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Did the formation of a black middle class lead to successes in the Civil Rights Movement?

By Aleysha Shergill, History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


During the 1940s, there was a marked improvement in the quality and accessibility of education for black students, supported by Supreme Court rulings such as Gaines v Canada (1938). By 1950, 83,000 African American men and women between 18 and 24 were enrolled in universities. This contributed to the growth of the black middle class, who divorced themselves from the communists and the economic struggles of working-class African Americans. Going forward, the civil rights movement would adopt accommodation and tactical allegiance to white liberals in government to achieve the goals of voting rights and legal equality. However, an overlapping grassroots struggle had always existed and were present as workers sought to refocus the economic dimensions of the movement. This grassroots movement resulted in the Black Power movement that came to fruition after 1965 and championed workers' rights and labour agitation.

The black middle class did drive a range of successes within the civil rights movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was one of the ‘big five’ civil rights organisations. It was formed in January 1957 after the Montgomery bus boycott and its leadership was dominated by male Baptist ministers like Martin Luther King (MLK), who headed the organisation. The organisation promoted non-violent direct action and organised the Birmingham March of 1963 to desegregate Birmingham’s downtown merchants. However, it was the televised violence that met protestors, combined with the tactics of the SCLC that influenced the decision to pass civil rights legislation. Police set dogs on children and used firehoses, which were subsequently televised and shocked the world.

Following the march, on 12th June, President Kennedy announced that he would deliver a strong Civil Rights bill to Congress. Again, in 1964, the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pushed for federal action to protect voting rights and organised several peaceful marches in Selma, which were met by police brutality, drawing national media coverage. In response, on the 6th of February President Johnson announced that he would send a proposal to Congress, and following ‘bloody Sunday’ he subsequently called on legislators to enact expansive voting rights legislation. The following Voting Rights Act (1965) had a major impact on black voter registration, especially in the South.

Students were also involved in the movement, embodied in the actions of SNCC. Following the successful sit-in movement in 1960, SNCC was formed. It had an anti-leftist political bias and involved mostly lower to middle-class black students who had no identification with the black working class. SNCC carried out the desegregation battles of the early 1960s and in 1961-2, it joined forces with the NAACP and SCLC to create the Albany movement for desegregation. They distinguished themselves by their willingness to defy segregation laws and after Albany and the Freedom Rides, SNCC’S focus shifted to desegregation in universities.

However, historians should refrain from overlooking the corresponding economic dimensions of the movement, driven by the African American working-class and present from the movement’s inception. In Memphis, black workers saw civil rights and workers’ rights as two aspects of the same struggle and the grass-roots movement set in motion by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act saw thousands of men and women, including labour feminists, pursuing their rights by signing petitions and seeking affirmative action policies in the workplace. The workplace had always been an essential point of African American resistance, set in motion by what historian Robert Korstad has called the ‘civil rights unionism’ of the 1940s.

The Black Power movement in the Northern states carried the actions of the black working class even further in response to the failures of the federal government and the black middle classes to secure black workers’ economic and political power. America’s political economy was still profoundly racist, and even though black southerners and northerners now had the franchise; economic security was yet to be won. Economic practices which kept black workers poorly paid, relegated to the worst and most dangerous industrial work and confined to northern ghettoes, were a central pillar of white supremacy. As Malcolm X explained ‘you can’t have capitalism without racism’. This was a claim that MLK himself began to come to terms with and in 1968, King led the Poor People’s March, to bring thousands of the unemployed and the oppressed of all races into Washington DC. The movement to improve the economic conditions of African Americans continued to gather momentum into the 1970s.

During the spring and summer months every year between 1964 and 1968, massive black rebellions swept across almost every major US city in the Northeast, Mid-West, and California. These were primarily a response to the poor quality of black urban life in the North, including poor housing, crime, disease, and poor public education, which continued to deteriorate despite the victories of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act won by the black middle class. The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 but with deep roots throughout the 1960s, continued to recruit from the black working-class and poverty-stricken districts of East Oakland and California and organised armed patrols to defend the black community against police attacks.

The struggle for economic security continued in the labour movement itself. By 1968, over two and a half million African Americans were members of the CIO-AFL unions. In 1967, Detroit workers formed the Trade Union Local 124 and, in the spring of 1968, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was formed. DRUM coordinated several ‘wildcat strikes’ to protest for higher wages and non-discriminatory hiring practices. In September 1972, a Progress Conference of 1200 black workers was also held in Chicago and set up the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which aggressively attacked the racism of the Nixon administration and proposed meaningful social democratic reforms.

To conclude, the black middle class did win major legislative successes for the civil and political rights of African Americans. However, this conceals the economic dimensions of the movement and the affinity between race and class, which mobilized so many black workers, especially in the Northern states. The failure of the black middle class and the federal government to acknowledge the importance of the economic struggle occurring in the South and the North contributed to the popularity of the Black Power movement, which continued to organise black workers throughout the 1970s.

Further reading:

1. Jacqueline Dowd Hall, ‘The Long Civil Rights Movement,’ Journal of American History (2005)

2. Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006 (2007)

3. Manning Marable, Beyond Boundaries: The Manning Marable Reader (2016)

4. Stephen Tuck We Ain’t What We Ought To Be; The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation-Obama (2010)


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