The End of Segregation

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where protesters were confronted by the police.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Even though public schools and public transportation had been ordered to be desegregated, in 1963 there were still state laws on the books in the American south allowing racially motivated hiring practices. Intent on also revoking discriminatory hiring, the civil rights movement now decided to hold a public demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, a racially divided southern city. The police in Birmingham, as the civil rights activists were well aware, were known to be particularly aggressive, something that the activists hoped would lead to undue violence on the side of law enforcement and thus a propaganda victory for their movement.

Rounded up in Birmingham

The civil rights activists who were to protest discriminatory hiring in Alabama — a group that was to become dominated by African American school children of various ages — somewhat provocatively, had no permit to hold a demonstration. Therefore, when they took to the Birmingham streets en masse, they were rounded up by the police and arrested. At the same time, the situation escalated, and in newspaper photos from the event readers all over the country could later see how the police had used water cannons and attack dogs on seemingly peaceful under-age protesters. Just as planned, the developments during the protest increased sympathy for southern blacks and focused the spotlight on civil rights, resulting in Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new law outlawed racial discrimination and segregation in employment, as well as in other areas.

The Selma march

Events in Birmingham repeated themselves in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, when adult activists decided to march for fair voting rights. Here, the civil rights advocates were once again prohibited from carrying out their protest but continued anyway. As expected, the Selma police then confronted the marching protesters and heavy-handedly pushed them back. Now, just like in Birmingham, news media picked up the chaotic scenes that followed the police intervention, including protesters being beaten with batons and falling over each other. This, similar to the successful campaign against discriminatory hiring, brought civil rights issues to light and strengthened support for voting reform in the American south.

Martin Luther King Jr, though not present at the protest’s violent climax, also had a hand in the Selma campaign. Lending his famous voice to the campaign, shortly after the march, he further increased pressure on Congress, and soon a new bill was passed: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It filled in the loopholes that had been used to keep a large number of African Americans from registering to vote.

By now, in the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement’s main objectives had been achieved. Discrimination based on race was generally no longer permitted, and segregation had come to an end.