Did the Civil Rights Movement Fail the Black Community?

Civil rights march on Washington, D.C

Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave in the South in 1856. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he lived as a teacher, author, and public speaker in a time of deep segregation, until he died in 1915. He gave advice to President Theodore Roosevelt. In his autobiographical work, Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington writes,

Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves but wanted the federal officials to create one for them. . . . I wished then and have often wished since that by some power of magic; I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature, where all nations and races that have ever succeeded have gotten their start—a start that at first may be slow and toilsome, but one that nevertheless is real.

Given Washington’s penchant for self-reliance and independence from the government, how would he evaluate the Civil Rights Movement, the crown jewel of black empowerment, if he appraised it today? What did Washington believe about government dependency and the need to be self-sufficient in the late 1800s that civil rights advocates who came after him would miss? Was there something that Washington learned from the days of slavery that shaped his ideas about self-reliance?

A Review of the Past

It is certainly true that the disparity between “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery in the United States was striking. This tension between these ideas would culminate in the American Civil War: the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment (which ended slavery), the 14th Amendment (which gave citizens rights), and the 15th Amendment (which gave all men the right to vote). And this was just the beginning.

Still, there were several impediments to equal treatment. Long after the Constitutional Amendments, many southern states still mistreated blacks. Southern states continued to pass laws that marginalized black people. This treatment came in the form of peonage, black codes, and Jim Crow laws. As a result, a new front on the road to equality began.

Indeed, the journey to equality for blacks in America has a long and treacherous history. Today, however, even successful black men like Lebron James argue that black people are “literally hunted down every day, every time we step outside of the comfort of our homes.” This comment comes on the heels of a tragic incident with Ahmaud Arbery. Apparently, even successful NBA basketball players feel that all blacks have a long way to go and that much more must be done.

For those who agree with James, a new wave of promise comes in the form of social justice, with the allure of government power holding others accountable through laws, economic justice, and racial equity.

The civil rights movement gave birth to many of the ideas that are now used in the modern-day social justice movement. It is critical to closely examine the civil rights movement as a forerunner to social justice. The question that must be asked is whether or not the civil rights movement failed the black community.

This is the first in a four-part series about the civil rights movement. We’ll look at its successes and failures and talk about how it still affects culture today. This initial article will begin with a review of the movement’s history. Next, we’ll look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, paying special attention to his theology, his ideas, and his methods. In the third installment, we will look closely at the movement and its influence on the black church. Finally, we will respond to the query, “Has the civil rights movement failed the black community?” Let’s begin.

The Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement began when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, during an act of civil disobedience, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, for violating a draconian Jim Crow law. Ms. Parks sat on the front row of the “colored section” of the bus, which was established to separate black and white commuters. Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger when ordered to do so, and the result was the flame that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

During the boycott, blacks, who made up seventy percent of the Montgomery Bus System’s patrons, refused to get on the buses until they were desegregated. The city of Montgomery lost between 30 and 40 thousand bus fares each day during the boycott. Financial records suggest the city lost $3,000 per day (which equates to $31,326 per day in 2022).

Rather than paying fares to the city, black patrons paid for a one-of-a-kind mode of transportation within their community. Former bus patrons needing to get to work found a lift from their neighbors and paid the fare to other black community members. The economy in black communities improved and got better because the money spent on transportation was saved or spent in the community.

What was thought to be a one-day boycott lasted for more than a year, and after 382 days, black patrons received what they fought for: a desegregated bus. The United States Supreme Court decision in Browder v. Gayle successfully ended discrimination on public buses. The outcome was a “victory,” but history should view the victory as pyrrhic, as it would be the first of many miscarriages caused by a movement committed to seeing justice. This “victory” would mean that black people would stop using their version of Uber, which was the first service of its kind, and go back to the buses driven by people who despised them.

The “success” of the Montgomery Bus Boycott catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott’s leader, onto the national stage while cementing white superiority in blacks’ perceptions due to their reliance on a white bus system.

The message sent and received by the civil rights leaders was that equality meant sitting on the same bus, using the same bathroom, and eating at the same lunch counter as whites. Integration was the focus. Neglected was what Booker T. Washington advocated: the economic empowerment brought about by self-sufficiency. So, the message of self-reliance and entrepreneurship was lacking and absent from the movement. This failure invited the need for greater political power. Yet again, black leaders, representing the “voice of the people,” handed over the black community to any political party that would validate them through their proximity to whites.

Put simply, the civil rights movement and its leaders successfully tied the advancement of the black community to the shifting political winds by largely abandoning economic self-sufficiency and embracing political power. At first, civil rights leaders might not have seen this as a fact, but politicians did. They used political favors to obtain the power they needed from the black community.

The civil rights movement and its leaders successfully tied the advancement of the black community to the shifting political winds by largely abandoning economic self-sufficiency and embracing political power.

The Problem of Politics

In 1957, civil rights activists hoped that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower would use his executive authority to support the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate schools. Some, however, thought that Eisenhower had gone too far when he used his power as president to help black people.

Two historic occurrences for the administration occurred in September. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave blacks greater voting protections. This was the first legislation of its kind since Reconstruction, adding to the 15th Amendment protections for blacks. The second occurred when nine black students—known as the “Little Rock Nine“—became Little Rock High School’s first group of black students. Later, Eisenhower would send federal marshals to accompany the students to their classes.

With voting rights secured and a growing dependency on the federal government for legislative protections, civil rights leaders mobilized their workers to get blacks to vote.

The Election of a President

As the movement grew, its tactics changed from boycotts, which required people to come up with their own solutions, to sit-ins, which needed protection from the state and federal government. Four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in February 1960, as the civil rights movement got off the ground and sit-ins began nationwide.

After participating in a sit-in, Martin Luther King was found guilty of violating his probation in October 1960. The news of King’s imprisonment was ignored by then Vice President Nixon just weeks before a contentious presidential election with Senator John F. Kennedy. In contrast, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King, who was six months pregnant, and offered his condolences and the support of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who assisted in pressing for King’s release on bail. In response to the news, Martin Luther King, Sr. enthusiastically endorsed John F. Kennedy. On election day, 70% of black voters chose John F. Kennedy, giving him the slimmest of victories as President of the United States.

Having already been promised benefits in exchange for their ballots, this action would further tie black voters to the Democratic Party.

Securing the Black Vote

Following the 1960 presidential election of John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders focused on registering black voters. Between 1960 and 1963, these leaders relied on organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), and the National Urban League. Also, they used the money from Kennedy’s Voter Education Project (VEP) to get black people registered to vote. With the help of these groups, 800,000 to 1,000,000 black people would be registered to vote, and the vast majority of them would vote for the Democratic Party.

With such high voter turnout uniformly attaching its future ambitions to one political party, the black community was determined to follow the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. While this decision may have seemed promising, time would tell a different tale. As black people helped Democrats win the White House, the Southern Democratic Party kept attacking black communities.

In the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took office. In 1964, at the beginning of his first full term in office, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Civil Rights Bill guaranteed equal protection on the job, and Johnson’s “War on Poverty” called for putting into practice what FDR had envisioned in his “Economic Bill of Rights.”

As a result, the black community became more dependent on the government, thinking that their economic, social, and even emotional success or failure depended on the next wave of government programs and handouts. Given the dependence of black voters on government action, blacks were exclusively dependent on the Democratic Party and the political wins they brought.

The Results

In 1965, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued The Moynihan Report: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The study looked at black poverty in the United States. One of its main conclusions was that three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow were not only bad for the black community in the past but also caused families to break up today.

President Johnson’s administration then used the report to push “Great Society” policies and promise help to blacks. Unfortunately, the policies that followed aimed to help black families would serve to destroy them by increasing dependency on the government.

Here are the facts: Today, 27% of black women are married (lower than any other group). Children suffer when black men and fathers are not in the home. When government services incentivize separation, there’s more of it, and generations of black children are in trouble. And when government-sponsored “service providers” like Planned Parenthood set up shops in urban centers, black babies die. As Protecting Black Life reports, “79% of its surgical abortion facilities are located within walking distance of African American or Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods.”

Further, one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement was the idea that integration was the key to future success. This was accomplished at the lunch counter and in public education. Yet, how well did it fair? Today’s public schools are more segregated than they were in the past, and students are not doing better in school.

People who want you to look elsewhere for solutions while at the same time suggesting another government program should think about how badly this strategy has worked so far. Even though it’s good for blacks and whites to enjoy the same public places, eat at the same lunch counters, and use the same restrooms, relying on government actions, whether civil or not, is not a good way to solve the problems facing the black community. Booker T. Washington understood this and said so in the late 1800s.

Did the civil rights movement fail the black community? In the next article, we’ll look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the movement, to see if his ideas, methods, and theology helped or hurt the black community.

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Author Civil rights march on Washington, D.C

Virgil Walker

Vice President of Ministry Relations G3 Ministries

Virgil L. Walker is the Vice President of Ministry Relations for G3 Ministries, an author, and a conference speaker. He is the co-host of the Just Thinking Podcast and a contributor to Fearless with Jason Whitlock. Virgil has a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Virgil and his wife, Tomeka, have three children. Listen to his podcast here.