Civil Rights movement

The Event: Nationwide social movement to ensure full social and legal equality for all citizens regardless of race or ethnicity

Date: 1930’s-1970’s

Location: All parts of the United States but primarily in the South

Significance: The U.S. government’s policies regarding immigration have historically reflected prevailing racial and cultural biases held by Americans with the most power. Therefore, the successes and failures of the Civil Rights movement, in its impact on American consciousness, directly influenced the immigrant experience in America.

The traditional time line for the Civil Rights movement is 1954-1965 or 1968, beginning with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and ending with either the Voting Rights Act (1965) or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). However, the growing consensus among historians is that the movement really begins during the 1930’s and lasts at least through the Black Power era into the 1970’s. Traditionally, historians have examined how the Civil Rights movement played out in the South, where activists challenged Jim Crow laws. However, historians have studied the effects of the Civil Rights movement elsewhere, particularly in the urban North, the Midwest, and the West.

From 1910 through 1930, more than one million African Americans migrated out of the South into northern cities. The migrants left in part to escape the violent Jim Crow-dominated communities that left them disenfranchised following the end of Reconstruction. In the North, blacks found dirty, crowded cities as well as housing and employment discrimination. These tensions were further exacerbated by the influx of more African Americans, as well as other laborers, during World War II to fill labor needs in northern industries. In many places during the war, various immigrant groups and African Americans formed political alliances as they mutually experienced the failures of civil rights liberalism.

Protest and Legislative Victories

The large numbers of African Americans in northern cities during the 1950’s and 1960’s facilitated southern blacks’ battle against Jim Crow laws because of northern blacks’ proximity to one another and capacity to organize visibly as well as their newfound electoral clout. During this period, many organizations formed with the intention of ending racial discrimination and promoting equality for all American citizens. Groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference registered black voters, staged sit-ins and marches, and attempted to integrate racially segregated spaces. Three major legal victories were claimed by civil rights activists: The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision began to integrate public schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected citizens against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected citizens’ voting rights regardless of race or color. Additionally, various groups, such as the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, continued to work for social equality in their communities.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The most significant effect of the Civil Rights movement for immigrants was the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed this bill into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. The act diverged in spirit and substance from some of the nation’s most restrictive immigration legislation, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act). While the 1965 law still provided caps on the numbers of immigrants fromcertain places throughout the world, it ended discrimination based on national origin. Furthermore, it provided for family reunification, allowing immigrants living in the United States to bring their families into the country. While the prevailing opinion in 1965 was that immigration patterns would not drastically change because of this legislation, the number of immigrants, particularly from previously excluded countries, was much higher than anticipated.

Laurie Lahey

Further Reading

  • Countryman, Matthew J. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Examines how the groups most affected by the failure of civil rights liberalism coped in post-World War II Philadelphia. 
  • Graham, Hugh Davis. Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Examines how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Act of 1965 eventually came into conflict with each other as immigrants and African Americans competed for jobs. 
  • Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March, 2005): 1233- 1263. A groundbreaking and widely respected article that challenges the traditional frameworks of Civil Rights movement historiography. 
  • Johnson, Kevin R. The “Huddled Masses” Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Focuses on how discrimination has influenced U.S. legislation regarding immigration by examining the exclusion of groups deemed unfavorable due to sexual orientation, disabilities, political beliefs, race, and so on. 
  • Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pulido examines African American, Japanese American, and Chicano interracial relationships in Southern California during the 1960’s and 1970’s as these groups struggled for equality. 
  • Sugrue, Thomas. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008. Sugrue studies the Civil Rights movement in the North, where close to one million African Americans migrated during the Great Migration and competed with immigrants for housing and employment. 
  • Varzally, Allison. Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines, 1925-1955. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Considers how various immigrant and nativeborn groups competed and aligned in diverse California neighborhoods during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. 

See also: Affirmative action; African Americans and immigrants; Chicano movement; Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles; Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.; Employment; Japanese American Citizens League; Lau v. Nichols; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Sei Fujii v. State of California.

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