In many respects, the civil rights movement was a great success. Successive, targeted campaigns of non-violent direct action chipped away at the racist power structures that proliferated across the southern United States. Newsworthy protests captured media attention and elicited sympathy across the nation. Though Martin Luther King Jr.’s charismatic leadership was important, we should not forget that the civil rights cause depended on a mass movement. As the former SNCC member Diane Nash recalled, it was a ‘people’s movement’, fuelled by grass-roots activism (Nash, 1985). Recognising a change in the public mood, Lyndon Johnson swiftly addressed many of the racial inequalities highlighted by the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to meaningful change in the lives of many Black Americans, dismantling systems of segregation and black disenfranchisement.
In other respects, the civil rights movement was less revolutionary. It did not fundamentally restructure American society, nor did it end racial discrimination. In the economic sphere, in particular, there was still much work to be done. Across the nation, and especially in northern cities, stark racial inequalities were commonplace, especially in terms of access to jobs and housing. As civil rights activists became frustrated by their lack of progress in these areas, the movement began to splinter towards the end of the 1960s, with many Black activists embracing violent methods. Over the subsequent decades, racial inequalities have persisted, and in recent years police brutality against Black Americans, in particular, has become an urgent issue. As the protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 have demonstrated, many of the battles of the 1960s are still being fought.
Though King and other members of the civil rights movement failed to achieve their broader goals, there can be no doubting their radical ambitions. As Wornie Reed, who worked on the Poor People’s Campaign, explains in this interview, King was undoubtedly a ‘radical’ activist, even if the civil rights movement itself never resulted in a far-reaching social revolution.
This free course is an adapted extract from the Open University course Learn more about these OpenLearn courses here.. It is one of four OpenLearn courses exploring the notion of the Sixties as a ‘revolutionary’ period.