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:
Looking at the failures should also take into account the great progress of
the movement (concrete victories, improving lives, giving confidence for
future struggles in civil rights and other justice struggles at the time and
today, and more). Failures can mean many different things — mistakes, better
choices that could have been made, weaknesses that mean we fall short of our
dreams, as well as some failures that undermine the on-going progress of the
movement. Some are things we could not do very much about (reflecting the
forces arrayed against us). Some reflect judgments we made ourselves. We
shouldn't blame the movement for the failures of the society.
Here are three failures we can learn from.
- We did not go far enough.
While every area of civil rights struggles need much more progress, economic,
education, elections, and more, greater progress is evident in some areas than
The movement did not have the power to move for economic justice at the same
level as it did for political power and so ended up with less than was needed
In the Taylor Branch books on Dr. King, he mentions that there was an
agreement raised by Kennedy (I believe) that he would support the struggle for
voting rights if the movement's focus on housing and economic issues was not
treated as the same kind of priority. While there has been progress on voting
rights (though even this is being terribly eroded!) there has been far less
progress on economic justice. This largely reflects the financial power
arrayed against us. Without economic equality (good paying
jobs — not only for a few, but for large numbers, access to
credit/housing, strong unions committed to equal rights to defend working
people on the job), it is hard to have equality in other areas.
- We fell victim to factional fighting that drove many away.
There are always questions about strategy — do we accept a
compromise or hold out for something closer to our vision? How do we ensure
Black leadership in a movement for civil rights and have a role for supportive
whites (without them dominating)? Do we emphasize our militancy or do we view
that as a tactic in the struggle for greater impact? Often these and other
questions led to division and diminished our numbers.
Of course, this was aided by government and other agent provocateurs
seeking to sow division. But a movement is built by addition, not subtraction.
There were times we focused on who had the right answer, rather than the way
to recruit more people and build majorities. We need political majorities to
create the basis for greater progress.
- In the face of terror and stalled progress, we did not continue the push
The movement improved skills at inside politics, gaining many big city mayoral
and other elected positions. It was good at mobilization with demonstrations.
But in the face of endless attacks, the on-going work of organizing was hard
Some thoughts on CRM "failures." I'd like to distinguish between failures,
defeats, and impossibilities:
- The murder of MLK was a defeat. 100 cities burned in the aftermath. SNCC
had already dissolved. Coherent leadership became impossible
- It was never our intent to change the hearts and minds of white racists,
but to make them obey the law. In the latter, we were substantially
- The betrayal of the MFDP [by
the Democratic Party elite at the Atlantic City convention] was a defeat. We
were not just abandoned, but opposed by our supposed liberal friends.
- It was impossible for the movement to provide a way out of economic
deprivation and discrimination during the short historical period allowed us.
- Not reaching the lives of urban black people was part failure and part
impossibility. We couldn't export a Southern movement into the North. The
attempt tore us apart.
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
The largest failure was the breakdown between Black & White activists. I have
always thought that agents provocateurs (perhaps the FBI, which played
a lot of "dirty tricks") stirred up animosity & resentment in the Movement.
There had always been an undercurrent of resentment of Whites by Black
activists. It may have come to a head at the Waveland Meeting at the end of
1964, but it had been simmering since the beginning. Then the rift widened,
until whites were told to go organize in the white community. (Sam Shirah &
SSOC were already trying.)
The news media focused on the whites who came down for Freedom Summer,
ignoring the Black activists who were being killed & beaten for years. You
couldn't get any coverage unless whites were beaten up.
But people gave in to their own biases.
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 the Movement missed an important opportunity by failing to follow Dr.
King's lead in identifying poverty as as big a challenge to full citizenship
as the denial of voting rights. Income and wealth inquality based on race
remain the fundamental causes of the country's most serious social problems.
Understandably, King's murder and other events of the late '60s and early '70s
created great turmoil that made it hard for us all to understand the necessity
for priortizing a sustained campaign to rectify economic injustice.
Fortunately, today, many more activists understand this problem, so there is
hope the work can be carried on.
Many of us (at least many of us white allies in the Movement) also failed to
understand how deeply entrenched racism was/is in America. I used to think,
for instance, that one of the achievments of the Movement was that black men
were no longer killed with impunity, but, of course, the events of the past
few years have demolished that delusion. And the fact that the candidacy and
election of Donald Trump have freed the restraints on expressions of violent
racism only confirms how deep racism is rooted in the American psyche. We'll
never eliminate racism, but I hope there will be a day when its expression is
socially unacceptable and that those expessions that are made are
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.