The Civil Rights Movement: When Ordinary People Did Extraordinary Things

Image credit: Warren K. Leffler

The Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s -1970s was one of the most significant social movements in U.S. history. It involved millions of people in its ranks. It was a grassroots movement often organized locally. It involved elementary school children in Selma, Alabama and the elderly, registering a man to vote for the first time in Lowndes County, Alabama, who was over 100 years old. It appealed to the consciences of hundreds of northern white students who came to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. A whole generation of local leaders emerged, people like Robert F. Williams, a machinist from Monroe, North Carolina, and women leaders like Rosa Parks, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, and Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper.

It was a movement filled with ingenuity and imagination. There was certainly violence and danger but it was also joyful, full of singing and defiant celebration – a festival of the oppressed. Consciousness changed overnight and what started out as acts of conscience quickly mushroomed into a massive social movement. The U.S. apartheid system, in place for hundreds of years, was overturned in a decade of action.

The Civil Rights Movement was launched in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and followed in 1957 by the fight to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Then, in 1960, a few courageous Black first-year students from a local state university sat in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The student movement quickly spread. Within two weeks there were demonstrations in 15 cities in five southern states, and it kept growing. Then, in 1961, the Freedom Rides challenged the federal government to defend the right of all of its citizens to ride on interstate transit. By September of 1961 there were actions in more than 100 cities in 20 states, with more than 70,000 participants and 3,600 arrests, with 58 faculty expelled for participating in the movement.

The movement spread with voter registration drives and community organizing on multiple issues. In 1963, there were 1,412 demonstrations in just the first three months of the year. And the March on Washington that summer brought one quarter of a million people to the capitol. Millions of people were active in small and large ways. Thousands of activists gained valuable experience and a new order was born.

Young college students and other youth were the spark of the movement, but it was made up primarily of working class and poor people. Members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were often the backbone of the movement, bringing their experience to bear on organizing. The energy and activism of the Civil Rights Movement went on to contribute to every other important U.S. social movement of the 1960s and 1970s. And the Movement had an international impact, linked to the struggles going on all over the world as people fought to liberate themselves from colonialism. Many activists of the Civil Rights Movement helped build the movement against the war in Vietnam.

It is important this February to remember and honor the struggles of the past. And today when we are facing multiple crises – unending racist police violence, growing inequality (which is even worse under COVID-19), conflict and war, and climate change that threatens the very life on our planet, it is especially necessary to remember the lessons of the past; for they hold the key to our future. Consciousness can change quickly and social movements can be born, like the Civil Rights Movement then and Black Lives Matter now. When ordinary people decide to stop being treated as victims and instead to be actors on the stage of history – extraordinary things have happened. And they can happen again, led by a few daring people.