Why Did the Civil Rights Movement Occur?

The civil rights movement directly resulted from the failure of post-Civil War policies to ensure the civil liberties of black people, many recently emancipated. Consequently, old forms of social and legal suppression took new shape in the South, particularly in the form of segregation laws.

Despite the fact that many Northern statesmen championed black civil liberties after the Civil War, the project of reconstructing the South eventually fell short. This was due in large part to the political maneuvering surrounding the Hayes-Tilden election, where Republicans agreed to abandon reconstruction to keep the presidency. Consequently, the old racial order in the South was quickly re-established, minus the formal institution of slavery.

This renewed racial situation in the South possessed several mechanisms, including poll taxes and reading exams that prohibited black people from voting. Another mechanism was Jim Crow laws, a phenomenon present throughout the South that kept races segregated in public spaces, such as restaurants, bathrooms, train cars and movie theatres. Until 1954, this legal disparity was justified by the “separate but equal” doctrine, a framework the Supreme Court threw out that year.

During the next decades, black and white activists called increasing attention to the severe social injustice surrounding segregation by participating in marches, sit-ins and freedom rides. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Andrew Goodman drew national attention, and subsequently the attention of the federal government, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.