Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

'WE SHALL OVERCOME':
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

By the mid-1960s, direct action protest by southern blacks had succeeded in dismantling the legal structure of segregation. It is important to stress that the civil rights movement did not appear out of a vacuum. As previous chapters demonstrated, southern blacks had mobilised with increasing force against white supremacy since the New Deal era. Historians have in recent years moved their analysis of the civil rights movement beyond the national leadership to grassroots activism at the local and state level. These studies have demonstrated that there was considerable continuity between the litigation-oriented era of the 1930s and 1940s and the later direct action phase of protest in the 1950s and 1960s. This has in turn led to a reassessment of the chronology of black activism. Scholars refer to 'The Long Civil Rights Movement', which started earlier and ended later than conventional narratives that cover only the years from 1954 to 1968.1

Academic interest in the historical foundations of the movement has allowed us to understand how it drew strength from social networks and institutional resources developed over many decades. The civil rights protests of the late 1950s and 1960s were nonetheless unprecedented both in terms of the mass participation of black protesters and the confrontational nature of their tactics. In the past, African Americans had attempted to promote incremental reform within the confines of segregation; now they launched a direct assault on the system itself. This chapter assesses the reasons for the success of the civil rights movement in destroying de jure segregation. It focuses in particular on how black activists created the public pressure that forced an often reluctant federal government to enact measures that finally toppled Jim Crow. The success of the movement owed not only to national leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, but also to the efforts of thousands of ordinary people operating at a local level.

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