Political and Social Movements

The Civil Rights Movement

Were activists the only ones who were vocal about opposing segregation?

No, segregation was opposed at every level of black society, as well as by many whites. The voices of the civil rights movement included wage laborers, farmers, educators, athletes, entertainers, soldiers, religious leaders, politicians, and statesmen—all of whom had experienced the oppression of Jim Crow laws and policies in the United States.

Before W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) rose to prominence as an educator and writer, he chose to leave the security of his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to attend college at Nashville’s Fisk University. There, in 1885, he encountered Tennessee’s Jim Crow laws, which strictly divided blacks and whites. He was so intimidated by the “southern system” that he rarely left the campus, and he ultimately returned to New England to complete his studies at Harvard University. He did, however, go back to the South, becoming a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University (1897–1910, 1932–44). As one of the first exponents of full and equal racial equality, in 1909 Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which provided leadership during the civil rights movement.

In 1942 a young Georgia man named John Roosevelt Robinson (1919–1972) was drafted into the military. Robinson applied for Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kansas, and although he was admitted to the program, he and the other black candidates received no training until pressure from Washington, D.C., forced the local commander to admit blacks to the base’s training school. Later Robinson became a second lieutenant and continued to challenge the Jim Crow policies on military bases. When the army decided to keep him out of a game with the nearby University of Missouri because that school refused to play against a team with black members, Robinson quit the base’s football team in protest; at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson objected to segregation on an army bus. His protests led to court-martial. Acquitted, in November 1944 Robinson was honorably discharged—before the end of World War II (1939–45): The army had no desire to keep this black agitator among the ranks, and, as Robinson later put it, he was “pretty much fed up with the service.” In 1947 “Jackie” Robinson became the first black baseball player in the major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in the national pastime.

In the postwar years, American diplomat Ralph Bunche (1904–1971) attracted public attention when he rejected an offer from President Harry Truman (1884–1972) to become an assistant secretary of state. Bunche, a Howard University professor who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war, explained that he declined the position because he did not want to subject his family to the Jim Crow laws of Washington, D.C. Bunche spoke out frequently against racism, and in 1944 he co-authored the book An American Dilemma, which examined the plight of American blacks.

These are just a few of the many examples of personal protest that signaled the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States.


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