Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The Civil Rights and Equal Rights movement is one of many events that has transformed United States history. It is recognized as a time of emergence for many well-known leaders who have left their mark. The Civil and Equal Rights era is also a time of many ideologies and philosophies to try and solve issues of the past whose presence were felt through many actions in the 1960s and present day. The Civil Rights Movement was essential in bringing attention to the limitations on African-American life that were not legitimized by the government. The movement sought to end racial discrimination and segregation. The movement and struggle is shown through “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These two documents stress the importance of fighting and opposing the government when they encroach on your democracy and rights as citizens.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King documents the struggles of living in America as a Black person in a society that does not grant him the same rights and privileges that other American citizens enjoy. To face this harsh reality, he lays emphasis on using civil disobedience to gain equality. King provides many examples of discriminationatory actions like segregation that take place in Alabama but could be generalized throughout the United States. Some issues he brings up are police brutality, criminal injustice, voter suppression, acts of violence, and segregation. He states “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million 3 Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society (2)”. The audience can infer that it was a time of uncertainty and unrest for minoritized groups. By writing these words King paints a clear picture of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a movement that fought against social, political and economic brutality. It tells the story of poverty and violence which was rampant in the 60s amongst minoritized groups.Through this letter, the audience knows that King is writing to inform the public about the daily obstacles that African-Americans face.

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Although the letter is addressed to the clergymen, in a way it feels like he was also addressing the public. He specifically writes to people in power and people outside of the African-American community who do not experience segregation and racial discrimination. He is also trying to get the audience to empathize with him and many Black Americans who also face the same realities by making them aware and exposing. King is aware that many Americans may be blind to injustices faced outside of their communities because it doesn’t impact them directly. By making the letter public, he is cashing in on the emotions and judgements he hopes arises from reading and to shift perspectives. This will also gain him support amongst people who might’ve not heard or supported the movement. As a way to combat this harsh and unjust treatment of Black Americans, King presented his four steps for nonviolent movements to be successful. These four steps determined whether injustices are alive and if participants should engage in negotiation.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” has molded society because of the message for civil disobedience to fight for change which reveals a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. Many people opposed King using non-violence because of the negative image that it left on the minds of America and violence it was said to create. King writes “you spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist(4)”. How could he be accused of spreading violence? When the protestors are not the ones using violence and excessive force to break their non-violent movement. Non-violence involved a lot of violence on the end of the oppressor. King in a way commercialized the non-violence movement which made it easier and accepted for other generations to come. I think that oppressors of King were afraid of the response and effect that the movement would solicit amongst Americans because it would show the ineffectiveness of these political structures to confront the racial inequality.

King’s letter would expose them for not acting on the atrocities quickly enough. This is important because it reveals to us that the Civil Rights movement was not a movement that happened overnight but it was from tensions and issues that were neglected and never resolved. King writes “ For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an illformed infant of frustration(2)”This quote illustrates the drivers of the Civil Rights Movement because of the frustrations from oppressive governments, Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions that African-Americans faced daily. King emphasizes the need for the movement because of the lack of change/enforcement fromofficials and the higher ups. The letter shows us the peak of the Civil Rights era because it highlights tensions between African Americans, minoritized groups and people who were against the movement. The impact that is recurring in his letter is the rally for action when your rights are being violated. Most importantly, King realizes that it is our job as citizens to change the corrupt system through civil obedience.

The document “Congress Outlaws Segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964” represents the success of protest and contesting and pushing boundaries. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written by government to make dicrimination and segregation on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin illegal. The audience of this document include Americans since this document is being used to inform them of new anti-discrimination laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 humanizes minoritized groups because they allowed them to assert themselves in society without boundaries. Section 201 of the document highlights all the instuitions such as movie theaters, hotels and many more where segregation and discrimination is prohibited(Congress outlaws,1). Section 207 builds upon 201 but stresses discrimination in the work place and job opportunities. Section 207 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against people who are seeking work. It also includes current employees whose work environment and status are shaped by the race, sex and etc. The importance of this document is that it shows the government recognising their past mistakes in an effort to correct it. This document showed America moving towards the right direction where every citizen is afforded the opportunity to exist without feeling alienated and having your civil liberties protected. All of which couldn’t have been possible with protesting an oppressive system.

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 tells us about necessity for the movement because it showed all the wrongs doing that America was apart which was by choice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives us an insight into what was happening during that time by writing what should no longer be accepted. By banning discrimination in the work place it lets the reader know that discrimination played a huge role in American life. Discrimination hindered African-Americans, women and other groups from attaining the privileges that came with being American. Being American meant that only white men were allowed to reap the full benefits such as building wealth and having an array of choices for career paths. Prior to the passage of this law, it also showed the inability for the federal government to acknowledge that civil liberties were being limited from American citizens. This lack of recognition showed the hidden feelings that America had towards those groups. The document showed intolerance of segregation and discrimination and outlawed it everywhere. Reading this document I had a few questions like how long did it actually take for the document tobe created?I would’ve also like to know how people who oppsoed the law reacted?Were there any steps taken to stop this law from passings?

Overall, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 are two documents that have stood the stand of time. .The documents have shown the interconnectedness of past and present events. King’s letters have shown the role that civil disobedience still continues to shape society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows the importance of a document that brought positive change to society but also negative effects which are still prevalent.  

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Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (2021, Jun 10). Retrieved from