What were the failures of the Civil Rights Movement?
I do not believe that there were major failures within the movement
itself...there were failures in the P.R., in that we did not get our
message out clearly enough. There were failures in the leadership of the
movement, because we had different groups taking charge, SNCC, CORE,
NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership, and all were well meaning but
confusing to the members of the movement. Finally, when SNCC insisted
upon whites leaving the movement, it did not help but hurt in general.
When Doctor King was murdered, many of us felt abandoned by the rest of
Heather Tobis Booth:
It is not the failure of the movement, but we have still not achieved a
society where people are judged on the content of their character, where all
can live with dignity and respect. Many of the most obvious legal barriers
were removed, but so many more remain and new ones have arisen. The new Jim
Crow sees a criminal justice system that forces Black Men, especially, but
Black people and other people of color, often into an unjust system stacked
against them. Poverty and lack of opportunity for decent paying jobs erodes
the promise of equal rights. We are far from the beloved community, but if we
follow the lesson that if we organize we can change the world, we can still
make progress — and we need to.
The biggest failure of the Civil Rights Movement was in the related
areas of poverty and economic discrimination. Despite the laws we got
passed, there is still widespread discrimination in employment and
housing. Businesses owned by people of color are still denied equal
access to markets, financing, and capital. Centuries of economic
deprivation, and the problems stemming from it, remain largely un-
addressed. We broke down the barriers that denied people access to
public and commercial facilities based on their race, but the income
barriers to even the most basic necessities such as food, shelter,
clothing, and health care still remain in full force. If they have the
money a Black family can now join the country club, but huge sectors of
society cannot afford health coverage for themselves or their children.
We integrated the schools, but not the neighborhoods on which school
districts are drawn. So today, inner-city schools composed of
predominantly non-white students are marginalized and under-funded. We
opened the doors to the Univeristy of Alabama, but have slammed them
shut on students who come from failing K-12 schools.
We made no dent
on economic disparity and in part inadvertently contributed to a growing
chasm between black middle class and black poor. Personally, I was
chastized as a racist for being a lead counsel to have a school district
to take into account black English dialect of isolated black students;
I never was criticized by any black poor person to my knowledge; I was
criticized by Roy Wilkins, Benjamin Hooks, and my white colleagues at
The Civil Rights Movement had many failures as do all social movements.
But its strengths outweighed the mistakes it made and its legacy as a
whole is a positive one. It was an INCLUSIVE movement it
included everyone who believed in justice and that was its lasting
Wazir (Willie) Peacock:
The goals of the Civil Rights Movement were, in my estimation, limited.
To a large degree, those goals were achieved, on the surface:
integrating public facilities. You can ride from one end of the country
to the other now without worrying about being hassled too much. But the
bigger picture, I think the Civil Rights Movement could not achieve the
changing of the hearts, because we were strictly using the law, the
Constitution of the United States, that which was already legal but had
not been enforced. Although they made new laws to bring some change
about, but they already had good laws on the book. They just weren't
being enforced. If I say we failed in any area, I'd say we might have
failed in articulating to the population of this country what our goals
were. I never thought that what we were doing would achieve the complete
picture of what needed to be. But it would be a start. So I can't say we
failed in what were trying to achieve.
The local leader of the CRM in Demopolis said that the goal of the Movement
was to give African-Americans a chance to have "decent houses, decent cars,
and decent jobs." Our ghettos are evidence that if its object was the one he
expressed, the movement won a few battles but lost the war.
I think that one of the places where we failed is that we weren't
developing any kind of mechanism for the movement to perpetuate itself.
We didn't try to work towards setting up some kind of system where we
could perpetuate ourselves.
Well, we didn't finish. There was a solid movement base in the South.
The organizations were under enormous pressure to move to the North,
that's why King went to Cicero. Some of us like myself really just had
to get out of the South, at least for a breather. By then there were
huge questions about the economics of oppression and so forth, and those
had always been discussions, but that's where I thought the movement in
the South would be heading. Very few people did stay for the long haul.
While I understand it, I think, I thought then and I think now, that that was
a mistake, because I think we could have had a really good base for continued
organizing, continued critiquing of the society.