In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civil Rights Movement and Desegregation

  • Introduction
  • Historiography Essays
  • Reference Resources
  • The Long Struggle for Black Freedom
  • Civil Rights in Global Perspective
  • The Northern Civil Rights Movement
  • SNCC and Organizing Mississippi
  • Red-Baiting and the Defense of White Supremacy
  • Self-Defense, Black Radicalism, and Black Power
  • Welfare Rights
  • Activism in the 1970s and Beyond

Childhood Studies Civil Rights Movement and Desegregation
Jane Berger, Robert H. Mayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0123


The narrative of the civil rights movement is contested ground. The classical telling of the movement grounds the story in the work of activists, including many young people, who stood on the shoulders of activists from previous generations. The classical telling also tends to focus on events in the South. The generational view is perhaps best exemplified by the involvement of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., twenty-six at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; John Lewis, twenty-three when he delivered an address at the 1963 March on Washington; and Diane Nash, twenty-two when she led sit-ins in Nashville. All three of these leaders looked to activists from the previous generation, such as Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, who, in turn, held out a hand of assistance to the young activists. With a youthful leadership, it is no surprise that young people were often the foot soldiers in the movement, as exemplified by student involvement in integrating Little Rock High School and by the children who were the backbone for marches in places such as Birmingham and Selma, all southern battlegrounds. For many years, the classical telling of the civil rights movement focused on the years between the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision and the passage of federal civil rights legislation during the mid-1960s, the benevolent action of presidents, the leadership of Dr. King, and the fight against Jim Crow and disenfranchisement. More-recent historiography calls for a consideration of what is being termed the “long civil rights movement,” which extends the classical movement at both ends, into the early part of the 20th century, and continuing into the early 21st century. This view includes consideration of the actions of many beyond the well-known leaders, an examination of the movement in the North, the role of violence in the movement, the important role women played in the movement, the international nature of the movement, and the inclusion of the goal of economic equality. The involvement of young people is a theme that can also be traced throughout the narrative of the long civil rights movement. Proponents of the long view challenge the generally celebratory telling of the classical movement and argue that the problems reflected in the classical telling are more complex than suggested, with issues of racism intertwined with those of class, with racism more endemic to the entire country and not just the South, and with many problems still unresolved and, in many ways, worse in the early 21st century. This article reflects the contested nature of the civil rights movement as it currently is being studied.

Historiography Essays

The items in this section are by scholars and activists who describe and critically assess trends in the scholarship on the struggle for black liberation in the United States since the end of the Civil War. The most significant early-21st-century trend is scholars’ increased attention to the multiple dimensions of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall describes as the “long civil rights movement” (Hall 2005). Rather than focusing on the years 1954–1965, Hall urges historians to consider activism of that period as part of a longer and national movement with origins in the Popular Front of the New Deal era. As items throughout this article reflect, many historians have pushed the start date of the long civil rights movement even earlier. Not all historians, however, share enthusiasm for the new trend. Lawson 2011 and Cha-Jua and Lang 2007 argue that the newly dubbed “classical” civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s warrants distinction from much-earlier and later activism. Additional issues in civil rights historiography have compelled scholarly comment as well. Lawson 2003 is particularly attentive to the relationship during the classical movement to events on the national and local levels. The essays in Crosby 2011 echo that theme. Among the important interventions of Kevin Gaines is the observation that modern scholars of civil rights history hail from a conservative era characterized by a powerful backlash to earlier gains (see Gaines 2002). That context, Gaines argues, in addition to their commitment to civil rights objectives, informs the questions early-21st-century scholars pursue. Gaines’s insights are evident in the essays in Robinson and Sullivan 1991. Nell Painter is a leading voice among many who assert the ubiquity rather than regional specificity of white supremacy in the United States (Painter 2001). The materials in this section are most appropriate for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

  • Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita, and Clarence Lang. “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies.” Journal of African American History 92.2 (2007): 265–288.

    Provocative essay by two scholars who argue that the historiography of the “long civil rights movement” is so all-encompassing of African American life, race relations, and black activism that it lacks adequate specificity and convincing explanatory power.

  • Crosby, Emilye, ed. Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement. Papers presented at a conference held in March 2006 at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

    A collection of scholarly essays growing from a 2006 conference. The authors argue for the inclusion of local case studies in scholarship on the movement to counter the national-only narrative that has prevailed. The book presents the argument that concern with the local provides a more nuanced view that allows for a consideration of movement issues often not discussed, including the role of women, the use of self-defense, white reaction, the long-term nature of movement organizing, and more.

  • Gaines, Kevin. “The Historiography of the Struggle for Black Equality since 1945.” In A Companion to Post-1945 America. Edited by Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig, 211–234. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    Excellent overview of the trends in the then-recent historiography of the struggle for black liberation since Reconstruction. Gaines identifies historians as participant-observers in the long civil rights movement and describes new scholarship as informed by and in response to the conservative counteroffensive of the Reagan-Bush era against earlier civil rights gains.

  • Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History 91.4 (2005): 1233–1263.

    DOI: 10.2307/3660172

    Extremely influential essay by a former president of the Organization of American Historians, who introduced the phrase “long civil rights movement.” Hall argues that the standard narrative of the civil rights movement, which features the southern struggle against segregation and disenfranchisement, ignores the centrality of economic exploitation to the maintenance of white supremacy both inside and outside the South.

  • Lawson, Steven F. Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

    Collection of previously published essays arranged to comment on trends in civil rights historiography. Lawson’s work has been particularly influential for its examination of the intersections of and distinctions between national- and local-level efforts to achieve civil rights. In this collection, Lawson is also attentive to post-1965 activism and new civil rights scholarship that addresses women’s history and popular culture.

  • Lawson, Steven F. “Long Origins of the Short Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968.” In Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement. Edited by Danielle L. McGuire and John Dittmer, 9–38. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

    Compelling counterpoint to advocates of the “long civil rights movement.” Lawson notes that African Americans have fought oppression throughout history. The (classical) civil rights movement, however, warrants distinction for its exceptionality as a mass, grassroots movement with charismatic leaders and specific rather than transhistorical objectives, strategies, and iterations of political consciousness.

  • Painter, Nell Irvin. “America Needs to Reexamine Its Civil Rights History.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 32 (Summer 2001): 132–134.

    DOI: 10.2307/2678800

    Influential review of Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (McWhorter 2001, cited under Later Events). Painter credits Germans for their forthright acknowledgment of their nation’s culpability for the Holocaust. Americans, alternatively, generally blame fringe extremist groups for southern racist violence, ignoring widespread, interclass Caucasian complicity in the maintenance of white supremacy.

  • Robinson, Armstead L., and Patricia Sullivan, eds. New Directions in Civil Rights Studies. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991.

    Collection of essays by civil rights activists and historians who assess scholarship in the field of civil rights studies. Among the most influential is an essay by Julian Bond, who challenges scholars to be more critical of the relationship between American liberalism and the struggle for black liberation.

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