
Figure 7.12 Dr. Martin Luther King addressed a crowd of over 200,000 people gathered at the US Capitol during the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (credit: “Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site” by National Park Service/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The civil rights movement was also characterized by a push-and-pull between the American presidency, Congress, and the US Supreme Court. Each had a major role to play, and because of checks and balances, they all influenced the work of the other. Their work culminated in the passage of two of the most significant laws in United States history, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Both came about during an era of great public involvement and protest over the lack of civil rights afforded to African Americans. Despite newspaper, radio, and television coverage of events including protest marches that were met with violent police response, there was still considerable resistance among members of Congress, representatives, and senators to passing these comprehensive bills.


President Lyndon Johnson Remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation on national television.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), a decentralized, grassroots movement focused on fighting police brutality and racially motivated violence, represents, for many, a new civil rights movement. While earlier civil rights movements focused on equal access to opportunities and public accommodations, according to its website, the mission of Black Lives Matter “is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”89 The movement has primarily used social media to organize marches, protests, and boycotts and to communicate with elected officials.90 In this way it is markedly different from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which was primarily inspired and organized by political institutions91 like African American churches92 and by student/youth-heavy organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,93 and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In its examination of the nature of systemic and institutional racism at the national, state, and local levels and on a global scale, Black Lives Matter represents to many the next stage in the effort to secure civil rights for Black people. Where past civil rights movements focused on the consequences of racism, BLM adds an examination of racism’s origins and the structural constructs like patriarchy, colorism, capitalism, and homophobia that create the conditions that allow for racist institutions.

One of the biggest outcomes of BLM’s efforts has been the mainstreaming of the phrase “structural racism.” As senior correspondent for TIME magazine Justin Worland notes, “once confined to academic and activist circles on the left of the spectrum, [the term structural racism] has become the phrase du jour.”94

An estimated 15 to 26 million people in the United States participated in the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, making them perhaps the largest social movement demonstration in United States history.95 It is difficult to compare the 2020 protests with other social movements and marches in the United States because most events take place on one day. The 2020 summer rallies, protests, and marches drew more participants than the combined attendance at the 1982 anti-nuclear march in New York City, the 2017 Women’s March, and the February 2003 nationwide protest against the war in Iraq.96

A large group of protestors march down a street. The marchers at the front of the group carry a large banner with the images of two young Black men and the words Black Lives Matter.
Figure 7.13 Protestors march through Minneapolis on November 15th, 2015, to protest the death of Jamar Clark, a Black man who was shot by police while handcuffed in police custody. (credit: “Black Lives Matter protest march” by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Me Too

One of the most remarkable social movements of the 21st century has been Me Too, a global effort that encourages people to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault and to publicly name their attackers. American activist Tarana Burke originally coined the phrase in 2006 in response to working with children of color who were victims of molestation and childhood sexual abuse.97 As she heard story after story of the horrors Black girls experienced, Burke was reminded of her own experience of rape at the age of seven and the shame she subsequently felt. She came up with the expression “Me Too” as a form of solidarity with the victims, particularly girls of color.98 Ten years later, in 2017, the movement exploded, primarily through the Twitter hashtag #MeToo, building an online community of millions of people, mostly women, who push not only for recognition of the generational trauma of sexual harassment, but also for immediate civil rights change.99

A woman walks among protesters on a city street carrying a signboard that reads “Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo.”
Figure 7.14 A woman carries a #MeToo sign during a protest. (credit: “Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo” by Alec Perkins/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Me Too movements have sprung up around the world, uniting people across the globe and across generations. The movement has sparked public outrage over the past untouchability of celebrities and public figures accused of sexual harassment like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, Louis C.K., Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew, James Franco, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, and others whose cult of personality shielded them for years from criminal investigation or accountability. Gen Z has played a pivotal role in Me Too gaining momentum. As columnist David Bloom put it, “Youths are approaching power in new ways, wielding it collectively through social media and new vectors of influence . . . a self-organizing flash mob responding to a perceived problem or issue.”100

According to Vox, because of the Me Too movement, there are now better formal procedures for victims of sexual assault to seek affordable legal representation, more workplace protections, and even new state laws to remove sexual harassment from nondisclosure agreements.101 In addition to working for this practical legal progress, Me Too activists strive to change fundamental perceptions of women. However, like other civil rights movements before it, Me Too has not had the same level of success everywhere, and there is still much work to be done. According to immigrant author and journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, “#MeToo stories are now a reminder of the feminist moment that our institutions sidestepped to avoid accountability. In India, women still have limited access to justice—unless their stories are used as trauma porn for the nation.”102 Fundamentally, despite millions of men and women taking part in protests across the country, conceptions of women have not substantively changed in India in response to Me Too. The country has missed the moment, and even in countries that have made some progress, there is still work to do.

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