Civil Rights (1954-1968): did America “Invent Racism”?

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America did not invent racism, but its combination of democratic ideals and a diverse population made race relations more combustible in the United States than anywhere else in the world. While civil rights movements of the past have attempted to address these relations throughout American history, my goal is to analyze the way that violence, and consequently non-violence, were chiefly used to achieve means of stability and acceptance in the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. In my essay I will discuss the impact that political arguments from sitting Presidents as well as minority leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

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and Malcolm X have had surrounding race relations impacting this movement.

The overall goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to advocate for African Americans to have equal social, civil, economic, and political rights of the white American. However, this proved difficult both in legislature and governance. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) over the issue of the racial desegregation of schools sought to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court’s ruling concluded that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place”.

This clause was used to justify Jim Crow laws in the South and segregation in the North for years. By putting this comment in there, the court’s strong statement in this landmark case was revolutionary. Integrated schools paved the way for integrated transportation, restaurants, and other public facilities. Warren further noted that in black children, there was “a feeling of inferiority… that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undoing”.

This type of long withstanding prejudice stemming from segregation could not be solved overnight, as legislation such as this commonly preceded an actual change in society. The language in the ruling was focused on equality, as one of the defining outcomes was that “such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws”. This statement refers to the language used in the 14th amendment. The amendment promises all U.S. citizens “equal protection of the laws” in what is known as the equal protection clause. The court’s argument hinges on this clause, concluding that segregation is definitively unconstitutional and illegal.

The ruling in this court case sparked the Civil Rights Movement around race relations and effectively put in place legislature that allows for enforcement of desegregation. However, not everyone agreed with this outcome, and the opposition’s protests culminated with the disturbances in Little Rock, Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, refused to desegregate public schools and called the National Guard to forcibly prevent nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend the now integrated Little Rock Central High School.

This violent resistance resulted in a little girl having acid thrown in her eyes and attempts to burn her alive in the school bathroom. This protest caught the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the Federal courts even if he did not agree with them. Thus, Eisenhower placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and sent 1,000 U.S. troops to assist in restoring order. This action, although violent in nature, was meant to enforce order and stability back into the nation at a time of uncertainty.

In his speech to the nation, Eisenhower utilizes the assumption that “the overwhelmingly majority of our people in every section of the country are united in their respect for observance of the law – even in those cases where they may disagree with that law. They deplore the call of extremists to violence”. This strategic manipulation paints the picture of Americans under a single identity, who are willing to abide by the decisions of the higher courts regardless of their beliefs.

This particular trope is used by Eisenhower to convince his audience that because the majority of people in the nation agree with it, then so should they. Although Eisenhower uses violence to restore order, he denounces the use of it from people in the nation due to his position. This form of pushing a political agenda on the masses by majority belief is the very grounds for the counter arguments from Martin Luther King Jr. advocating for civil disobedience against unjust laws.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. Followers of King, especially student organizations, began to follow suit preaching that nonviolence was the answer to violence.

He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first President. With the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, and organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that attracted national attention following television news coverage of the brutal police response. After being arrested in Birmingham for leading a peaceful protest, King wrote a quite long and involved Letter from Birmingham Jail in response to the criticisms of white clergymen who were opposed to his pro-black American organization which called against racial injustices and prejudice.

In his letter, he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws. Martin Luther King Jr. uses the same language as Eisenhower does in his speech with his analogy that “society must protect the robbed and punish the robber”. He uses this analogy to denounce the clergymen’s hypocrisy and their use of victim blaming as they intimidate or shame those seeking their constitutionally given rights. According to King, the complaint of peaceful protests “precipitating violence” is akin to blaming a robbery victim because he had money to steal. King alleges the white legislative bodies and their supporters are robbers who have stolen many African Americans’ civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s position of direct, non-violent action sought to battle an unjust law through protests, boycotts, and sit-ins, rather than actions of violence or intimidation. King realizes that “in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action”. When the first three steps fail, King contends that direct action must then be taken in the form of demonstrations.

He believes that this is the only practical means of action when negotiation fails, because it will in turn lead to negotiation. His reasoning is that since “the purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”. This ability of letting actions speak for themselves without being violent is unique to King and his methods.

This allowed people to take notice and actually do something about it, without being violent or disturbing the peace as we have seen happened in Little Rock just a few years before he was arrested in Birmingham. In context, what Martin Luther King Jr. is doing is breaking the laws that Eisenhower says everyone must obey because the majority obey them. This makes a dangerous precedent that makes it even harder to effect change because there are always people who think something different.

In speaking of a different solution, another influential figure of the time, Malcolm X, believes that if necessary, violence through direct action can be implemented in order to effect change. In his speech The Ballot or the Bullet, he describes “this is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet. It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody”. This is from the assumption Malcolm X has in that the only way to gain respect is to fight back and earn it. To him, the only way to fight unjust laws of segregation and racism was a revolution, because “revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems” (The Ballot or the Bullet).

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Civil Rights (1954-1968): Did America "Invent Racism"?. (2019, Jul 12). Retrieved from