The civil rights movement was among the most important social movements in 20th-century United States history. The movement overturned de jure (legal) segregation in the South and border states, ended southern disenfranchisement of most African Americans, and increased economic and educational opportunities for many blacks, while helping to facilitate the growth of the African American middle class. Apart from changing the lives of many African Americans, the civil rights movement also influenced other movements for minorities and women, the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States, and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and was itself influenced by anticolonial struggles abroad. Yet although radically affecting race relations, the movement also revealed that racial discrimination persisted across the United States and, even when not enshrined in law, was perpetuated by federal, state, and local government policies, employers, realtors, and widespread racial prejudice. The civil right movement’s successes included federal and Supreme Court rulings, federal and state legislation, the growth of the African American electorate, many more black elected officials, and increased educational attainment and income for many blacks. Nevertheless, one-third of African Americans still lived in poverty in the 1980s. Covert and overt racial discrimination also remained a reality for many. Early accounts of the civil rights movement, which were heavily influenced by contemporary coverage by newspapers and television, established what some scholars label the dominant narrative. These accounts begin with the US Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated public school segregation unconstitutional or with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956; they end either with the Selma, Alabama, demonstrations of 1965 or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Early scholarship focused on mass protests, prominent civil rights leaders, national or regional organizations, and the actions of the federal government. Since the 1980s, however, many historians have extended the chronology of the movement, both backward and forward in time, widened its geography beyond the South, called attention to the contributions of women and lesser-known figures, emphasized the importance of armed self-defense in the southern movement, and studied the interplay of local, regional, and national civil rights struggles.
Historiographical writings, such as overviews in Lawson 2003 and Verney 2006, explain how the field has developed, introduce and assess key works, and sometimes suggest questions and sources for future research. Gaines 2002, Hall 2005, and Theoharis 2006 argue that there was a “long civil rights movement” that stretched from the New Deal era through to and beyond the 1960s, and that this movement was national in scope. Sympathetic to left-wing radicalism and disturbed by resurgent conservatism in the United States, Hall issues a rallying cry against the conservative appropriation of color-blind rhetoric that ignores structural racism. Eagles 2000 contends that the many former civil rights activists, participants, and sympathizers who have written about the movement have contributed to a celebratory approach to the movement that also fails to study the white supporters of racial segregation. Unconvinced by advocacy of a “long civil rights movement,” Cha-Jua and Lang 2007 and Lawson 2011 argue that the organized public protests of the 1950s and 1960s in the South made that period distinctive.
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.
A critical response to advocates of a “long civil rights movement,” arguing that such an approach neglects change over time, downplays the distinctive character of protests in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, and masks differences between the South and the rest of the nation.
Eagles, Charles W. “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era.” Journal of Southern History 66.4 (2000): 815–848.
Making an analogy with American historians who wrote about the Cold War while it was in progress, Eagles argues that civil rights historians have often lacked sufficient detachment from their subject and largely neglected to investigate differences among white segregationists that influenced the movement’s approach.
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.
Gaines favorably assesses critiques of liberalism and the civil rights movement, endorses early expositions of the “long civil rights movement,” and laments state and judicial undermining of the Voting Rights Act.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History 91.4 (2005): 1233–1263.
Discerns a nationwide “long civil rights movement” between the 1930s and 1970s that emphasized economic justice as much as equality under the law.
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.
In a challenge to scholars of the long civil rights movement, Lawson defends the idea of a “short civil rights movement” between 1954 and 1968 that was characterized by distinctive mass public protests with charismatic leadership focused on specific goals.
Lawson, Steven F. “Freedom Them, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement.” In Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle. Edited by Steven F. Lawson, 3–28. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Lawson explains the development of civil rights scholarship, critiques influential studies, and calls for a “multi-dimensional understanding of the civil rights movement” that incorporates the intersection of its local and national manifestations.
Theoharis, Jeanne. “Black Freedom Studies: Re-imagining and Redefining the Fundamentals.” History Compass 4.2 (2006): 348–367.
Theoharis redefines the civil rights movement as a “national black freedom movement” between the 1940s and 1970s that was led and organized by local communities throughout the United States.
Verney, Kevern. The Debate on Black Civil Rights in America. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Verney briefly summarizes and lists influential scholarly works.
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