Civil Rights movement

Long after the U.S. Civil War, many African Americans were still working in low-paying jobs that required few skills and had no opportunities for advancement. They faced discrimination in education and the workplace that limited their progress. The Civil Rights movement helped transform the place of African Americans in the economy.

The South has historically been the most economically deprived region of the United States. During the early 1950’s, the South maintained segregated services and institutions at considerable cost. Labor unions organized only fitfully, and although national leaders were sympathetic to African American problems, local officers were not, sometimes even being members of the Ku Klux Klan. Though labor was cheap in the South, businesses and industries frequently avoided this region because of its inferior schools, backward social conditions, and potential for racial unrest.Civil Rights movement

After World War II, the South rapidly began changing from a rural society to an urbanized, industrial one. The mechanization of farming and the decline of the cotton industry meant that fewer unskilled workers were needed in rural areas. Both white and black southerners migrated in large numbers to cities in the North, finding industrial jobs there. Although enlightened thinkers acknowledged problems, social patterns were slow to change. Whites generally believed they benefited from the system as it was, and in cities such as Atlanta, there was a black bourgeoisie that was relatively comfortable with its own privileges. In Birmingham, Alabama, men such as white banker Charles Zukoski met regularly with insurance executive A. G. Gaston, the wealthiest black citizen of Alabama. Though modest reforms were suggested, the major abuses of segregation continued.

Pioneers of the Movement

Students, like those enrolled in the African American universities and seminaries of Nashville, Tennessee, were important during the early Civil Rights movement. Students Diane Nash, James Bevel, James Lawson, Marion Barry, and John Lewis quickly perceived the vulnerability of businesses to their organized sit-ins and boycotts. Within only a few weeks, these students were able to integrate six lunch counters in Nashville. The city’s largest department store at that time, Harvey’s, unlike its rival, Cain-Sloan’s, had a forward-looking management that perceived the economic advantage in accommodating African American customers.

Despite economic disadvantages, African American family income in the South was growing. Even during the early 1960’s, sales to African Americans constituted 15 percent of retail sales in Houston, 17 percent in Atlanta, and 24 percent in Memphis. These proportions would increase in the years that followed, as white people bought automobiles, moved out of the inner cities, and began to patronize suburban shopping centers, leaving behind African Americans who were largely dependent on public transportation. Inner-city variety stores started providing ethnic cosmetics, portraits of a black Jesus, and other products specifically designed for their increasingly African American clientele. These stores then began to employ African American clerks and managers.

The Civil Rights movement brought an end to businesses that, like this one, discriminated against nonwhites.

(Library of Congress)

In Montgomery, Alabama, E. D. Nixon, locally revered as “the father of the Civil Rights movement,” convinced downtown merchants that it was to their advantage to address African American customers respectfully and allow them to use drinking fountains. Nixon recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., then minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to lead the bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks. In 1955, the boycott brought the system of public transportation to a halt in Montgomery. King well understood the importance of businesspeople in the racial struggle. He realized that in cities such as Birmingham, it would be easier to apply pressure to businessmen than to elected officials. By this time, the Civil Rights movement had learned to use the medium of television effectively. Many southern businesspeople were embarrassed when television sets throughout the United States showed footage of police officers using police dogs and fire hoses against demonstrating African Americans, including women and children.

The Movement Shifts North

The struggle in the South won African Americans legal access to better schools and public places, including theaters, restaurants, and hotels. When the focus shifted North, where African Americans had legal rights but often lived in impoverished areas separated from whites, these gains seemed irrelevant and middle class to many African Americans. Access to a luxury hotel was useless to someone paid minimum wage. In the North, the Civil Rights movement’s goals became more pointedly economic. Businesses and professions were targeted, with activists promoting proposals for compensatory treatment for disadvantaged minorities. Although nonviolence had worked well as both theory and tactic in the South, where the movement was led by students and clergymen, less idealistic activists in the North leaned toward militancy. Organizations such as the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became more strident in their protests, as new leaders such as Stokely Carmichael preached of “black power.” Some militants even advocated a separate economy, with black businesses to be patronized exclusively by African Americans.


Though not all economic goals were met, American society changed radically as a result of the Civil Rights movement. The impoverished, feudalistic South gradually faded away as the region came into a fuller partnership with the rest of the states economically, politically, and socially. African American politician Jesse Jackson observed that only an integrated Atlanta could have acquired the headquarters of Cable News Network (CNN) and been chosen to host the Olympic Games. African Americans started returning to southern states, bringing with them business and professional skills. After the movement, more and more African Americans enjoyed business success, becoming doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, and working in and rising to executive positions in businesses that had once been dominated by white Americans. For example, during the early twenty-first century, the chief executive officer position at several prominent companies was held by an African American: Kenneth I. Chenault at American Express (2001), John W. Thompson at Symantec (1999), and Richard D. Parsons at Time Warner (2002-2007). Oprah Winfrey, a talk show host, became owner of her own media company and one of the richest people in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Jack M. Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The best analysis of economics and the movement, demonstrating how idealism and economic reality brought racial advancement, as the South moved from an agrarian to an industrial society.
  • Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Often regarded as the definitive history of the Civil Rights movement, this work concentrates on the life and career of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Draper, Alan. Conflict of Interest: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, 1954-1968. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1994. An analysis of organized labor’s inroads into the South and the ambivalent actions of white workers, who were anxious to improve working conditions while committed to the racial status quo.
  • Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House, 1998. A highly readable account of the Nashville Civil Rights movement detailing the student sit-ins, economic boycotts, and the clever use of national publicity.
  • Marable, Manning, Immanuel Ness, and Joseph Wilson, eds. Race and Labor Matters in the New U.S. Economy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. A collection of essays by sociologists and political scientists that examine the relationship between economics and ethnicity.

Affirmative action programs

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Marcus Garvey

U.S. Department of Justice

Labor history

Poor People’s Campaign of 1968

A. Philip Randolph

Supreme Court and commerce

Women in business