Term Paper: Social Issues Civil Rights Movement

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Civil Rights Movement

For sociologists, social movements are important agents of social change. It is through such coalitions that people are able to bring about change in society. Conversely, social movements also give people a means of organizing against change, ways of preserving their way of life.

This paper focuses on one such social movement - the American civil rights movement.

The first part of This paper gives an overview of the civil rights movement's history, based on the five stages of social movements discussed by James Henslin. The next part of this paper analyzes the growth and effects of the American civil liberties movement through the structural functionalist, symbolic interactionist and conflict perspectives.

In the last section, the paper assesses the state of the civil rights movement today. It looks at important gains the civil rights movement has made for other segments of society, such as education and government. It also looks at where the civil rights movement stands now, and the challenges that continue to lie in the way of true social equality.

Stages of the American civil rights movement

Social movements start with initial unrest and agitation. People need an impetus to come together as a movement.

Movements thus coalesce around an issue that people feel strongly about. Additionally, the emergence of a charismatic figure who articulates the movement's issues gives supporters of a social movement a leader to follow.

Many events contributed to the discontent and unrest that would eventually give rise to the American civil rights movement. The 1955 murder of Emmet Till in Money, Mississippi raised fervor different from previous race-related crimes. Till was certainly not the first young black man murdered due to his race. However, the brutal beating and shooting of the teenager were in no way commensurate with his alleged crime -- whistling at a white woman. The subsequent acquittal of the two suspects in Till's murder further aroused public anger (Newman 2004).

That same year, Rosa Parks was dubbed "the mother of the civil rights movement" when she refused to yield her seat in a public bus to a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest and conviction for disorderly conduct was another spark for the civil rights movement. The leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) then rallied around Parks. The result was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which succeeded in lifting the local ordinance that mandated segregation in public buses (Newman 2004). This bus boycott served as another spark for the Civil Rights movement.

After unrest and agitation, social movements move on to the resource mobilization stage. After the Till murder and the Bus Boycott, the American Civil Rights movement employed different strategies to put resources together. The NAACP, for example, used its chapters throughout the South for voter registration drives. In states such as Alabama, where there were severe restrictions barring NAACP operations, church and other grassroots organizations stepped in (Newman 2004). These groups used their already-existing membership and communications resources to campaign for social change.

By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was moving into the organization stage. There was a growing division of labor, as the civil rights movement gained momentum and broader appeal. Different groups under the civil rights coalition focused on various issues under the banner of civil rights. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), for example, focused on grassroots activities in Mississippi. For example, COFO backed James Meredith's 1962 lawsuit for admission into the University of Mississippi. Under Medgar Evers, local activists in Mississippi also began door-to-door voter education and registration drives (Patterson 2002).

Other divisions of the civil rights movements focused on trying to incite change on a national level, by seeking legal reform. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an important victory, since this national law outlawed discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations.

The legal department of the NAACP focused on using the law to campaign for social change (Newman 2004). For example, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston challenged the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling advocating "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was another important legal victory, because it outlawed the literacy requirement that precluded many blacks from voting.

Today, the many parts of the Civil Rights movement have been institutionalized and are akin to a bureaucracy. The NAACP is run by a Board of Directors, which has appointed Bruce Gordon as President. In addition to the Board of Directors, the NAACP leadership also includes Reverent Nelson B. Rivers as Chief Operating Officer and a group of Executive Officers. The NAACP also coordinates regional and local organizations around the country.

With the growing acceptance of civil rights and important gains in the area of racial equality, the civil rights movement re-focused its goals and achieved resurgence.

The civil rights movement still exists today, albeit in a much different form. The NAACP, for example, has used its political clout to take positions on areas that are indirectly related to civil rights. For example, the NAACP supports stringent gun control laws, since many young black men are victims of violent crime. The movement has advocated for the passages of laws protecting members of other marginalized groups, such as women and gay people.

Sociological Perspectives

The three sociological perspectives have much to contribute to an analysis of the civil rights movements. Structural functionalists, for example, believe that society tends towards order, with the different parts working together. A functionalist analysis could therefore look at the civil rights movement with favor, since discriminatory practices stop a significant segment of the population from contributing to society. In other words, society as a whole stands to benefit from the skills and talents of a surgeon or a scientist who can find a cure for cancer or AIDS. However, if such members could not work in certain occupations because of their race, society will lose out.

Another aspect of structural functionalism deals with dysfunction. Thus, a functionalist analysis could also look at the dysfunctions brought about by racism or the civil rights movement itself. Racism itself breeds dysfunction, since it breeds anger and resentment among members of marginalized groups. However, the Civil Rights Movement can also be seen as a dysfunction, since functionalists tend to be leery of the disorder incited by sudden social change.

Related to the functionalists, symbolic interactionists would look at how the Civil Rights Movement from a micro-level of analysis.

The focus for this analysis would be on interaction between individuals and on how society creates its own meanings and symbols.

One aspect of the Civil Rights Movement would be concerned with is the meanings people attach to race.

During the slave trade, for example, black skin was labeled as unhealthy and unclean.

For interactionists, this view of whiteness as "purer" and black skin as dangerous or other wise "bad" is an important basis of analysis.

An interactionist analysis could also be applied to the different meanings the various camps attached to the behavior of the activists.

The civil rights activists believed that they were fighting for a just society, for fairness and equal rights. The other side interpreted their behavior as an affront to the "natural order." Many argued that the civil rights activists were tampering with a segregation system that was ordained by God.

Finally, a conflict-based analysis would look at the distribution of power relations in society. While functionalists believe that society tends towards order, conflict theorists believe that an elite are able to wield power in a society and therefore impose its own values. Since many black people were originally brought to this continent as slaves, many of them did not have any economic power - money.

Money, property, education and political clout remained the purview of the rich elite.

At the dawn of the civil rights movement, the rich elite were composed largely of Caucasian people. This was a group feared losing privileges if power was distributed more equitably in society. Therefore, conflict theorists argue that segregation continued after the Emancipation Proclamation because segregation served the interests of a privileged Caucasian elite. Conflict theorists also argue that while change may initially be messy and destabilizing, change is an important part of bringing about social equality.

Legacy of the civil rights movement

Because it sought to change a specific aspect of the social order, the Civil Rights Movement can be seen as a reformative social movement. The focus of the civil rights activists, after all was to change how society viewed the sanctioned relationship between the races.

The contributions of the civil rights movement, however, extend beyond racial relations.

One of its important gains, for example, is the desegregation of schools.

Since the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision mandated the integration of public schools, it became unlawful to subject children of various races to different educational standards (Patterson 2002). The decision was supposed to herald a new equality in all levels of education, by closing the notorious achievement… [END OF PREVIEW]

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