IA Law Review: Legal Legacies (Law in Conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement)

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

Image courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times

The civil rights movement of 1954 to 1968 was an African-American struggle to enforce desegregation rulings and achieve equal civil rights free of racial discrimination. This movement relied on three separate facets; mass mobilization, legal verdicts, and media publicity. Although mass mobilization, including grassroots activism, protests, and marches, was an integral component of achieving civil rights, it would have been insufficient without the groundwork laid by the law and the awareness granted by the media.

Mass mobilization was very significant because it allowed direct action to be made and change to occur at a faster pace. One of the most famous instances of mass mobilization during the civil rights movement was the bus boycott in Montgomery which was described as “a vigor to the movement… a new sense of self-determination for African-Americans in the south… [and] a major transformative impact” (Payne). Mass mobilization was so significant to the movement because it gave African-Americans a sense of power and control over their own destiny and even small victories made them evermore determined for their ultimate goal of equal civil rights. Additionally, MLK even stated that “nonviolent direct action… was a tool of ‘persuasion’” (Weisbrot). This proves that many African-American leaders of organizations such as SNCC, SCLC, and NAACP thought mass mobilization was very useful in reinforcing desegregation as newly decided by the law and redefined new societal norms. Perhaps most important was that “local African-American demonstrations also helped greatly in… attracting national and international attention and thus putting pressure on the federal government” (Weisbrot). This pressure applied by real Americans allowed change to be made at a faster pace and the publicity of these movements incited the government to continue passing more equal civil rights free of racial discrimination. So, mass mobilization gave new vigor to the movement, was a powerful persuasion tool, and garnered international attention for the civil rights movement.

Although the progress made by mass mobilization was significant, this progress would not have been made without the net of desegregation laws the protesters relied upon. Even MLK, the champion of mass mobilization, was attributed to stating that “court decrees and legislation were tools of “coercion” and success would require both” in reference to mass mobilization and legislation (Weisbrot). Without the platform of the law for protesters to stand upon, their struggle for equal rights and these grand gestures would have fallen on deaf ears. This is due to the fact that the legal push for civil rights showed all Americans that “fundamental American ideals were in accord with the Civil Rights movement” and sympathy and support for the movement was garnered this way (Gardner). Without many Americans knowing that the civil rights movement’s foundation was steeped in constitutional American values, they wouldn’t have supported it by donating time and money.Many naysayers have doubted the effectivity and efficiency of legal proceedings, however, they fail to acknowledge when the movement’s leaders were in jail “they called on Marshall and the LDF to bail them out” (Allison). This proves mass mobilization’s dependency on legal proceedings and how both separate aspects would be insufficient without the other. To sum, legal work was a powerful tool of coercion, helped raise awareness of the movement, and was a necessary aspect in all work the movement conducted.

Although the law was integral in granting civil rights, both mass mobilization and the law would not have been sufficient without the backing power of the press and media. The media was used by African-American leaders to “[make] announcements about meetings, spread messages and debates” and generally communicate about their mass mobilization to other leaders, students, and protesters (Gardner). This usage of media as a bulletin board and social platform to spread the ideals of the civil rights movement and equality transformed the movement from a local struggle to a national push. For this reason, the media was labelled as “a tool used to gain sympathy, raise funds, and generally increase the national (and international) awareness for civil-rights issues” (Allison). The civil rights movement being headline news allowed for the then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to realize the imperity of the issue and for homes around the nation to begin seeing the violence and cruelty of the white pro-segregationists. A case in point of the media’s influence occurred when they publicized images of “middle-aged housewives and white teens spewing their venom on a six-year-old [Ruby Bridges]” who was an African-American student attempting to enter an all-white elementary school (Allison). Due to the media’s coverage of this angry mob infuriated by desegregation, many throughout the nation were motivated to support the civil rights movement as they created negative opinions towards the white pro-segregationists. In summary, although mass mobilization was the means used to carry out the civil rights movement, the media was necessary to spread ideas and share effects.

In summary, the monumental achievements made during the civil rights movement of 1954 to 1968 could not have been achieved without the cumulative efforts of mass mobilization, legal verdicts, and media publicity. Mass mobilization gave new vigor to the movement, was a powerful persuasion tool, and garnered international attention for the civil rights movement. Although mass mobilization was very significant on the civil rights movement, it has equal footing and importance as the other two facets. Without these three components working in tandem, it would have been impossible to enforce desegregation rulings and achieve equal civil rights free of racial discrimination.

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