The Impact of Civil Rights Movement on the Development of Tolerance in Society


The sphere of civil rights in America has been the platform for heated discussions and controversies for centuries. A full-fledged society provides equal civil rights for all its members. However, the history of the USA shows that social discrimination based on racial differences was a distinguishing characteristic of American society for many years. Racism is a phenomenon that has existed in the world for many centuries, taking diverse forms and appearing in different parts of the planet. Defining this ideology, we can state that racism is a strong belief that people with different color of skin, culture, language, customs or any other factor that is predetermined at birth are inferior or superior to others. Racists believe that particular traits of character and moral values are conditioned by the person’s race or nation.  Throughout the history of humankind, racism has become the reason for wars and slavery many times. It also became the basis for racial separatism, which, in other words, is the belief that all people should be separated by their race and should remain segregated.

The existence of slavery in the USA led to a strong social opinion that black people were inferior to white people. The degree of human segregation reached the point when the life of a black person did not mean anything. The idea of superiority of one class over another was deeply rooted in American society. Therefore, even after the eventual abolition of slavery in 1865, African Americans could not change egalitarian attitude of people towards them and could not obtain equal rights for basic social needs for another hundred years.

This essay will examine the development of racial segregation in the history of American society and the emergence of grassroots activity that instigated the social rights movement. In particular, it will investigate the role of the main key figures, namely Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who advocated for social rights of black people and became the leaders of civil rights movement. However, the main aim of the research is to analyze the present-day results of more than one hundred years of struggle of African Americans for their rights. Unfortunately, the civil rights movement eventually led to the emergence of such nationalist radical groups as Black Power and Black Muslims. Hence, it is important to explore at which point the struggle against oppression turns into the violent extermination of enemies and massive revenge on them. The findings of the research will include conclusions on the existence of racism in contemporary American society.

Theory, Prior Research and Background

The issue of equal rights between different nations has been covered in numerous researches. American scholars have developed a particular interest in this problem, taking into account the acuteness of the situation in the USA over many years. The views on the present-day situation in the sphere of civil rights as well on the significance of influences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries differ.

Touraine and Macey (2000) in Can we live together?: Equality and Difference explain the natural reaction of people to reforms in society, which might be easily applied to the reaction of people to the change of African American status at the end of the nineteenth century. They write that the natural reaction of people is to resist any change because it seems inevitable to them and thus daunting. “When change accelerates and when the old social and political mediations collapse, the first reaction of many people is to try to reconstruct them or even to look to a more distant past to defend themselves against a threatening future” (Touraine & Macey 2000, p.112). Thus, after the abolition of slavery, the majority of white people were simply afraid that with the freedom of black people, their social convention would be ruined. It did not exclude their established idea of segregation of society because of initially inferior status of black people.

Silberman (1965) in his book Crisis in Black and White discusses the key motivation of black people to fight for their rights in society. The idea of self-improvement is presented analogically to the struggle for equality. For African Americans of the first half of the previous century, the first and foremost prerequisite for achieving their goals was the necessity to feel self-improvement and development. However, these ideas were presented to them rather unsuccessfully, either by white people, from whom it was perceived as an act of patronage, or from their black leaders, but again it looked like the appeal to conform to all the existing changes. Meanwhile, black people had to understand their potential to be better in the first place, and then they could be able to fight for their equality with a full understanding of their might. Silberman (1965) claims that only Black Muslims were able to use this lever of social leadership for their benefit, as they managed to emphasize the idea of black people’s superiority. In terms of grassroots activity, Silberman’s theory proves to be right as the desire to be equal with other people should be initially based on their own efforts to change. “If Negroes are to gain a sense of potency and dignity, it is essential that they take the initiative in action on their own behalf” (Silberman 1965, p. 68).

However, these ideas do not relieve white people of the responsibility for their negative treatment of black people. The ideas of inferiority of black people seemed natural and indisputable. Peter Hall (2001) in his book Race, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism: Policy and Practice cites extracts of speeches of both rich planters and prominent sociologists of that time, who agreed on the lack of development of black people and, therefore, their predestination for manual labor. Moreover, Hall (2001) claims that the ideas did not change dramatically over the course of time. According to a poll held by Washington Post in 1991, “A majority of whites questioned in a nationwide survey said they believed blacks and Hispanics ae likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent and less patriotic” (Hall 2001, p.56)

In this context, it is crucial to draw people’s attention to the present-day situation with racial discrimination in American society. Discussing the current tendencies in attitudes towards racism, Jacobs (2006, p. 132) claims that modern people are still inclined to racist and humiliating jokes, and very often they are not even aware of it. However, what is more crucial nowadays is his discussion of tolerance and respect. According to Jacobs (2006), tolerance does not help us to avoid racism and inappropriate attitude towards others since it demands from us to put up with other people and their interests, but it does not exclude people’s “culturally centric judgments” about each other (p.202). Thus, tolerance does not lead society to integration and acceptance of other people as they are with no bias opinions. The scholar suggests basing upon the concept of respect rather than tolerance if we want to establish egalitarian principles and close-knit community. “Respect is the dynamic, deliberate embrace of the validity of other people’s experiences and cultures and orientations. It goes a step beyond the perceived kindness of tolerance and fulfills the deeper moral obligation to understand that our lives as humans are qualitatively equal…” (Jacobs 2006, p. 203). The idea of being first of all respectful to each other deserves to become the ground for establishing a genuinely equal society.

Collins (1997) considers the effects of civil rights movement regarding the place of African Americans in the work sphere. The fact that many workplaces in big corporations and enterprises have become available for well-educated black people is evident. However, based on her research, she argues that “the timing of blacks’ attainment…strongly links this attainment to political pressures on employers exerted by government and by the black community” (Collins 1997, p.155) In this context, it is impossible to talk about any grassroots activity and the change in people’s mentality. Society has shifted towards more opportunities and created better conditions for black people, whereas this change was conditioned by the governmental regulation, which in its turn was affected by the civil rights movement of the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that while many aims were achieved at the governmental level, the initial attitude of society is still questionable.

Methods and Procedures

To understand the origins of the grassroots activity in the struggle for civil rights of African Americans, it is necessary to trace the history of racial segregation and the initial attitude towards black people in American society. The historical method of analysis of information allowed us to understand the major concepts of the civil rights activists at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Grassroots activity presupposes actions undertaken by the members of society and, due to their intensity and consistency, leading to corresponding measures taken by the government. It was the process of struggle against inequality of black people in American society. The impossibility to bear the conditions of life spurred an upheaval of social attempts to change the status quo. The resentment accumulated in the midst of society had to come out, but the main thing it needed was the support of a leader, who could become the speaker of the discriminated masses and lead the people towards better life standards.

As a result, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, there appeared several movements of civil rights activists, such as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. They were united in their desires to win equal social rights for African Americans and white population of America, including educational opportunities, suffrage right and economic independence. Despite such significant aims, their approaches differed according to their views on the role of black people in society; therefore, their methods also varied. Nevertheless, these three figures became the most prominent Pan-African leaders. They were followed by millions of adherents and eventually accomplished the missions of their lives.

Marcus Garvey founded and further became the leader of the massive movement for the rights of black people at the beginning of the twentieth century in America. Being himself an African American, he was born in Jamaica, and experienced racial segregation in his teenage years. While at his early age, he had never thought of being different from other people, including some of his white friends. However, being called “a nigger” at the age of fourteen became a considerable disappointment to him and changed his perception of the surrounding world. He soon realized that black people occupied a certain, clearly distinguished place in society, which was much inferior to that of white people.

He left Jamaica in 1910 to seek for the proof of discrimination of black people, and after travelling around Central America, where he saw the oppression of black people everywhere, he moved to London. The capital of Britain surprised him with its attitude to the people of his race. It was there where he shaped his views and ultimate strategy to return to Jamaica in 1914 and to establish Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This organization united millions of followers and became the largest secular community in the history of African Americans. Garvey’s aim was to consolidate all black people not only in his native country, but all around the world. He considered that there was a leadership vacuum in the African American society and he endeavored to arouse feelings of national pride, honor and uniqueness in his people.

Garvey’s ideology incorporated the ideas of economic self-determination promoted by Booker T. Washington and the political trends of Pan-African adherents. His contribution to the development of grassroots activity of civil rights struggle was virtually immense. His ideas resonated with the situation at that time. By 1920s, slavery had been abolished for almost sixty years, but the attitude to black people remained almost the same. Segregation flourished and no adequate governmental policy was adopted in order to tackle this issue. “Garvey’s goals were modern and urban.” His activity was put on a nation-wide scale over North and Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. His ultimate aim was to create a close-knit community of black people, who would feel their unity and common fate, who would support each other and who would make a concerted effort to secure equal rights with the white. Therefore, the fundamental guidelines of UNIA were to reestablish the belief of the black race in themselves, to arouse feelings of pride and love, to promote Christianity among African tribes, to found educational establishments for the younger generation of the race, and to develop economic relationships between African Americans in the whole world. Marcus Garvey claimed that “As the Jew is held together by his religion, the white races by the assumption and the unwritten law of superiority, and the Mongolian by the precious tie of blood, so likewise the Negro must be united in one grand racial hierarchy.” In 1918, he began to publish the newspaper Negro World, which was widely spread around the globe. The newspaper was an essential part in the paradigm of his work, serving as a platform for further demonstration of his ideas and development of the organization. Over the years of intensive work, Garvey managed to achieve considerable results. He was an indisputable leader for millions of black people; he established a number of organizations and businesses, such as Black Star Line and Negro Factories Corporation, which provided thousands of black people with job and profit.

However, it cannot be denied that despite the nobility and benevolence of Marcus Garvey, his views were very radical and urged black people to separate entirely from the whites. Thus, by establishing their own educational organizations and political institutions, the blacks entirely separated from the class of people, who had oppressed them for centuries. Undoubtedly, these ideas were compelling for many people, who had experienced nothing but humiliation over the past years. Peter Ratcliffe (2004) writes, “His very direct appeal to black pride coupled with a highly flamboyant, charismatic presence attracted a mass following, with membership claimed to run into millions (in some 900 chapters worldwide)”(p.129). These concepts resulted in a more radical undertaking, which was called Back-to-Africa movement. The Black Star Line enterprise, which was mentioned before, was created exactly to support this idea. The movement presupposed the return of African Americans to their countries of origin. This idea aroused much controversy over it. In fact, the process of repatriation had started far earlier before Garvey’s initiative. However, it was aimed more at the mitigation of the situation in the country. The population of African Americans increased immensely during the process of slavery abolition. While these freed people tried to find their place in society, white population of America faced those changes with resentment and unwillingness to let African Americans blend in their social environment. On the legal basis, all of them were equal, but, on the social level, black people were still inferior to them. Following this, there were a number of riots around the country and Back-to-Africa movement might have resolved such problems. However, it did not mean that the repatriation was perceived by black people as a positive change, as they suspected that the government of that time was worried about the future of the country with the possibility of egalitarian rules for blacks and whites. Though Garvey initiated repatriation of those people who were not successfully settled in America, this idea can still be regarded as rather radical since it looks more like an escape from the situation and not its solution.

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Another African American who ardently fought for the equality of blacks and whites was W.E.B. Du Bois. This key figure in the Pan-African movement played a vital role in the implementation of the ideas of equality not only on paper, but in real life. His origins allowed him to acquire a good education. Thus, he became the first black person who earned a PhD. His main efforts were characterized by a number of revolutionary substantial research works about the black population. Du Bois was raised in the North of America; therefore, the situation of Southern America was not familiar to him. The truth appeared to be incredibly shocking and new for his understanding. On his first arrival to the South, he realized that the life and social status of black people had not changed since 1863. That status quo was devastating for Du Bois, who decided to devote his further life to the establishment of another reality for African Americans. Du Bois’ concepts were grounded on the idea that only the elite of both black and white population could lead the society to prosperity and wealth. His first important work The Philadelphia Negro, which was a sociological study of African Americans of Philadelphia state and further became one of the most prominent works in the field, first mentions the idea of “submerged tenth.” This term defined people of a lower class within society, whom Du Bois considered to be lazy and unreliable and thus unable to foster the development of society. This term will be later opposed to the “talented tenth,” which in its turn meant the elite of the class, which was represented by ten percent of the black society. Adhering to the idea that in any society it is the elite that is the cornerstone of social progress, Du Bois believed that black nation, in particular, had a huge potential for development. It means that African Americans could achieve considerable heights with proper education and attitude. Therefore, he opposed those leaders who considered that black people should agree to make a compromise with the whites in order not be oppressed. Thus, his confrontation with Booker T. Washington emerged.

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