11 “Facts” About the Civil Rights Movement That Aren’t True
Separating fact from fiction isn’t just important from a historical perspective—it’s also essential in winning today’s fight against racial injustice.
Whenever information is shared, there’s always the possibility that misinformation can be dispersed as well. Facts about the civil rights movement are no exception. For starters, people see the movement as a specific moment in American history in which social, cultural, and political unrest attempted to shift paradigms around civil liberties and legislation that restricted Black Americans. While that is partially true, it was really just one part of a greater continuum for change that is still happening today, and it’s much more complex than you probably realize.
“Many people don’t know about the civil rights movement in great detail. They often attach it to anecdotes about Martin Luther King Jr. in juxtaposition to Malcolm X and a few other figures that come up during the month of February (Black History Month),” says Richard Cooper, PhD, a Black history expert and a clinical assistant professor of social work at Widener University. But a thorough education is important, as is discerning facts from myths, since the spread of misinformation is often intentional and deliberate. “When your oppressor teaches you your history, the truth is definitely going to be lacking,” adds Cooper. “So, there’s a correlation with the lack of foundational material taught in schools and the information widely dispersed to the masses.” This is just one of the reasons why Black History Month shouldn’t be a single month. Let’s start by debunking a few myths about the civil rights movement that you’ve likely heard over the years.
Myth #1: Segregation was not an issue in the North
While Brown v. Board of Education made the segregation of public schools and facilities illegal (on paper), many in the South made their disapproval of this ruling known. It appeared as if the North and larger economic hubs throughout the country supported desegregation, but the reality is that the North had a more sophisticated manner in which it masked oppressive practices against Black Americans. In cities like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, for example, housing segregation was very prevalent. In the 1960s, redlining and blockbusting effectively worked to prevent Black people from buying property.
The recent film The Banker, which is based on a true story, provides a detailed depiction of this. It focuses on two wealthy Black businessmen, Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, who used their wealth and influence in the 1950s to curtail the effects of redlining and blockbusting in the lives of Black citizens who wanted to purchase property in White neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in America today, there is still segregation in housing, which affects the zoning of schools. Here’s more on why desegregation didn’t put an end to racism in America.
Myth #2: The Freedom Riders were all Black
Many speak of the civil rights movement as if it were solely a Black experience, but throughout the continuum of the movement, both Black and White activists have fought for equality and civil rights. The Freedom Riders was a group comprised of both Black and White activists who journeyed through the South together in 1961 to participate in non-violent protests. The original group of Freedom Riders consisted of 13 participants, seven Black (including late Georgia congressman John Lewis) and six White. While the intention of the non-violent sit-ins was to avoid violence, many violent acts were committed against the group as they sat in at transportation facilities, lunch counters, and segregated bathrooms in Southern states. Often, the sit-ins turned bloody, something that the Freedom Riders did not instigate.
Do you want to help? Here’s what it really means to be an ally in the movement toward equality.
Myth #3: Martin Luther King Jr. was beloved during the civil rights movement
Many speak now about Martin Luther King Jr. with admiration and respect, but that was far from the case when he was alive. Of course, he was vehemently opposed by certain segments of the population for his views on equality, but he was also sometimes admonished by his supporters for opposing popular opinions, as well. For example, he publicly resisted and disapproved of the Vietnam War for many years. In his speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” he stated: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
During this time, many of his Black and White supporters stopped endorsing him, and President Lyndon B. Johnson would no longer take meetings with him. According to one account, President Johnson allegedly ranted, “What is that goddamned n**ger preacher doing to me? We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?” In fact, according to a documentary by PBS host Tavis Smiley, 168 publications denounced King after his Vietnam speech. While many like to position King as the savior of the civil rights movement, he had more than his fair share of rejection and pain.
Myth #4: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were enemies
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are often spoken of as opposites. King has come to be associated with being passive, and Malcolm X is often presented and interpreted as being violent. While their tactics differed at times, they actually had a lot in common. Both had fathers who were preachers, both were considered radical in their own way, and both were assassinated due to their ability to mobilize the masses. King, however, was “sanitized for political purposes,” says political science professor Jeanne Theoharis, author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. In an interview with The Intercept, she explains, “When we learn about the civil rights movement, it seems like we have these exceptional individuals, they shine a light—and the problem is fixed. It makes work in the present seem less righteous, or feeble, because the things being highlighted now aren’t being fixed. King and Rosa Parks are well known. But, what we actually know about them is a far cry from who they were and what they did.”
Her sentiments echo those of Cooper. “Most people believe that Malcolm X was more radical, and that Martin Luther King was more peaceful, and that’s just a wrong and artificial misrepresentation of the two,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Again, it comes from your oppressor teaching your history. Neither were really violent, and they weren’t enemies; reports denote that they, in fact, only met once, briefly.”
Learn the other Martin Luther King Jr. “facts” that just aren’t true.
Myth #5: The Black Panthers were violent political agitators
The Black Panthers are often depicted with clenched fists and large guns, which has definitely slanted people’s perception of them. Founded in 1966, their official purpose was to protect Black communities from police brutality. While they did carry firearms and believed in the right to defend themselves, they were also responsible for many positive initiatives geared toward building up the infrastructure of Black communities across the country. For example, they started programs such as the Free Breakfast Program for Children, as well as established alternative health care clinics for those in disenfranchised communities.
In case you were wondering, here’s the history behind the clenched fist—and how it became the symbol for Black power.
Myth #6: The March on Washington was the largest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s
While people often think of the March on Washington as the largest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s, it was not. That distinction goes to the 1964 New York City school boycott. The protest was about the unfair and poor conditions of the schools that most Black children had to endure at public schools, and it happened 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when schools were still largely segregated due to housing discrimination. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million participants boycotted New York City public schools. President Lyndon B. Johnson took notice. As a result of the boycott, landmark legislation was passed that prevented segregation in public places, called for the integration of public schools, and made it illegal to discriminate against someone seeking employment based on their ethnicity.
Check out these other iconic protests that changed American history.
Myth #7: The civil rights movement began in the 1950s
While many have embraced the ideology that the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, scholars assert that moment in time was a part of a “continuum of resistance” in the fight for Black liberation. The movement actually began centuries ago when the enslaved were snatched from their native homes and put on Dutch ships back in 1619, says oral historian and cultural archivist Nana Camille Yarbrough, author of Cornrows. “There were many people before Dr. King. [He] was chosen as a spokesman because of his affiliation with the church, and the church was the place that we took our sorrows and our dreams. He used his brilliance to inspire the movement and the Black church, which was a power base for him and his community,” Yarbrough explains. “But the struggle for human rights began in those horrible dungeons when people were taken from their homes. That’s where civil rights really began. It’s a part of a continuum. Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Stokely Carmichael…there were so many whose names we don’t even know. The others did not have the television or the Internet.”
Myth #8: Rosa Parks was the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat
Have you ever heard of Claudette Colvin? She was a 15-year-old Black teenager who refused to give up her seat to a White woman at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest on March 2, 1955, came several months before Rosa Parks’, and while the story made a few local headlines, the NAACP decided not to use her as “the face of resistance to segregation.” In a 2018 BBC interview, Colvin says that was because they didn’t want a teenager in that role, especially when she got pregnant shortly thereafter. “They said they didn’t want to use a pregnant teenager, because it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott,” she explained. Since Rosa Parks had prior experience with the NAACP and a more “marketable” appearance, she became the recognizable figure of the subsequent planned bus boycotts.
Change can come from the unlikeliest of places. Learn the stories of these ordinary people who also changed history.
Myth #9: For President Kennedy, the fight for civil rights wasn’t a moral issue
Many argue that John F. Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights movement was politically motivated in his bid for the presidency. However, his actions and demeanor toward Black Americans always seemed sincere and heartfelt. In his televised Report to the American People on Civil Rights, he said that the fight for civil rights and liberties was a moral issue. In the speech, he proclaimed, “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.”
Myth #10: Women were not as active in the Black Panther Party as men
The Black Panther Party is synonymous with Black masculinity and strength, but women played a major role in advancing it as well. By the 1970s, women made up about 70 percent of the Black Panther Party. Their initiatives focused on activism, housing, voting equality, and more—and they were a force to be reckoned with. The women of the Black Panther Party, also known as Pantherettes, were instrumental in creating survival programs such as the Free Breakfast For Children Program, People’s Free Medical Centers, the Intercommunal Youth Institute, and Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (S.A.F.E.).
Women are often erased from the history books. Case in point: these 16 incredible women you didn’t learn about in history class.
Myth #11: The civil rights movement solved the issues in the fight for equality
Many believe that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, given on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, has come to fruition. America has seen its first Black president, there are Black billionaires, and women of color make up the largest demographic of people who are starting businesses. While all of these things are a reality in America, we still have a long way to go. In the context of the fight for equality, there is still a large disparity in the wage gap between White males and people of color, Black males still make up one of the largest demographics of those imprisoned, and de facto segregation still remains to be major issues in American society. While lynching, cross burnings, and school segregation are no longer legal, many argue that the residue of those social norms from the past are still lingering today.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.