Within the context of 1877-2009, to what extent do you agree that the progression of the Civil Rights movement was solely due to the actions of "black men"?

Black male Civil Rights leaders have justly attained an almost legendary status. They are often perceived to be solely responsible for the progression of the Civil Rights movement, as argued by the University of Virginia's Institute for Public History[1] and the history pages of the website of the NAACP[2]

Two of the earliest prominent black male leaders whose actions progressed Civil Rights were W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Washington focused on economic improvements, through his school, the Tuskegee Institute, which educated thousands of young black people, helping them find work and support their families, and therefore improving the economic wellbeing of the African American community as a whole. Washington also met with President Roosevelt, a symbolic victory that showed his political influence. DuBois adopted a broader and more radical approach[3], as a founding member of the Niagara Movement, which campaigned for universal suffrage, desegregation and economic improvements, to push social boundaries and improve Civil Rights. He was also a founding member of the NAACP, an organisation which progressed Civil Rights for decades after Dubois's death.

Following in their footsteps is the most famous of black Civil Rights champions, Martin Luther King. King is most famous for his "I have a dream" speech, which motivated the government to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill[4], as well as sending out a message of hope[5] to people across America and even the world. His actions to further Civil Rights also include his leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually lead to the desegregation of Montgomery busses. Through seemingly small court decisions like this Civil Rights activists were quietly and gradually overturning Plessy v Fergusson's "separate but equal"[6], so King's actions here were very significant. Moreover, sadly, King's death itself was a factor in progressing Civil Rights, as it made him a martyr for his cause, and may have motivated further progression. This idea is supported by Dyson, who argues that King's death "elevated"[7] his message. However, it has also been argued that King's death simply robbed America of a "vigorous spokesperson" and therefore moved America "one step nearer to chaos and one step further from democracy"[8]. Both of these arguments demonstrate that King was a hugely effective leader who successfully progressed Civil Rights.

Less respectable, but equally effective, Malcolm X also progressed the Civil Rights movement. X was particularly effective in connecting with and politicizing young black men. Clayborne Carson[9] argues that Malcolm X's radical policies supported King's nonviolent ones, as it persuaded white America and the federal government that if they did not negotiate with King they would have to fight with X and his supporters, making them both more successful combined, and so progressed Civil Rights.

A more recent example of a black man who progressed Civil Rights is Jesse Jackson Sr. Jackson, the second black man to run for a presidential nomination, won 18% of the popular vote in his first campaign in 1984, and 29.15% on his second campaign in 1988. These campaigns inspired many people, particularly African Americans, to vote for the first time, registering one million new voters. Jackson also campaigned for Civil Rights outside of government. For example, he was the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which merged PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) and The Rainbow Coalition, allowing them to progress the cause of Civil Rights more effectively as they could pool resources[10]. Jackson campaigned for national health care and a war on drugs, among other things, before they became popular positions. Campaigning on popular positions is relatively easy; deciding to campaign about issues that are not yet accepted, and continuing to work until after they are common public policy positions, takes hard work and dedication. This therefore shows that Jackson, like Washington, DuBois, King and Malcolm X, furthered the cause of Civil Rights.

I have argued that African American men played a highly significant role in the achievements of the Civil Rights movement across this time period. However, the actions of other groups and individuals must be taken into account before it is possible to judge whether "black men" were solely responsible for the progression of the Civil Rights movement.

It is clear that without federal support many of the necessary improvements could not have been made. There are certain things that governments can do that activists cannot; for example, improvements to segregation and other legal rights must come through the government. Moreover, wide-scale aid programs are easier to fund and organise through government, as are improvements to education and health care. Although some branches of the federal government have occasionally had a negative impact on Civil Rights, they have also made hugely significant improvements.

The first president during this time period to significantly improve Civil Rights was probably Roosevelt. He introduced aid programs to provide support for widows, poor children, the elderly poor, and disabled people. This aid was not directly targeted at African Americans; however, African American communities suffered disproportionally from poverty, so a significant proportion of this aid went to providing relief for black people. African Americans themselves seem to have felt that President Roosevelt's reforms helped them. In 1936, after his reforms, he got 71%[11] of the black vote. I will assume that this figure is relatively accurate; however, I do not know how the figure was obtained. It probably comes from exit polls, which are notoriously uncertain, but our best source of information on voting trends. After Roosevelt, the Joint Centre claims that the majority of black Americans voted Democrat rather than Republican. This suggests that Roosevelt's reforms did help African Americans, and therefore that the government, as well as "black men", improved Civil Rights.

Later presidents also improved Civil Rights in various ways, from improvements to legal rights. Between them Presidents Kennedy and Johnson passed the renowned 1964 Civil Rights Bill which ended all legal segregation. According to Sean Wilentz from the New York Times, Kennedy had "firmly committed" [12] himself to Civil Rights, and that Johnson was able to pass the Bill because of Kennedy's commitment, popularity, and death. However, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, not surprisingly, credits Johnson's "emotional commitment" to Civil Rights. Conversely, Schama argues that Johnson reformed unwillingly, but that he did push through legislation for Civil Rights by using his political skills and influence in Congress.[13] Overall, it is clear that Johnson played a role in Civil Rights legislation, regardless of his motive. Johnson also committed himself to an "unconditional war on poverty"[14]. Rhetoric, while positive, does not always lead to changes, but Johnson actually introduced Medicare and Medicaid to make basic healthcare available to all, increased education funding, funded urban regeneration projects and did much more. All of these actions improved the wellbeing of African Americans, and therefore show that the federal government were responsible for some improvements to Civil Rights.

Over 24 years later, President Clinton attempted to build on this success, with plans for a huge program of health care reform. Clinton also called for a national initiative to end racial discrimination in 2000, when many people were beginning to argue that the Civil Rights movement was now over, showing that the federal government continued to be involved in Civil Rights to the end of this time period. Clinton also had more concrete effects on Civil Rights, doubling child-support collections, and increasing the minimum wage. All of these actions dealt with issues that disproportionately affected African Americans, and therefore are further proof of the federal government's responsibility for progressing the cause of Civil Rights.

Even before he ran for president Obama also furthered the cause of Civil Rights, by working on laws to enforce the video taping of interrogations and confessions for homicide cases, laws to improve tax credits for the working poor[15], and by voting against legislation to raise the debt ceiling, all issues that disproportionately affect African Americans. If none of Obama's policies, in welfare reform, health care, education and so on are passed, his election alone will be significant as a symbol of change and a demonstration of improving race relations. Moreover, his election campaign involved normally disenfranchised or disillusioned people in politics. The Pew Research Centre suggests the possibility that the high numbers of ethnic minority voters may be due to demographic changes.[16] However, the full break-down of their data shows that a demographic change could not fully explain the changes; not only were a high percentage of people who voted black, but a higher percentage of eligible black people voted. Therefore, most of the credit must go to Obama's campaign. If voter turnouts continue like this in the future it may have a lasting impact on American politics. Obama's actions prove that both "black men" and the apparatus of federal government can improve Civil Rights.

Barack Obama is a clear example of the complex interrelationship between African Americans and the federal government. The government was throughout this time period theoretically the government of all Americans, including black men. By 1877 black men had been elected to Congress. Moreover, a few politicians considered their black electorates, or were affected by the actions of African American activists. Therefore the actions of the government were, in some cases, also the actions of black men. The federal government was an important tool for creating change, for better or worse depending on who was in power and what the contextual features of the exact time period were. While at times African Americans themselves were involved in its decision making and can take some of the credit, at times they were not, and so some improvements to Civil Rights were not made "solely" by "black men".

Government was not, of course, the only place where non-African Americans worked to progress Civil Rights. Even during the early years of the Civil Rights movements, pro-Civil Rights groups like the NAACP were racially integrated. Other political groups, such as the communists and socialists, were also pro-Civil Rights and mixed. Furthermore, during the mass based protest movement of the 1960s even the Black Panthers had non-African American members[17], and more mainstream groups involved people with varied backgrounds.

The importance of the racially mixed NAACP in progressing Civil Rights is widely recognised. Fifty three of the sixty founders were not African Americans, showing that "black men" were not solely responsible for the progression of the Civil Rights movement. President Obama acknowledged their work in an address in July 2009, saying "Because of what they did, we are a more perfect union"[18], recognising the importance that their actions had, from their anti-lynching protest during the early 1900s, to the litigation that lead to Brown v. Board of Education decades later. However, his audience was made up of a large number of NAACP members, so it is possible that he was exaggerating their successes. Other Civil Rights activists have even argued that African Americans should "take the lead"[19] on Civil Rights issues, and that by taking on leadership roles white activists actually damage the movement. However, Obama himself has also argued that Americans are "one nation - - one people" [20], and should not be divided. I would agree with this sentiment, that people of all backgrounds should work together to progress important issues like Civil Rights. Therefore, I think that all of the founders of the NAACP clearly improved Civil Rights, showing that "black men" were not the only ones who progressed Civil Rights.

Socialists and communists also worked for Civil Rights. W. E. B. DuBois argued that socialism and Civil Rights issues were inseparable[21]. However, real and rumoured connections between Civil Rights and communism might have caused problems, as they worried potential allies, particularly during the Cold War. Nevertheless, the Communist Party did important work, both symbolic and concrete, to further the cause of Civil Rights. For example, the Communist Party of America held mixed race dances and worked to eliminate "white chauvinism"[22] in its members. The Communist Party of Washington State also provided legal support for Civil Rights activities, and worked to desegregate Trade Unions[23]. It is clear that communists and socialists, like the members of the NAACP, worked to progress Civil Rights. Thus "black men" are not "solely" responsible for progressing Civil Rights.

Furthermore, the mass-based protest movement relied on widespread support, not just from African Americans. Even the Black Panthers, a part of the Black Power movement commonly seen as isolationist, had non-African American members, including one of the founding members, Asian-American Field Marshall Richard Aoki. Aoki argued that different races and nationalities had to work together to achieve Civil Rights[24]. He also said that "Ideological and organizational influences" spread from one group to another, so the ideas, structures, and methods of each group supported the others. Comparatively moderate Barack Obama agreed with this sentiment, as he explained that Black and Latino politicians "often made common cause" [25] in Congress. So it can be argued that many non-African Americans took part in Civil Rights protests, and that their ideas formed a part of the movement, so "black men" were not the only ones to progress Civil Rights.

Finally, I believe that by giving full responsibly for improvements to Civil Rights to "black men", we ignore the actions of half of African Americans. Fewer women than men have become famous in the Civil Rights movement. It is possible, as Julian Bond, a civil rights historian at the University of Virginia and chair of the NAACP, suggests, that this is because "There were relatively few women in public leadership roles" [26] particularly during the earlier parts of this time period. However, it is possible that this is due to how we interpret the past rather than the make-up of the Civil Rights movement. Black feminist bell hooks (sic) argues that the emphasis put on "powerful black male leadership" is caused by ideas of gender, and the need for "benign patriarchy" with men as protectors and providers rather than a lack of female Civil Rights activists[27].

Despite this, some women have become famous for their roles in the Civil Rights movements, even in the earlier time periods. For example, Ida B. Wells worked to progress Civil Rights by teaching, working as a journalist, writing pamphlets, and even going on a lecture tour to Britain to raise funds and awareness. All of these actions made politicians "more accountable"[28] for issues like lynching, even if they were not immediately effective. Therefore Ida B. Wells, a black woman, was effective in progressing the Civil Rights movement as early as the late 1800 and early 1900s. Therefore even at the beginning of the time period, Black women as well as men progressed the Civil Rights movements, so "black men" were not the sole cause of improvements to Civil Rights.

During the mass-based protest movement, thousands of black women, as well as men, were involved in the large scale protests, voted in elections, and did other invaluable work. There were also black woman leaders, the most famous of whom was probably Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Despite her fame, Parks is often characterised as a vulnerable old lady who lost her temper one day.[29] However, Parks was a long term-campaigner who had planned the action in advance with other members of the movement, because they needed a focus for the protests. Rosa Parks was not, however, the first woman to take this kind of action, simply the most respectable. Claudette Colvin, an unmarried pregnant teenager, was among those who had already made similar stands for Civil Rights. However, women like Claudette were "Too hot, too black"[30] for male Civil Rights leaders. They would be seen as too radical and revolutionary, therefore their voices were silenced or ignored. For many people the women of the civil rights movement may have been "the wives of the movement's prominent male leaders"[31]. Although these women were often activists in their own right, I believe that this makes it easier to see the actions of the women of the Civil Rights movement as extensions of the actions of men, rather than part of a shared and jointly owned struggle. The focus on leaders also makes it easier to dismiss the work of women; Katherine J Kennedy, director of Boston University's Howard Thurnman Center, which organises human rights programs, argues that most women were "not looking for the publicity", but were involved in the "cleaning up", "cooking" and "preparation" [32]. Although these views are stereotyped and clearly do not cover all women, it is possible that they hold some truth, and that women progressed Civil Rights in lower key roles than men, but that at the same time, as hooks argues, less has been written about the few black women leaders that did exist. Therefore, I can clearly argue that black women, as well as black men, progressed the Civil Rights movement, and therefore that it was not solely due to the work of "black men".

It is theoretically possible, that without the actions of black men, other groups would not have worked for Civil Rights, and therefore that they alone progressed Civil Rights. However, I would argue that it is clear that although "black men" played a hugely important role in the progression of the Civil Rights movement, such a far-reaching, complex issue could not be the responsibility of a single group. Therefore the progression of the Civil Rights movement was not solely due to "black men".

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[1] .?view_module&module_id=4 , 04/04/2011, University of Virginia Institute for Public History © The Rector and the Visitors of the University of Virginia

[2] .org/pages/naacp-history , 23/03/2011, "© 2009 - 2011 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People"

[3]. , 24/03/2011, Library of the University of Yale on-line, Gilder Lehrman Centre Online Documents, Niagrara's Declaration of Principles, 1905

[4] Simon Schama, The American Future A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama, © 2008

[5] .com/html/localnews/2002734964_, 06/04/2011, The Seattle Times, "Keeping his dream alive":Youths reflect on MLK legacy, essays by Lena Cardoso, Maya Riser-Kositsky and Karly Birch

[6] ., 06/04/2011, Bowling Green State University, Plessy v. Ferguson, by Thomas Zimmerman

[7] ., 06/04/2011, Newsweek interview with Michael Eric Dyson

[8] ./1960-1969/Story/0,,106511,, 06/04/2011, After the death of Martin Luther King: chaos or community?, published 06/04/1968, © Guardian News and Media Limited

[9] . , 21/03.2011, The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X by Clayborne Carson , originally published Souls, Vol. 7, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

[10] .org/pages/jackson_bio, 05/04/2011, The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr ©RainbowPUSH

[11] ., 29/03/2011, Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies

[12] ., 06/04/2011 , The New York Times, What if Kennedy Had Lived?, Sean Wilentz

[13] Simon Schama, The American Future A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama, ©2008

[14] Kevin Ruane, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, The Modern History Review, Vol 15, No. 4 (Jun. 2004)

[15] .?pagewanted=1&_r=1, 06/04/2010, The New York Times, In Illinois, Obama Proved Pragmatic and Shrewd, 30/07/2007

[16] /pubs/1209/racial-ethnic-voters-presidential-election 05/04/2011, Pew Research Center, Dissecting the 2008 Electorate: Most Diverse in U.S. History, by Mark Hugo Lopez and Paul Taylor

[17] .com/Our_Stories/Chapter3/Richard_, 04/04/2011, It's About Time, an organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the Black Panther Party

[18] .com/news/2009/jul/17/text-obamas-speech-naacp/ , 04/04/2011, The Washington Times, TEXT: Obama's speech to NAACP, published 17/07/2009

[19] ., 04/04/2011, Understanding Self-Defence in the Civil Rights Movement through Visual Arts, Sonia James-Wilson assistant professor at the University of Rochester, New York

[20] .com/communities/theoval/post/2010/09/obama-pays-tribute-to-911/1 , 06/04/2011, USA Today, Obama: 9/11 reminds us that 'we are one nation', published 11/09/2011, by David Jackson

[21] .org/dbSocialism& , 24/03/2011, Socialism and the Negro Problem by W. E. B. DuBois

[22] .org/african-american-equality-commission-meeting-keynote/, 06/04/2011, the website of the Communist Party of American, African American Equality Commission Meeting, published June 2007

[23] ., 04/04/2011, The University of Washington, Communism in Washington State History and Memory, © 2002 Shelley Pinckney

[24] .com/Our_Stories/Chapter3/Richard_, 04/04/2011, It's About Time, an organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the Black Panther Party, Another shade of Black Panther...Richard Aoki (Field Marshall)

[25] The Audacity of Hope, © Barack Obama 2006

[26] ./id/9862643/ns/us_news-life/ MSN News, Race and Ethnicity, Women had key roles in civil rights movement © 2011 The Associated Press

[27]Challenging Sexism in Black Life, by bell hooks (sic), from Killing Rage: ending racism, selection copywrite, © Gloria Watkins 1995

[28] . , 04/04/2011, Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota, by Piyali Nath Dalal 27/04/2001 , supplemented by Maria Zavialova 20/09/2004

[29] .gov/st/peopleplace-english/2008/December/20090106142830jmnamdeirf0., Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, from the Archives of the American Government Online

[30] Challenging Sexism in Black Life, by bell hooks (sic), from Killing Rage: ending racism, selection copywrite © Gloria Watkins 1995

[31] ./id/9862643/ns/us_news-life/ MSN News, Race and Ethnicity, Women had key roles in civil rights movement © 2011 The Associated Press

[32] ./id/9862643/ns/us_news-life/ MSN News, Race and Ethnicity, Women had key roles in civil rights movement © 2011 The Associated Press