The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1964

In the greatest mass movement in modern American history, black demonstrations swept the country seeking constitutional equality at the national level, as well as an end to Massive Resistance (state and local government-supported opposition to school desegregation) in the South. Presidential executive orders, the passage of two Civil Rights Acts, and the federal government's first military enforcement of civil rights brought an end to de jure segregation. The success of this movement inspired other minorities to employ similar tactics.

Three years after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education and two years after the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. The 1957 Civil Rights Act created the independent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Although the Commission was limited to fact-finding, its reports helped shape the breakthrough Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also provided the Commission with greater authority.
Gains in civil rights varied for minorities during this era. Hispanics lost ground as they experienced mass deportations of legal and illegal immigrants in Operation Wetback, educational segregation in Southwest schools, and police brutality cases that rocked Los Angeles. In contrast, the re-emergence of a women's rights movement in the 1960s resulted in significant civil rights gains: adoption of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the prohibition of inequality based on gender in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the breaching of barriers to employment for women.
Asian Americans likewise experienced gains and losses in civil rights. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 permitted Japanese immigrants to become citizens but contained restrictive quotas based on race and country of origin. Chinese Americans, especially during the McCarthy era, found themselves targets of suspicion and possible deportation following the Communist takeover of China. During this period, however, Asian Americans began their own social, cultural, and political initiatives to challenge the status quo and advance their civil rights.
During this time, the homophile movement grew and changed direction. Gays and lesbians in the "bar culture" engaged in various forms of resistance to police repression by insisting on their right to gather in public. In cities across the country, for example, working-class lesbian bars nurtured a world where women made public their same-sex desire. This cultural resistance, along with the formal political efforts of homophile organizations, laid the basis for the contemporary gay and lesbian movement.
African American mass demonstrations, televised racial violence, and the federally enforced desegregation of higher education institutions, as well as the black passive resistance movement of the early 1960s led to adoption of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Considered the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in U.S. history, the act granted the federal government strong enforcement powers in the area of civil rights. It prohibited tactics to limit voting; guaranteed racial and religious minorities equal access to public accommodations; outlawed job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; continued the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Pivotal Moments in the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Last updated: December 6, 2022


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