An Analysis of the Success of the Civil Rights Movement

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Between 1964 and 1968, at least four major civil rights acts were passed: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the 1968 Housing Act. Each piece of legislation sought to address racial problems during the time. Taken together, these acts advanced the major goals of civil rights leaders of the time: improvement of black economic opportunity, voting rights for African Americans, and desegregation. Civil rights activities and demonstrations between 1954 and 1968 undoubtedly led to the passage of these acts. But the ultimate effectiveness of the legislation is one of a matter of degree. To what extent was the civil rights movement successful in achieving its goals? Did the 1964 Civil Rights Act improve economic conditions for African Americans? I will address that question by examining trends in unemployment, poverty, and wages and income of African Americans. Did the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act provide African Americans with an undeterred vote? I will answer that question using participation and registration rates and data on black congressional representation. Finally, did the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and 1968 Housing Act establish desegregation? I will evaluate this question by examining the extent of segregation in schools, public places, and housing. While African American civil rights leaders defined these three goals through their speeches and interviews, they sought to improve black Americans’ conditions, not just in absolute terms but also relative to whites. Therefore, I will compare data on African Americans in these three areas to the data on whites. Ultimately, I draw varying conclusions about the extent to which the major civil rights acts, inspired by the efforts of the civil rights movement, were successful in gaining equality between whites and blacks and improving for blacks in terms of economic opportunity, voting, 4 and desegregation. I will first establish that these three goals were central for the civil rights movement, drawing upon primary sources from major civil rights leaders. I will then analyze the progress made in each goal as the result of civil rights legislation using time series data and bivariate analyses in the short term, long term, and in comparison to whites. Finally, I will offer an interpretation as to the degree and level of advancements and success the movement has had. African Americans have seen drastic improvements in public place desegregation and voting registration and participation. But they still lag far behind their white counterpart in terms of economic conditions. While African Americans have seen some areas of improvement within all three of these goals, with some far greater than others, African Americans overall are still in an inferior position to whites and still need to see significant improvements in many notable areas. The four civil rights acts passed provided opportunities for African Americans. They opened the door to potential improvements. The lack of complete success in these areas cannot be fully attributed to the failures of the legislation itself. Rather it is the result of the persistent effects of segregation and discrimination, as well as a variety of outside factors. The future for African Americans after the civil rights acts was inevitably shaped by the long history of discrimination and disadvantage that preceded the legislation’s enactment.