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Civil Resistance 101: Achieving Equality through the Civil Rights Movement


Civil resistance exists as a pivotal catalyst, effecting transformation within oppressive regimes and confronting unjust policies that impede civil liberties. Civil resistance’s impact has changed the course of cultural and historical identities throughout history. The study of civil resistance has shed light on the intricate power dynamics present in governance; moreover, it has illuminated a pathway of discourse that empowers nonviolent actions to pursue justice and equitable change. The narratives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, among others, attest to the potential of civil resistance to dismantle the seemingly insurmountable walls of injustice. It is through these 101 series of civil resistance that the reader will unearth the subtle intricacies of power dynamics within governance structures. This series exposes how resolute people are. Civil resistance, in its essence, is a testament to the resilient human spirit, forging a pathway of discourse that transcends the realm of violence. This series focuses on the foundational principles of democracy, equity, and human rights. Moreover, civil resistance is a testament to the perseverance of humanity to shape its own destiny, fight oppression, and create a trajectory towards a more just and equitable world.

In the context of an international relations and history degree curriculum, this multifaceted study of civil resistance is vital for understanding philosophies, theories, and historical movements, enabling those to analyze, interpret, and actively pave the way for a humanistic, ethical, and peaceful future. This series of articles will embark on a journey through a comprehensive exploration of civil resistance. It will weave together threads of international relations theories, and conflict resolution approaches, and discuss historical movements to provide insightful and indispensable knowledge to the reader. The series aims to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of civil resistance’s impact on societies and how it has left an enduring mark on society today.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

5. Civil Resistance 101: Achieving Equality through the Civil Rights Movement

6. Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation

7. Civil Resistance 101: Unearthing the Power of Civil Resistance for the Future

Civil Resistance 101: Achieving Equality through the Civil Rights Movement


Nonviolent resistance emerged as the pivotal force in dismantling the legal apparatus of segregation in the Southern USA (Morris, 1999, p. 517). Understanding the pre- and post-Civil Rights periods is paramount. The typical depiction of the Civil Rights Movement centers on a narrow time frame from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Hall, 2005, p. 1234). Yet, the movement's significance extends beyond this period, deserving comprehensive recognition in American history (Hall, 2005, p. 1234). Thus, what precipitated the need for the civil rights movement?


The Jim Crow South cast a long shadow over American culture for a significant part of the 20th century. Post-slavery, laws enforcing racial separation profoundly subjugated Black populations (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Jim Crow aimed to assert White supremacy over Black counterparts (Morris, 1999, p. 518). This "tripartite system" extended control over Blacks socially, politically, and economically (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Politically, Blacks were disenfranchised, barred from elections and jury service (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Economically, many were trapped in sharecropping arrangements (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Two significant migrations shaped the civil rights era: Black sharecroppers moving across the nation as the rural economy waned and World War II, underscoring institutional racism (Hall, 2005, p. 1239). These migrations highlighted systemic injustices Blacks faced economically, socially, and racially (Hall, 2005, p. 1240). Even in the North, economic opportunities for Blacks were limited to menial jobs (Morris, 1999, p. 518), while socially, segregation persisted, depriving Blacks of equal access (Morris, 1999, p. 518).


Violence against Blacks was endemic in the Jim Crow South, perpetrated by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of White Camellia (Morris, 1999, pp. 518-519). Lynchings and terror acts instilled fear, persisting even after slavery ended (Morris, 1999, p. 519). The power of Jim Crow laws reflected deep-seated anti-Black sentiments, with no clear end in sight (Morris, 1999, p. 519). The 1930s saw racism deepen with New Deal policies, exacerbating racial and gender inequalities (Hall, 2005, p. 1240). For instance, a "two-track welfare system" excluded African Americans, especially Black women, from crucial benefits (Hall, 2005, p. 1241). The Civil Rights Movement emerged as a response to these entrenched injustices, challenging the status quo and demanding equality for all Americans.

Black and white signage, segregation, 1950s america, waiting room for colored only sign, Arcadia, online academic journal, American history
Figure 1: Segregated poster, 1950s (Rumble, 2018).

The laws essentially highlighted a “tripartite system” whereby blacks were controlled socially, politically, and economically (Morris, 1999, p. 518). In terms of politics, black people were banned from having any say in elections as well as the impossibility of serving as judges or jurors in trials (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Up until the second half of the 20th century, blacks were stagnated economically in the south since many were sharecroppers (Morris, 1999, p. 518). Two significant migrations in history shaped the Civil Rights era. The first was when black sharecroppers moved to varying regions of America, the North, South, and West, as the rural system died out (Hall, 2005, p. 1239). The second occurred during World War II, when this migration of black people took notice as the geography of the nation began to show the change in people and resources (Hall, 2005, p. 1239). Both migrations demonstrated institutional racism among displaced black Americans as they were demoted to inferior treatment like low-paying and demeaning work, worse education, and inadequate housing (Hall, 2005, p. 1240). Even in the North, economic opportunities were limited as black Americans were only hired into low-wage and low-skill jobs (Morris, 1999, p. 518).

Additionally, the superior neighborhoods and schools of the whites forced black communities into inferior social conditions (Morris, 1999, p. 518). The segregation of black people saw them not allowed to sit in the front of the bus or train, not permitted to stay in some hotels, use separate restrooms, and attend different schools (Morris, 1999, p. 518). In addition to the pervasive racial, social, and economic inferiority experienced by Blacks, violence against them became an everyday reality in the Jim Crow South (Morris, 1999, p. 518). White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of White Camellia resorted to terror tactics such as lynching, arson, and bribery to instill fear (Morris, 1999, pp. 518-519). Shockingly, Mississippi alone recorded the lynching of 539 Blacks after slavery ended and until the onset of the modern civil rights era (Morris, 1999, p. 519). Even post-civil rights era, Mississippi witnessed 33 lynchings until 1950, underscoring the enduring grip of racial terror (Morris, 1999, p. 519).


Similarly, until 1950, the power of Jim Crow laws and sentiments perpetuated the anti-Black foundations laid by Whites, with no discernible end in sight (Morris, 1999, p. 519). The 1930s witnessed the entrenchment of racism through New Deal policies, exacerbating racial and gender inequalities (Hall, 2005, p. 1240). For instance, the establishment of a "two-track welfare system" in 1935 disproportionately excluded African Americans, particularly Black women, from unemployment insurance benefits (Hall, 2005, p. 1241). Given that a majority of African Americans were engaged in these sectors, 55% could not avail themselves of the New Deal policy, with an alarming 87% of Black women similarly neglected (Hall, 2005, p. 1241). These policies emphasized racial disparities, intensifying the struggle for civil rights.

Arcadia, Academic Online Journal, Non-Violent Protests, NAACP Officials Celebrating Twentieth Anniversary, 1929 (Library of Congress, n.d.).
Figure 2: NAACP Officials Celebrating Twentieth Anniversary, 1929 (Library of Congress, n.d.).

With early efforts regarding resistance and protest from blacks, the idea of insurgence was not new and did not only begin to occur after 1950 (Morris, 1999, p. 519). Examples of black retaliation against oppression have been observed in books such as There is a River (1983) and Black Liberation (1995) that date back to the slave era (Morris, 1999, p. 519). At the beginning of the 20th century, black Americans participated in boycotting the racial inequities they experienced: from women’s rights to Jim Crow streetcars to the legality of Jim Crow laws itself, protests persisted (Morris, 1999, p. 520). Between 1909 and 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded, an organization that gave a voice to express the legalities of Jim Crow and the racial inequalities that persisted (Morris, 1999, p. 520). A significant milestone happened throughout the 1920s with the creation of the Garvey movement in 1920 (Morris, 1999, p. 520). The theme and story for the movement lay in the idea that African American history, people, and culture had founded civilizations that were better than those founded in the West in every way (Morris, 1999, p. 520). The leader Garvey pleaded for black Americans to return to their roots and move back to Africa (Morris, 1999, p. 520). This movement ultimately became the biggest movement for African Americans during this time (Morris, 1999, p. 520). Another integral movement for Black Americans occurred with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s (Morris, 1999, p. 520). The movement’s message was through literary and poetry means and the purpose was to formulate a mentality for the black woman where she was prideful and ready to resist white supremacy and support black freedom at all costs (Morris, 1999, p. 520). Essentially, the Harlem Renaissance was another protest-focused movement.

Figure 3:  A. Philip Randolph and March on Washington, 1941 (Zinn Education Project, 2024).
Figure 3: A. Philip Randolph and March on Washington, 1941 (Zinn Education Project, 2024).

By the 1940s, more large-scale nonviolent movements erupted; The March on Washington Movement (MOWM) was established by A Philip Randolph, who believed that in order to defeat institutional racism, nonviolent protests would need to be the main driver of such change (Morris, 1999, pp. 520-521). The MOWM became a “Black nonviolent direct action movement” aimed at marching on Washington due to the racism observed in the defense departments (Morris, 1999, p. 521). The March never occurred as the President of the USA at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, realized the threat of blacks marching in Washington; as a result, he removed the legal statutes that allowed racial discrimination in the US defense systems in 1941 (Morris, 1999, p. 521). In essence, “the very threat of protest” was enough to drive racial change (Morris, 1999, p. 521). With increased defense spending after World War II, technological advancements impacted the racial disparities of the South. As observed in the South, the superiority of whites facilitated a sort of “racial capitalism” whereby black people could not participate in the American dream that their white counterparts seemed to benefit from and control (Hall, 2005, p. 1243). After World War II, white Americans, and specifically southern democrats, reacted to technological advancements and higher wages by removing blacks from factories where tools could replace them (Hall, 2005, p. 1244).


The transformation of the educational system's racial inequalities began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (Zashin, 1978, p. 239). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the practice of "separate but equal" in public schools was against the Constitution (Zashin, 1978, p. 239). The NAACP played a crucial role in bringing about this change (Wirmark, 1974, p. 117). The decision was prompted by the clear segregation of public schools based on race (Zashin, 1978, p. 243). However, it's important to note that actual desegregation didn't happen in most states for almost thirteen years after the Supreme Court's ruling, except for those near the borders (Zashin, 1978, p. 242).


Civil Rights Movement

In December 1955, Rosa Parks instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where she refused to give up her seat on the bus (Glennon, 1991, p. 59). In response, Martin Luther King Jr. initiated the boycott, spearheading collective civil resistance efforts by encouraging people to refrain from riding segregated buses, which were legal in Montgomery at that time (Glennon, 1991, p. 59). This boycott lasted eleven months, from December 1955 until November 1956 (Glennon, 1991, p. 60). The boycott demonstrated collective action that forced a segregated bus system to be forced to change. The African American population's lack of utilizing the bus for the eleven months took a toll on “time, money, and comfort” (Glennon, 1991, p. 60).

Bus segregation was a key indicator of the laws in southern society; the majority of African Americans took public transportation daily and strode to the back of the bus when whites would appear (Glennon, 1991, p. 62). During the civil rights movement, litigation was the key indicator that buttressed the efforts of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (Glennon, 1991, p. 61). The legal system was what transformed the movement from one of tragedy to positivity (Glennon, 1991, p. 61). Ultimately, it was “legal decisions and decrees” that created the “desecration of the Montgomery bus system” (Glennon,1991, p. 61).

Montgomery Bus Boycott, American History, Black American, African American, Rosa Parks illegally sitting on a bus in front of a white man, 1950s (Klein, 2023).
Figure 4: Rosa Parks illegally sitting on a bus in front of a white man, 1950s (Klein, 2023).

Rosa Parks entered the segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 (Glennon, 1991, p. 62). Rather than give up her seat in the front of the bus for a white person, she politely declined. In response, Parks was arrested and jailed; the bus decree at the time stated that African Americans were forced to sit in the back of the bus (Glennon, 1991, p. 62). She is perceived as the “mother of the Civil Rights movement” because of this act (Morris, 1999, p. 535). Additionally, Parks served as the secretary of the NAACP at the time; her actions prompted other individuals to take part in trying to fix the Jim Crow laws (Glennon, 1991, p. 62). The day after Parks was arrested, she was fined 10 USD and found guilty on all charges (Glennon, 1991, p. 63). Activists started to encourage others to create a plan after the ruling (Glennon, 1991, p. 63). They discussed how to fix the system, gathered in a church for meetings, and called themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) on December 5, 1955 to create a trajectory towards equality. The president they appointed was a young minister who had just finished school at Boston University: his name was Martin Luther King Jr. (Glennon, 1991, p.63). Only four days after the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred in December 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. became President of the Montgomery Improvement Association (Kendall, 2019, p. 78). In his speech at the church that day, he calmed black American's fears thereby emphasizing how they were doing the right thing by God and themselves in their resistance efforts (Kendall, 2019, p. 78). Ultimately, he stated that they were together developing a new norm for justice and love socially (Kendall, 2019, p. 79). While the boycott proved successful, the support and civil resistance were limited due to an injunction imposed by the city government of Montgomery (Kendall, 2019, p. 79). Unfortunately, shortly after, Martin Luther King, Jr. was found guilty of violating the city’s ruling and either was to be sent to jail for 386 days or pay a $500 fine (Kendall, 2019, p. 79). While the protest was nonviolent in nature, the court still showed distaste for his actions and felt he violated the law; thus, he served his sentence in 1956 (Kendall, 2019, p. 79).


In these meetings, MLK Jr. began to preach about change (Glennon, 1991, p. 63). Religion played an integral role in shaping the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s (Hall, 2005, p. 1251). Activists emphasized the ideals of equality and justice in obtaining freedom and traced them back to religion (Hall, 2005, p. 1251). A central figure in the opposition toward violence as a means of victory in the freedom struggle, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to head the movement, (Kendall, 2019, p. 78). Further, his distaste for violence was rooted in his moral beliefs that engaging in such acts hurts the soul of the inflicting individual (Kendall, 2019, p. 78). Similarly, this moral and religious theme was referred to as “Christian love” rather than any other terms such as nonviolent resistance, passive resistance, or noncooperation at the time (Kendall, 2019, p. 78). During the first meeting of the MIA, MLK Jr. emphasized that the Rosa Parks incident was about “far-reaching goals and ideals” (Carson, 2005, p. 13). This pivotal message was delivered on Monday, December 5, 1955 (Carson, 2005, p. 13). In response to Parks' arrest, the MIA began their 11-month boycott protests with MLK, Jr. spearheading the civil resistance efforts (Glennon, 1991, p. 64). King began to work with fellow activist and civil rights lawyer, Fred Gray, on proposing laws that would change the segregated bus system (Glennon, 1991, p. 64). All their proposals were continuously rejected (Glennon, 1991, p. 64). Yet, MLK and Fred Gray continued to work tirelessly to fix the segregation of buses (Carson, 2005, p. 15). Martin Luther King Jr. concerned himself with the ideas of power and social change; he said that these two instruments were not possible to overcome or engage in without making demands, supported by Frederick Douglass’s beliefs (Kendall, 2019, p. 77). He went on to say that power lies in the capacity to bring about social, political, and economic development (Kendall, 2019, p. 77). He believed above anything that nonviolent resistance was the best strategy for effecting change, regardless of the government or power system, in the freedom struggle for black Americans during the Civil Rights Era (Kendall, 2019, p. 77). By November 1956, the boycott prompted the US Supreme Court to “stop enforcing segregation on the buses” (Glennon, 1991, p. 60).

Figure 5: Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of his creation, the SCLC, 1957 (Buckingham, 2020).
Figure 5: Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of his creation, the SCLC, 1957 (Buckingham, 2020).

In 1957, King took a significant step by establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization dedicated to advancing civil liberties and social justice (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). Two years later, in 1959, King embarked on a transformative journey to India to study the principles of Gandhi, seeking to adapt them to the American civil rights movement (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). During this trip, he met with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, to discuss the application of Gandhi's methods in America (Wang, 2023, p. 2263).


In the early 1960s, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) actively engaged in sit-in demonstrations in the South alongside students, igniting a movement centered on nonviolent protest (Wirmark, 1974, pp. 117-118). Their collective actions led to the arrest of over 3,600 individuals, illustrating the scale and determination of their cause (Wirmark, 1974, pp. 117-118). The overarching objectives of these efforts were clear: to advocate for the fundamental rights of "freedom of speech," the "desegregation of public facilities," and the "registration of black voters” (Wirmark, 1974, pp. 117-118). Through these focused initiatives, Dr. King and the SCLC catalyzed a grassroots movement that changed the nation by challenging systemic injustices and paving the way for meaningful change (Wirmark, 1974, pp. 117-118).


The pivotal year of 1963 saw King's activism reaching new heights. Despite facing imprisonment for his civil rights demonstrations and efforts, King penned the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," emphasizing the power of nonviolent resistance and the importance of moral conviction in combating injustices (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). Later that year, on August 28, 1963, King delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech during the historic March on Washington (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). The 1963 March on Washington represented not only a powerful speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., but also a call for freedom of work, gender recognition, an end to classism, and overall equality for all men and women (Hall, 2005, pp. 1252-1253).

Online Academic Journal, Arcadia, American History, Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech, August 1963 (News Tribune Editorial Board, 2023).
Figure 6: Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech, August 1963 (News Tribune Editorial Board, 2023).

In 1963, the March on Washington marked a pivotal moment in American history (Smith, 2013). Segregation and discrimination became severe issues within trade unions, denying black trade unionists access to skilled jobs and dignity (Smith, 2013). However, the labor movements recognized that their struggle for fair treatment extended beyond wages and hours, encompassing civil rights (Smith, 2013) Through their resolute actions, the March on Washington transcended labor disputes to become a catalyst for civil rights. Their relentless demands compelled the federal government to enforce civil rights laws, reshaping the trajectory of history. The echoes of their struggle endure, reminding us of the enduring power of those who dared to envision a more equitable future (Smith, 2013).


This momentous event marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, galvanizing support and inspiring millions with its message of hope and equality. The culmination of these efforts came in 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, a landmark legislation that aimed to remove segregation and discrimination and promote equal rights for all African Americans (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). King's leadership, advocacy, and unwavering commitment to nonviolent protest were instrumental in driving forward the cause of civil rights and reshaping the course of American history (Wang, 2023, p. 2263).



Ultimately, the Civil Rights Movement epitomizes the power of nonviolent resistance against the legal segregation entrenched in the Southern USA. We learn that it was not just about a single era; it spans both pre and post-civil rights periods, shaping the core of American society. Jim Crow laws, deeply etched into American norms, enforced racial segregation and economic disparity, subduing African Americans socially, politically, and economically (Morris, 1999, p. 517). Migration patterns among black Americans, driven by economic and social hardships, magnified the institutional racism present nationwide (Hall, 2005, p. 1234). Violence and terror, inflicted by white supremacist groups, perpetuated racial oppression, highlighting the urgent need for change (Morris, 1999, p. 517). Even legislative efforts like the New Deal policies worsened racial and gender inequalities, revealing the systemic nature of injustice (Hall, 2005, p. 1234).

Resistance against oppression traces back to eras preceding the commonly known Civil Rights Era, with movements like the NAACP and the Garvey movement laying foundational stones for later activism (Morris, 1999, p. 517). The Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks' bold stance, showcased the potency of nonviolent protest in bringing about tangible change (Glennon, 1991, p. 64). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership and the formation of the MIA and SCLC propelled the civil rights movement, advocating for fundamental rights and rallying collective action (Wang, 2023, p. 2263). The 1963 March on Washington, a pivotal juncture in American history, amplified calls for equality and justice, leading to legislative milestones like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Smith, 2013). In essence, the Civil Rights Movement transcends historical narratives; it embodies the steadfast resilience of those challenging the status quo, and striving for a more inclusive and equitable society. Reflecting on its legacy reminds us of the imperative to confront injustice, uphold human dignity, and aspire to a future where equality reigns supreme.

Bibliographical References

Carson, C. (2005). To Walk in Dignity: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. OAH Magazine of History, 19(1), 13-15.


Glennon, R. J. (1991). The Role of Law in the Civil Rights Movement: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1957. Law and History Review, 9(1), 59–112.


Hall, J.D. (2005). The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past. The Journal of American History, 91(4), 1233-1263.


Kendall, W. J. (2019). Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Disobedience and the Duty to Obey the Law: Where Do We Go From Here? The Journal of Social Encounters, 3(1), 75-87.


Morris, A. D. (1999). A retrospective on the civil rights movement: Political and intellectual landmarks. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 517-539.


Smith, S. (2013). The Untold Story of the March on Washington. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 30(15).


Zashin, E. (1978). The Progress of Black Americans in Civil Rights: The Past Two Decades Assessed. Daedalus, 107(1), 239–262.


Wang, M. (2022).Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in America. Journal of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, 8, 2262-2265.


Wirmark, B. (1974). Nonviolent Methods and the American Civil Rights Movement 1955-1965. Journal of Peace Research, 11(2), 115–132. 


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Alexandra Gimpel

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