It was August 28, 1963, when civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital. It was delivered in front of some 250,000 people at the "March on Washington" for jobs and freedom, and an end to racial discrimination.
The March, which was also a show of support for pending civil rights legislation proposed by President John F. Kennedy earlier in June, started at the Washington Monument on the way to the Lincoln Memorial where King and other civil rights leaders were to give speeches as part of the political demonstration. Thousands of people lined the National Mall and millions more watched on television during this call for freedom and justice that was instrumental in the shaping of our nation’s history.
The civil rights movement was a social justice battle a long time coming. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation took place in 1863 and was the beginning of the end of the Civil War, which officially concluded in 1865. Still, nearly 100 years later, African Americans were anything but free. The discrimination against Black people and the horrifying effects of racism continued in different forms.
“The next hundred years leading up to the civil rights movement was a period marked by a rise of Jim Crow Discrimination, the downward spiral of race relations, the elevation of white supremacy, and differing African American philosophies of collective and individual empowerment,” said University of New Mexico Associate Professor of History, Dr. Robert F. Jefferson, Jr. “For many historians, the period from 1896 to 1954 was a period that reflected the drastic uptick in Jim Crow ordnances of racial separation.”
Most point to the 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson Supreme Court Decision as the beginning point, but scholars have argued that the policies took place much earlier in Urban Northern settings, says Jefferson. Later, as historians have noted, white southerners and northerners pointed to the Civil War as the "Lost Cause," celebrated the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and engaged in the lynching of African Americans throughout the country.
“African Americans were by no means passive in the face of this as they fought in the courts, in the streets, in their schools, and in their homes to resist the destructiveness of white supremacy,” said Jefferson. “For many African Americans, the "Long Civil Rights Movement," began with World War One, World War Two, the Supreme Court 1954 landmark ruling of "Brown versus Board of Education," and culminated with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
"Racial injustice. Poverty. War. When man solves these three great problems, he will have squared his moral progress with his scientific progress. And more importantly he will have learned the practical art of living in harmony." – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There were many significant events during the 50s and 60s that led to the March on Washington. Black Americans were tired of the senseless violence and prejudice levied against them. Sound familiar? One of the first notable events occurred on Dec. 1, 1955, and involved Rosa Parks, one of the many civil rights activists during the time. Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus, which was a violation of segregation ordinances in Montgomery, Ala.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Parks wasn’t the first Black woman who refused to give up their seat, but that day in history helped ignite the civil rights movement in the U.S. The Montgomery Bus Boycott started a few days later on Dec. 5. It was a boycott designed to cripple the municipal bus company, as some 70 percent of its ridership were African American. The boycott, led by the Montgomery Improvement Association under King, lasted 13 months. On Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation laws unconstitutional and Dec. 20, the city of Montgomery integrated is bus line. The next day the boycott had ended.
King, a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was 26 when the boycott began and was quickly being recognized as a leader of the civil rights movement. As bus boycotts spread in the South, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in Atlanta, Ga., in January of 1957 with King as its first president. The regional organization coordinated protest activities in the South and issued a document “declaring that civil rights are essential to democracy and that all Black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently.
The civil rights movement continued to gain momentum with each passing non-violent protest that King and the SCLC orchestrated. Other notable events led by King include the Albany Movement in 1961, the Birmingham Movement in 1963, and the March on Washington (1963). Other events that shaped this period following the March on Washington included Bloody Sunday and the Chicago Freedom Movement, both in 1965, Vietnam War opposition (1967), and the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
The Birmingham Campaign
The Birmingham Campaign was organized by the SCLC and was designed to raise attention to integration efforts in one of the most racially divided cities in the country. The issues included economic and legal disparities. Whenever Black citizens tried to raise awareness of the issues they faced violent retribution. The goal of the protests, led by Fred Shuttlesworth, another noted civil rights activist who helped lead the fight against segregation as a minister in Birmingham, Ala., and King, included open employment to all races of people, the end of segregation in public facilities including restaurants, schools, and stores.
The nonviolent campaign ended in confrontations between white civic authorities and young black students. Protesters were frequently arrested and given jail time and dogs and high-velocity water hoses were frequently used by authorities to help quell the demonstrations. The widely publicized event led to the local government changing its discrimination laws including forced desegregation and helped moved the Civil Rights Act closer to reality.
"The March in Washington was focused on jobs and freedom, and it was an important part of the U.S. civil rights movement. The nonviolent protest really humanized the issue of civil rights and the I Have a Dream speech and this idea of African Americans as human beings with dreams and ideals. I think that that was a big watershed moment in American history for that reason." – UNM Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Assata Zerai.
The March on Washington
It was early-June when President Kennedy announced a new civil rights proposal leading to the March on Washington on Aug. 28 when demonstrators marched peacefully for freedom and jobs and an end to racial discrimination. People came by the thousands, around 250,000, and lined the Mall to hear speeches given by notable civil rights activists including A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, and King, who gave his incredible I Have a Dream speech.
“The March in Washington was focused on jobs and freedom, and it was an important part of the U.S. civil rights movement,” said UNM Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Assata Zerai. “The nonviolent protest really humanized the issue of civil rights and the I Have a Dream speech and this idea of African Americans as human beings with dreams and ideals. I think that that was a big watershed moment in American history for that reason.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 soon followed and was signed into law almost a year later on July 2, 1964. The legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, discrimination in voter registration, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. Additional progress was made the following year with The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which expanded protections to include voting and housing, and racially motivated violence.
“The Civil Rights Movement is not over by any stretch of the imagination. We have entered a new stage in the struggle for freedom. It is one that will require a considerable degree of uncomfortableness and reflective thinking about race in American society." – Dr. Robert F. Jefferson, Jr. , associate professor, History
“Despite the considerable advances made by African Americans, gross economic inequality, mass incarceration, and a pandemic of white civilian and police brutality have shaped the black experience since that period,” said Jefferson. “But I see glimmers of hope in the thousands of people who have taken to the streets to call attention to America's racial problems. Even as I speak, cries of "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" are being uttered by Danish people in Copenhagen and environs throughout Europe and that gives me reason for hope.”
Despite all the progress, the U.S. again finds itself at a crossroads as racial tensions have heightened in reaction to police violence. While the 60s the civil rights movement was focused on voting rights, economic freedom, and access to jobs, the current Black Lives Matter movement, originally a reaction to police violence, has broadened to the issue of systemic racism. It is about creating a world free of anti-Blackness where all Blacks have the social, economic, and political power to thrive.
New debates are now underway in the struggle for racial equality. Protests, both non-violent and some violent, boycotts including professional sports leagues protesting to help draw attention to the racial divide, calls for police reform are now being heard throughout the U.S. The struggle for racial equality is far from over. Again, the future of civil rights is in the hands of the people, and similarly to the civil rights movement in the 60s, it will be shaped by the people through public protests, through legislation, and politics.
“The Civil Rights Movement is not over by any stretch of the imagination. We have entered a new stage in the struggle for freedom,” said Jefferson. “It is one that will require a considerable degree of uncomfortableness and reflective thinking about race in American society. Black people want to be treated just like everyone else: as human beings. It's not enough just to have African Americans talk about it, and it will require White people to finally look unflinchingly in the mirror and acknowledge the degree to which power and privilege have structured their lives intentionally and unintentionally.”
This is the final piece in UCAM's Racism: An Educational Series. The staff hopes that it has provided insights into the various aspects of systemic racism and the incredible amount of work that still needs to be done, and that it has been as educational for the reader as it has been for the contributing writers. The staff would also like to extend its sincere gratitude to the following faculty for their time and contributions to the Series (in order): Dr. Robert F. Jefferson Jr., associate professor with tenure in UNM's History Department, Dr. Finnie Coleman, associate professor, American Literary Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature, and current Faculty Senate president, Dr. Charles Becknell Sr. , retired faculty member and former director, UNM Black Studies program, and Dr. Charles Becknell Jr., current director, UNM Black Studies program, Dr. Nancy López, professor of sociology at UNM and director of the Institute for the Study of “Race” and Social Justice, Associate Professor Sonia M. Gipson Rankin, UNM School of Law, Dr. Jamal Martin, professor of Africana Studies, Associate Professors Myra Washington and Shinsuke Eguchi with UNM Communication and Journalism Department, Dr. Myrriah Gómez, assistant professor, UNM Honors College, Brandi Stone, director, UNM African American Student Services (AASS) and Special Advisor to the President on African American Affairs, Rodney Bowe, director, UNM Men of Color Initiative, Amber Trujillo-McClure, Ed.D. candidate, Miles Blakemore, UNM student, Dr. Tracie Collins, physician, researcher and dean for UNM’s College of Population Health and Dr. Felisha Rohan-Minjares, professor in UNM’s Department of Family and Community Medicine and assistant dean of Clinical Education & Learning Environments at the UNM School of Medicine, Dr. Assata Zerai, vice president for the Division of Equity and Inclusion and professor of Sociology, Barbara Brown Simmons, The UNM Black Alumni Chapter Oral History Project, UNM Athletics and former student-athletes Dr. Harold Bailey (BS 1968, MA 1971, Ph.D. 1975), president of the Albuquerque NAACP and Ron Wallace (BS, MPA), publisher of The Perspective, UNM football player Cedric Patterson III, and to all the staff behind the scenes who helped make the series come alive as well as all those who encouraged us along the way; we thank you!
Racism: An Educational Series (previous stories)
- Push for change paved way for future Lobos - August 25
- Two steps forward, one step back: Where do we go from here? - August 21
- Racism in Healthcare - August 14
- Black student excellence springs from historic inequalities - August 7
- The complicated history of environmental racism - August 4
- Recognizing anti-blackness in media and other institutions - July 31
- Transformative education as the key to dismantling racism - July 24
- Addressing new forms of racism Part II: Preventing Microaggressions - July 21
- Addressing new forms of racism Part I: Defining Microaggressions - July 17
- Identifying, understanding and combatting complex inequality - July 10
- Conversation with the Becknells: Careers, Racism and Black Lives Matter - July 3
- Meaning Behind the Movement: Black Lives Matter - June 26
- Learning from the Past: A Brief Historical Background - June 19
** Editor's note: Racism isn't just limited the Black population, especially in New Mexico where Native Americans and Hispanics, and many other races coexist. This state's history is rich and storied and there are important stories to be told in those areas as well. UCAM is planning two additional series' to keep the conversation going across campus and within our various communities. Beginning in mid-September, UCAM will feature a monthlong series on Hispanics as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, and in November, UCAM will celebrate Native American Heritage Month. UCAM looks forward to continuing the discussion on the importance of race relations.