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ISSUES-Civil Rights

Civil Rights

The term "civil rights" refers to the legally protected privileges that are guaranteed for all citizens within the territorial boundaries of a given nation, as distinguished from "human rights" or "natural rights," which are regarded as the universal birthrights of all people worldwide, regardless of their country of residence. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke argued that life, liberty, and property -- which he deemed natural human rights -- should be codified in civil-rights laws and protected as part of the social contract of sovereign states.

Civil rights became the focus of an important social movement in the United States in the mid-1950s. This movement used nonviolent protest as a means of drawing public attention to the injustices of racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans, particularly in the South. In 1964 it achieved the most important breakthrough in equal-rights legislation for blacks since the Reconstruction period (1865-1877).

Around the middle of the 20th century, there were hints that a civil-rights movement was on the horizon of American societal evolution. Membership in the NAACP increased tenfold during the World War II years, reflecting a growing awareness among both blacks and whites of the urgent need for racial justice. Two years after the war's end, Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color bar. A year later, President Harry Truman announced that segregation would be eliminated from the U.S. armed forces. Truman also appointed blacks to numerous government posts in his administration.

Many whites, particularly in the South, were reluctant to accept black Americans' ever-growing inclusion in realms that were once exclusively white. An event of historic significance occurred on December 1, 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger (as was the Southern custom of the day) on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. In response to Ms. Parks's arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr. led Montgomery's black residents in a year-long boycott of the city's buses -- a campaign that put a great financial strain on the bus company, three-fourths of whose regular patrons were black. As the months passed, the Montgomery story grabbed headlines in a number of national newspapers, thereby raising Americans awareness about racial issues to new heights. Consequently, the flow of financial contributions to civil-rights organizations increased dramatically. Donations poured in from all over the world. Most came from church groups -- particularly black churches -- in the United States. Finally, on December 21, 1956, a court order officially desegregating Montgomery's buses took effect. "There is a new Negro in the South," a proud Dr. King declared, "with a new sense of dignity and destiny."

Civil-rights reform was on America's mind, as evidenced by a massive wave of demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These rallies were led by such organizations as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Boycotts, sit-ins, voter-registration drives, and protest marches spread like wildfire across the South. In 1960 alone, some 70,000 students staged sit-ins in about 100 Southern cities, occupying seats in such traditionally segregated facilities as lunch counters, restaurants, and libraries.

May 1963 was a most significant month in the civil-rights movement's history. The SCLC, headed by Dr. King, had recently recruited hundreds of high-school students and trained them in the methods of nonviolent resistance. On May 2, about 1,000 of these youngsters staged an anti-segregation march in Birmingham, Alabama, where 600 of them were arrested and jailed. The next day, 1,000 more students marched towards Birmingham's business district for yet another rally. The city's infamous police chief, Eugene "Bull" Connor, made a crucial tactical mistake -- ordering his men to use nightsticks and German Shepherds to drive away the marchers, and sending firefighters to blast them with water from powerful hoses. The three major television networks broadcast these scenes of mayhem to millions of American homes. These televised images of brutality urgently drove home the need for civil rights reform in a way that the printed word could not have done. More than ever before, people understood the worthy objectives of a movement whose time had come. Over the next 10 weeks, 758 civil rights demonstrations took place in 186 American cities, with many white participants. And these rallies were effective as catalysts for social change. The summer of 1963 alone saw 50 Southern cities agree to desegregate their public facilities.

Throughout these early years of the civil-rights movement, white racial attitudes were gradually but indisputably evolving in every region of the United States:

  • In 1942, opinion polls found that the proportion of whites favoring school integration was just 30%, and a paltry 2% in the South. By 1956 these figures had grown to 49% and 15%, respectively, and by 1963 they stood at 62% and 31%.
  • In 1942, about 44% of all whites, and only 4% of Southern whites, favored the racial integration of passengers on streetcars and buses. By 1956 these numbers had swelled to 60% and 27%, and in 1963 they reached 79% and 52%.
  • In 1942, scarcely 35% of whites nationwide, and 12% of whites in the South, were comfortable having a black person of the same income and education move into their block. By 1956 the corresponding figures had grown to 51% to 38%, and in 1963 they stood at 64% and 51%.
  • Between 1942 in 1956, the proportion of all whites who viewed blacks as their intellectual equals rose from 41% to 77%; in the South, the shift was from about 21% to 59%.
  • Between 1944 in 1963, the overall proportion of whites who felt that blacks "should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job" doubled, from 42% to 83%.

The growing popularity of the nondiscrimination ideal led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in all facilities designed to serve the general public. Such entities as buses, streetcars, hotels, libraries, swimming pools, dance halls, movie theaters, and bowling alleys could no longer lawfully keep blacks out or confined to separate areas. In addition, the new law forbade discrimination in employment and public education, denying federal funds to "programs that operated in a discriminatory manner."

Until 1966, the civil-rights movement united widely disparate elements in the black community along with their white supporters, but in that year a strain of militant young radicals, impatient with the rate of change and not content with purely nonviolent methods of protest, injected themselves into the movement. Consequently there were schisms in the movement's leadership, and the new militancy alienated many white sympathizers, as did a wave of violent rioting in the black ghettos of several major cities in 1965-67. The assassination of Dr. King in April 1968 sparked further riots, and the movement lost its cohesiveness. Different leaders advocated varying degrees of militancy.

Since the late 1960s, the implications of the term "civil rights" have undergone a radical transmutation. Originally the term believed in the promise of America and stood for the idea that all individuals should be treated equally under the law, regardless of their race, religion, sex, or any other social categories. The civil-rights establishment of more recent times, however, has largely moved away from advocating equal rights and opportunities, favoring instead equal outcomes guaranteed by racial preferences -- in both the business world and in academia. Today an overwhelming majority of organizations and spokespersons professing a commitment to the defense of civil rights advance the notion that the United States is a nation irredeemably infested with racism and that little, if any, progress has been made in improving the social and economic condition of blacks.

Moreover, the modern-day civil-rights establishment also depicts other nonwhite minorities -- particularly Hispanics -- as victims of American injustice. Asians, however, are exempted from such a depiction -- because they have been high achievers educationally, professionally, and financially. Indeed, by numerous indicators of success and prosperity, Asians outperform whites by a significant margin. This inconvenient fact does not square with the left's narrative of oppressive white victimizers and downtrodden nonwhite victims.

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                               SEE ALSO

* Civil Rights Advocates

* Civil Rights Groups

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