The Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968

Module code: HS3627

Module co-ordinator: Dr George Lewis

The 1963 March on Washington is often remembered as the high point of the US civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King’s 'I Have a Dream' speech, which was delivered at that 1963 march, is routinely fêted as one of the greatest spells of oratory in the twentieth century. Yet, even as King’s closing refrain of “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” was still ringing in the air, a member of the audience could clearly be heard to yell “Fuck the dream, Martin. I want it now!”

Without realising it, King and the anonymous audience member had highlighted one of the most pressing debates surrounding civil rights in the United States: almost two hundred years after the US Declaration of Independence and the signing of the US Constitution, and precisely one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln had declared slaves emancipated, black Americans still faced a routine, legal, and state-sponsored denial of their rights. Should the approach to gaining those rights be gradual and progressive, as epitomised by King’s “Dream” of a racially colour-blind future, or should it be more militant and immediate, as expressed by the anonymous audience member’s frustrations? This module explores the evolution of black protest in the United States – a protest not for anything novel or hastily dreamt up, but for constitutional rights that had long been enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, but which had been equally long denied.

Topics covered

As historians have begun to reveal conclusively, African Americans have fought against the oppression of US white supremacy since the origins of slavery: there is, therefore, an on-going debate about when, precisely, decades of civil rights protest and activism became a civil rights movement. Racism can also be difficult to protest against, because it is not a static physical object. As a result, the module will analyse the effectiveness of a number of different forms of protest that were used by civil rights activists, including: legal protest, which was pioneered by the NAACP and which resulted in the Supreme Court’s seminal 1954 Brown decision; boycotts, as exemplified by the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader, philosopher and tactician; the pros and cons of non-violent direct action as a protest tactic; the means by which a grass roots movement can bring about change at the national and presidential levels; the ways in which southern white segregationists sought to thwart the burgeoning civil rights movement; and both why the movement began to fall apart in the mid- to late-1960s, and what happened to the momentum that it had so successfully generated.


This course is taught via one lecture and one seminar per week. All students will attend the lectures together, whilst the seminars see students split into two smaller groups. Seminars are designed to revolve around the most pressing historical debates for each week’s topic, and include both student presentations and group discussion.


Oral presentation portfolio (50%)

Assignment, 2,500 words (50%)