Debating the Civil Rights Movement – History Essay
This book provides two completely different views of the civil rights movement. On the one hand, Steven Lawson provides a point of view based on the governments action, and on the other, Charles Payne gives the story from the
Civil Rights activists’ side of the story. Personally, I would have to agree with Steven Lawson. I believe the federal government played an important role and set the pace in the civil rights movement through the leadership of five dedicated presidents, through important legislation passed by Congress, and through key Supreme Court rulings.
The presidents starting from Roosevelt, and ending with Johnson, all took important steps in shaping the civil rights movement. Many of their actions also set the pace for the movement. Roosevelt was the first to take a step forward towards racial equality. As World War II came to an end, it was very difficult for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ignore the increasing demands for equal rights form African Americans. Roosevelt took the first step towards changes in legislation favoring the civil rights movement. In 1941, he issued an executive order to create the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC). The creation of the FEPC showed how the federal government used its power to monitor racial bias, and it also set a precedent for future action regarding civil rights, which was to act only to avoid a specific crisis and to keep change to a minimum.
As violence broke out throughout the south trying to register Black voters, African American leaders and their white allies approached President Truman. They wanted Truman to investigate the violence caused by opposing white southern democrats and reinforced through massive acts of violence from white supremacists groups. Because of the violence, Truman created the Presidents Committee on Civil Rights. This was an important decision because the committee would release a report called To Secure These Rights that would outline future steps taken in the civil rights movement. The report argued that segregation was morally wrong as well as economically damaging. It stated that “(d)iscrimination imposes a direct cost upon our economy through the wasteful duplication of many facilities and services required by the ‘separate but equal’ policy” (48). This report allowed the federal government to increase its power in fighting discrimination and segregation. Another important step Truman took during his presidency was to order the desegregation of the military. Though he had a hard time passing any kind of legislation through Congress, he offered his Justice Department to help the NAACP in several Supreme Court cases as amicus curiae.
Eisenhower, like his predecessors, believed in gradualism as the best method to lessen racial bias. His failure to take decisive action, allowed southern states to evade compliance with the Supreme Court Ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. For Eisenhower, the most important and least objectionable step was to gain voting rights for Blacks in the south. However, Eisenhower was forced to take action when the Governor of Arkansas would not allow the Little Rock Nine to enter Central High School. He dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the nine Black students as they integrated into an all white school. The president “revealed the enormous might of the federal government while also exposing the reluctance of presidents to deploy it” (17). When Eisenhower addressed the nation on September 24, 1957, he explained his actions to the nation stating that he had no choice but to send armed forces because his ”Proclamation of yesterday was not observed, and the obstruction of justice still continues” (61).
Kennedy offered much hope to civil rights activists during his presidential campaign. However, he could do little to support activists without losing his support from southern white democrats. Kennedy was unable to pass through any kind of legislation because southern democrats often used the threat of a filibuster to prevent a majority form approving civil rights bills. Instead, Kennedy continued in Truman’s footsteps by using the Justice Department to file suits and challenge discrimination, mainly in voter registration procedures. Kennedy’s civil right attorneys won an impressive number of cases under the direction of the Attorney General Robert Kennedy. For the most part, Kennedy stayed on the sidelines of the civil rights movement. The only time he would take action was as “a response to breakdowns in law and order” (20). Perhaps Kennedy’s most important contribution came shortly before his death on June 11, 1963. Kennedy addressed the country stating that civil rights were a moral issue for the whole nation. He stated that “the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events . . . have so increased the cries for equality that no . . . body can prudently choose to ignore them” (79). Shortly after, he introduced a civil rights bill in Congress.
After Kennedy’s death, President Johnson took over the white house. Johnson displayed a passion for the civil rights movement that exceeded Kennedy’s. Using Kennedy’s death to his advantage, Johnson pushed the civil rights bill through Congress warning that he would accept no delays and no compromises. As a result, the most far reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction was passed on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act. Johnson also used force like the FBI to bring down groups like the KKK, and to protect marchers and demonstrators throughout the country.
By the end of the 1960’s these five presidents along with key legislation and Supreme Court rulings brought the worst of civil rights movement to an end. African Americans had succeeded in desegregating the south and exercising their right to vote with the support of the federal government. It took almost two decades for African Americans to achieve their goals, partially due to the lack of action on the part of the federal government. However, I believe the civil rights movement would have lasted possibly another twenty years, if the movement had not received the support it had from the federal government.