The decline of the civil rights movement

Essay by Shmoopwoop November 2014

download word file, 19 pages 0.0

The Decline of the Civil Rights Movement

To what extent could more confrontational action post 1964 be blamed for the unraveling of the civil rights movement?

Aidan McMurray

Extended Essay in History

Word Count: 3697

Chief Sealth International High School

Seattle, WA


There were many factors between the years of 1960 and 1974 that played a role in the demise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. This essay focuses on the individual impact of each factor with special focus on violent language and action used by blacks' post 1964, and attempts to answer the question "To what extent could more confrontational action post 1964 be blamed for the unraveling of the Civil Rights Movement?"

This essay makes use of mostly secondary sources and some primary sources. The secondary sources used are either commentaries from historians or writers/journalists who were alive during the events. The primary sources are essays that come from Bayard Rustin, a leader in social movements for civil rights as well as gay rights and non-violence, Huey Newton, a political and urban activist who co-founded the Black Panther Party, and Stokely Charmichael (a leader in the black power movement and SNCC) and Charles Hamilton (a political scientist and civil rights leader).

The evidence gathered by the range of sources is used to develop an argument that places a value on each factor.

The conclusion reached in the investigation is that the more confrontational approach to social and political action that emerged after 1964 is just one of a number of factors that were inextricably tied to each other in ways that are best considered together, in relation to each other within the broader context of the movement's decline.

Words: 237

Table of Contents

ABSTRACT.................................................................................................................................. 1

INTRODUCTION........................................................................................................................ 3

INVESTIGATION....................................................................................................................... 5

Plan of Investigation......…………..……………………….…...………………………5

Summary of Evidence............................................................................................. 5

Evaluation of Sources............................................................................................ 11

Analysis of Evidence............................................................................................. 13

CONCLUSION……………………………………………………………………………….. 17

BIBLIOGRAPHY…………………………………………………………………………….. 17


The Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th century marks a very important moment in our country's history through its sustained impact on American society. In the decade and a half that followed the decision of the "Brown v. board of education" case that drew national and international attention to the plight of African-American's, various civil rights activists and organizations used non-violent protest and civil disobedience to bring about a systematic transformation in the way African-Americans would be able to live. This phase witnessed much of the movement's success. The freedom struggle brought many of the more overt forms of racial discrimination and segregation to an end; it removed voting rights barriers, opened the doors to educational institutions that African-Americans had previously been denied access to, increased opportunities for African-American employment, and changed the dynamics of American democracy in practice. The movement also served as a model and inspiration for other groups such as the feminists, Native Americans, Chicanos, gays and lesbians, students, and more, to battle for equal rights.

However, despite the gains African-American's made during the civil rights movement, many argue that the movement as a whole was ineffective in achieving what it set out to do. Loopholes in each and every piece of legislation passed by the federal government to bolster the rights of African-Americans have been found and exploited. This illustrates why the issue of civil rights remains relevant, its failures, as much as its successes, mark the current situation. The economic and social oppression of blacks continues to influence the American experience in a significant way. It can be seen in our prisons, with nearly 1 million African Americans behind bars, African Americans now constitute forty percent of the total 2.3 million men and women who are incarcerated, roughly 6 times the rate of whites. It can be seen on the evening news in the steady stream of incidents involving law enforcement, black suspects, and the excessive use of force, often with tragic results. It can be seen in our education system, where the attainment of four-year college degrees among black males is only 16%, or half of that of white males. In the media, where our society's ideal image of beauty remains that of a scantily-clad, skinny white female, as opposed to a woman with darker skin, and in the work force where blacks have an unemployment rate of 11.4%, roughly double that of whites. The statistics are all stacked against black Americans, making this a very real issue and showing that the 'problem' of civil rights is not one that should be considered solved.[1: "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet." NAACP. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.][2: "The Journal of Negro Education." The Journal of Negro Education. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.][3: "Table A-2. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Race, Sex, and Age." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.]



The investigation will firstly consider each individual factor as it relates to the declination of the movement, providing a summary of evidence from the sources used for each. It will then move on to an evaluation of the source material where origins, purpose, values, and limitations will be identified in respect to each main source. Finally, an analysis will be made based on the summary of evidence, the analysis will consider all the factors and how they relate to each other while placing some value on each.


Historians have identified a number of social, political, and economic factors that played into the declination of the movement:

Discrepant Social Environments John Salmond places emphasis on the movement's inability to translate its success in the south to the very different social climate of the north. When Martin Luther King visited Watts in 1965, he was forced to realize that it, and northern ghettos like it, were nothing like Montgomery. Watts lacked the cohesive community base of Montgomery, its religious culture was weak by comparison, and the power structure there didn't take the clearly defined, overtly oppressive form it took in the deep South. King came to the conclusion that the movement must move north and target the urban poverty and social blight that created places like Watts. His campaign in Chicago doesn't work as planned, and he is forced to come to terms with the fact he couldn't connect to the people of the northern ghettos in the same way he had in places like Montgomery. Nor could he replicate the drama the southern marches and sit-ins that generated needed media attention. Salmond acknowledged that the tactic to march into white neighborhoods eventually gained the desired attention. However, King's tactics "fatally weakened his position among white liberals, who were increasingly bothered about the disorder he was creating, with its potential for widespread rioting." (p. 141) Salmond also states that "As Martin Luther King retreated empty-handed from Chicago, many blamed him for setting back, rather than creating pressure for the cause of fair housing." (p. 142)

Vietnam The Vietnam War was also a factor that played into the demise of the movement. The Vietnam War was diverting billions of dollars from the struggle against poverty; it was sending young men, disproportionately black, to their deaths in Southeast Asia. Carson (et al) note that African American men were statistically more likely to be drafted, and more likely to be assigned to combat units than their white counterparts (they were also less likely to escape service through college or the National Guard; p. 490). Salmond also attaches considerable significance to the fact that the war reinforced the use of violence as a legitimate instrument in the pursuit of national interests. The war adversely effected legislative efforts that would have been beneficial to the movement as well. Johnson proposed fair housing legislation to congress in 1966, but with congress preoccupied with the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, they "showed as little disposition to enact it as Johnson did to press for it" (Salmond, p. 142) Furthermore, King's stance against the Vietnam war hurt his (and the SCLC's) image in the eyes of the Johnson administration.

Shifting Focus Christopher Lehman and Rhoda Blumberg suggest that the media's growing preoccupation with other issues, and a general loss of interest in the movement as a whole played a meaningful part as well. Shortly after the black power movement emerged as a potent force, it drew the media's attention. Black power projected a more dramatic image, and thus became more newsworthy than the now familiar and frequently covered activities of non-violent agitation. After the rift between the advocates of non-violence and black power, media attention drifted even further from the civil rights movement toward other, related movements. The organized protest of the Chicanos, Native Americans, and other racial/ethnic minorities escalated (Blumberg, p. 162), and other events of national importance, such as the Vietnam War, the Women's movement, Watergate (1970s), and the Arab-Israeli conflict dominated the discussion on television and in mass-circulation print publications (Lehman, p. 415-16).

Opposition to the Movement After voting rights protections had been secured and the push for desegregation gained the force of the federal government and its legal system, the movement also began to switch focus (Blumberg, p. 164). The new goals of the movement were more national in scope, and were also more threatening to the country's official economic system, capitalism. Where the FBI had made unfounded allegations about communist influence in the early stages of the civil rights movement, it could now point to the open verbal challenges to capitalism and imperialism made by black power advocates. As a result, efforts by government to control all aspects of black insurgency increased. "In the name of national security and anticommunism, all kinds of illegal activities could be justified to eliminate black power and civil rights leaders." (p. 164) Lehman also gives insight to the underground opposition of the movement. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC), created in 1956, hired investigators to spy on civil rights activists, desegregation supporters, suspected black militants, and pan-African groups. The group included members of the Governor's administration, state legislators, and private citizens. (p. 417). The Alabama State Sovereignty Commission (ALSC) was patterned after the MSSC several years later. It also spied on civil rights workers and other alleged subversives.

Ideological Conflict The conflicting ideologies within the movement, reflected in the lack of unity between civil rights organizations and missions, is another factor to consider. Clayborne Carson, Emma Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary Nash argued that "Although student activists saw their direct action tactics as preferable to King's more cautious approach and the NAACP's reliance on litigation and lobbying, these alternative strategies did not necessarily conflict with one another. The growing diversity of organizations and leaders made the civil rights struggle more difficult for anyone to control or suppress." (Carson et al, p. 452) The authors go on to explain, "Having overcome the Jim Crow system, African Americans engaged in intense debates about the future direction of the struggle. Influenced by Black Nationalist leaders such as Malcolm X, some activists who had once used nonviolence to bring about desegregation began .to call for black power and racial separation. As the focus of the black struggle shifted from the rural South to the urban North, established black leaders such as King were challenged by younger activists more willing to display militancy to achieve ever more ambitious goals." (p.452) Salmond offers this as a contributing factor, but places a lot of importance on the date March 9th, 1965, where King lead a March onto Edmund Pettus Bridge while knowing beforehand that he already had a deal in place with Alabama authorities to avoid another confrontation. "Fifteen hundred blacks and whites followed King to the bridge, ignorant of the charade about to be played out." King stopped the procession when he was asked to by Major Cloud, and turned back. This event infuriated the young activists of SNCC and "seemed to confirm all they had come to believe of him-that he was a coward, a posturer, a man who cared more about pleasing white opinion than meeting the real needs of his people." While they projected a unified front throughout the Selma campaign, it spelled the end of his tenure as their standard-bearer. "The united civil rights movement, at the moment of its greatest triumph, was about to pass into history." (p.132)

Disillusionment Blumberg also identifies the growing disillusionment and diminishing expectations of the African American community as a critical factor in the movement's decline. A "belief in the possibility of advances is crucial to the... continuation of the movement." But the promise of the movements most illustrious moments, from Brown v. the Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project and the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights act the following year, failed to translate in meaningful ways in the day-to-day experience of the majority of African American's, who remained mired in poverty, dilapidated housing, inadequate schooling, and rampant unemployment, with the discrimination of the preceding era seemingly unabated. As a result, by decade's end, belief in the tactics the defined the movement, and help secure its greatest victories waned, and grassroots participation suffered precipitous declines accordingly. Carson and others relate the ability of black power advocates to resonate with African Americans to this phenomenon, because they "articulated the simple fact the previous civil rights reforms had not brought about racial equality." (Carson, et al, p.477)

The Black Power Movement The growing black power movement placed a premium on confrontational action, which fostered the perception within the government and institutions of influence that "black power… was dangerous." (Blumberg, p. 164) The black power movement regarded the moral high ground sought by the civil rights movement leadership as quaint and ineffectual. Leaders like Huey Newton rejected the government and "its subsidiary institutions" as "illegitimate because they fail to relate to the people and they fail to meet the needs of the people." Newton argued that these economic and political institutions needed to be replaced by new ones. For him, the ultimate goal of the Black Panther party was to move from capitalism to socialism.

Black power advocates, especially in SNCC, also embraced a separatist ideology, which eroded white participation. By 1965 the members of SNCC had lost their commitment to integration, rejected non-violence, and became increasingly beset with factional conflict over future programs (Salmond, p.136)

Bayard Rustin argued against violence "violence may indicate to America the despair which blacks feel, but its major effect is the aggravation of the degrading social and economic conditions which have nurtured and perpetuated that despair." He also provided a specific example "In Washington, D.C., alone, 4,900 employees-the majority of them Negroes-lost their jobs as a result of the riots which swept the city following Dr. King's death." Reportedly the stats on the riots that occurred in the years beforehand are as follows: Watts riots (1965) - over 40 million estimated in monetary damage, 34 deaths, 1032 injuries, and 3438 arrests. Also, 977 establishments were damaged, burned, looted, and destroyed, which included businesses, private buildings, and public buildings. Detroit race riot (1967) - 43 deaths, 1189 injuries, over 7200 arrests, and more than 2000 buildings destroyed, 22 million dollars of property damage. Newark riot (1967) - 26 deaths, 750 injuries, over 1000 arrests, and more than 10 million in damages.[4: "Watts Riots." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.][5: Herman, Max. "Thread: The Newark and Detroit Rebellions of 1967." Assata Shakur Speaks Hands Off Assata Lets Get Free Revolutionary PanAfricanism Black On Purpose Liberation Forum RSS. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.][6: "African American History | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." African American History | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.]


Power, Politics, and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement: A Fragile Coalition, 1967-1973: Christopher Paul Lehman

Examines the Civil Rights movement through the efforts of four major civil rights organizations, with their ideologies and tactical approaches to affecting change, against the backdrop of the government's attempts to sabotage those efforts. A historian's perspective, well researched. Professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Limitations: more narrow in scope, persuasive elements.

My Mind Set on Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 John A. Salmond

A historian's survey of the major events, players and organizations of the civil rights era. Late Professor Emeritus of American History at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Limitations: an argument is presented and a value is given to certain events relating to their impact on the unraveling of the movement, which takes away from the objectivity of the commentary.

The Black Panthers (The Black Revolution; an Ebony Special Issue. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 1970. 125-35) Huey Newton

Editorial essay. It's an insider's explanation of the organization's agenda and the necessities of black people, relating to their government, moving forward. Limitations: opinions filtered through beliefs about the situation.

The Myths of Black Revolt (The Black Revolution; an Ebony Special Issue. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 1970. 109-23) Bayard Rustin

Essay in The Black Revolution (Ebony magazine special edition, 1969, Johnson Publishing Co., Inc. 1970). An editorial analysis coming from a veteran of the civil rights movement who was active in the movement's earliest days as well as the socio-political action that predated the movement. Limitations: Opinions filtered through beliefs about the situation.

Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle Rhoda Lois Blumberg

Blumberg provides an overview of the movement. Published author, and at one time writer and researcher for CBS radio. Also a former professor of sociology at Rutgers University, playing an important role in the development of their black studies programs, and was active in the civil rights movement in Illinois and New Jersey. This book was written for educational purposes and was extensively researched. The source is only limited to the extent of its own sources, no significant limitations were found.

Marching Toward Freedom, 1961-1966 (The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans; Chapter 18; New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 450-78) Clayborne Carson, Emma Lapsansky-Werner, Gary Nash

Biographical survey of the movement, examined through the lives and experiences of individual participants. Comprehensive and well researched. Clayborne Carson, Professor of History at Stanford University. Emma Lapsansky-Werner, Emeritus Professor of History at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. Gary B. Nash, Professor of History at UCLA. This book was written for educational purposes. Limitations: the essays are opinionated and persuasive.


With the movement migrating to the north and activists now demonstrating on the doorsteps of uncomfortable whites who would rather offer assistance from behind the scenes, it quickly became more difficult to gain support. White liberals questioned the movement's tactics, and some resented the level of unrest that surrounded them. On the other hand, the movement lacked the community infrastructure it had in the South, making the effort to mount a coordinated and cohesive campaign more difficult. The movement became decentralized as it attempted to take on the racism of the North, which was often every bit a virulent as that of the South, but in a different and more elusive way. The significance of this altered and changing landscape can't be overstated.In the meantime, the Vietnam War took money, lives, and media attention away from the movement, creating yet another obstacle to the non-violent campaigns of the north. If it was more difficult to capture the imagination of the community in this environment, they were also drawing from a diminishing pool of potential activists. Salmond argued that the war also affected legislation, but considering Johnson's style of political maneuvering, it is a matter of debate as to whether or not the Johnson administration's failure to pass fair housing legislation in 1966 can be attributed to this. It is quite possible that Johnson proposed the legislation knowing that congress wouldn't be able to enact it. Sources agree that the media played a considerable role in the civil rights movement's early successes. The movement's tactical use of passive resistance cast the violence of racist whites against peaceful protestors into sharp relief. The media provided the means for the entire nation to witness these events in all their brutality. Observers of conscience could no longer hide on the sidelines, and had no choice (from a moral perspective) but to support the defenseless demonstrators who were being attacked. Other events-Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the push for social justice and equality from other interests-intruded on the national psyche, and made it more difficult for the movement to receive the desired media attention as it struggled to expand. However, we must also keep in mind that there is more to this issue than the role of the media, especially given the fact that the reduction in media attention did not equate to a complete absence of coverage, especially while the movement was still active and at least moderately energized. As for the shift in focus within the movement, implicit in the historical record is the possibility that the movement was to a degree the victim of its own success. Between Brown v, the Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act, strident racists were forced to adopt more covert tactics in the pursuit of their objectives. In short, the enemy became more elusive, at times harder to identify, a moving target that made the task of galvanizing support and participation more difficult. It's easy to see what's going on when fire hoses and attack dogs are being turned on peaceful demonstrators-men, women, children, the elderly. It's something else when the more overt sources of drama are removed and the antagonist is hidden from view. The intended effect of the FBI's COINTELPRO was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize" groups that FBI officials believed were "subversive" by instructing field operatives to: 1. Create a negative public image for targeted groups (e.g. by recording the activity of activists, and releasing negative personal information to the public) 2. Break down internal organization 3. Create dissension between groups 4. Restrict access to public resources 5. Inhibit the ability to organize protests 6. Restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities. Post 1964 there were many occasions where groups were given a negative public image (e.g. the black panthers), where organizations broke down internally (e.g. SNCC replacing most of its original members and agendas), where there was dissension between groups (SNCC and the SCLC), and where the ability and desire to protest decreased (Blumberg p.164). One source claimed that Cointelpro's objective was to prevent the rise of a black "messiah," and after MLK's assassination, the attention shifted to Huey P. Newton, the leader of the black panthers. "Of the 295 documented actions taken by COINTELPRO to disrupt Black groups, 233 were directed against the Black Panther Party." Whether the absence of a black "messiah" can be attributed to the machinations of Cointelpro or not, the organization clearly had a destructive impact on the movement. Salmond places what transpired on the Edmund-Pettus Bridge on March 9th, 1965 above everything else as the event that marked the beginning of the end of what he refers to as the 'united' civil rights movement. This distinction seem dubious in light of the other factors that played into the movement's eventual dissolution, but there is some truth to it to the degree that the rifts that were widening behind the façade of unity would eventually expand to untenable proportions and factor prominently into the decline that followed. Given all of the forces that factored into the eventual fate of the movement, it seems misguided to attach too much significance to the more confrontational approach that emerged post 1964, because it can't be fully understood outside of the broader context in which it took place. Some of these things are related in complex and inextricable ways. The factors that drove the strategic shift from passive resistance to confrontation were numerous and varied-the dissatisfaction within the activist ranks over the continued and pervasive presence of the underlying conditions and dynamics that galvanized the movement in the first place; the growing apathy within the community at large for the same reasons, with the sense of urgency that creeping disengagement generated; the divisions between various groups, and the impact those divisions had on the efficacy of each, leaving activists groping for more impactful courses of action; the fading national spotlight, with its hunger for ever escalating dramatic displays. All of these things played a role, and were intertwined in ways that are difficult to separate.[7: "COINTELPRO." FBI Domestic Intelligence Activities. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.][8: "COINTELPRO." PBS. PBS. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.]


This investigation has sought to answer the question "To what extent could more confrontational action post 1964 be blamed for the unraveling of the Civil Rights Movement?" The evidence and arguments considered have led me to the conclusion that the answer to that cannot be readily determined because there are a number of interrelated factors that figure into the movement's decline, and thus render the consideration of any one of them in isolation unproductive in the effort to ascertain the broader historical context. Outside of confrontational action, any number of conclusions can be drawn based on one's perspective and how one wishes to frame the unraveling of the movement.


"The Black Panthers." The Black Revolution; an Ebony Special Issue. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 1970. 125-35. Print.

"The Myths of Black Revolt." The Black Revolution; an Ebony Special Issue. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 1970. 109-23. Print.

Blumberg, Rhoda Lois. "Chapter 10: Movement Decline." Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984. 153-67. Print.

Salmond, John A. "Chapter 6: The End of the Movement." My Mind Set on Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997. 127-49. Print.

Carson, Clayborne, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary B. Nash. "Ch. 18: Marching Toward Freedom, 1961-1966." The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 450-78. Print.

Lehman, C. P. "Civil Rights in Twilight: The End of the Civil Rights Movement Era in 1973." Journal of Black Studies 36.3 (2006): 415-28. Web.

Davis, Jack E. "Ch.9: Black Power and Culture." The Civil Rights Movement. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 205-29. Print.

Levy, Peter B. "Chronology of Events." The Civil Rights Movement. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. Print.

Denton, Herbert. "Wilkins Dies, Jordan Quits, and the Movement Languishes: The End of The Civil Rights Era." (1981): 15-17. Print.

Pearson, Hugh. The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1994. Print.

L., Van Deburg William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1992. Print

Nasstrom, Kathryn L. "Beginnings and Endings: Life Stories and the Periodization of the Civil Rights Movement." The Journal of American History 86.2 (1999): 700-11. Web.

The Civil Rights Movement [electronic Resource (video)]. New York, N.Y. : Films Media Group, [2012], C2009. Web. <>. Additional contributors: Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Media Rich Learning (Firm)

"Criminal Justice Fact Sheet." NAACP. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

"The Journal of Negro Education." The Journal of Negro Education. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Table A-2. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Race, Sex, and Age." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

Herman, Max. "Thread: The Newark and Detroit Rebellions of 1967." Assata Shakur Speaks Hands Off Assata Lets Get Free Revolutionary PanAfricanism Black On Purpose Liberation Forum RSS. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Watts Riots." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

University of Southern California. USC. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

"African American History | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." African American History | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"The Unraveling of a Dream | Group Think |"BillMoyerscom. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Civil Rights Movement." A&E Television Networks. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

Meredith, Robyn. "5 Days in 1967 Still Shake Detroit." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 July 1997. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"COINTELPRO." FBI Domestic Intelligence Activities. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.

"COINTELPRO." PBS. PBS. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <>.