Task 1: Civil rights in the United States

Ending slavery was the central outcome of the American Civil War. However for the century after the war, African-Americans, especially in the states of the former Confederacy, remained a long way short of being full citizens. Under the so-called ‘Jim Crow’ legislation, behind the window-dressing of the idea of ‘separate but equal’ southern society was segregated, the living conditions and life chances of non-whites were poor indeed and they were effectively disenfranchised by the one-party politics of the South.

Attempts to address this ‘American Dilemma’ were greatly strengthened in the aftermath of World War 2, when the population movements from South to north made the non-white population much more electorally significant. Major protest dates from the mid-1950s, when the Montgomery bus boycott, instigated by Rosa Parks, and led by Martin Luther King Jr among others, began a series of protests, sit ins, boycotts, freedom rides and other actions over the next decade or more designed to force change. King, as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was to play an inspirational role, promoting tactics of non violent civil disobedience in order to bring about political change.

Gradually during that period, political momentum for change gathered, despite intense, often violent resistance from sections of southern society, which led to the use of federal troops to try to enforce integration. Among the most important were the events in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 where the state governor sought to prevent 9 black students enrolling at a previously all-white school, and President Eisenhower was forced to send in the National Guard. Also the civil rights protests in Birmingham Alabama in 1963 when the chief of public safety ordered police dogs and fire hosed turned on peaceful demonstrators.

These events inspired the March on Washington in 1963, and eventually in the Summer of 1964 the US Congress passed a Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, religion or ethnic origin and giving the federal government powers to enforce desegregation. This was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting various techniques used to disenfranchise some minority groups, and a second Civil Rights Act, in 1968, seeking to address discrimination in housing.

In the latter part of the 1960s, the character of protest changed. Protests became much more violent, in particular with the formation of the more militant Black Panthers in 1966, and in a number of race riots in the Summer of 1967. King himself was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968.

While the civil rights movement and subsequent legislation by no means solved all problems socio-economic and political inequality, the events of the 1950s and 1960s drew attention throughout the world to issues of ethnic inequality, and acted as an inspiration in many other parts of the world.