Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes


Question for Discussion: What were the major
factors that caused the growth of the Black
Civil Rights movement after World War II?

Reading: Hoffman, pp. 358-364; Brown vs. Board of
Education (web)
; Plessy vs. Ferguson (web); Jim Crow
Laws in the South (web)

Video: Eyes on the Prize: Fighting Back (1957-
1962); Making Sense of the Sixties: Seeds of
the Sixties

Daily Class Web Links

Blacks in 20th-Century America

The Black Civil Rights Movement
in the 1950s

Daily Class Outline

1. The Jim Crow South

2. The Growth of the Civil Rights
Movement after World War II



Daily Class Questions

1. Do you agree with Sitkoff that changes in the economy after World War II were the most important cause of the growth of  the Civil Rights movement?

2. How did Northern Blacks help end segregation and racial violence in the South in the 1950s and 1960s?

3. How did the Cold War affect the growth of the Civil Rights 
movement in the 1950s?

4. Why did Blacks leaders decide that the first stage of the Civil Rights movement in the South should focus on securing "the enforcement of  the 14th and 15th Amendments"?

5. How did the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling affect the Civil Rights movement?

6. What are the major arguments the Supreme Court used in the Brown decision to declare "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional?

7. Why do the writers of the "Southern Manifesto" believe that the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling interferes with "the reserved rights of the States and the people"?

8. Do the authors of the Southern Manifesto believe that Supreme Court and the Federal government have the right to interfere with race relations in the South?

9. What does the white mob's threat to lynch the young black school girl in Little Rock, Arkansas, tell us about segregation and race relations in the South in the 1950s?

10. Why did the white mob worry about whether the reporter was Jewish? Are these Southern whites also Anti-Semitic?



Daily Class Notes

"The white South said that it knew "niggers," and I was what the white South called a "nigger." Well, the white South had never known me--never known what I thought, what I felt. The white South said that I had a "place" in life. Well, I had never felt my "place"; or, rather, my deepest instincts had always made me reject the "place" to which the white South had assigned me. It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being. And no word that I had ever heard fall from the lips of southern white men had ever made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity."
..............Richard Wright, Black Boy


This week I want to look at how the divisions and conflicts in 1950s America helped shape the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. Since the 1970s, many conservatives have argued that the 1960s damaged America; they claim that the 1950s were a better, more peaceful, more patriotic time. In fact, since the 1970s, many conservatives have wished that America could forget the changes and divisions brought by the 1960s and return to the America of the 1950s. They idealize the 1950s as a time when America worked and when Americans believed in their government, society, and their future. Indeed, Ronald Reagan as President in the 1980s would try to return America to the optimism, patriotism, and values of the 1950s. But were the 1950s really the opposite of the 1960s? Did America lose its innocence and was torn apart by cultural, racial, class, political, and religious divisions in the 1960s? Did America really work in the 1950s?

We have to ask these questions because the divisions and cultural and political "wounds" created by political and social conflict in the 1960s and early 1970s are still very much with us. The fact that Americans still look back in confusion and dismay at the so-called "1960s," even in the late 1990s, demonstrates that the divisions created by the 1960s are still with us. It is out this confusion about the 1960s that many conservatives and other Americans have looked back at the 1950s with nostalgia and longing for this lost time. Beginning in the 1970s, many Americans begin to look at the 1950s with a strange feeling of nostalgia and lost innocence. We can see this nostalgia in popular television series of the 1970s such as "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" and popular movies such as "American Graffiti" and "The Summer of '42." But were the 1950s, as compared to the 1960s, really such an innocent time when America worked? Was the 1950s as innocent, wholesome, and untroubled as "Happy Days" portrays it?

I will argue that in order to understand the 1960s and the divisions and wounds this tumultuous decade created we need to understand the conflicts and divisions in the 1950s that gave rise to them. The 1960s, far from being the opposite of the 1950s, grew out of the conflicts and tensions at the heart of 1950s Cold War America. Contradictions growing out of racism and racial divisions, McCarthyism and political repression, growing poverty amidst middle-class affluence, and increasing political and cultural divisions between the young and older Americans in the 1950s led to the political and cultural battles and explosions in the 1960s. One of the most important of these social and political conflicts in the 1950s grew out of racism and the Civil Rights movement's growing challenge to Black's second-class status in American society and culture. The Civil Rights movement helped spawn many of the protest movements of the 1960s, serving as example and inspiration to the student movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the Chicano movement, the American Indian movement, and even the Grey Panthers.

So what caused the growth of the Civil Rights movement after World War II? Why in the so-called peaceful, tranquil, ideal America of the 1950s did racial inequality and racism become to the forefront of American social and political thought? If America really worked and was united around common social and political values in the 1950s, why were there still racism and racial divisions in America? Those who look back longingly for the 1950s often ignore the bitter reality that America was a racist nation in the 1950s. Blacks faced segregation and second-class citizenship in the North as well as the South. But in the South the culture of Jim Crow destroyed the dignity and humanity of all Blacks in the 1950s.

In order to understand the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, we need to look for a moment at the institutions of the Jim Crow South. Since the 1890s, the South had been building and perfecting the system of Jim Crow, which required that Blacks be segregated and isolated from Southern white society. In the 1950s, under Jim Crow, Blacks couldn't vote, couldn't go to white schools and couldn't therefore get good educations, couldn't get decent jobs that paid decent wages, couldn't live near or enter into the larger white society. Southern Blacks were forced to accept their permanent second-class citizenship with the threat of brutal white violence. Jim Crow was based on the constant threat of white violence if Blacks didn't accept their place. Periodic lynchings, beatings, and intimidation were used to enforce this Jim Crow system. Blacks understood that if they didn't act like "niggers" and accept their own racial inferiority they could face punishment and even death at the hands of whites. Blacks knew they shouldn't look a white person in the eye, they shouldn't act as if they were as good as whites, and they should defer to white's authority.

For many of us today it is hard to believe that such brutal racism and violence dominated American life in the 1950s. But from the 1890s to the 1960s, Southern whites were told that their own economic and political status depended on keeping Blacks in their place. If Blacks weren't forced to take the bad jobs and do the cheap, dirty labor in the South, whites feared that they someday might challenge whites for the good jobs and economic opportunities in the South. Believing that their economic and social status depended on keeping Blacks down, Southern whites supported Jim Crow and would fight the Civil Rights movement with the same violence and threats of massive violence that they has used to keep Blacks in their place since the 1890s. Of course, in the 1950s and 1960s, television brought the reality of Jim Crow, white racism, and brutal violence into the homes of Americans throughout the country. Just as it is hard for us to understand this vicious violence and racism today, it was hard for many Northern White and Black Americans to understand and accept the violence they saw on their television, as white mobs attacked and brutally beat Civil Rights protesters and Southern policemen beat up and harassed women and children with dogs and fire hoses.

We still haven't answered the larger question: Why did Blacks after World War II, after enduring more than fifty years of Southern Jim Crow, decide to challenge this brutal system of racism and segregation in the South? They knew that they would face this massive violence, that white mobs, the Klan, and Southern law enforcement would try to frighten them into submission. So why in the 1950s did Southern Blacks believe that they could win this struggle to end Jim Crow and racial segregation and inequality in the South?

In his essay, "The Preconditions for Racial Change," Harvard Sitkoff argues that economic changes brought by World War II and renewed prosperity were the most important of a number of factors that led to the growth of the Civil Rights movement. Economic growth and affluence, he argues, "meant that the economic progress of blacks did not have to come at the expense of whites, thus undermining the most powerful source of white resistance to the advancement of blacks." Thus, whites were more willing to accept Black social and political equality because they believed that such equality now wouldn't come at the expense of their own economic and social success. But what would happen when the economy begins to slow down the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Would whites continue to accept Black political and social equality in the face of growing threats to their standard of living and white's economic and social opportunities? This contradiction helps explain the rise of the white backlash against Black civil rights and affirmative action in the 1970s and 1980s.

But in addition to economic prosperity, there were several important factors that help explain the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. From the 1930s on, millions of Blacks migrated from the South to the North and the West seeking jobs in large, industrial cities. In 1930, three-quarters of all Blacks lived in the rural South, whereas in 1970, more than half of all Blacks lived outside of the South. In the North and West, Blacks did not face Jim Crow laws; they could vote, get good educations, and had more rights and opportunities than Blacks in the South. By the 1950s, it was increasingly clear to both Democratic and Republican politicians that if they wanted to be elected to national office they would have to win the Northern Black vote. Recognizing their increasing political power, Northern Blacks began to demand that Congress and the President act to end Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South. Without the increasing political power of Northern Black voters, the Civil Rights movement could not have stood up the vicious white Southern attempts to crush it.

Another major factor that helps explain the rise of the Civil Rights movement is the mechanization of agriculture in the South beginning in the 1930s. With the introduction of heavy machinery to plant and harvest their crops, Southern farmers were increasingly laying off the Black families who had worked on their farms for generations. As a result, from the 1930s on there was a Black exodus from the rural agricultural South to the urban, industrial South. This movement of Blacks into Southern cities in the 1940s and 1950s helped jump-start the lagging Southern attempts to industrialize like the North and the West. Realizing that they now had to attract Northern and global financial investors to invest in their plants and industries, Southern industrialists and business leaders began to move to end Jim Crow and racial violence; they hoped that by ending Jim Crow, they could convince Northern investors that the South was now a safe place to invest their money in; it was no longer a region dominated by racial conflict and social strife that everyone believed it was.

But in addition to these economic and political changes, the larger atmosphere created by the Cold War after World War II helped inspire the Civil Rights movement. During the early years of the Cold War, American leaders were claiming that American stood for freedom, justice, individual rights and opportunities, and equality; they charged that the Soviet communists were "the enemy of freedom." Southern Blacks hearing these Cold War slogans began to question whether the United States was really living up to its ideals. How could Blacks support America in the Cold War if American continued to deny them first-class citizenship? Could America really be free and be the model for the "free world" against the evil communists if it continued to deny Blacks their basic rights as Americans?

This contradiction between American ideals and the ugly reality of white racism was increasingly brought home to Blacks in the 1950s and 1960s as African nations won their independence from European colonial rule. By the early 1960s, the majority of African nations had won their independence. In these African nations, Blacks could vote, could run their society and economies, could get a good education, and were respected as first-class citizens. By the early 1960s, many American Blacks began to realize that Blacks in Africa had more freedoms and rights than they did. Blacks were living in the United States, the leader of the free world, but they were less free than most of their African brothers. This contradiction helped stir American Blacks in the 1950s and 1960s to challenge their second-class citizenship in America. Many of these Black African leaders and nations served as models for what Blacks could do if they committed themselves to achieving their goals. It was out of their respect for and their own successful struggle for Civil Rights and equality in America by the 1970s that led many American Blacks to now call themselves African Americans.

But the pressure to end Jim Crow and white racism didn't only come from Blacks in the 1950s. It soon became clear to American leaders that if they were to win the support of African and Asian peoples and nations for America's Cold War struggle against communism, they would have to do something about America's negative image in the world. How could American leaders claim that the United States stood for freedom, justice, rights, and equality and yet allow Blacks to be crushed by brutal white violence? This contradiction became even more apparent when African ambassadors to the United States were harassed by Southern white policemen thinking they were not obeying the Jim Crow rules that all Blacks should obey. You can imagine that harassing or even beating up a foreign ambassador could lead to an embarrassing international incident for the United States. In addition, Soviet communist leaders used Jim Crow and white racism to try to undermine the American position as the leader of the free world. The Soviets charged that African and Asian peoples should not align themselves with the United States because it was racist. It was this increasing Cold War pressure that led President from Truman to Johnson to begin to use the power of the federal government to end Jim Crow and racial inequality in America.

In 1954, the Supreme Court in "Brown vs. Board of Education" ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The Court overruled the 1896 Plessy vs. Fergusson decision that said that "separate was equal," that as long as black segregated schools had equal facilities as white schools then these segregated schools did not violate the rights of Blacks. But in 1954 the Court now ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal. The Court argued that the purpose of segregating the schools was to create a "sense of inferiority" in Blacks, a sense that they were not worthy to go to white schools. By denying Blacks the right to go to white schools, the Court concluded, the South was denying Blacks their basic Constitutional right to an equal education. The Court further concluded that Americans had the right to an education because only educated Americans could participate fully as citizens in our democratic society. By denying Blacks an equal education, the Court argued, segregated schools were denying Blacks their basic rights as citizens. Segregation, the Court concluded, "deprived [Blacks] of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

For Blacks throughout the South and throughout America the Brown decision represented a tremendous victory. It not only gave Blacks the right to go to white schools and get an equal education, it gave them hope that the Federal government would finally move against Jim Crow and racial inequality. With its "Brown vs. Board of Education" ruling, the Supreme Court was signaling that the federal government was finally beginning to enforce the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that already guaranteed all Blacks their full rights as citizens in America.

In 1957, the Court ordered the Little Rock Arkansas school district desegregate its schools. But Arkansas governor Faubus refused to accept the authority of the federal government. He argued that the States had the right to determine how they would run their schools. In the fall of 1957, he called out the state national guard to prevent Blacks students from entering the Little Rock High School. Americans watched on TV as troops used their bayonets to keep Black children from entering the school. After President Eisenhower asked Faubus to remove the troops he did, but white mobs soon formed to take the place of the troops to keep Black children from going to white schools. Americans then watched on TV as White mobs attacked Black children and their parents who were trying to help them enter the white school. In the Daisy Bates reading, the white mob even threatens to hang on of the young Black students. Needless to say, Americans were shocked by this brutal white violence and the arrogance of Arkansas's challenge to federal law.

Faced with this brutal violence and the growing international repercussions to America's Cold War standing, President Eisenhower called in the Federal troops to protect Black students and allow them to go to the white schools. Eisenhower explained to Americans why he took these actions:

"Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation. We are portrayed as a violator of those standards of conduct which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations.....Thus will be restored the image of America and of all its parts as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Americans and the World watched as federal troops led Blacks students into the high school and walked with them from class to class, protecting them from white violence. For many, it was a shock to think that federal troops would have to be used to protect innocent Black children in the supposedly most free and just society in the world.

Faced with this imposition of federal power, Southern politicians and whites resisted, declaring "Segregation now and segregation forever." In fact, refusing to accept the federally imposed end to segregation, Governor Faubus closed the Arkansas high schools in 1958 and 1959. For many Americans it was a shock to see children denied an education just because some whites did not want to go to school with Blacks.

Led by Martin Luther King and others, the Civil Rights movement played up these contradictions between American values and the brutal reality of white racism and racial inequality in America. King declared that the Civil Rights movement wasn't just a movement for Black rights, but was in fact a movement for human rights, for American rights. For King and others, America could not be free as long as Blacks were denied their full rights as citizens and forced to live as second-class citizens.

The struggle over Civil Rights in the 1950s demonstrated that America was in fact divided by race and by region. Whites and Blacks struggled against other whites to win the rights that Blacks were guaranteed by the Constitution. The Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s led many Americans to begin to question their larger society and government. Was America really a free society? Was the government really under the control of its people? Did all Americans have equal rights as citizens? Did America really support all its people, allowing everyone opportunities for advancement? These were only some of the questions raised by the Civil Rights movement. In order to answer these questions, Americans from all walks of life would begin to debate and argue about the larger goals and values of American society. This debate really began in the 1950s and led to bitter divisions and conflicts in the 1960s, which many Americans have still not gotten over. The contradiction of racial inequality in 1950s America was then only one of the many contradictions in 1950s society that led to the tumultuous 1960s. We will look at some of the other contradictions next time.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 4 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/civil.htm
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