Was it Civil Rights or a Movement?

Avis Thomas-Lester | 3/16/2016, 6 a.m.
There were Freedom Rides, a march on Washington and mayhem on Selma’ s Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were sit-ins, brutal ...
Sixty years after blacks boycotted buses in Montgomery, Alabama, was this scene part of the civil rights movement, or the Civil Rights Movement?

They fought for integration, equal education and voter registration.

There were Freedom Rides, a march on Washington and mayhem on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were sit-ins, brutal attacks and stands against violence.

In the end, freedom was achieved – at least in part.

“There is no question that the Civil Rights Movement was a defining time in American history …” said Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League. “It significantly changed the landscape of the country.”

It has been chronicled in countless news stories and books. Most people who participated, watched it unfold, or learned about it later agree that it was the seminal protest crusade in U.S. history.

But they disagree on when it started, when it ended and how it should be identified: Was it the civil rights movement or the Civil Rights Movement?

Sixty years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the story of the Civil Rights Movement still is being written, historians and activists say. Some consider it a historic era. They believe that referring to the movement informally or generally – in the lowercase – minimizes its importance. One-hundred years from now, “Civil Rights Movement” will indicate that something monumental happened.

But others say the movement was a series of events that started when enslaved people began to run away — soon after the first ships delivered their human cargo — and the abolitionists demanded their freedom, said Library of Congress historian Adrienne Cannon.

“The thinking is that it’s a civil rights struggle, and that it extends over a period of centuries and has different phases to it,” Cannon said. “That’s much different from the more standard chronological paradigm.”

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, agreed. “One of the challenges with capitalizing it is determining when it began and ended,” Muhammad said. “Historians don’t agree on that. The question then becomes: When was the Civil Rights Movement?”

Dorie Ladner, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member who was with Medgar Evers just hours before his assassination in Mississippi in 1963, said invoking the movement informally trivializes the struggle.

“It doesn’t matter when you think it started – with the Dred Scott decision in 1857, when the Supreme Court decided that a black person wasn’t a whole person, or with the court’s decision in the Brown school desegregation case in 1954 — it should be referred to with capital letters,” said Ladner, of Washington, D.C.

University of California, Riverside history professor V.P. Franklin, editor of the “Journal of African American History,” said he and the Journal use the formal reference. The Journal was founded by black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1915.

Franklin said the movement spanned from the Brown case to the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, and was characterized by related “social, political and cultural activities.”

“There’s an evolution that goes from events to campaigns to a movement,” Franklin said. “A movement, such as the Civil Rights Movement, is an historic era, the same as the Progressive Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.”