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Civil rights have come a long way

On the morning of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out on to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was shot and killed at age 39, by escaped convict and purported racist James Earl Ray.

King, who had risen to fame speaking out for racial equality in the highly segregated South of the 1950s and ’60s, had essentially become the face of the Civil Rights movement, both in America and around the world.

“King wasn’t the only one speaking at that time, there were a great many others… but he was the catalyst,” said Roy Kaplan, USF professor for the Africana studies department.

In the wake of this tragedy, aside from grief and anger, King’s assassination left several questioning what would become of the Civil Rights movement that he had been so instrumental in leading. Would it simply die out and be forgotten, or would it continue undeterred? The answer appeared to be both.

In actuality, the Civil Rights movement did not die with King, nor did it begin with him. It has, however, taken on a major transformation since the days of the Montgomery bus boycott and the march on Washington.

“Now it is largely a legal battle,” Kaplan said. “Some of the struggles that have waged have succeeded. You don’t have the kind of overt blatant segregation where you can’t eat in this place or visit this place. It is more subtle. Now we have to get into the attitudes and beliefs.”

There is no consensus on when the Civil Rights movement began. Certainly, the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, which set free all slaves in the seceded Southern states, was a landmark moment. So too, were the passage of the 13 th, 14 th and 15 th Amendments, which abolished slavery, defined a citizen and granted the right to vote without racial barriers.

Undoubtedly, the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) in 1908 was yet another watershed moment.

Today, what is largely considered the Civil Rights movement did not even begin until 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan, that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. This ruling overturned the previous decision from 1896, where, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court sanctioned the idea of “separate but equal,” in which segregation was allowed as long as there were “equal” facilities for both whites and African-Americans.

Following the 1954 Brown ruling, civil rights leaders such as King and others began fighting for equality and desegregation across the country. They seemingly became permanent fixtures of the nightly news as they led protests across the nation. It would be another 10 years until President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Right Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin. This act finally gave the federal government the power to enforce desegregation.

Later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would eliminate literacy tests and other such requirements used to restrict black voting. Executive Order 11246, issued by former president Lyndon Johnson, required government contractors to “take affirmative action” in hiring minority employees. Together, these formed the foundation of the Civil Rights movement and secured its future.

By 1966, two years prior to King’s death, the Civil Rights movement had already begun to change. No longer were people marching on Washington and demanding racial equality or the abolition of segregation. Even King himself began to change his focus.

“He was moving to the next level, beyond civil rights,” said Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix, USF professor of African American Literature. “Because so many things had been accomplished, he was expanding and talking much more about broad issues of class and poverty.”

It was at this time that King’s legacy of non-violence and racial equality began to dissipate in the violent race riots and black power movements of the late ’60s. King was beginning to preach with a more inclusive message, from class and poverty to the war in Vietnam, and for this he made some enemies.

“There was a lot of conversation in the black community about whether or not this was appropriate,” Toland-Dix said.

Despite the changes in the movement over the last few years of King’s life, the Civil Rights movement as we knew it seemed to die with him.

“I don’t think that particular movement ever recovered from King’s death,” Toland-Dix said. “It was so identified with him. That is the power of Messianic leaders.

“There was so much hope vested in King. What really floors you when you are young is you think that if there is a movement like that, that is bringing about positive change, that it is unstoppable. But then somebody gets killed and it does stop.”

Still, for countless other civil rights activists and leaders, the fight continued on. Groups such as the NAACP, SCLC and numerous other organizations so vital to the success of the Civil Rights movement, are just as vital and are working just as hard for its success today.

“King unified people and the consciousness of an entire nation,” said Dr. Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP. “He aroused the latent desires of the people, both black and white, to stand up and say what is right and participate fully in the American way of life. The NAACP simply uses the legal system to carry this on,” Horton continued.

Last year, the Hillsborough County NAACP alone received more than 200 complaints. Complaints are wide ranging, and deal with anything from police harassment to government employee discrimination. The NAACP conducts studies to see if these complaints are valid, and then uses those studies to take legal action.

“Often times, people in the community look around, and think that the movement is going backwards,” Horton said. “The problem is, the Civil Rights movement used to be about getting a job. Now it is about getting a piece of the economic pie …There are still many cases of discrimination that exist today.

“If you believe in neighborhood schools, then you believe in segregation. Last year, a mere .003% of the procurement of government goods and services for the City of Tampa went to both African Americans and women combined. This is the new face of the Civil Rights movement.”

February marks the beginning of Black History month, a national holiday dedicated to the acknowledgement and honor of African American, like the Civil Rights movement. Originally started in 1926 by the African American scholar Carter Godwin Woodson., Black History month was originally known as Negro History week. It was not until 1972 that it became Black History week, and then not until 1976 that it was extended to an entire month. Subsequently, the month of February was chosen by Woodson, to coincide with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the founding of the NAACP.

USF will kick off Black Emphasis Month, hosted by Multicultural Activities, today in MLK Plaza from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information contact Sabine Delerme at